New Internationalist

Tibet: 50 years from home

Issue 420

On the 50th anniversary of the Dalai Lama’s flight from Chinese-occupied Tibet, Nick Harvey meets Tibetans in India and Nepal to hear about their life in exile and their aspirations for the future.

Photo: Atul Loke / PANOS
Photo: Atul Loke / PANOS

It was one of the most important moments of his life and the Dalai Lama couldn’t see a thing. His thick glasses would be a real giveaway. He was given casual civilian clothes to replace his usual maroon robes. And then, on 17 March 1959, the leader of the Tibetan people was spirited away from Lhasa. Two weeks later he crossed into India. Over 80,000 of his compatriots followed. They travelled by night and slept in the snowy mountain passes during the day. Hundreds fell down from hunger and exhaustion. Those who survived found themselves in an unfamiliar terrain, surrounded by strange people with outlandish customs and practices.

‘I was very hungry but I remember spitting out my first mouthful of food,’ says Jampa Tenzin, 59, now settled in Darjeeling. ‘What was this stuff? In Tibet we only ate tsampa, cheese, yak’s meat, things like this. Then there were the clothes, crazy colours and styles, and the temples, the prayers, the noise. We had entered an unreal world and our senses were in shock.’

Exactly 50 years after this initial exodus, over 135,000 Tibetans are still scattered across these alien landscapes, unable to return to their occupied homeland.

‘If it hasn’t happened to you, you can never completely understand,’ says 58-year-old Kunchok Tenzin. ‘Once you have lost your homeland you develop a completely different mindset, a strange mentality of loss and longing. It really is a mental condition and we all have it. Under this surface we are all distressed.’

Around 2,500 make the crossing each year, over the Himalayas, into Nepal. Most stay briefly at a UN reception centre before moving on to India. Of the Tibetans living away from their homeland, it is estimated around 100,000 live in India, 20,000 in Nepal, 10,000 in the US and Canada, 2,000 in Switzerland, 2,000 in Bhutan, with 3,000 more scattered around the rest of the planet.1

Exiled Tibetans can be divided into two broad groups. Most live within settlements, where the adults work within agricultural or farming co-operatives and the children go to special Tibetan schools that place emphasis on Tibetan language, history and culture. Yet many live outside these settlements, jostling for survival amongst the population of their host country. There are remarkably few tensions between Tibetans and those from their local neighbourhoods. But Tibetan welfare officers worry that these ‘scattered communities’, as they are known, are at risk of losing their identity.

‘My children only speak Tibetan when they have to,’ says Gu-Lang from Darjeeling. ‘They play mostly with Indian children and they speak this strange hybrid of Hindi, Nepali and English. We are worried – what will they pass on to their grandchildren?’

Though there are worries about the influence of Western and Indian culture on young Tibetans, there are no such concerns about the younger generation’s commitment to a free Tibet.

‘Our blood is hotter than that of our parents,’ says Pema Tenzin, 22, from Pokhara, Nepal. ‘We have more frustration inside, more anger. We don’t agree with His Holiness and this completely passive approach. We have strong feelings and we insist on being heard.’

The Dalai Lama’s ‘Middle Way’ approach, which argues not for independence but only for autonomy for Tibet’s internal affairs, is a contentious issue amongst some Tibetans, particularly the younger generation. During talks between leading Tibetan exiles in November, many called for Tibetans in exile to take a more aggressive, pro-independence stance. But for years, organizations such as the Tibetan Youth Congress and Students for Free Tibet have openly opposed the Dalai Lama’s policy.

‘Our blood is hotter than that of our parents’

‘We don’t listen to the Tibetan administration and they don’t listen to us,’ says Chungdak La, President of the Tibetan Youth Congress in Kalimpong, West Bengal. Then she is quick to point out: ‘But His Holiness is still our leader and we love him. It is because of his focus on democracy that such disagreements are possible.’

Very early in his reign the Dalai Lama talked of bringing democracy to Tibet. And, true to his word, since the 1960s he has introduced a wide range of political reforms into the Tibetan political system. He is perhaps the only head of state in history voluntarily to reduce his own political powers, step by step, with no pressure from below. As the Dalai Lama wrote himself: ‘If Tibet is to survive… it should reflect the collective potential of all citizens and not rely on one individual.’2

But some believe the Tibetan political system is still too dependent on the Dalai Lama. They argue the new democracy has created a power base that is little more than a cluster of obedient pen-pushers: ‘[Since democracy] leaders have metamorphosed into mere bureaucrats,’ says Tenzin Norbu, former president of the Tibetan Youth Congress (1991-2001). ‘In a hard-earned democracy people value it. Here we fail, maybe because we have not paid the price.’3

Photo: NICK HARVEY
Exiled activist Jampa Tenzin points to his former home in Lhasa. Photo: NICK HARVEY

