A new dawn?

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 01 July, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 01 July, 2008, 12:00am

There is a popular saying in Lhasa these days: 'China's stability depends on Tibet. Tibet's stability depends on Lhasa. Lhasa's stability depends on the monks. The monks' being stable depends on Drepung Monastery.'

Historically, the first Dalai Lama was the abbot of Drepung Monastery. So the saying has special meaning.

As the Dalai Lama's special envoys Lodi Gyari and Kelsang Gyaltsen begin the seventh round of talks with ministerial counterparts in Beijing today, it is critical that this round be a success for the stability of all.

Ironically, current conditions may present more of an opportunity than any of the previous six rounds. Subsequent warming moves and signals by both sides - under pressure from the fallout of last March's demonstrations in Lhasa and upcoming Olympic celebrations in Beijing - may also have ripened the opportunity. It is now up to both sides to grab it.

Probably more positive signs have been sent between the parties than before any previous rounds. On June 4, the Dalai Lama led mass prayers for the Sichuan earthquake victims that were attended by all ministers, officials and staff of the Tibetan government-in-exile, including Prime Minister Samdhong Rinpoche, and thousands of monks and Tibetans living in exile.

This enormous outpouring of sympathy and unity sent a clear message to Beijing. Importantly, it kept Tibetans calm within China and outside during that sensitive day that marks both the Sagadawa Festival (the most important in Tibetan Buddhism, commemorating Buddha's birth, enlightenment and nirvana) and the 19th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square incident. In an unprecedented gesture, a banner draped from Dharamsala's main temple explained in Chinese characters the intention of prayer readings for earthquake victims.

On that same day, Samdhong Rinpoche issued a signed letter on behalf of the government in exile reiterating that the Dalai Lama supports the Olympics, opposes violence and seeks neither separation nor independence. The document was delivered by hand to Beijing.

On remaining issues viewed as deal-breakers, Samdhong Rinpoche gave media interviews during which he said yet again that the Dalai Lama and the exile government are not seeking 'greater autonomy' or 'higher autonomy' as alleged by some in China. Rather, they want autonomy - as already guaranteed in the Chinese constitution - and a correct implementation of constitutional provisions.

He further pointed out that the Dalai Lama does not seek to return to Tibet if Beijing has concerns about it, but would offer to send his representatives to Tibetan areas to clarify to people the three points discussed above.

For its part, Beijing has taken some unusual measures. Foreign tourism to Tibet, originally scheduled to re-open after the Olympics, suddenly re-opened on June 25, a mere five days before the seventh round of negotiations began. Rhetoric in China's official media railing against the 'Dalai clique' has been toned down, replaced with condemnations of 'Tibetan separatists' and, in some cases, softened even further to 'some separatist elements'.

This is a huge shift away from direct criticism of the Dalai Lama, which angers many Buddhists and infuriates Tibetans in particular. This itself is a major concern and a source of complaints from the exile government because of the instability that such inflammatory language creates among monks and nuns.

So talks are set to resume in a warmer atmosphere. The negotiation points are already clear. The issues are beyond doubt. Now it is a question of how to discuss a breakthrough in this half-century-long impasse between the two sides.

A meeting between President Hu Jintao and the Dalai Lama would achieve this and serve both sides best. Certainly, the monks at Drepung would agree.

Laurence Brahm is a political economist, author, filmmaker and founder of Shambhala