Tibetan exiles learn to seek new paths

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 30 October, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 30 October, 2011, 12:00am

During the monsoon in Dharamsala, everything seems to come to a halt.

Sometimes the electricity fails. Other times, rain tests the simple, tin-roofed houses. The roads become potholed every year, and get repaired every year, but never for good.

While negotiations between the Dalai Lama and the Chinese government continue, on and off, Tibetans exiled in Dharamsala, whether they are politically inclined or not, have to make the best of an uncertain situation that has been dragging on much longer than expected.

In late September, with the three-month summer monsoon about to end, members of the Tibetan diaspora in the hill town at the foot of the Himalayas in northern India shared their thoughts on the current reality and future possibilities.

It was a peculiar time. That week, two young Tibetan monks had set themselves on fire in China, the third and fourth to do so this year, casting a pall over the exile community. (No one foresaw that there would be six more such cases, one a nun, in the following few weeks.)

There was a sense of frustration and an air of uncertainty, but also a palpable sense of hope for a peaceful outcome to talks with Beijing at a time of generational change, both in the exile communities and in China.

The Dalai Lama passed his political authority in August to a newly elected prime minister who is neither monk nor aristocrat, but a Harvard law scholar with a modern outlook, who pledges to uphold the Dalai Lama's 'middle way' policy, which seeks meaningful autonomy for Tibet under Chinese rule. While it is uncertain whether the Dalai Lama's political retirement will help restart the talks with Beijing, many in exile think the move from theocracy to democracy will be good for Tibetan society in the long term.

Exiles appear more hopeful about changes in China. One question asked many times was: 'What do you think of the next Chinese leader, Vice-President Xi Jinping . Do you think he'll be more liberal?' And nearly all showed immense interest in what is happening among ordinary people in China, especially the growing movement for a civil society which some exiles hope will rally support for a more sensitive policy towards Tibet.

It appears that exiles, whether they support the 'middle way' or advocate independence, increasingly believe that the solution to the Tibet problem lies in reaching out to ordinary Han Chinese and changing their hearts and minds, rather than relying on a change of heart by one visionary Chinese leader, or banking on international support.

This stance is reflected in the resume of the government-in-exile's new prime minister, Lobsang Sangay. He first met the Dalai Lama 20 years ago when he was at university and still an advocate of Tibetan independence. They met many more times during his 16 years at Harvard, a period during which he adopted the 'middle way'.

'[The Dalai Lama] especially liked my efforts to reach out to Chinese students and scholars,' Sangay told the Sunday Morning Post. 'The efforts I made were almost unprecedented and unique. Not many Tibetans did this in the early 1990s.' He said this showed he had a track record of dedication to communicating with Han Chinese counterparts, many of them Communist Party officials.

The new political chief reiterated his readiness for dialogue for with Beijing, and rejected suggestions that he is a hardliner - though in his inauguration speech in August he called Tibet a 'colony' .

'Just because you are an advocate of the 'middle way' doesn't mean you have to sugar-coat everything that's happening in Tibet,' Sangay said. 'Look, two people just committed suicide yesterday. How can I say they are happy? I believe in frank, forthright discussions ... that's how we resolve the issue.'

In the same forthright manner, Sangay says he still discusses his policies with the Dalai Lama.

'Only a fool would not consult His Holiness, who has 60 years of experience leading the Tibetan people,' he said. But he says he is 'very careful' with this privilege.

'[The Dalai Lama's] expectations are that Tibetan people will lead their own freedom movement and stand on their own feet ... which is more sustainable in the long run,' Sangay said. 'So if I keep going to him every week that will be against his very vision.'

Although Sangay said he had not been in touch with his Han friends since he took office, for fear of causing them trouble, his dedication to reaching out is reflected in his choice for minister of information and international relations, Dicki Choeyang, a Tibetan woman who grew up in exile but speaks fluent Mandarin.

Brought up in Canada, Choeyang chose to study language in Beijing for a year while a student and later spent four years working for an NGO in Qinghai . She sees her main task in office as 'helping Chinese people understand what the Tibetan issue is about' and that the exiles 'are not a bunch of separatists'.

Another focus of Sangay's government is strengthening education for exiles. He pledges to have 10,000 professionals groomed within 20 years and hopes to set up a loan programme for graduate students.

'If you have 10,000 Tibetan professionals, that would help strengthen and sustain the Tibetan freedom movement, independent of outside help,' the prime minister said, citing as examples the Jewish and Armenian diasporas.

