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Tibetan exile groups face China's might

May 4, 2008

Kathmandu May 2, 2008 (AP): Jampa Thupten, a militant lama with a
patchwork of scars on his skull to prove it, reaches a monastery inside
Tibet where an anguished monk on a cell phone tells him of young men
fleeing into the forests to avoid capture and torture by Chinese police.

 From his serene, hilltop temple famed for its mischievous monkeys,
Thupten then takes a call from a friend in San Francisco who explains
tactics used by protesters to harass the Beijing Olympics torch relay.

A veteran of violent demonstrations being staged almost daily in Nepal,
the 38-year-old Tibetan exile is also part of a global network which
trades information and tricks of the trade as it mobilizes _ sometimes
with great effect _ in wake of anti-Chinese government protests in Tibet.

But despite its high profile, extent and energy, the movement faces
seemingly impossible odds _ China's sheer muscle, intransigence and
geopolitical clout. Seeking an independent or autonomous Tibet, it also
lacks unity and vital links into the Himalayan region.

``We are insignificant compared to China's might. We have no means to
challenge China's authority except for prayers,'' says Nyima Gyalpo, an
activist in Nepal's exile community.

Thupten's organization, the Nepal Tibetan Volunteer Youth for Free
Tibet, is among a myriad formed both by exiles and non-Tibetan
supporters on every continent, some of which have been grabbing the
spotlight with dramatic disruptions of the 19-city, international leg of
the torch relay.

 From Amigos del Tibet in Guatemala to Alaska's U.S. Tibet Committee,
the groups have mushroomed remarkably, given that they spring from an
exile population of some 120,000 and a homeland with 4 million people.

Much of the seemingly disproportionate attention the movement attracts
is derived from the Dalai Lama, charismatic leader of the exiles and
Nobel Peace prize winner.

``Tibetan chic'' also helps. Hollywood and rock stars like Richard Gere,
Julia Roberts, George Clooney and Bjork are vocal advocates for the cause.

But ranks of non-Tibetan supporters are also filled by former
backpackers who witnessed the plight of Tibetans in their homeland,
those attracted to Tibetan Buddhism and some drawn to romantic images of
a bygone Shangri-La despoiled by invaders.

Tibetan groups like the India-based Tibetan Youth Congress and the New
York-headquartered Students for a Free Tibet command large memberships
and are solidly organized. The 20-year-old International Campaign for
Tibet has proved an effective lobby in Washington, D.C.

Despite this, question marks hang over what thrust the movement can
maintain after the flame is doused in Beijing, and how much, if any,
pressure it can ultimately exert on China.

``Over the past decades, despite consistent efforts, the Diaspora groups
have not succeeded in significantly improving the situation. This
suggests that the more important participants in the crisis are Tibetans
in Tibet,'' says Donald S. Lopez, an expert on Tibet and Buddhism at the
University of Michigan.

Neither the demonstrations within nor the embarrassing disruptions of
the torch's global progress appear to have shaken Beijing's
determination to retain its hold on Tibet.

The ``Free Tibet'' groups have aroused international public opinion,
compelling some leaders to condemn Beijing _ but not to boycott the
Olympics, never mind seriously endangering their profitable economic ties.

Although some efforts are under way, the far-flung groups have not
coalesced into a united front _ and Chinese allegations notwithstanding
appear to have only tenuous ties to Tibet, where by most accounts any
counterparts which once existed have long been eradicated by the Chinese.

``It's a casual networking system, with some that keep in touch with
each other, some that work completely alone and one or two that work
purely to destroy the others,'' says Robbie Barnett, a Tibet expert at
Columbia University. ``They do their own thing but share ideas.''

The groups, while supportive, are also generally independent from the
self-proclaimed government-in-exile headed by the Dalai Lama out of
northern India.

Thuptan S. Shastri, a Tibetan exile with close ties to the Nepal-based
organizations, says, ``there are connections, and a feeling for what is
happening in London and San Francisco.''

``But there is no such thing as someone from America calling us to say,
'You go to the Chinese Embassy and do this and that' because there is a
different environment in each country where Tibetan exiles live,'' he says.

As the torch has moved across the globe, some of the ``Free Tibet''
activists have trailed it, with local groups offering accommodations and
other help, says Alison Reynolds, executive director of the London-based
International Tibet Support Network. But there is no major cross-border
movement of activists or funds, which are often locally generated, she said.

``Some give 5 rupees (8 cents), some give 50,000 (US$780; euro500),''
says Tsering Dolkar Lama, among many volunteers helping at a Katmandu
prayer vigil where members of the exile community _ among them owners of
hotels and carpet factories _ donate funds to pay the transport, food
and medical bills of compatriots taking part in the demonstrations.

``Recently there has been an understanding that we could all be more
effective if we work in a coordinated way. But among the groups there
will be a variety of political positions,'' says Reynolds, whose group
serves as an umbrella for a number of activist organizations. They are
beginning to plan for the post-Olympic period.

``What we don't want to happen is for the Olympics to be over and the
movement to step into a vacuum,'' she said.

A few of the exile groups claim to have connections with dissidents in
Tibet, but these appear to be largely limited to smuggling in leaflets
and videos. The non-Tibetan ones are not known to have any direct links
at all.

``The contacts between Tibetans in Tibet and those in exile appear to be
at the personal level, primarily cell phone communication between family
members or monks of the same monastic order,'' Lopez says.

Thupten, the lama at the Swayambhunath, or Monkey Temple, says that he
can still gather information from monks and others inside Tibet.

``They are not afraid. They say, 'After all we have to die one day. At
least we will die for our country.''

But other groups say their efforts are often answered with silence or
someone saying, ``We cannot talk now. Please call us at a later date.''
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