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Tibetan refugees seek livelihoods in Ladakh, India

July 17, 2009

World Focus
July 15, 2009

Luv Puri is a journalist who has reported on Tibetan issues, the Jammu
and Kashmir conflict, and Indian foreign policy for The Hindu newspaper.

A vibrant and enterprising community of Tibetans lives in Ladakh, the
easternmost area of the contested state of Jammu and Kashmir. Thousands
of essentially stateless Tibetans have migrated westward to Ladakh since
Chinese forces clamped down on Tibet in 1959. Although ethnic Tibetans
in China have Chinese citizenship, the Tibetan exiles in India have
residency permits but not Indian citizenship.

Tibetans arrived as refugees and remain refugees. The Tibetans feel at
home in Ladakh, because of their common Buddhist faith and trading
linkages. Even though many Tibetans were born in Ladakh, insurmountable
statelessness pinches this Tibetan community.

Nawang Tso, a 47-year-old who has no imminent hope of returning to his
ancestral land, said:

Neither we can get government job nor own land. I was born with this
status and wonder how many generations of my family will have to live
with this status.

For the last fifty years, Tibet has been governed by China. Tibetan
refugees in Ladakh, like most other Tibetans, have rallied behind their
spiritual leader. But the Dalai Lama does not demand complete secession
from China. The present political stalemate between the Chinese
government and the Tibetan leadership is over the territorial limits of
the proposed Tibetan province, under Chinese sovereignty.

Tibetans want a Greater Tibet — the amalgamation of the Tibetan
Autonomous Region with the whole of Qinghai province, western parts of
Sichuan, areas of Yunnan and a part of Gansu. The Chinese government
objects, emphasizing that ethnicity is no basis for border demarcation
of Chinese provinces.

For the Tibetan refuges, Ladakh was a natural settlement area due to its
culture, religion and landscape. Famous for its pristine beauty,
Ladakh’s landscape has stark similarities with Utah’s Salt Lake City.
Tibetan Buddhism influenced the culture of Ladakh and even vice-versa,
as Buddhism spread to other parts of Asia through Ladakh. The
centuries-old monasteries found in almost every village throughout
Ladakh indicate this influence.

Similar to Tibetans, most Ladakhi homes have a small chapel containing
various religious objects and sacred images. Other visible signs of the
Buddhist faith are omnipresent prayer flags, stupas and mani walls.

Ladakhi cuisine shows the impact of the Tibetan community. This is true
of restaurants thronged by foreign tourists and even of traditional
Ladakhi homes. Gyal Wangchuk, a Ladakhi owner of the famous Siachen
Hotel in the middle of Leh, Ladakh’s capital, said, “The majority of
homes in the urban areas are no longer eating Ladakhi food, as now the
new generation loves the Tibetan food. The famous Tibetan Momos can be
found in every nook and corner of Ladakh.”

The Tibetan refugee community is staying in rented accommodations. The
community’s employment prospects have been highly limited for the last
five decades. In the middle of Leh, Ladakh’s capital, a Tibetan market
has been established. The Tibetan community utilizes its contacts in
Tibet to import black market Chinese-made goods to eastern Ladakh.
Shoes, electronics, and pearls used to flood the main Tibetan markets,
which are thronged by tourists during the summer. A pessimistic trader
summarized the situation:

The times changed, as now the clandestine trade via eastern Ladakh
became difficult. Most of the Chinese goods reaching here come through
legal means, i.e. through the plains via Nepal. Profits have decreased.
Uncertainty over our status will continue to affect us professionally,
psychologically and physically.

- Luv Puri
CTC National Office 1425 René-Lévesque Blvd West, 3rd Floor, Montréal, Québec, Canada, H3G 1T7
T: (514) 487-0665   ctcoffice@tibet.ca
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