Leading article: The Dalai Lama and a circle of oppression that needs to be broken

Saturday 22 March 2008 01:00 GMT

The seat of Tibet's government in exile in northern India has become more than usual a place of pilgrimage in recent days. Speaking from his office there on Thursday, the Dalai Lama announced that he would be prepared to go to Beijing, if there was "a concrete indication" that the Chinese were prepared to negotiate a mutually agreeable solution to the issue of Tibet.

Yesterday, with happy timing, a US congressional delegation paid a visit, headed by the Speaker of the US House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi. Long an impassioned advocate of the Tibet cause, Ms Pelosi used the meeting with the Dalai Lama to admirable effect, describing the situation in his native land as "a challenge to the conscience of the world". It was beholden on freedom-loving people, she said, to speak out against China and the Chinese in Tibet.

Barely two weeks ago, it would have seemed unthinkable that Tibet would be where it is now on the international agenda. Then, it was just one of many potential flashpoints that might complicate the run-up to the Olympics in Beijing. But the combination of protests to commemorate the 49th anniversary of the Tibet uprising, and the all too predictable Chinese reaction, brought Tibet's plight back into the news. It should not be allowed to slip back into obscurity.

The question is whether anything more productive can come out of this than more of the violence and brutal acts of suppression we have glimpsed so far. It would take an unaccustomed leap of imagination on China's part for ingrained attitudes to Tibet to change. Since the protests erupted, most of its words and actions have perpetuated the bad old ways. The beatings, the deadlines, the curfews and the enforced confessions are the tried and tested methods used by generations of Chinese to keep the "inferior" Tibetans in line.

Yet Beijing may not be completely insensitive to outside condemnation as it habitually is, not this year at least. The Olympics are an immense opportunity for China's leaders to show off their country's near miraculous development. From now on, however, the Games will also be a constraint on the way they exercise power – as the Tibetans and every other dissatisfied group well knows. They can carry on blaming the Dalai Lama for inciting violence, if they so choose, but columns of armoured personnel carriers and massed ranks of troops are not the image of pre-Olympic China they will want to project.

In China's response it is possible to detect hints of the hesitation and dissension that preceded the assault on Tiananmen Square. Almost 20 years separate those bloody events from today, but the choice China faces is in many ways no less urgent. Does it want to join the world or remain aloof – and if it wants to join the mainstream, not just in the economic sense, does it know where to start?

In stating his readiness to go to Beijing, the Dalai Lama has made a canny diplomatic move. Beijing's leaders can ignore it or denounce it as a stunt. Yet a bold leader would embrace it as a chance to draw a line under the stalemate that has paralysed Tibet for the best part of half a century. And the Dalai Lama and his foreign supporters have already offered two olive branches.

Unlike some younger Tibetan activists, they are not demanding secession. Nor are they threatening to ruin China's Olympic show. Their ambition is for Tibet to be allowed to be Tibet. There must be long odds against Beijing taking up the Dalai Lama's challenge, but no other moment may be as propitious as this for breaking the vicious circle of oppression and assimilation.

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