Tibetan Exiles Strike Gold
P. Parameswaran
Agence France-Presse

Spontaneous anti-China protests disrupting the Beijing Olympic torch relay underscore the growing clout of the Tibetan exile lobby, which has strategically galvanized support of civil society groups, experts say.

The lobby has forged links at diverse levels, ranging from colleges, universities and monasteries to human rights and media groups to the real centers of power and the rich and famous in Hollywood, including film star Richard Gere.

But gaining the support of powerful civic institutions, in the forefront of efforts to thwart the Beijing Olympic flame relay, is seen as the biggest success in the lobbying efforts against Chinese rule in Tibet.

"It shows the power of international civil society groups, which China failed to take into account when it bid for the Olympics," said Asian expert Mohan Malik of the Hawaii-based Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies.

In March, barely five months before the start of the summer Games, anti- China protests erupted in Lhasa, countered by a fierce crackdown which earned Beijing international condemnation. The flame relay quickly became a mobile rallying point for anti-Beijing protesters.

"The fact that the Olympic flame was extinguished - even though by officials for safety reasons - was a remarkable victory for the protests and a big loss of face for the Chinese leadership," Malik said.

The Paris leg of the flame relay was cut short on Monday after pro-Tibet activists repeatedly forced officials to douse the
torch and take refuge on a bus. In San Francisco, protesters scaled the Golden Gate Bridge to unfurl banners ahead of the next leg.

The incidents came a day after rowdy protests on the relay's London leg.

Unlike other groups, the Tibetan exile community is small, estimated at about 200,000, confined mostly in Nepal and India - where Tibet's spiritual leader the Dalai Lama and his government-in-exile are based.

But many of them are involved in global networks pushing for "meaningful" autonomy advocated by the Dalai Lama, or even independence for Tibet.

Among them are Students for a Free Tibet, a New York-based international grassroots organization of students and youth with 650 chapters in more than 20 countries, as well as the International Tibetan Support Network, an umbrella of 250 groups around the globe.

The India-based Tibetan Youth Congress is purportedly the largest and most active non-governmental organization of Tibetans in exile with more than 30,000 members worldwide.

The TYC has taken the lead in pushing for full independence for Tibet, indicating that "the Dalai Lama's more conciliatory approach towards China doesn't go very well with the younger generation," Malik said.

The Washington-based International Campaign for Tibet, a human rights advocacy group with offices also in Brussels, Amsterdam and Berlin, is the driving force of the Dalai Lama's diplomatic blitz.

"We have been pretty effective in drawing increasing support from the American public as well as Congress and the administration who are all sympathetic to our cause," said Bhuchung Tsering, ICT's vice president.

The Dalai Lama, who fled his homeland in 1959 after a failed uprising against Chinese rule, was once shunned by the White House and State Department.

But today he is welcomed with open arms by the president and secretary of state as well as by Congress, which last year conferred on the Dalai Lama the highest US civilian award bestowed by lawmakers.

Despite Beijing's opposition, President George W Bush attended the presentation ceremony - the first time a sitting US leader appeared in public with the 72-year-old Buddhist figurehead.