Tibetan exiles keep the fight alive

Activist groups keep Tibet in global spotlight and apply pressure on China.

Although the number of Tibetans in exile around the world is no more than 130,000, a clutch of activist groups has kept the Tibet issue in the headlines for nearly five decades.

These come with names such as the Tibetan Youth Congress (TYC), the Tibetan Women’s Association, Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Students for Free Tibet, with the TYC perhaps the most active of all.

Not all of them listen to Tibet’s spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, and certainly not all the time.

The TYC’s headquarters are in the Indian hill town of Dharamsala in the northern state of Himachal Pradesh, the seat of the Dalai Lama’s government-in-exile, known as the Central Tibetan Administration.

TYC General Secretary Thundup Lhadhar says the group stands firmly for independence, whereas the Dalai Lama says he would be happy with meaningful autonomy.

“We respect the Dalai Lama’s middle way and non-violent path,” says Mr Lhadhar, a 31-year-old Tibetan who fled to India in 1996. “But we think China has no intention of granting us true autonomy. We believe we will one day gain independence.”

Every year, nearly 2,000 to 3,000 Tibetans flee their homeland, going on an arduous overland trek into Nepal before they make their way to one of several Tibetan settlements in India.

Then they start a new life as small farmers, sweater-traders and, more recently, in India’s booming hotel and other service industries.

“Of late,” says a person who works at a refugee centre in Dharamsala, “more and more teenagers figure among the refugees. Many of them are pushed out of homes by parents in Tibet who fear that their children will grow up more Chinese than Tibetan.

“They see giving up their sons as a sacrifice for keeping Tibetan Buddhism and culture alive.”

In Dharamsala – where there are nearly 10,000 Tibetans – refugees pass screening by the refugee centre and sometimes may get an audience with the Dalai Lama.

The Central Tibetan Administration has had a democratically elected prime minister since 2001, supposedly with executive powers.

Its Election Commission appoints 43 Members of Parliament from the various Tibetan enclaves around India and the world. There is a “Cabinet” in place, including a finance minister.

Tibetan Administration spokesman Thugten Samphel estimates that the finance minister presides over an annual budget of no more than 2 million rupees (S$70,000), much of it raised via small contributions from the Tibetan diaspora.

Most of the Dalai Lama’s personal needs, including security and travel, are met by the Indian government.

New Delhi treats the spiritual leader as an honoured guest who is welcome to stay as long as he wants. But it has asked him to refrain from engaging in anti-China activities from India.

The government-in-exile also has an active external affairs wing that has 13 “foreign missions”, including missions in New Delhi, Tokyo and Taiwan. These missions are highly active, keeping in touch with local missionary groups, legislators, fund-raisers and other pressure groups.

Improved communication links with Tibet have proved a blessing for the exiles and a bane for Beijing.

Inexpensive Internet devices such as Skype have made it easier to have instant contact between people outside Tibet and relatives and friends inside.

Since the Indian government made plain its displeasure at its territory being used to attack China’s Tibet policy, senior TYC officials no longer hold important conversations over the telephone.

But much of the anti-China effort continues to take place outside India.

In Britain, the Tibetan community is tiny but the Free Tibet Campaign has been a vocal champion for the cause for more than 20 years.

Set up in 1987 and funded independently by membership subscriptions and donations from benefactors, the campaign boasts around 19,000 supporters.

The Free Tibet Campaign says a lot of its members are older people who actually remember the 1950 invasion, aware of the fact that Britain did have prior diplomatic relations with Tibet and are appalled that the government has not done more for the Tibetan cause.

But activists do more than just pound the pavements.

The campaign commissions academic research, publishes reports and works closely with a second group, a charity called TibetWatch, which has an office in Dharamsala.

Another older group, the Tibet Society, focuses its efforts on getting Tibet onto the parliamentary agenda in Westminster, urging individuals to apply pressure on MPs to support parliamentary motions.

On the other hand, the US-based International Campaign for Tibet (ICT), which has offices in Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany and worldwide links to other organisations, is guided by non-Tibetans.

“We have built an extensive international network with other groups to ensure that there is pressure on China for an independent Tibet,” said ICT’s advocacy director Mary Beth Markey.

For 20 years, the group has monitored and reported on human rights in the country. It has also worked with governments to develop policies and programmes for Tibet.

Ms Markey put the ICT’s membership at “tens of thousands” in the United States and abroad.

Significantly, the group has promoted self-determination through negotiations between Beijing and the Dalai Lama.

It is the connection with US lawmakers that has proved most potent.

According to Professor Thomas Grunfeld, a leading expert on Tibet at the State University of New York, the ICT and Tibet lobby found a receptive hearing with the US Congress, whose members were angry – as they are today – at China over nuclear proliferation, trade imbalances, prison labour and human rights.

Hearings were held and amendments were added to Bills condemning “human rights violations” and calling Tibet an “occupied country”.

In 1987, when the Dalai Lama was in the US, the first demonstrations in three decades broke out in Tibet.

ICT scored another coup by lobbying lawmakers to award the Congressional Gold Medal, the nation’s highest civilian honour, to the Dalai Lama last year.

ICT also has an office in Dharamsala. Unlike the offices of the Tibetan administration, which tend to be spartan, the ICT office is outfitted with computers, Internet and big-screen televisions.

Ethnic Tibetans fluent in Mandarin monitor news from the mainland continuously and are active bloggers, often using multiple aliases.

One such blogger is Mr Tenzin Losel, whose parents live in Lhasa. The 27-year-old Tibetan made the 40-day trek to Kathmandu with 65 others and has made Dharamsala his home for more than a decade.

He uses three aliases for his blogging and monitoring work, and speaks Mandarin, English and Tibetan. “I didn’t know a word of Tibetan when I was in Tibet,” he said.

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