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E-Mail this special report to a friend It is an article of faith. That some day the Tibetan refugees, in India and all over the world, will return to Tibet as citizens of a free country. Or, at least as citizens of a province allowed to live their own way, without fear or interference. Talk to any Tibetan, and he or she will insist that return they will, later if not sooner. A Tibetan in a small café at Mcleodganj, which houses the Tibetan Central Administration, the government in exile, pointed out to how the Jews were without a homeland for nearly 1900 years, so what is 50 years anyway.

"We have every reason to be optimistic, more so today than yesterday, because today our case is a global cause. Forty years ago, when His Holiness the Dalai Lama escaped from Lhasa to India, few people even knew about Tibet or the Tibetan refugees. Hence, if there is a chance, it is now," said Thubten Samphel, additional secretary in the department of information and international relations, Tibetan Central Administration.

Samphel is right. Today, Tibet is one of the world's pet causes. China is regularly criticised for violating human rights by the likes of Madeleine Albright, for flooding Tibet with 7.5 million ethnic Han Chinese, thus reducing the six million Tibetans to a minority in their own land, and other similar crimes, real or imagined.

Today, Hollywood stars like Richard Gere lend support to the Tibetan struggle. In fact, Gere was in India two weeks ago to organise a tour of the Americas for the Dalai Lama. Hundreds of Westerners, seeking spiritual solace, have turned to Buddhism and thence to Tibet. This in turn creates pressure lobbies that speak out for Tibet and against China.

What has no doubt further helped make Tibet an issue of today is the end of the Cold War, and the Tiananmen Square massacre in June 1989. Suddenly, China was seen as the new threat, the surviving Communist power still seeking glory through territorial conquests. And to complete the picture, the Tibetans, led by their exiled leader the Dalai Lama, have chosen to seek independence (or "genuine autonomy") through the Gandhian method of non-violence.

"Changing over from independence to a demand for autonomy was really a practical step, the only one possible," said Tenzin Geyche Tethong, who has been secretary to the Dalai Lama for over 30 years, adding, "It was not a popular decision then but is an accepted decision now."

'Genuine autonomy' for the Dalai Lama means that only foreign and defence affairs will be conducted by Beijing while all other matters of state will be looked after by a Tibetan government elected by the Tibetan people.

The Tibetans don't say it openly but many believe that autonomy might just be the stepping stone to independence. Perhaps it is for this reason that Beijing has so far refused to consider the Dalai Lama's proposals, pointing out that Tibet is already an autonomous region.

"Frankly, we really can't take on China militarily, hence any idea of taking a different path is really not feasible. Second, our non-violent approach has paid rich dividends up to now, earning us popular support worldwide, and we remain optimistic that our dreams will be reached," said Samphel.

Tibetan hopes have been fuelled by reports that current Chinese president Jiang Zemin has spoken of resolving the Tibetan issue. Jiang had said a couple of years ago that there are channels of communication open as long as the Dalai Lama recognises that Tibet and Taiwan are integral parts of China. Yet, right now there is no dialogue between the two.

"The Dalai Lama has expressed his frustration at the fact that the channels are not working and that the Chinese have reverted to their harsh crackdown measures in Tibet," pointed out Samphel. The Dalai Lama has stated that before talks on autonomy occur, China must respect the human and religious rights of the Tibetan people.

"One reason for seeking autonomy as soon as possible is the fear that our culture and identity will be swamped into oblivion, in Tibet by the Chinese and in India as younger generations merge into the country. Hence, we must be able to go back and preserve our identity," pointed out Tethong.

Today, 40 years have passed since the day the Dalai Lama, the 14th in his line, escaped from Lhasa as a young 24-year-old, with scores of his people. In these 40 years, the Tibetan people have thrived in exile as businessman and farmers while the Dalai Lama set up a government in exile with a parliament and cabinet, a revolutionary move among a people who revere the Dalai Lama as a reincarnation of the Buddha. They have also continued the freedom struggle, sure of winning, but not certain when.

