Thu, Nov 29, 2007 - Page 9 News List

Dalai Lama tries to use Olympics to lever Beijing

By Ed Lane  /  AFP , AMRITSAR, INDIA

The Dalai Lama is frustrated by China's refusal to discuss "cultural" autonomy for Tibet, but sees a window to sway public opinion ahead of the Beijing Olympics, analysts said yesterday.

The Buddhist leader has used high-profile events such as a US Congress award ceremony attended by US President George W. Bush, meetings with heads of state in Germany, Canada and Austria and press interviews to raise the stakes with China, said Kate Saunders, spokeswoman of the International Campaign for Tibet.

"China has been stepping up its criticism of the Dalai Lama since the US visit, internationally and within Tibet, because they don't think it was a coincidence he started to talk about the succession issue in Washington," Saunders said in a telephone interview from Washington.

The latest salvo over selection of the next Dalai Lama flared on Tuesday when the spiritual leader said that if he were to die in exile, his successor would be chosen from outside Tibet.

His suggestion that other methods, possibly including a referendum, be used would change a centuries-old system of revered lamas searching Tibet for a child who was the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama.

He also mentioned options such as a religious council similar to the Catholic cardinals who select the pope and naming someone to hold the post while he is still alive.

The comments were a thinly-veiled warning that the Dalai Lama would make broader appeals to Tibetan Buddhists living in India, Mongolia as well as China, said Robert Barnett, director of Tibetan Studies at Columbia University in New York.

"He played the democracy card," Barnett said in a telephone interview. "Not so much as saying that there will be a vote or that China would allow it in Tibet. But he believes he can win some kind of gauge of popular opinion though he's never going to be tested in a traditional way."

Barnett and Saunders, however, said that starting talks with China remains the Dalai Lama's focus and next year's Olympics means a period of intense interest in Tibet.

Barnett said that in "an ideal world" the comments by the Dalai Lama would have been made "in a closed room across a negotiating table."

"Now we have a situation where he makes a small statement and the Chinese respond in a big way and this is putting real pressure on them," he said.

The 1989 Nobel Peace Prize winner maintained on Tuesday he would like to talk with Chinese leaders. Beijing has had a series of meetings with his emissaries in recent years, but has baulked at direct talks.

He also repeated charges that Tibet was becoming a victim of "demographic aggression" because an influx of Han Chinese had led to a "kind of cultural genocide."

"The reports coming from Tibet via the Internet and other means have given the Dalai Lama concern that acts of repression are being stepped up." Barnett said. "This will bring attention on China before the games."

The pressure is also aimed at heading off plans by the Chinese Communist Party to select a successor itself and set the terms for the process.

China, which has ruled Tibet since 1951 and has violently crushed protests there, recently announced that so-called Tibetan living Buddhas needed permission from the government, officially atheist, to be reincarnated.

The comments on Tuesday sparked an immediate response from China.

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