Yet, despite these differences, the Dalai Lama undoubtedly has the strong backing of his people. Which is perhaps why, from its base in the hills of Dharamsala – ‘Little Lhasa’, 500 kilometres northwest of Delhi – the Tibetan Government has been able to build up what is widely regarded as the most successful exile community in history. Not only have they survived a distressing separation from their homeland and had to start whole new lives from scratch, they have achieved considerable economic success along the way. Through farming, textile and handicraft operations most Tibetans in South Asia enjoy a standard of living that is above average for their host countries. This shrewd transition into exile, with few of the social problems that have affected other refugee groups, has been described by sociologists as ‘one of the miracles of the 20th century.’4

Many directly link this success to the increasing gender equality in Tibetan society. ‘It is the freedom and strength of our women that allow us to do better than some other groups,’ says Tsering Deckyi, International Relations Officer for the Tibetan Women’s Association in Dharamsala. ‘Before, Tibetan society was quite patriarchal but this really changed in exile – everybody had to do their equal share on an equal footing. As they say, you need two hands to clap.’

A testament to this progress is the fact that women, from zero before 1950, now occupy almost a quarter of the seats in the Tibetan Parliament-in-Exile.

The driving force behind this equality is the educational revolution that has taken place over the last 50 years. In just two generations, coming from a largely illiterate society, Tibetans in exile have pushed up their literacy rate to 75 per cent – with a 99-per-cent rate for 15-25 year olds.

The driving force behind women’s progress is the educational revolution that has taken place over the last 50 years

‘We are moving with the times,’ says Tenzin Wangmo, 26, from a settlement in Darjeeling. ‘Not only can all the young ones speak Tibetan, Hindi, Nepali and English, we now have computer lessons and internet access. We want to know as much as we can.’

These bright achievements are, however, only one side of the story. While Tibetans exiled in India enjoy a relatively high quality of life in a country that lets them live and protest freely, the same cannot be said of Tibetans who choose to live in Nepal.

‘We have no problems at all with the Nepali people in the community,’ says Tenzin Nandhuk, a lecturer from Pokhara. ‘But the Government is trying to knock the life out of us with its pro-China position.’

In recent years Tibetans in Nepal have seen their welfare offices shut down, local leaders arrested in dawn raids and violent responses by police to demonstrations. Police regularly arrest over 500 Tibetan protesters a day outside the Chinese Embassy in Kathmandu.

‘My friend had both his ankles broken outside that embassy,’ says Kunchok Tenzin. ‘He was the only breadwinner for his family.’

But the biggest problem for Tibetans in Nepal is not the police. It is the struggle for official existence. Registration Certificates (RCs), issued by the Government, give a refugee a documented refugee status. Without an RC a refugee’s rights are minimal. This leaves them with no chance to access higher education courses or any kind of quality employment. They become easy quarry for harassment from the police and local officials. Recently, this harassment has taken on a more serious dimension. Since September 2008 any Tibetans in Nepal found to be without valid papers are ‘helped to proceed to a third country.’5

‘I don’t have an RC and I’m scared,’ says Pema Tenzin, 22, from Pokhara. ‘Me and my friends are all in our twenties and none of us have one. They would torture us if we were sent back. China wants us to feel this fear.’

Although the situation in India is much better in terms of RCs, even here many can’t get one. Those that do must renew it every year so they can never truly feel settled. And an RC is a long way from full citizenship. Good jobs and education are still elusive even for those with the right papers. Most Tibetans have to be content with managing small shops, restaurants and handicraft stalls within the settlements themselves.

‘I am a proud person,’ says Lhakpa Sicho, 65, owner of a Tibetan antique shop in Pokhara. ‘We get few visitors and I am fed up with practically having to beg tourists to buy things. I am too old for all this.’

Photo: Nick Harvey
Monks demonstrating in Dharamsala, northern India, at the time of the Olympic Games in Beijing. Photo: Nick Harvey

Lhakpa’s boredom is compounded by memories of more adventurous times. He was once part of the CIA-trained guerrilla forces that carried out attacks against the Chinese from the Nepalese border in the 1960s.

‘The Americans gave us some basic training and some very old guns that couldn’t be traced back to them,’ he remembers. ‘We couldn’t do any serious damage but we caused some headaches for the soldiers at the border!’

The Tibetan resistance, or ‘Lodricks’ as they are known, put down their weapons in 1974 following pleas from the Dalai Lama. Tserin Siten is the co-ordinator of the Lodrick Welfare Society: ‘Many of these Lodricks feel a sense of despair. The guerrilla movement did not succeed, the 1989 uprising [in Lhasa] did not succeed – they have resigned themselves to their lives here.’

This despair is not restricted to ageing freedom fighters. A recent study carried out by a team of US researchers found that depression rates amongst Tibetans living in exile were much higher than average. But the study concluded that Tibetans in exile, though suffering from ‘significant emotional distress’, were much less depressed than those Tibetans still inside Tibet.6 This disparity is something of which all Tibetans in exile are very aware.

‘We complain sometimes but we never forget our problems are tiny compared to those still inside Tibet,’ says Choeying Tenzin, President of the Students for Free Tibet. ‘They are the ones losing their culture and their human rights. In exile we have become strong enough at least to do something and we are fighting for them most of all.’

