Dalai Lama in bid to revive Tibetan autonomy in China

Dharamsala (India) (AFP) - The Dalai Lama and other exiled Tibetan leaders will on Thursday launch a renewed push for autonomy within China as they seek to end a wave of gruesome self-immolations against perceived oppression in their homeland by Beijing.

The leaders will meet in the northern Indian hill station of Dharamsala to kick off a media campaign promoting the "Middle Way" for peaceful autonomy for Tibetans, in a bid to pile global pressure on Beijing to revisit the issue.

The prime minister of Tibet's government in exile, Lobsang Sangay, is expected to host a press conference, after taking over the job of pushing for autonomy from the revered spiritual leader.

But the Dalai Lama, who stepped down from political duties in 2011, stole the spotlight on the eve of the launch by urging China to embrace democracy in comments marking the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown.

The Nobel Peace Prize winner offered prayers for the hundreds of people -- by some estimates, more than 1,000 -- who died in Beijing on June 3-4, 1989 when Communist authorities sent in troops to crush their peaceful pro-democracy protests.

"I offer prayers for those who died for freedom, democracy and human rights," the Dalai Lama said in a statement posted on his website.

"These values are the foundation of a free and dynamic society."

- Few signs Beijing will yield -

The Buddhist leader said Beijing should embrace mainstream democracy which "will help China to gain the trust and respect of the rest of the world".

The comments are certain to anger Chinese authorities, who censor all references to the bloodshed and detained scores of activists in the weeks running up to the anniversary.

Beijing has ruled Tibet since 1951, a year after invading, and considers the Himalayan region an integral part of Chinese territory. It regards the Dalai Lama as a dangerous separatist.

Thursday's launch of a website and social media pages comes after a series of self-immolations in recent years, a sign of the increasing sense of desperation among Tibetans.

Some 130 Tibetans have set themselves on fire since 2009, with most dying of their injuries, in demonstrations against what they see as Chinese oppression in their homeland. Beijing has accused the Dalai Lama of fomenting the protests.

China says its rule has brought economic development to Tibet.

US President Barack Obama and other Western leaders have called on Beijing to resume talks with the Dalai Lama's envoys on autonomy that broke down in 2010 after making no headway.

But there are few signs of a return to the table and Beijing dismissed Thursday's renewed push for the "Middle Way" approach, which would include handing Tibetans decision-making positions in the region.

"We advise these people to give up their attempts to separate Tibet from China," foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei told a regular press briefing on Wednesday.

Robbie Barnett, a professor of modern Tibetan studies at Columbia University, said the "Middle Way" has made no major progress since the Dalai Lama retired from his political position, despite its backing from the US and other Western governments.

Tibetan leaders have failed to appease vocal critics within the exile community who call for Tibetans to push for total independence and who argue that Beijing will never agree to any concessions on autonomy or the return of exiles, Barnett said.

"Talks are always possible, but any positive outcome would require exceptional skill and patience on the Tibetan side, and a shift in policy direction by the Chinese side," he told AFP.

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