TOKYO — Tibet's exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, said Monday that talks with Beijing to win greater autonomy for his Himalayan homeland had been a failure and that Tibet was "now dying" under China's firm grip.
He said that six years of direct talks between his personal envoys and Beijing had brought no substantial achievements.
"Inside Tibet, the situation (has) become much worse. Sometimes I describe Tibet as passing through almost like a death sentence. This old nation, with ancient culture, heritage, (is) now dying," he said.
Appearing fit a month after his sudden hospitalization for the removal of gallstones, the exiled 73-year-old leader said talks with China had dragged on too long without success. He said a meeting that Tibetan exiles would hold in India later this month would be a turning point in determining how Tibetans should press for greater self-rule.
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"My trust in the Chinese government (is) now thinner, thinner, thinner," he said, adding moments later: "Things are not going well. I cannot pretend that something (is) OK. No, I have to accept failure."
The Dalai Lama is on a weeklong visit to Japan, where he has a large following among fellow Buddhists. He spoke Monday to an audience of several hundred people at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan.
Political discussions among the estimated 120,000 Tibetans living in exile, largely in India and Nepal, have grown heated since protests erupted in Tibet last March and spilled into other regions of China. The disturbances marked the worst ethnic unrest in China in nearly two decades.
The Dalai Lama acknowledged that his "middle way" strategy, which calls for negotiating with China and accepting its sovereignty over Tibet, has frustrated some followers, who still seek independence.
"Among Tibetans in recent years, they sense that our approach failed to bring some positive change inside Tibet. So the criticism (is) also increasing," he said.
The Dalai Lama said that a six-day convocation of key Tibetan exile leaders starting Nov. 17 in Dharamsala, India, would allow exiles to air grievances and search for new ways to improve the situation for Tibetans. He declined to outline what proposals might emerge, saying he'd "remain silent" to ensure that exiles don't await cues from him to follow "out of devotion."
"Their mind should (be) open to explore all different sorts of options," he said.
Most exiles, and many of the 6 million Tibetans living in China, revere the Dalai Lama and hesitate to take action unless it's from his lead, an attitude that frustrates him.
"Sometimes the people call me God-king. Some people call (me) living Buddha. These are nonsense," the Dalai Lama said. "I'm just a human being."
One scholar of contemporary Tibet said the remarks signaled that the Tibetan leader was warning China that it must offer concessions to keep talks alive but was aware that some policymakers in Beijing saw benefit in inciting exiles toward more radical positions to justify a crackdown on the Tibetan Plateau.
"Some strategists have been pushing all the time for the exiles to take a harder line," said Robert Barnett of Columbia University. "It will prove them right when they say these people are violent and are terrorists."
Barnett said the Dalai Lama also was forcing the hand of his critics among the exiles.
"The critics of the Dalai Lama have never produced a strategy that we know of. And they are being challenged to come up with one," Barnett said.
The upcoming closed-door conclave of exiles in Dharamsala, the seat of the government in exile, is the first such mass meeting of its type in more than a decade and is expected to draw several hundred leaders of social organizations, monasteries and youth groups.
Neither China nor the Dalai Lama's camp has indicated whether an eighth round of negotiations, which began last Thursday in Beijing, has made progress. A seventh round in July came amid pre-Olympic international tension over China's treatment of Tibetans and ended with no declared confidence-building gestures or movement.
Beijing won a key symbolic — and legal — battle last week when Britain ended a century of ambiguity and formally recognized China's sovereignty over Tibet, undercutting legal arguments by Tibetans that they're exceptional among China's minorities and must be allowed greater autonomy.
Reiterating a common theme from recent months, the Dalai Lama urged his followers to assume a greater role in debating Tibet's future, leaving him to focus on spiritual matters,
"I'm looking forward to complete retirement. Some people express to me or tell me it is impossible (for) the Dalai Lama to retire. And I responded, my retirement is also my human right!" the Nobel Peace laureate said, letting out a chuckle. "Since (I was) 16 years old, I carry this responsibility, (amid) difficult circumstances, (in the) darkest period of Tibetan history. . . . Now, there should be a limit."
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