Now they're scrambling to react, with their revered spiritual figurehead, the Dalai Lama, saying he will resign as leader of Tibet's government-in-exile if violence committed by Tibetans in his homeland spirals out of control.
It's a warning he has used before. During unrest in 1989, for instance, he told Tibetans to return to peaceful protests. But there are deep divisions in the Tibetan community over the Dalai Lama's pacifist approach and an angry young generation's calls to action.
While the situation inside Tibet remained unclear, much of last week's violence appeared to have been committed by Tibetans — a fact that clearly troubled the 72-year-old leader, who has long called for Tibetans to have significant autonomy within China
"Whether we like it or not, we have to live together side by side," the Dalai Lama told reporters in the northern Indian hill town of Dharmsala, the seat of the Tibetan government-in-exile. "We must oppose Chinese policy but not the Chinese. Not on a racist basis."
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Though clearly fearful of the Chinese crackdown that has followed the protests — he compared the plight of Tibetans to that of "a young deer in a tiger's hands" — the Dalai Lama insisted he could not abide any violence by his own people.
"If things become out of control," he said, his "only option is to completely resign."
An aide later clarified that the Dalai Lama meant he would step down as the political leader — not as the supreme religious leader of all Tibetan Buddhists.
Still, his urging Tibetans to work with the Chinese stood in stark contrast to the "Free Tibet" chants of thousands of Tibetan youths, Buddhist monks and nuns who have marched up the steep paths of Dharmsala in recent days, their angry faces painted with Tibetan flags and bare chests smeared with blood-red paint.
They want action, not diplomacy. They want independence, not autonomy.
"I appeal to the protesters in Tibet to continue in their protests until China gets out of Tibet," said Tsewang Rigzin, head of the Tibetan Youth Congress.
While hesitant to directly criticize the Dalai Lama — who is deeply revered among Tibetans — and careful not to endorse violence, the younger activists warned that patience with his approach is running thin.
They believe the Dalai Lama is squandering a golden opportunity by not opposing China hosting the Olympics.
"We have to seize the opportunity of the Olympics," said Rigzin. "We have to shift the spotlight while the whole world is watching to show the true color of China."
To grab the world's attention, the Youth Congress and other groups decided to organize a march from Dharmsala to Tibet and started it on March 10 — just before Beijing was to launch its Olympic celebrations with a torch run through Tibet, and the anniversary of the 1959 failed uprising against China that forced the Dalai Lama to flee to exile in India.
When Indian authorities stopped the first march days after it began, the exiles started a second.
It is a far more confrontational attempt than the Dalai Lama would prefer. He called on them Tuesday to abandon the march, saying it would only spark confrontation with Chinese troops at the border.
He asked: "Will you get independence? What's the use?"
More disheartening for the Dalai Lama and his inner circle has been the violence in the unrest in Tibet and Chinese provinces with large Tibetan populations.
As the first march got under way in India last week, monks began holding peaceful protests in Lhasa, Tibet's capital. But the protests soon spread and turned violent, with Tibetans attacking China's majority ethnic Han Chinese. Beijing has encouraged the Han to settle in Tibet, where they are deeply resented.
China says 16 people were killed in Tibet before the situation was brought under control Saturday. Tibetan exiles say more than 80 people died.
While Beijing claims the Dalai Lama orchestrated the violence, he and other Tibetan groups insist the protests in Tibet were the spontaneous result of mounting resentment against Chinese rule — not of any action by the exiles.
"I'm sure they heard about our march. The news had been sent out. But I don't want to take credit, no credit at all," said Rigzin of the Youth Congress.
The turmoil in Tibet has also laid bare Tibetans' inability to capitalize on the intense exposure to their cause or to extract concessions from China.
"We are helpless," said Samdhong Rinpoche, the prime minister of the Tibetan government-in-exile.
There has been little coordination. The protests that have sprung up in cities worldwide have been spontaneous, organized by local Tibetan groups and sympathizers, said B. Tsering, head of the Tibetan Women's Association, which is taking part in the march to Tibet.
The Dalai Lama says that he understands young people's frustrations and that disagreements are proof that the democratic values he has pushed for among Tibetans have taken root.
But he insists his path is the only one that can save Tibet from "cultural genocide" in the face of massive Chinese migration and religious restrictions.
"Our only strengths are justice and truth," he said. "Force is immediate, But the effects of truth sometimes take longer."