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Tibet unrest tests India

New Delhi's delicate balance between relations with China and ties with the Dalai Lama is unsettled.

March 20, 2008|Henry Chu | Times Staff Writer

NEW DELHI — One party feels caught in the middle amid the heated clashes and the battle for public opinion between the Chinese government and pro-Tibet activists: India.

The crisis in Tibet has forced New Delhi into a difficult diplomatic balancing act that pits its improving ties with Beijing against its longstanding relationship with the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader who has made India his base of operations for more than half a century.

The Dalai Lama's presence, and that of the Tibetan government in exile, in the Himalayan city of Dharamsala has long been a source of friction between the two Asian giants. New Delhi's cautious solution has been to provide sanctuary to what the Beijing government insists on calling the "Dalai clique," but to demand that the Tibetans refrain from anti-China activities on Indian soil.

That fragile formula has come under increasing strain from the violent protests that have erupted in Tibet against Chinese rule and the bloody crackdown unleashed in response. India is now under competing pressure to speak out against the clampdown, on the one hand, and, on the other, to restrain some of the rhetoric and activities of Tibetan exiles here.

So far, critics say, India's official statements have been tepid.

The Foreign Ministry says it is "distressed" by the violence in Lhasa, the Tibetan capital, and has called for the crisis to be resolved "through dialogue and nonviolent means." At the same time, it has reminded activists here that they, "while they are in India, are expected to refrain from political activities and those activities that affect our relations with other friendly countries."

On Wednesday, the Tibetan parliament in exile, fresh from a meeting in Dharamsala, converged here in the Indian capital and held a one-day fast to focus attention on the plight of those back in their homeland.

One parliament member, Youdon Aukatsang, urged India, as the world's most populous democracy, to take a stronger stand.

"They should strongly condemn what's happening inside Tibet. They haven't done that. This is a gross human rights violation," she said. "I don't expect them to take any covert action or anything like that, but at least [make] forceful statements. It's their moral duty."

At least 100,000 Tibetan refugees live in India, more than anywhere else in the world, with thousands more arriving every year. Beyond sheer numbers, the Indian government also is struggling with the fact that many Tibetans here, especially youths, have grown increasingly militant in favor of independence for their homeland. The Dalai Lama, however, endorses greater autonomy for Tibet under Chinese suzerainty.

In recent days, protesters have mounted raucous anti-China protests in Dharamsala, at times burning the Chinese flag and cursing the Beijing government on national television.

Aukatsang acknowledged the increasing polarization of opinion within the Tibetan diaspora, which the Dalai Lama has struggled to hold together with his message of nonviolent dissent. The government in exile announced Wednesday that it was creating an umbrella "Tibet Crisis Committee" to oversee pro-Tibet movements worldwide.

"We are concerned about the growing frustrations among younger Tibetans especially, but the government [in exile] will never endorse violence," Aukatsang said. "Nonviolence is our philosophy."

The Indian government is eager not to upset the small gains it has made in recent years in improving ties with China. Hostility stemming from a border war in 1962 and ongoing territorial disputes has gradually eased as trade grows between the two booming economies.

In 2003, the Indian government recognized Tibet as part of China in exchange for Chinese recognition of the contested state of Sikkim, adjacent to Tibet, as part of India. Two years ago, the historic road linking the two sides, high on a mountain pass, was reopened as a trading route.

"Relations with China are improving. We're making some cautious moves in settling our issues," said Mohan Guruswamy, director of the Center for Policy Alternatives here.

The Indian government has "a carefully calibrated policy" on Tibet, he said. "We don't want something small to snowball into something big."

Last week, Indian authorities arrested a group of Tibetan activists who had vowed to march all the way to Tibet to protest the Olympic Games due to be held in Beijing in August. Aukatsang said that Indian police had also detained demonstrators who protested outside the Chinese Embassy here.

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, while acknowledging Tibet as a sensitive bilateral issue, publicly thanked New Delhi for the "steps taken by the Indian government in handling Tibetan independence activities masterminded by the Dalai clique."

Not just Tibetan activists but some Indian leaders as well have accused Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of being soft on China.

Thupstan Chhewang, a member of parliament from the Himalayan region of Ladakh, bordering China, called on the government to press the United Nations to mount an international inquiry on the situation in Tibet.

"India should come out very strongly in support of the Tibetan people," Chhewang said. "Most of the people in India support the cause of freedom."

--

henry.chu@latimes.com

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