BEIJING – Representatives of the Dalai Lama headed to Beijing on Monday for the first formal talks with Chinese officials in a year, the Tibetan government-in-exile said, a move that comes less than four months after anti-government riots swept through Tibet.
Envoys Lodi Gyari and Kelsang Gyaltsen will hold two days of talks beginning Tuesday in China's capital, said Samdhong Rinpoche, the prime minister of the self-declared government in exile.
"This will be the continuation of the formal dialogue which started in 2002," Rinpoche said in Dharmsala, the north Indian city which is home to the Tibetan Buddhist spiritual leader and the government-in-exile.
The meetings follow closed-door, informal talks May 4 in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen. The talks ended with an offer from Beijing for future discussions, but yielded scant other concrete results.
The Dalai Lama's envoys have attended several rounds of talks with China since 2002. Specific details of those discussions have not been released, but they are believed to have focused on the Dalai Lama's demands for more autonomy.
China has been blamed for using excessive force in quelling anti-government riots and protests in Tibet that began in March. Some experts believe Beijing is agreeing to a fresh round of discussions to ease international pressure and criticism ahead of the Olympic Games that begin Aug. 8 in China.
"Many Tibetans put a great weight on news of these talks and there's some evidence that people inside Tibet will be generally reluctant to stage protests when there is still hope in this process," said Robbie Barnett, an expert in modern Tibet at Columbia University.
The Dalai Lama's office issued a news release welcoming the talks.
"His holiness the Dalai Lama has instructed the envoys to make every effort to bring about tangible progress to alleviate the difficult situation for Tibetans in their homeland," the statement said.
Pressure has been growing on both sides to improve relations in the wake of the riots and protests that hit the Tibetan capital of Lhasa and other areas of China with Tibetan populations.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who ended two days of talks in China on Monday, urged China to sincerely engage the Dalai Lama.
Rice said she was encouraged by the new round of talks seeking a long-term resolution of problems in the Himalayan territory, which has been ruled by Beijing with an iron fist since communist troops invaded more than half a century ago.
"We think he's a very positive figure in dealing with the very difficult issue of Tibet," Rice said.
The Dalai Lama hoped the talks "will contribute in resolving the long simmering issue through dialogue in the interest of stability, unity and harmony of all nationalities in the People's Republic of China," the statement said.
China has ruled Tibet since its troops entered the region in the 1950s and claims the Himalayan region has been its territory for centuries. Many Tibetans, however, say their homeland was essentially independent for much of that time.
The Dalai Lama, who fled to India amid a failed uprising in 1959, has said he wants some form of autonomy that would allow Tibetans to freely practice their culture, language and religion, but the Chinese government labels him a "splittist" intent on seizing independence.