Leading article: The folly of spurning the Dalai Lama

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The Independent Online

It is easy to call on the world's freedom movements to seek the path of negotiation over the way of violence. But what happens if it gets you nowhere? That was the bleak question asked by Tibetan exiles at a meeting in Dharmsala in India that ended at the weekend.

It is five decades since Tibet's spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, fled the country after an aborted revolt against Chinese rule. Since then, he has consistently foresworn violence and urged a negotiated settlement, accepting the reality of Chinese suzerainty in exchange for autonomy.

The 73-year-old Dalai Lama has received a Nobel prize for his moderation but no Chinese concessions for his pains. The whole course of Chinese policy in the past decade has been to isolate him from his people, weaning away popular loyalty through economic investment from Beijing, asserting political control of the monasteries and weakening the ethnic basis of the country through Han Chinese immigration.

It is this latter policy that helped foment the rebellion last summer. It was these riots, and the failure of talks to relieve the pressure of Chinese rule, which induced the Tibetan leader to call this meeting, partly to pressure China into a more conciliatory policy and partly to head off the growing call among young Tibetans to ditch the policy of seeking autonomy and go for full independence. In this, the Dalai Lama succeeded, for the Dharamsala meeting ended with an endorsement of his authority, and of his policy of seeking a "middle way" between independence and Chinese rule.

However, it will not be easy to deflect the calls for Tibetan independence forever. Indeed, the Chinese are assisting this trend, encouraging radicalism as a way of splitting the Dalai Lama from his adherents and then waiting for him to reach an isolated death. This is a dangerous policy. Marginalising moderation, as we know from the Islamic world, only plays into the hands of the extremists, of which there are an increasing number amongst young Tibetans. The call for independence, as opposed to autonomy, will grow louder. Beijing should heed the Dalai Lama's call for the "middle way" before it finds that events have moved beyond its control.