THE fiftieth anniversary of the Dalai Lama's escape from Tibet was observed last month. This major event continues to reverberate as a defining moment in the difficult relationship between China and its Tibetan region. The Tibetans in exile with the Dalai Lama and the Chinese government marked the occasion in greatly contrasting styles; the Buddhist leader issued a statement recalling Tibet's suffering and struggle, his hopes for the future and his renewed wish for a negotiated settlement acceptable to both parties, while China promised stern action against separatism and declared a public holiday to celebrate the end of serfdom in Tibet.
The passing of fifty years has done little to bridge the gap between the two sides; if anything, the distance between Beijing and the Dalai Lama has only increased. Apprehending outbreaks of disaffection similar to those that rocked Lhasa last year when a deliberate attempt was made to upstage the Olympics, stringent security precautions were taken by the authorities as the anniversary approached.
A series of measures were implemented to preclude any kind of public disturbance that could draw attention yet again to the unresolved Tibetan issue. These security safeguards ensured that Lhasa remained quiet, but there could be no restraining Tibet's sympathisers elsewhere. Exiles from Tibet and their supporters are by now spread all over the globe, and they came out in full force on the occasion.
The centre-piece of the observance of the anniversary by exiled Tibetans was a statement by the Dalai Lama. This is a detailed and careful document that sets out once more the main features of the Tibetan leader's lifelong endeavour to find a way forward through dialogue and reconciliation. The statement recalls the many steps of his odyssey, beginning with the shared effort in the 1950s by Tibetans and Chinese to work together on the basis of the 17-point agreement of 1951 arrived at after the Chinese army first entered Tibet.
Within the promised protection for Tibet's religion, culture and traditional values, plans had been framed for social and economic development in Tibet, and some measure of mutual understanding had been achieved. However, the effort foundered when increasingly radical policies -- described as "ultra leftist" -- were promoted in Tibet, as a result of which progress came to a halt. Thereafter, the situation deteriorated progressively, leading eventually to a "peaceful uprising" of the Tibetans in 1959, against which Chinese military intervention took place.
This resulted in the flight of the leader, who was eventually followed by some 100,000 of his adherents. Among the many points made in the wide ranging statement is a reference to the Tibetan refugees who came out with little but have rehabilitated themselves successfully wherever they have settled -- on this there can be no dispute; one has only to look at the bustle and prosperity of the refugee settlements and their commercial establishments.
In tacit acknowledgment of changing times, it is also pointed out that some democratic forms have been introduced into the selection of the leaders of this exiled community. Relations with Beijing, however, show no substantive advance. The "Middle Way" policy first presented in 1974 as something to meet the requirements of both sides remains a virtual dead letter and, so far as can be judged, has sparked no useful discussions despite several meetings between Tibetan and Chinese representatives. The search for "meaningful and legitimate" autonomy has yielded little. The Dalai Lama has not abandoned his quest but there is little positive to show for it.
The countries that found room for people displaced from Tibet received thanks in the anniversary statement. India tops the list, as home to by far the largest number, including the Dalai Lama himself. This community has been here so long that it is more or less taken for granted, so it is perhaps necessary that India's special effort in opening its doors at a time of great need should be acknowledged in this fashion. The Tibetan Arts and Culture Exhibition in New Delhi has also been arranged to convey the same message of appreciation and to strengthen the vital link with India.
There is a strongly contrasting presentation of the significance of the anniversary from the Chinese side. The Chinese intervention, when it came in the 1950s, was described as a move to liberate Tibet from the system of feudal exploitation under which it had suffered, the elite having prospered exceedingly while the ordinary people had to suffer appalling hardships. Thus, the removal of the Dalai Lama and his supporters is presented as something that emancipated Tibet from misery and exploitation, in token of which the anniversary is henceforth to be celebrated as "Serfs' Emancipation Day."
Though loudly proclaimed, there will not be many takers within Tibet or elsewhere for this view of what happened fifty years ago. True, Tibet was ripe for social reform at that time, being weighed down by feudal and monastic demands, and restoration of the old order is on nobody's list of demands.
China has invested heavily in the development of Tibet, and the local people have taken full advantage of the new opportunities that have come their way. Yet, the glimpse of prosperity that has come to them, and with it an easier and more agreeable life, has not affected their devotion to their leader-in-exile. He remains the indissoluble symbol of their culture and tradition. His worldwide fame helps keep the Tibetan cause on the global agenda. Even developments like South Africa's refusal to give him a visa to visit that country only add to his lustre.
The strengthening of China's historically unsympathetic response no doubt owes something to the greater assertiveness of Tibetan activists both within the country and outside. Last year both India and Nepal were hard pressed to contain a projected "march to Beijing" by Tibetan groups intent on publicising their cause, and in Tibet itself there were widespread demonstrations.
The ideological counter-attack of instituting a "Serfs' Liberation Day" reflects China's awareness that its image can be affected by the persistent criticism it faces on the issue of Tibet. Neither side is likely to give way, so the prospects for any early resolution in the future look poor.
So far as India is concerned, it would be well if the issue were decided soon. Heightened sensitivity about Tibet can become a complication in China's dealings with India. Possibly the recent discordant statements from China about Arunachal Pradesh owe something to that. Resolving the border dispute with China remains a major aim of Indian diplomacy, for which a settled internal situation in Tibet would be conducive.