Nearly 600 exiled Tibetan leaders concluded a week-long meeting Friday to decide whether they should change their stance on seeking autonomy within China. The historic conference was called by a frustrated Dalai Lama who says his Middle Way stance in talks with Beijing has failed. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman reports from Dharamsala, India.

In an auditorium at a Tibetan school nestled among pine trees in an Indian village, prominent exiles of the Tibetan community are debating their future.

The unprecedented six-day conference was called by the Dalai Lama. The Tibetan spiritual leader asked members of the self-proclaimed government in exile and other community leaders to speak frankly about whether Tibetans should take a different path than his Middle Way approach towards China. The Buddhist figure has said his strategy of repeatedly negotiating with Beijing to ask for meaningful autonomy, rather than independence, has failed.

The conference is drafting a declaration based on input from elders, as well as younger voices.  Many youth have expressed impatience with the cautious approach towards the Chinese, who invaded Tibet in 1950.

A member of the Parliament-in-exile, Youdon Aukatsang, during a break in the discussions, sought to play down media expectations that the meeting is going to mean a sudden and dramatic shift in policy.

"Its a very, very significant meeting, although it is only a deliberative meeting. Its not like they're going to decide on the future of Tibet. The policy change, if it ever happens, its going to be at the level of the Parliament. If there's a lot of pressure from here it'll definitely have an impact on the policies that the [exile] government is going to take," she said.

China has made it clear that it considers whatever results here irrelevant. Talks last month between Tibetan and Chinese government representatives produced no progress. Chinese officials and newspaper editorials in China equate the autonomy request with pursuit of independence. China contends Tibet is an integral part of the country.

The Tibetans here, where the government-in-exile is headquartered, said they are in daily contact with their compatriots back home to make sure their voices are part of the discussions at the historic meeting in India.

A recent survey, clandestinely conducted inside Tibet, found nearly half of the 18,000 Tibetans who responded would follow whatever path the Dalai Lama advocates. Another 5,000 expressed a desire to pursue independence.

A 32-year-old Tibetan barley farmer, who has made an illegal pilgrimage from Tibet to Dharamsala, expresses the torn feelings of many.

The farmer, who did not want his name used as he plans to return home, said he supported the Middle Way because it was advocated by the Dalai Lama. But his personal preference is for independence because it would free Tibetans of Chinese control.

Some younger Tibetans in exile expressed caution about making a hasty decision.

Tsering Kyi, a 25-year-old writer was Miss Tibet 2003. She said many Tibetans are still confused and would have liked more time to discuss the issue between the Dalai Lama's pronouncements about it and the special conference.

But the young woman, who trekked out of Tibet as a 16-year-old without her parents, also said regardless of whether autonomy or independence is pursued violence cannot be used to oppose Chinese rule.