Tibetans from around the world are to hold the biggest assembly of exiles in four years this week as they work out how to react to a disturbing rise in self-immolations and a change of Chinese leadership.
At a special general meeting in the northern Indian hilltown of Dharamshala, 400 Tibetan representatives will try to address a growing despair among the younger generation that has triggered the unprecedented spate of fatal protests.
According to Tibet’s government-in-exile, based in Dharamshala, 51 people have set themselves on fire in the past three years. Forty-one died from their burns.
“Tibetans everywhere understand why such drastic actions are taken, given the repression by the Chinese government and the unbearable conditions inside Tibet,” Lobsang Sangay, the Tibetan prime minister, said by telephone from Dharamshala before the four-day meeting that begins tomorrow.
“This week we must formulate ways to ensure that the cries and suffering in Tibet to do not go in vain,” he said.
Many Tibetans have been deeply shocked by the self-immolations, which contradict Buddhist religious teaching that all life is sacred.
The Tibetan leadership is under increasing pressure to find a way to end the protests as frustration grows within the exile community at the absence of any progress in the campaign for freedom in their homeland.
Both Sangay and the Dalai Lama, the revered spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism, have appealed for Tibetans not to set themselves on fire, but add that the protests are a result of worsening Chinese repression.
Tsewang Rigzin, president of the Tibetan Youth Congress, expressed anger at the lack of response from the international community over the deaths.
“This meeting must say to world leaders who talk about human rights and democracy that the gross violations inside Tibet are unacceptable,” he said. “We have enough sympathy, what we need is concrete action. We must lobby for immediate international intervention to push the Chinese government and hold them to account for what in happening inside Tibet.”
However, five decades after the Dalai Lama fled Tibet for India after a failed uprising in 1959, the options available to the exiles congregating in Dharamshala this week appear more limited than ever.
China routinely pours scorn on the Dalai Lama, accusing him of seeking to split Tibet from the rest of China — though he says he only seeks greater autonomy for the region.
And Beijing insists that Tibetans enjoy religious freedom and have benefited from improved living standards brought on by China’s economic expansion.
In the latest indication of growing dismay among exiles, two negotiators who headed nine rounds of fruitless talks with the Chinese resigned in June.
One glimmer of hope likely to be a hot topic of discussion at the meeting is the upcoming change of leadership in China, with president-in-waiting, Vice President Xi Jinping (習近平), seen by some observers as more flexible on Tibet.
“There are hints that there may be some very small shift in position by Xi,” Robert Barnett, a professor of Tibetan studies at Columbia University, said. “China could offer to re-start talks, as there have been some statements from Beijing suggesting this.
“But the Tibetan leaders are under pressure to withdraw from future talks because there is no confidence in anything coming from the Chinese side,” Barnett said.