Dalai Lama finds leading Tibetans harder than being peace icon

BEIJING — This is not an easy time for the Dalai Lama, who seems to find it easier to trot the globe as a holy man promoting peace than to serve as a political leader of his Tibetan people.

Twice in a little more than a week, the Dalai Lama has suggested that he might resign if Tibetans don't stop using violence to press for greater freedom under Chinese rule.

It's an unusual warning for a religious leader who ranks in many parts of the world up there with Nelson Mandela as a universal moral figure and international emissary of peace and harmony.

The exiled Tibetan spiritual leader isn't talking about relinquishing his role as "Ocean of Wisdom" for Tibetan Buddhists, who believe he's a reincarnation of previous dalai lamas. Instead, his threat is to quit as head of the Tibetan government-in-exile, based in the hill station of Dharamsala, India.

In New Delhi on Tuesday, the Dalai Lama deplored the violence that has marred some demonstrations during the past two weeks in Tibet and surrounding areas of China where ethnic Tibetans live. On Wednesday, China said 660 people involved with the protests had surrendered to authorities.

China also says the protests have taken 22 lives, while exile groups claim the toll has reached 140. The Dalai Lama pleaded Tuesday with protesters to keep strong emotion in check.

"If it is out of control, we have no option. If the violent demonstrations continue, I will resign," the Dalai Lama told journalists in the Indian capital. "Inside or outside China, if demonstrators use violent methods, I am totally against it."

A week earlier, the Dalai Lama made a similar warning, saying his "resignation is the only option" if protests spin further out of control.

Some experts say the threats are aimed at radical Tibetan exiles, some of whom differ with the Dalai Lama's insistence on nonviolence in the struggle to attain greater freedoms for Tibet, which was overtaken by Chinese troops more than half a century ago.

"It's probably more of a tactic than something he seriously contemplates doing," said Barry V. Sautman, an expert on Tibet at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. "I'm sure the Dalai Lama feels very frustrated about the fact that his own view on how things should proceed is being flagrantly opposed by those who should be deferent."

Most Tibetan Buddhists revere the Dalai Lama as a spiritual leader and view him as their temporal chief.

After fleeing into exile 49 years ago, the Dalai Lama set up the government-in-exile and a parliament, advocating democracy among the 120,000 or so Tibetan exiles, who reside mainly in India and Nepal.

Yet his lack of success in gaining greater freedoms for Tibetans living under China's control — or even setting foot back in his homeland himself — has disillusioned many younger Tibetan exiles.

"They respect the Dalai Lama as a religious leader. But as a political strategist to lead them forward, they believe he has failed," said Dibyesh Anand, a lecturer writing on Tibet at Westminster University in London. "He's in a very difficult position."

Chief among those differing with the Dalai Lama's "Middle Way," a platform adopted in 1987 that seeks greater autonomy for Tibet but recognizes China's sovereignty over the plateau, is the Tibetan Youth Congress, a group that claims some 30,000 members and advocates for complete independence.

The Web page of the Tibetan Youth Congress says that its members pledge "to struggle for the total independence of Tibet even at the cost of one's life."

Previous leaders of the Congress were always young exiles who had grown up in India in the shadow of the Dalai Lama. New leaders differ more sharply with the Dalai Lama on tactics. The latest president, Tsewang Rigzin, is a naturalized U.S. citizen from Oregon who sharpened his teeth on more radical techniques to achieve goals.

Reached by telephone in Dharamsala, where the Congress is based, Rigzin couldn't say clearly whether the group still agrees with the Dalai Lama's insistence on nonviolence.

"I am not sure. Our struggle has been nonviolent so far," Rigzin said.

He downplayed the Dalai Lama's warning that he might quit his leadership of the government-in-exile. "He has been saying that he's semi-retired," Rigzin said.

Samdhong Rinpoche, a 68-year-old monk who is the prime minister of the government-in-exile, also backed away from the Dalai Lama's warnings.

"There's no question of his resigning, absolutely not," the prime minister said in a telephone interview.

The Dalai Lama has other troubles, among them an intense vilification campaign in China that has tarred him as a virtual criminal. China accuses him of orchestrating rioting across ethnic Tibetan areas and says that his supporters infiltrated saboteurs into monasteries with the hopes of swapping Communist rule for a theocracy in Tibet.

The Dalai Lama was unusually slow to condemn the actions taken by violent mobs against ethnic Han Chinese in rioting in Lhasa on March 14.

"Ethnic violence — killing, beating, burning — was carried out on the streets of Lhasa by people chanting the Dalai Lama's name," Sautman said.

That has contributed to a broadly negative image in China, according to an advocate of the Dalai Lama.

"There's a crisis in the relationship with the Chinese people," said Kate Saunders, the London-based communications director for the International Campaign for Tibet.

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