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Livelihood of exiled Tibetans under threat as carpet industry unravels

August 6, 2009

The global downturn has reached the Himalayas,
where Tibetan refugees face increasing financial and political pain.
EMILY WAX in Kathmandu
The Irish Times
August 5, 2009

THINLEY SANGMO was taught as a girl in exile how
to weave traditional Tibetan carpets. Her
grandmother’s thick hands would twist and spin
spools of sheep’s wool to depict the landscape
and religious iconography of their homeland:
hairy yaks lumbering up snow-swept mountains,
puffy clouds, ponds of pink lotus flowers.

At 14, Sangmo was hunching over an upright loom
for more than 12 hours a day. Sometimes she would
fall asleep. She wanted to attend school, but as
the oldest of seven children and as a Tibetan
refugee living without full rights in Nepal,
carpet weaving was her best option.

"It’s very hard work. At first, I would cry,"
said Sangmo, now 36. "But I learned to appreciate
it. Now, generations depend on these factories. This is all we know how to do."

Yet today her livelihood, and that of thousands
of other Tibetan carpet weavers, is under threat.
The global economic crisis has spread to this
landlocked Himalayan nation, among the poorest on
Earth. Fewer tourists are coming to buy carpets,
and tens of thousands of dollars in export orders
have been cancelled, industry experts say,
leading to the closure of more than 500 factories.

The crisis facing Tibetan exiles in Nepal is
exacerbated by the country’s new government, led
by Maoists, who joined the political mainstream
in 2006 after waging a decade-long war. As
China’s influence over the government grows,
Tibetans are experiencing more harassment,
extortion and restrictions on their movements,
and greater difficulty securing education and
jobs than ever, according to a report released
yesterday by the International Campaign for
Tibet. An estimated 20,000 Tibetans live in
Nepal, which has centuries-old cultural and religious ties with Tibet.

"There has been change in the use of language by
the Nepalese authorities to describe the Tibetan
refugee flow through their country, suggesting a
‘law and order’ approach rather than the
humanitarian approach that has characterised
Nepal’s treatment of Tibetans over the last
decades," said Kate Saunders of the International
Campaign for Tibet. "As a result of Chinese
pressure on the Nepalese government, judicial
system, civil society and media, Tibetans in
Nepal are increasingly fearful, demoralised and at risk."

Tibetan business and human rights leaders say
that as the global economy worsened, Maoist
militias and Nepalese police began "taxing" the
Tibetan factories and workers, often through
Mafia-style shakedowns and threats.

For many Tibetans still waiting for legal papers
according them some civil rights in Nepal, there
is nothing they can do to fight back as factories are forced out of business.

"The carpet industry is an economic and cultural
lifeline for thousands of Tibetans and Nepalese,"
said Tinley Gatso, a Tibetan community leader in
Kathmandu, Nepal’s capital. "It was our culture,
our art. When Nepal took us in, it was our big
gift to Nepal. But now, so many carpets factories
are closing. It’s a very sad time, a worrying time."

Nepal is home to the world’s second-largest
Tibetan exile community after India. Buddhist
prayer flags flutter along Kathmandu’s alleyways
and in its markets. Some of the world’s most
celebrated stupas -- whitewashed temples
resembling enormous birthday cakes crossed with
spaceships - reign over the city’s crowded
squares. Recordings of the Buddhist mantra "Om
mani padme hum," played by shopkeepers, echo through the narrow streets.

Since a wave of protests against Chinese rule
that began in Tibet in March 2008, Nepal has been
under increasing pressure from Beijing to take
sterner measures against pro-Tibet
demonstrations, according to diplomats,
government officials and human rights workers. A
recent press statement by Nepal’s ministry of
home affairs appears to support the tougher
stance: “Nepal stands firm not to allow any
external forces to use its soil against its
neighbours and it sticks to its One China policy."

China accuses the Dalai Lama, the Buddhist
spiritual leader, of trying to split Tibet from
China. The Dalai Lama, who lives in exile in
northern India, has said that although he desires
greater autonomy for Tibet, he does not advocate independence.

The squeezing of Tibetans in Nepal is most
vividly apparent in the carpet business. Khamsum
Wangdu, one of Kathmandu’s biggest Tibetan carpet
manufacturers, once had four factories employing
600 people. The economic downturn and the
official demands for "fees" have brought his
business down to one factory and 20 workers, he says.

"We need the international community to help us,"
the businessman said. "Instead of giving the
Dalai Lama gold medals, why not focus on helping
Tibetan people with the recession and all of the
political instability and pressure here in Nepal?
The Dalai Lama is happy when his people are happy."

Tibetan carpet weaving dates to the 7th century,
when the carpets were used as horse saddles.
Monasteries were the weavers main clients until
the 1970s, when trekkers and mountain climbers
descended on Nepal and took an interest in
carpets. There was a separate boom in the late
1980s, when Tibet’s struggle for independence
became an international cause. Today, carpets are
sold in tourist markets, along with Tibetan
religious paintings, prayer lamps, brass bowls and T-shirts.

On a recent morning, Sangmo was in her
neighbourhood, where many Tibetan exiles live.
Her family, like many others, fled Tibet with the
Dalai Lama in 1959 after a failed revolt against
Chinese rule. Sangmo sat with her grandmother,
Tsering (73), and both women worried that many
people in the neighbourhood will soon lose their jobs in the industry.

"It’s all we have," Sangmo said. "We are lost
without carpet-making." -- (LA Times- Washington Post Service)
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