Talks with Dalai Lama's envoys a welcome move

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 26 April, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 26 April, 2008, 12:00am


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The controversy over Tibet has cast a dark cloud over the Olympic torch as it makes its way around the world. Protests have marred the relay and tensions have risen between China and major trading partners since riots erupted in Tibet last month.

Beijing's announcement yesterday that it is ready to resume talks with representatives of the Dalai Lama is therefore a welcome development. It will help defuse the situation ahead of the Beijing Games in August and raise hopes that a peaceful resolution can be found to the problems concerning Tibet.

In recent weeks, there have been growing calls from predominantly western governments for Beijing to enter into dialogue with the exiled spiritual leader. Beijing has now responded positively to their demands. If the Olympic spirit is about unity and peace, then initiating much-needed dialogue is never too late. In fact, there were back-channel communications and secretive meetings with the Dalai Lama's representatives in late 2002, but they broke off for reasons that remain unclear. Further meetings have also been held between the two sides more recently. But given the heightened tensions that currently exist, the latest announcement is a particularly significant development.

China has invested so much of its prestige in the Olympics that it is not ready to see this spoiled by foreign protesters. The vast majority of Chinese, on the mainland and overseas, support the Games and want to see the once-in-a-lifetime event succeed. Many have reacted to the recent troubles with patriotic fervour, demonstrating and calling for boycotts against foreign businesses across the mainland. Beijing is, understandably, concerned about ensuring that nationalistic passions are kept under control.

By calling for talks to resume with the Dalai Lama, Beijing hopes to defuse tensions on all fronts. In return, it has called on him and his supporters not to disrupt the Olympic Games. This is a reasonable request. People who support the Dalai Lama's cause should realise the gravity of the moment. They have made their statement. Now it is time to let those with the highest stakes in the dispute to engage each other. Hopefully, the talks will be constructive and lead to progress. For the Dalai Lama, this is the opening he has been waiting for. At 72, this may be his last chance to achieve something meaningful for his homeland. His position has never been stronger, with the Beijing Olympics approaching and international attention focused on Tibet. He should not squander it by overreaching with unreasonable demands. Calling for independence is out of the question. The Dalai Lama has repeatedly said he is only seeking autonomy for Tibet. But there are many forms of autonomy and it is currently unclear what he means by the term. Now is the chance for Beijing to find out.

As for the central government, questions will inevitably be raised about its motives and whether it is committed to dialogue beyond the Olympics. But the whole point of dialogue and engagement is to put aside distrust and build common ground. One cannot predict the outcome before going through the intermediate steps. Beijing may consider that there are some benefits in dealing with the Dalai Lama while this is still possible, rather than having to confront Tibetan radicals and hotheads who insist on independence.

If both sides are prepared to engage each other in good faith, something of the Olympic spirit may yet prevail, with consequences that may be felt well beyond the Games.