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'Free Tibet' push fades as India-China ties warm

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For a brief moment Saturday, demonstrators waved the flag of Tibet outside the Chinese Embassy in India's capital. There were only 40 protesters, and it was all over within 20 minutes - a sign of just how feeble the Free Tibet movement has become.

As Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao tours India on a four-day state visit, the once estranged Asian giants are talking up stronger economic ties and resolutions to old border disputes, including Tibet.

Although New Delhi has all along refused to extend political support to the Tibetan freedom movement, India has indirectly helped keep the cause alive by hosting the Dalai Lama, his exiled government, and some 100,000 Tibetan refugees.

But India's willingness to advocate for Tibet is waning as China booms and becomes a crucial trade partner. Other nations, including the United States, have made similar calculations. At the same time, the once-outspoken Dalai Lama has grown quiet in recent years, reducing the Free Tibet campaign to little more than the fading stickers still found in youth hostels and on VW vans the world over.

"The last few years haven't been the strongest for the movement," says Dibyesh Anand, a Tibet expert at Bath University in England. "Western politicians, who in the 1990s were supporting the Tibetan cause in the name of combating China, are focused increasingly on economic opportunities in China as well as security issues [in the wake of 9/11]."

On a visit yesterday to India's technology capital of Bangalore, Premier Wen urged Indian software companies to come to China and take advantage of his nation's manufacturing capabilities. "Cooperation is just like two pagodas, one hardware and one software," Wen said. "Combined, we [India and China] can take the leadership position in the world."

But economic carrots are not the only reason India has not pushed the Tibet issue. Delhi has its own separatist movements to consider in Kashmir, Sikkim, and Arunachal Pradesh. Supporting the Free Tibet movement against the wishes of China, says Mr. Anand, "would open up a Pandora's box within India itself."

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