Join our Mailing List

"I believe that to meet the challenges of our times, human beings will have to develop a greater sense of universal responsibility. It is the foundation for world peace."

‘Desperate’ Tibetans struggle to escape from Chinese yoke

June 16, 2014

By Victor Mallet in Dharamsala

June 15, 2014 - The newly arrived refugee in his late twenties with the maroon robes, shaven head and pink cheeks of a high-altitude Buddhist monk does not hesitate when asked to talk about life in his native Tibet .

“It is like a dog waiting for a cat,” he says of the Chinese forces who have occupied a park near the monastery where he had studied and prayed for his entire adult life. “They are ready to jump on us.”

The monk, who asks to remain anonymous to protect his family, served time in jail for his part in the 2008 Tibetan protests – crushed by China – against what locals say is the destruction of their culture, language and natural resources and their own economic marginalisation at the hands of Han Chinese migrants.

He comes from Ngaba, a town in what is now Sichuan province that is famous among Tibetan exiles: it is where dozens of Tibetans have set themselves ablaze and died in desperate “self-immolations” designed to bring their homeland’s plight to the attention of a largely indifferent world.
The monk, however, chose not to kill himself as 130 fellow Tibetans have attempted in the past five years, 112 successfully. Nor did he want to stay and endure police interrogations and the Orwellian “patriotic education” sessions of the “Democratic Management Committees” installed by China to control Tibetan monasteries.

Instead he escaped, paying Rmb12,000 ($1,950) to a guide who sent him via Lhasa and Nepal to Dharamsala in northern India. He arrived here this month to fulfil the Tibetan dream of paying homage to the Dalai Lama, the pacifist spiritual leader who is demonised by Beijing as a separatist but who says he only seeks real autonomy for Tibet within China.

“I saw there was no way to live under the Chinese,” the young monk says at the refugee reception centre on the banks of a stream in the Himalayan foothills that was constructed with US aid. “More and more people my age feel like leaving Tibet.”

Fewer and fewer, however, can actually escape. By setting up roadblocks around Lhasa, increasing border security and pressing Nepal to turn away Tibetans, China has reduced the flow of refugees to a trickle. Before the 2008 uprising, 2,000-3,000 Tibetans left annually; last year only 300 made it across. The young monk is one of only four people staying in a centre built for 500.

Another is Golog Jigme, a 43-year-old monk who helped make a film about Tibet called Leaving Fear Behind and who escaped from a police station in 2012 when he heard that the security services were planning to kill him with a bogus medical procedure. He hid in the mountains and forests for a year and a half before paying Rmb15,000 to be extracted across the border via a route he would not disclose.

“The situation in Tibet is urgent,” he says, minutes after hearing the Dalai Lama teaching a crowd of thousands at a schooling and religious centre known as the Tibet Children’s Village.

“We cannot live as humans. There is no freedom to express ourselves, there is no freedom to move . . . There are huge numbers of Han Chinese coming into Tibet at the moment. Nomads are forced to end their traditional way of life. The aim of the Chinese action is to dilute the Tibetan identity and the Tibetan people.”

The Chinese Communist leadership, whose forces invaded Tibet in 1950, has sought to exclude most journalists and other independent observers from the region for the past decade, prompting some critics to regard Chinese-run Tibet as more closed and isolated than North Korea.

Such tales as do emerge paint China in a brutal light. Sonam Rabga – a monk who left Tibet in 1992 via the Mount Everest base camp in Nepal and lived peacefully at a monastery in southern India for 20 years – went back two years ago to see his elderly mother in a remote village.

After three days at home he left the village and was arrested on the road within half an hour. He was badly beaten and tortured for three weeks by interrogators obsessed with his links to the Dalai Lama, although he insists he has no interest in politics, before being dumped at the Nepal border and told never to return. Both his kidneys have failed, he needs dialysis three times a week and is waiting for a transplant.

“Desperation” is the word used to describe the plight of 6m Tibetans by Lobsang Sangay, the Harvard law scholar elected to succeed the Dalai Lama as the nation’s political leader in exile.

Perhaps the only glimmer of hope comes from the world’s dawning awareness ofChina’s aggressive pursuit of other territorial claims in India and the South China Sea, and of the contrast between Tibetan pacifism and the knife and bomb attacks on Chinese targets by Uighur Muslim separatists from Xinjiang, which borders Tibet.

“So they are all asking what kind of country, what kind of global power is China going to be,” says Mr Sangay in an interview. “The Tibetan narrative is very important . . . First they [the Chinese] have friendship, then they make some starting claims, and then, inch by inch, and after some time, a full-blown occupation . . . I remember some Asian leaders saying – it is a quote, actually – ‘we don’t want to be like Tibet’.”

Mr Sangay warns of the risk of “unfortunate incidents” if Chinese repression continues, while other Tibetan leaders talk of the intense passion of the monks and farmers who anoint themselves with petrol and set themselves on fire.

But few talk of resorting to violence against the Chinese. The newly arrived young monk at first does not even understand the question when asked about violent resistance.

“The best way is not fighting back,” he says finally, recalling the torture and suffering prompted by the 2008 uprising. “We must just keep our identity and language quietly and wait for the Chinese to be brought round.”

CTC National Office 1425 René-Lévesque Blvd West, 3rd Floor, Montréal, Québec, Canada, H3G 1T7
T: (514) 487-0665
Developed by plank