Education has in fact become the main reason for Tibetans going into exile in recent decades, according to Ngawang Norbu, director of the Office of the Reception Centre, which has handled new arrivals of Tibetans in India since the the early 1990s. Over the years, 90 per cent of new arrivals have been under 30 and have come to India for education; only a handful each year were so-called former political prisoners, he said.

From the 1990s to 2008 there were 2,500 to 3,000 new arrivals per year, the director said. However, the situation has changed since March 2008, when riots erupted in Lhasa and other Tibetan regions, resulting in a heavy security clampdown. In 2008, there were only 650 arrivals; so far this year there have been some 400. And the proportion of those claiming to be escaping political persecution has shot up.

The director's conviction that the 'middle way' is right is unwavering. 'Next year there's a change of leadership in China; there's always hope,' he said.

The wait for Tibetan freedom has been a long one for the exiles. The first generation came with the Dalai Lama in 1959, and at least two generations have never seen the land they call home, and grew up speaking as much Hindi as Tibetan.

The community in exile today is a mixed batch: some were born and bred in Dharamsala, others in China. Some want to go back to China, while others believe their future lies in the West. Some are politically minded, others just want to live a better life while pondering what it means to be a Tibetan today. Binding them together is their Tibetan identity, and the treacherous month-long journey they or their parents made through the icy Himalayas.

Dharamsala itself is just as mixed: as well as its Indian and Tibetan residents, it houses foreign volunteers, Buddhist devotees and tourists.

While Tibetans in exile are welcome to live there and in several other settlements, mainly in southern India, they are not allowed to own land or buy property. They are granted refugee status, which has to be renewed each year; the lucky ones who get to travel abroad need multiple approvals. There are few jobs in Dharamsala for those who don't want to work for the government in exile or for the Tibetan cause.

The younger generation in particular feel they don't belong anywhere. 'Since we are under an exiled government, it's difficult to have a proper life,' said 20-year-old university student Tamdin. 'We are always depending on sponsors. We never know when [the exiled government] will shut down.' Having learned German, he is waiting in Dharamsala for a permit to travel to Germany.

Tamdin's father was a village chief in Qinghai province and sent him to India 10 years ago for education. Tamdin majored in geography, but has other interests: he wants to learn web design and Chinese.

Though he wears a T-shirt printed with the logo of Students for a Free Tibet - one of the two biggest Tibetan student organisations in India - Tamdin is not sure where he stands politically and participated in SFT events for a sense of bonding.

'I have two ideologies: one is that Tibetans should have their own Tibet, not under Chinese rule; and my other is that Tibetans should not suffer from poverty,' he said. 'I'm of the younger generation. Let's leave the past [behind], and talk about the present and the future, the reality. The present generation should have interaction. If we share with each other, we'll smile at each other.'

Some young people are trying to build a life with less of a chip on their shoulders, though it is not easy in such an environment.

Former monk Kuncheok, 27, came to India in 2002 because he wanted to learn about Buddhism. When he met some artists in Dharamsala a few years later, he realised that, while learning about Buddhism would be his life-long endeavour, what he really wanted to do was to become a painter, something he had always been good at when a child.

He started learning sketching and oil painting from teachers including an Irish painter who lived in Dharamsala for a short while. He wants to paint modern art, rather than the traditional religious thangka, which he thinks too formulaic. He works at a coffee shop to support himself, but earns only 2,500 rupees a month; the rent on a two-person dwelling is 2,000 rupees a month and a box of oil paints costs 300 rupees.

'I don't like how they always scold the Dalai Lama ... but I want to go back to Qinghai. I think I'll wait two years, until I finish learning English,' Kunchoek said. 'I want to see my parents, who are getting very old. And I want to continue to learn painting.'

Thupten, 22, aspires to be a documentary filmmaker. He was one of a couple of hundred who attended a candle-light vigil on September 26 for the two young monks who set themselves on fire that week in Aba county, Sichuan . His parents sent him to India to study in 1999. 'I came to show solidarity,' he said, though he says he is not into politics.

'I care about preservation of our identity,' Thupten said. 'Sometimes politicians forget what's important. As long as we can preserve our identity, I can accept whether we live in independence or as part of China.'


The proportion of young Tibetans who say education is the reason for their exile

- Since riots in 2008, more cite persecution