Fifty years after China began the formal annexation of Tibet, its India-based government-in-exile continues to fight for Tibetans' rights and the preservation of the region's culture. After years of stagnation, there may be signs of change, with two Tibetan envoys recently visiting Beijing for talks on ways to give Tibet special autonomy while remaining part of China. But some in Tibet's exile community say they want nothing short of full independence.
Sitting quietly in the back of an English lesson, is Tibetan nun Gyaltsen Lhak Don. She is studying to help her get by in a life in exile. Like tens of thousands of Tibetans before her, Ms. Lhak Don fled her homeland for the northern India city of Dharamsala, where Tibet's government in exile is based, to campaign against Chinese rule.
Chinese authorities in Tibet arrested Ms. Lhak Don in 1989 for climbing a hilltop with fellow nuns to pray and celebrate the day Tibet's exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, won the Nobel Peace Prize.
She spent 2 years in jail, where conditions were harsh. She says she and her friends were often tied to an iron rod and were beaten by several policemen, using eucalyptus tree branches or hands cuffs.
Hers is a common story.
Tibetan rights activists charge that since China invaded Tibet in 1950, it has tried to eradicate Tibetan culture through political repression, mass arrests, the destruction of monasteries, and the planned migration of tens of thousands of ethnic Han Chinese to the region. Five decades of Chinese rule in Tibet, activists say, has left Tibetan culture on the brink of extinction.
China rejects those charges. Beijing says it liberated Tibet from an era of political and economic backwardness, and that is has brought much needed financial development. It also says that Tibet has long ago been designated an autonomous region with significant self-rule.
After decades of deadlock, there have been recent signs of a thaw.
A three-man delegation from Tibet's exiled government spent two and a half weeks in China in September, meeting with mid-ranking communist leaders. It is the third trip made by Tibetan officials in the last two years. They say they hope the meetings will lead to formal negotiations on the Tibet issue.
The problem, Tibetan officials admit, is that they because they operate in exile, they are without a powerbase. Beijing administers Tibet as a part of China. Partly for that reason, Tibet's government in exile dropped its demand for independence, calling instead for real autonomy, the preservation of Tibetan culture and a respect for human rights.
Thubten Samphel, the spokesman for the Tibetan government in exile says it is a matter of facing reality so as to improve conditions on Tibet.
"There is no one nation or country in the world, which recognizes the central Tibetan administration as a government in exile, or recognizes that Tibet is independent. So with such large forces against us, it doesn't make sense, practical sense," he explained.
Tibet's exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, has outlined the new approach to resolve the Tibet issue with Beijing, which he calls the Middle Way.
"The Middle Way approach allocates the control of Tibet's foreign policy and military matters to China. And the rest of the other issues must be decided by Tibetans themselves," explains Mr. Samphel. He adds that it is in China's interests as well to act quickly.
"Just as time is valuable to us, it's also of great importance to the present Chinese leadership," said Thubten Samphel. "I think the best opportunity for China to resolve the issue of Tibet, which will take care of their genuine concerns, is during the lifetime of the present Dalai Lama."
There is probably no more recognizable face of Tibet than that of the Dalai Lama. Now 69 years old, the Dalai Lama took on the dual roles of head of state and government at the time of the Chinese invasion. In 1989, he won the Nobel Peace prize for his decades of peaceful resistance to Chinese rule. Analysts say a failure to resolve the Tibet issue during the Dalai Lama's lifetime may put the Tibet issue back immeasurably.
It was fifty years ago, in November 1954, when he was just 19 years old, that the Dalai Lama went to Beijing for talks on how to provide Tibet with political autonomy within China while preserving its rich Buddhist culture. Although China conferred autonomous status on Tibet after those meetings, the Dalai Lama says it was a "sham," and China continued its political repression and its campaign assimilate Tibetan culture into its own.
In 1959, the Dalai Lama fled Tibet for the India, where Tibet's exiled government based ever since.
Despite the overwhelming respect for the Dalai Lama, his decision to drop Tibet's demand for complete independence from China has disappointed many Tibetan exiles. Among them are the leaders of Gu Chu Sum, the organization helping Ms. Lhak Don and hundreds of other former political prisoners.
Ngawang Woebar, the president of Gu Chu Sum, says many political prisoners went to jail fighting for Tibet's independence, so Gu Chu Sum should continue on their behalf.
The Tibetan envoys who visited Beijing say it is too early to tell whether those meetings will lead to the substantive negotiations they want on the Tibet's future, but they are determined to see the process through. The government in exile says it wants to compromise on Tibet's future political status, but not on the rights and memories of the Tibetan people.