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"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

Exile's life of watching, waiting

October 31, 2010

Matt Wade
Cowra Guardian
October 30, 2010

BETWEEN a holy river and a dusty highway on
Delhi's northern fringe is an unlikely slice of Tibet.

Little Lhasa, as locals call Delhi's Tibetan
refugee colony, stands out amid the city's concrete sprawl.

Its buildings are festooned with fluttering
prayer flags. Huge billboards extol Tibet's
monastic megastar, the Dalai Lama. Buddhist monks
in robes of maroon and saffron wander Little
Lhasa's narrow alleys and eateries with names
like Hot Yak Cafe and Tibetan Voice that serve
momos, bread dumplings and yak butter tea.

Tibetans have been fleeing Chinese occupation
since the late 1950s and more than 100,000 are
estimated to live in India. Some have settled in
the northern hill station of Dharamsala, where
the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government in
exile are based. But, over the years, thousands
have drifted south, to cities like Delhi, in search of economic opportunity.

Free Tibet slogans on banners and T-shirts for
sale in Little Lhasa are a reminder of the
five-decade campaign for an autonomous homeland.
But some residents, like the former monk Yeshi
Dhamdu, admit passion for the struggle is hard to sustain so far from home.

As a teenager he was radicalised during the four
years he lived in a monastery. In 1989 he was
arrested and claims to have been tortured by his
Chinese captors and jailed for six years. After
his release Yeshi, now 42, escaped to India via Nepal.

He confesses his zeal for independence has waned.
"When I was in Tibet there was great enthusiasm
for protest. Now I'm less concerned about free
Tibet. We just don't get so hot about it any more."

Yeshi and his Indian-born Tibetan wife have two
children and run a clothing store in Little
Lhasa. During his daily visit to the Buddhist
temple he prays that Tibet will be free. "I guess
I'd like to go back to Tibet one day. But I would
go if it became fully independent."

Residents of Little Lhasa appreciate India's
tolerance of Tibetan asylum seekers. But refugees
in India live in a legal limbo. "When it comes to
owning properties or businesses, Tibetans do face
problems," says Choechung Wangchuk, a Delhi-based
member of the government in exile's parliament
and the executive director of the Tibetan
Parliamentary and Policy Research Centre. So most
buildings in Little Lhasa are owned by cultural institutions, not individuals.

Even so, many Tibetans have found jobs in call
centres, hospitals and restaurants. Cheap-eat
guides recommend Little Lhasa as a place to get
tasty, cheap food. Tibetans are also well known
for the stalls they set up across north India
each winter selling warm clothing.

Six thousand to 10,000 Tibetan refugees are
estimated to live in Delhi, mostly in Little
Lhasa, which started as a makeshift refugee camp
on a rubbish dump beside the Yamuna River in the 1970s.

The biggest Tibetan community in India -- about
30,000 -- is in the state of Karnataka, in the
far south of the country. The state government
allocated land for Tibetans after a surge of
asylum seeker arrivals in the early 1960s.

India's decision to grant asylum to the Dalai
Lama after he escaped from Tibet in 1959
continues to aggravate tension between Beijing
and New Delhi. The lingering sensitivity was
underscored this month when India's foreign
office reportedly blocked plans by the university
Jamia Millia Islamia in Delhi to confer an
honorary doctorate on him because it did not want to upset China.

Refugees can do little but watch, wait and maybe join the odd protest.

"Tibetans in exile keep their eye on what is
going on inside Tibet, what the Chinese are doing
and what is the ground reality," Choechung says.
"In the meantime Tibetans get on with their lives - they have to."
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