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Secret of the world's 'most successful' refugees, the Tibetan community

February 15, 2010

Lhendup Bhutia
DNA India
February 13, 2010

Mumbai -- Today is Losar once again. In fact, it
is a golden jubilee of sorts -- of 50 years in
exile. But Tibetans are not celebrating. The pall
of gloom of the 2008 riots still hangs over the
community, and the government-in-exile or the
Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) has asked for festivities to be muted.

Most of the older generation of Tibetans living
in exile in India had trekked mountains and
forests to flee to an alien land. They had
neither money nor hope, their country having been
taken away from them. Yet today, the Tibetan
refugees across the world are considered the
"most successful" refugee community.

Much of the credit for that achievement should go
to the CTA’s efforts to preserve Tibetan culture,
and making the refugee community educated and
financially strong. In fact, a 2001 article by
The Economist surveyed the two dozen
governments-in-exile that exist and found the
Tibetan one to be "the most serious."

While most other such governments function as
pressure groups, like the internet-based
Rhodesian government-in-exile that lampoons the
post-independence Zimbabwean government, the CTA
is a democratic set up, with a parliament,
democratically elected ministers and a prime
minister. Also, 46 agricultural or
handicraft-based settlements have been
established across India, Nepal, and Bhutan for the community-in-exile.

According to a 2000 survey by the planning
commission of the government-in-exile, about one
lakh Tibetan refugees live in these settlements.
There are also welfare officers, schools,
hospitals and clinics, co-operatives, courts to
settle civil disputes (although criminal cases
are handled by the local police of the host
country), old-people’s homes, and monasteries nearby to service the refugees.

Karma Yeshi is a product of one such settlement.
Today the editor-in-chief of the Voice of Tibet
in Dharamsala, the only radio channel in India in
the Tibetan language, he was born at a
construction site in 1967. "I am told that I used
to be tied to a tree while my parents were
building a road in Sikkim. They had no other
alternative because they were penniless in a
foreign country,” he says. His parents had
followed the Dalai Lama to India in 1959 and
worked as construction labourers to make ends
meet. In 1969, when they heard of the Tibetan
community centre in Himachal Pradesh, the family
moved to it. “I have much to thank our government
for. My family was taken care of, my schooling
was free, and I was even sent to Punjab University on a scholarship.”

So strong is the lure of the education system of
the CTA, that many of the Tibetans in China who
risk their lives and come to India to become
refugees are children who want schooling. Tenzing
Thargay and Tenzing Palmo, a brother-sister duo,
spent ten years in Tibetan Children’s School in
Dharamsala. The sister is now in Italy, while the
brother has returned to Lhasa where he runs a
restaurant. Thargay says, “In Dharamsala, I was
able to get quality education. Also, I learned
more about Tibet’s history and language, which no
school in Lhasa can provide me.”

In all, the CTA runs 82 Tibetan schools in India,
Nepal, and Bhutan. And for those who want to
pursue further education, there is the Central
Institute of Higher Tibetan Studies in
Dharamsala, Tibet House in New Delhi, the Library
of Tibetan Works and Archives, the Norbulingka
Institute, and the Amnye Machen Institute in
Dharamsala. There is also the Sarah College of
Higher Tibetan Studies in Dharamsala which
teaches young Tibetans and students from the
West, South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, and Mongolia
the Tibetan language, the country’s literature
and history, as well as the Buddhist philosophy.

The Tibetan refugee community that was about
80,000 in 1960 in India, Nepal and Bhutan has now
grown to 1,60,000 according to a 2009 survey.
Considering that, when the Tibetans went trekking
from one country to another, they were also
moving from a medieval world to the 20th century,
their adapting to a foreign land is nothing short of remarkable.

Thubten Samphel, secretary of the department of
information and international relations for the
CTA and the author of Failing Through The Roof
says, "What the CTA has done in the last 50 years
is noteworthy. While Tibet’s culture is
continuously destroyed in China, it is being preserved here in a foreign land."
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