Contact between those living inside and outside Tibet remains difficult. Many inside Tibet do not have a telephone and phone lines can be shut down by the Chinese at any time. Real communication is also constrained by what many see as the widening cultural gap between Tibetans born in exile and those living in Tibet.

‘Those still in Tibet have many Chinese influences, they listen to Chinese music, they watch Chinese films,’ says Tsering Deckyi. ‘They often have a very hard mentality, like the communist Chinese themselves. But it is not their fault – we are very understanding of this.’

The issue is explored in the 2005 film Dreaming Lhasa. Here a young Tibetan woman living in America comes back to Dharamsala to make a film about her roots. She becomes the focus of attention from two Tibetan men, one born in Dharamsala and another who has recently crossed the border.

Dreaming Lhasa explores all three aspects of the Tibetan diaspora – those born outside Tibet, those recently exiled and those living in the West,’ says Norbu Kunden, a teacher from Dharamsala. ‘It shows not only the distances between us but how we are desperately trying to understand each other’s alien worlds.’

An increasing number of Tibetans are moving away from Asia, mainly to the US and Canada. From there they can send money home to their extended families and hope to provide a more secure life for their children.

‘What hope have my kids got of getting a good job in Nepal or India?’ says Tenzin Dorje, who moved to Canada in 1999. ‘I don’t want them selling food by the side of the road, I want to give them a future, I want them to have some sort of chance.’

But some worry that if the movement westward increases it could lead to a loss of culture, weakening an already vulnerable community.

‘We complain sometimes but we never forget our problems are tiny compared to those still inside Tibet’

‘Those who leave Asia always lose part of their tradition,’ says Tenzin Nandhuk. ‘We understand the reasons why they go but we need to keep our community strong and not spread ourselves thinly through many foreign lands.’

Many who leave Asia find it difficult to adjust. While moving to India is shocking enough, at least it is still a religious, pre-industrial society. For many Tibetans, emigrating to secular, achievement-oriented societies like the US, Canada and Switzerland is like landing on Mars. As well as being overwhelming, in many cases moving to the West has caused a massive cultural gap to open up between children and their parents.

‘Nearly all families out there feel some distance between the generations,’ says Tenzin Dorje. ‘I’ve heard some families in Switzerland even need a translator during disputes just so they can understand each other!’

Photo: Nick Harvey
Exiles in Manali, India, mount a hunger strike in protest at Chinese repression. Photo: Nick Harvey

A worry for Tibetans all over the world is the advancing age of the Dalai Lama, now 73. He has led them since the beginning of the current struggles with the Chinese and many simply cannot imagine life without this strong father figure.

‘Not a day goes by when I do not think about it,’ says Mignar Tensing from Delhi. ‘None of us are completely sure what will happen after he leaves.’

In October the Dalai Lama was forced to undergo a gall bladder operation, providing another reminder of his mortality. But what was more worrying for the Tibetan people were comments he made shortly after leaving hospital. Expressing dismay at the lack of any concessions from China, he told his followers in Dharamsala: ‘As far as I’m concerned, I have given up.’

Many view his comments as more a result of frustration than capitulation, as well as a way of bringing attention back to the Tibetan cause after the post-Olympic hiatus.

But some believe such a drastic statement indicates the Dalai Lama’s disappointment, and that of the Tibetan people, lies not just with Beijing. For though the Tibetan settlements in Asia receive thousands of sympathetic visitors every year from hundreds of different countries, the unspoken reality is always there: why is the outside world not putting more pressure on China?

The answer, for everyone, is not easy to contemplate.

‘We as Buddhists do not believe in taking from the earth more than we need,’ says Karma Samten, secretary of the Pal Joling settlement in Pokhara. ‘Before the Chinese came in, the ground beneath us was hardly touched. Tibet was, still is, a treasure chest of gas, metals, minerals, uranium – so much precious stuff. Now the whole world depends on China in some way – people can’t be without their cheap little gadgets. And no-one seems to care where they came from.’

Not a single government supports Tibet’s quest for independence.

  1. These approximate figures are based on current Tibetan estimates. The last official demographic survey was carried out in 1998 by the Tibetan Planning Council. However, some believe over 200,000 Tibetans are exiled in Asia alone.
  2. ‘Introduction to the Guidelines on Future Tibet’s Constitution’, in: AA Shiromany, ed, The Political Philosophy of His Holiness the XIV Dalai Lama, Tibetan Parliamentary and Policy Research centre, New Delhi, 1988.
  3. Tseten Norbu, ‘Rebels: The Tibetan Youth Congress’, in Dagmar Bernstorff and Hubertus von Welck, Exile as Challenge: The Tibetan Diaspora, Orient Longman, New Delhi.
  4. Christoph von Fűrer-Heimendorf, The Renaissance of the Tibetan Civilization, Bombay, 1990.
  5. ‘Nepal to Tackle Illegal Tibetans,’ 13 Sep 2008, news.bbc.co.uk 6 Charles L Raison et al, ‘Shattered Shangri-La’, Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology, vol 43, June 2008.

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