The Dalai Lama is facing a critical challenge – to quell the worst surge of violence in Tibet in 20 years as China accuses him of inciting protests that have sparked an aggressive military crackdown.

As an embodiment of non-violence, the Tibetan spiritual leader this week denounced those behind recent violent riots in Tibet that have left at least 13 dead.

However, he has found himself facing pressure both from Beijing, which says he and his “clique” instigated the violence, and from Tibetan activists, who claim Chinese provocateurs caused the riots.

The result has been what he described as a familiar “terrible feeling”, first felt after the 1959 Tibetan uprising during which he fled to exile in India. “On one side [in 1959], the Chinese were determined to crush. On one side Tibetans were determined to resist,” he told a press conference in Dharamsala, the Indian town that hosts the Tibetan government-in-exile.

“I was between them. Neither side willingly listened ... I felt too much anxiety and helplessness. This time it is the same.”

In an attempt to defuse tensions, the Dalai Lama this week called for calm and threatened to resign as Tibet’s political leader if the violence continued, even as he called on the international community to press China to exert restraint towards Tibetan demonstrators.

But he is facing diverging views among Tibetans on how to approach China.

Opinion is split over the Beijing Olympics, a pro-Tibet march across India and the perennial issue of whether Tibet should pursue autonomy, as the Dalai Lama has long argued, or independence.

“Some youth are getting impatient,” said Urgen Tenzin, executive director of the Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy.

Several pro-Tibet advocacy groups are pressing for a boycott of August’s Olympic Games despite the Dalai Lama’s insistence that they should continue.

“The Olympics are not taking place in Lhasa [Tibet’s capital]. The Olympics will take place in Peking,” the Dalai Lama said. “It is illogical to blame 1bn Chinese. We must respect their wish.”

However, China’s alleged human rights violations contradicted the Olympics’ message of peace and unity, said Sonam Dorjee, an executive member of Tibetan Youth Congress, which has advocated independence since the 1970s. “China does not deserve to host the Olympics,” he said.

Pro-Tibet demonstrators have also continued a march across India to the Tibet border, although they were stopped by Indian police last week. The Dalai Lama has not explicitly asked demonstrators to stop but has suggested the march is futile.

Mr Dorjee said the march would carry on. “Now is the time for every Tibetan to make a difference in the freedom struggle.”

Opinion is most sharply divided on whether to push for Tibetan autonomy or independence from China.

The Dalai Lama reiterated his desire for autonomy this week, arguing that it would be “very difficult to get [international] support” for “complete independence”.

Some Tibetan advocacy groups are growing restless with the spiritual leader’s “middle way approach”, however, and four of the five Tibetan groups organising the march across India demand independence from China.

Yet in spite of the differences, Tibetans still support and revere the Dalai Lama.

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