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"I believe that to meet the challenges of our times, human beings will have to develop a greater sense of universal responsibility. It is the foundation for world peace."

Tibet's exiles in India confront an uncertain future

August 22, 2016

By Yuji Kuronuma

NIKKEI Asian Review, August 18, 2016 - There was only one student in the classroom. "There were 12 or 13 students several years ago," said the lonely-looking man in his 20s studying computer graphics in the corner.

The classroom is at a boarding school in Dharamsala, in northern India, where the Central Tibetan Administration, better known as the Tibetan government-in-exile, is located. People ages 18 to 30 who have recently fled the Tibet Autonomous Region in China receive basic education and job training here for three to eight years. The school had 700 students nine years ago, but the number has since dropped to 101. The third floor of the three-story building is vacant, many of its windows left broken.

Silence also reigns in the refugee reception center, the first stop for Tibetan exiles arriving in Dharamsala and seeking registration as refugees. The facility can accommodate 1,000 people, but recently only staff are present on many days. "Before 2008, over 3,500 refugees came here annually," said Wangchuk, 45, a researcher at the center. "Now [the figure] hardly crosses 100." It is especially rare to see children and women nowadays, according to Wangchuk.

The reason for the sharp drop-off in asylum seekers is that leaving China has become much more difficult.

Fleeing Tibet has always been hard. Most refugees carry the food they need for the journey on their backs and head for India via the Nepalese capital, Kathmandu. Nepal borders China and recognizes Tibetans as refugees. However, even if they manage to slip past China's guards on the frontier, they face crossing the Himalayas on foot. They are at risk of death or injury from frostbite and falls.

Moreover, border security has been tightened since 2008, when the Beijing Olympics took place. That year, "riots" or "peaceful protests" -- depending on whether one is speaking to Chinese officials or Tibetan refugees -- occurred around the Tibet Autonomous Region. That led to heavier surveillance, not only in cities but in villages and near the border. Around that time, "China started to give equipment to Nepalese police and train them in Tibet," said a person with connections to the Tibetan government-in-exile. Beijing encouraged the police to arrest and forcibly repatriate refugees who had fled across the border.

The results were dramatic. According to refugees, guided journeys used to take 20 to 30 days from the Tibetan capital of Lhasa to Kathmandu. But, said one person who fled several years ago, "I didn't have a guide and lost my way, so it took me a month and 20 days."

As the number of new arrivals has dwindled, more Tibetans have committed self-immolation in Tibet and elsewhere in protest of Chinese policy. More than 140 people have burned themselves to death since 2009. "Father, being a Tibetan is so difficult," one 23-year-old mother wrote in her suicide note. "We can't even display the Dalai Lama's portrait. We have no freedom at all." At the Tibet Museum in Dharamsala, such suicide notes are exhibited, along with the photographs of about 100 people who have immolated themselves.

Looking back -- and forward

According to "Tibetan Nation," by U.S. historian Warren W. Smith, seventh-century Tibet was a unified, independent state that rivaled China's Tang dynasty for influence in Inner Asia. After the 13th century, Tibet built a priest-patron relationship with the Mongols, in which Tibet relied on them for military power while the Mongols were subject to Tibet in religious matters under the Dalai Lama, the supreme leader of Tibetan Buddhism.

Based on diplomatic documents and other historical records, Smith argues Tibet managed to achieve de facto independence under British patronage in the early 20th century.  However, China, which claimed that Tibet was part of its territory, moved troops into the area around 1950, and the 14th Dalai Lama took refuge in India in 1959.

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