Yet, the last 10 years have been among the most frustrating. Dozens of other suppressed nationalities -- the Baltic states, the Central Asian republics, et al -- have today gained independence. The Tibetan struggle, in contrast, seems stuck in the same spot with even autonomy appearing remote. A political reality is that no other country in the world has recognised the Tibetan government in exile and the Dalai Lama's visit abroad are usually categorised as that of a Buddhist spiritual leader rather than the leader of the Tibetan people.

Samphel admits to a feeling of envy among Tibetans. "We can only wait for something to happen to China so that it will become more liberal vis-à-vis Tibet. Our options are really limited," he added.

And while the Dalai Lama's secretary denied that His Holiness was feeling frustrated, "he is no doubt somewhat disappointed that his very reasonable proposals have met with no response from Beijing even in the changed times."

China is no Soviet Union on the verge of a break up, though political and strategic analysts insist that the country is facing enormous centrifugal pressures from within. Thus whether and when Tibet ever gains independence depends more on the Chinese than on the Tibetans.

Tibetans, however, are hopeful. With a constant flow of refugees coming in from Tibet, regular news is available about the grim conditions within China, of upheavals in the impoverished rural areas and resentment among the farmer at the prosperity of the urban areas, of trouble in the Muslim-dominated Xinjiang province. The last is the most important spark of hope for Tibetans, the hope being that with other restive nationalities getting together, Beijing will be forced to concede some ground even if not total independence.

Another reason for hope is that Taiwan and Tibet have agreed to co-operate. The Chinese Nationalist government, which shifted to Taiwan in 1949 after being defeated by the Communists, has supported the official mainland line of Tibet being a part of China. Yet, the meeting between the Dalai Lama and the Taiwan president a few years ago was a breakthrough. Taiwan supported Tibet's demand for human rights and religious freedom in Tibet.

"There has been talk of a federal China, incorporating mainland China, Taiwan, outer Mongolia, Hong Kong and Tibet, a sort of structure with some common policies but with internal freedom and separate governments. This becomes especially important after Hong Kong became part of China. After all, for how long can Beijing continue with political repression and economic freedom? But much will depend on the Communist leaders, whether the hardliners prevail or the moderates," said Samphel.

If there is one genuine disappointment among the Tibetans, it is India's lack of support for their case and cause. Scores of Tibetans whom this correspondent met, in Mcleodganj and Delhi, all of them spoke of feeling let down by New Delhi's stance on this key question. Tethong agreed that while the Dalai Lama has never publicly spoken on the topic, some form of support from India would be most welcomed by every Tibetan.

"There can be no doubt that New Delhi's unwillingness to back us is very upsetting," said Samphel, adding, "right now, there are only two countries that can make a big difference to Sino-Tibet relations and they are India and the United States."

For historical reasons that are beyond the scope of this article, New Delhi has acknowledged China's suzerainty over Tibet. In fact, New Delhi even withdrew the Indian troops stationed in Lhasa as per an agreement between British India and the Tibetan government, after the Chinese takeover, thereby destroying its leverage in Tibet.

Perhaps the only ray of hope is in semantics. "India must remember that it has never accepted Chinese 'sovereignty' over Tibet, only suzerainty. This means that they have a legal and genuine right to be concerned with developments in Tibet, the human rights situation and the political question," pointed out Samphel, adding, "At least New Delhi could always say that since Tibet is a neigbour, there is concern about its situation. In 1965, India supported a resolution on Tibet which included the right of self-determination."

Political analysts feel that New Delhi keeps silent on Tibet, expecting Beijing reciprocating behaviour on issues like Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh, both of which China still does not recognise as part of India. "It is a flawed policy," said Samphel, "China recognises strength. New Delhi would be better off taking a more firm line."

For the present, Tibet remains among the world's unresolved issues - a cause popular with the people worldwide but with few governments willing to actually challenge China, seen as an emerging superpower. But the Tibetans continue with their fight. And are confident that in the next century, success will come their way.

Photographs: Jewella C Miranda

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