DHARAMSHALA, India, Sept 25: Tibetan exiles began their biggest gathering in four years on Tuesday, eyeing a change of leadership in China and seeking ways to end a gruesome wave of self-immolation protests.
About 400 Tibetans from around the world came together in the home of the exile community in mountainous northern India for the four-day meeting, called to highlight the plight of Tibetans under Chinese rule.
The general meeting is the first since the Dalai Lama, the revered spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism, decided to retire from political duties, passing responsibilities in theory to new prime minister Lobsang Sangay.
The speaker of Tibet´s parliament-in-exile in the Indian town of Dharamshala kicked off proceedings by denouncing Chinese repression, which he held as the cause of the deaths of 51 Tibetans in a recent spate of self-immolations.
"A state of undeclared martial law continues to remain in force in Tibet," Penpa Tsering said in an opening address at the conclave.
"(China) has converted Tibet into a territory resembling a prison camp."
He added: "The question (is) how and in what ways we, the Tibetan people living in exile, should respond to the tragic situation in Tibet today."
Sangay, the prime minister elected last year, arrived at the meeting, held in a school hall, escorted by monks robed in saffron and orange who blew horns as a large portrait of the Dalai Lama was carried into the venue.
The Dalai Lama, who is still seen as the ultimate power in the exile movement, is not attending the meeting in line with his "retirement" from politics, but he will hold a prayer session when it ends on Friday.
Many Tibetans have been deeply shocked by the self-immolations, which contradict Buddhist teachings that all life is sacred, and are frustrated that years of efforts to negotiate with China have seen no progress made.
Five decades after the Dalai Lama fled Tibet for India following a failed uprising in 1959, the options available to the exiles appear limited.
"The urgency is very high due to the situation getting worse and worse," Dorjee Tseten, a Students for a Free Tibet leader who is attending the meeting, told AFP.
"We want to find good new tactics, but I do not expect any major political change of course."
Beijing insists that Tibet is an integral part of China and that the Dalai Lama is determined to split the Himalayan region from the rest of the country -- though he says he only seeks greater autonomy.
The change of leadership in China later this year is also a key issue to be discussed by the delegates, with some observers suggesting president-in-waiting Xi Jinping may be more flexible on Tibet.
"China could offer to re-start talks, as there have been some statements from Beijing suggesting this," Robert Barnett, a professor of Tibetan studies at Columbia University, told AFP.
"But the Tibetan leaders are under pressure to withdraw from future talks because there is no confidence in anything coming from the Chinese side.
"This problem has been exacerbated by the self-immolations, which have made the community very emotional and anxious that nothing is being done."
Sangay told AFP that after four days of talks "we will come up with some activities that need to be done among Tibetan people".
He added: "We must formulate ways to ensure that the cries and suffering in Tibet do not go in vain."
Many delegates have flown to India for the meeting from around the world.
"I am here because we are obliged to try to do anything we can, due to the gravity of the situation in Tibet," said Norbu Dhargay, a 62-year-old former member of the exile parliament from Boston in the United States.
"We will stay non-violent, but need to be more assertive. We must use our strong network and contacts around the world to exert pressure (on China) and mobilise support."