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Envoys of Dalai Lama Meet Officials in Tibet Autonomous Region - 2002-09-17

Representatives of the Dalai Lama have held talks with top political leaders in Tibet, marking a small but highly significant step toward reconciling the decades-long dispute over who should rule the fabled Himalayan land.

The head of the Tibet Autonomous Region government, Lek Chok, says he met with Lodi Gyari and another exiled Tibetan representing the Dalai Lama on Sunday here in Lhasa. According to Lek Chok they spoke for over an hour, and he says the Tibetans, who have not seen their home country for decades, were impressed by the economic developments here.

Tibetan exile groups have complained that a flood of Chinese immigrants and economic development threaten to drown Tibet's unique culture and language.

Lodi Gyari is a top-ranking aide who, according to Tibet experts, has considerable influence over the Dalai Lama's policy towards China. The Tibetan government in exile describes the visitors as "envoys" on an official visit.

The Chinese government says they are on a private visit, meeting family members and paying homage at the monasteries that represent the soul of Tibet's particular version of Buddhism.

Still, although other prominent Tibetans have visited the country in an unofficial capacity over the years, the Dalai Lama's office has said this is the first formal exchange between the two sides since 1993. The Dalai Lama was Tibet's ruler until 1959, when he fled into exile in India after a failed uprising against Chinese rule. He has since headed the Tibetan government in exile, but has never returned to his homeland.

Lek Chok told visiting journalists that before the dispute could end, the Dalai Lama must renounce what Beijing says is a campaign to split Tibet from the rest of China, and acknowledge China's sovereignty. The Dalai Lama has said he is only seeking autonomy for his homeland, not independence. He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989 for his non-violent struggle against Chinese rule.

These meetings come as part of a Chinese campaign to improve the country's international image on the Tibet issue. China's government has recently issued unusual invitations to journalists and diplomats to visit Tibet, and six Tibetan prisoners have been released by Beijing over the past few months.