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"As long as human rights are violated, there can be no foundation for peace. How can peace grow where speaking the truth is itself a crime?"

Tibetan exile groups may be mobilized but still face China's might

May 6, 2008

Canadian Press
May 4, 2008

KATMANDU, Nepal ­ 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 four 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 actors 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 five rupees (eight cents), some give 50,000 ($780)," 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 co-ordinated 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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