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Living in exile: Gains and losses of Tibetans in India

Mar 14, 2009

For about half-a-century Tibetan refugees in India, while preserving their distinct identity, have kept their struggle to return to their homeland alive. Thubten Samphel, secretary, Department of Information and International Relations, shares his thoughts on the Tibetan experience in an exclusive interview with OneWorld South Asia.

Here are the excerpts:

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OneWorld South Asia: It has now been about 50 years since the first batch of Tibetans arrived in India with the Dalai Lama after the March Uprising in 1959. How has been your India experience? Do you think India has treated you well?

Thubten Samphel: Oh yes, the Government of India has been very generous towards us all through. The Indian government has provided Tibetan refugees huge acres of land to build their settlements. As a result of which, we have no survival issues. Our main concern is the situation in Tibet [To read more, please click here]. The focus is on preserving our culture and religion while strengthening our community by giving decent education to our young children.

OWSA: Living in exile, have you been able to preserve your culture?

TS: Yes, very successfully. So much so that even non-Tibetans, who come under the influence of our culture, send bright young people to study in Tibetan refugee organisations. People from far off places like Mongolia and Commonwealth of Independent Countries (CIS) [countries that separated from the former USSR] are sending their children to study Tibetan language, as they realise that without learning the language they cannot access the wisdom of Tibetan Buddhism.

Today, many non-Tibetans are studying Tibetan medicine, Thangka painting and other traditional arts. These days we also have increasing number of Japanese, Koreans, Chinese, Americans and Europeans who study Tibetan Buddhism, language and philosophy. It is through this success in educational field that we have been able to retain our ancient knowledge, which we have inherited from India.

OWSA: What are the main problems facing the refugees in this country? For instance, the Indian government does not provide any monetary assistance. How do then refugees earn their living?

TS: In India, as I have been trying to say, we don’t face any problem. As regards earning our living, we are on our own. We fend for ourselves like any other person in the world.

OWSA: The reason I asked this question was because last year the US Committee for Refugees and Immigrants had come out with a report in which it castigated India as one of the ten worst violators of refugee rights.

TS: [Smiles] This surely does not apply to Tibetans. As far as we are concerned, we enjoy every right like any other Indian, except, for understandable reason, the right to vote. Otherwise we are treated equally.

OWSA: What about the citizenship rights to those Tibetans who are born in India?

TS: We are eligible to apply but we choose not to. It’s not that we don’t love or have any disrespect for India. We choose this because if we in India en masse become Indian citizens, it will leave a very negative impact on the psychology of Tibetans living in Tibet. They will lose hope and we will also cease to be representatives or spokespersons of Tibetans. They will think that Tibetans abroad have given up hope and that they are not acting on our behalf.

OWSA: The Dalai Lama’s representatives have had several rounds of talks with the Chinese government. Eight rounds of talks took place between 2002 and 2008. Do you see them going anywhere?

TS: In the latest round of talks [in October 2008] with the Chinese side, we had offered them our proposal for genuine autonomy for all Tibetan areas to come under one single administration. That has been totally rejected by China. We regret this. Until there is movement on the Chinese side, we will continue to hope for negotiations to move forward.

In the meanwhile, we will do what we have been doing all these years, that is, keeping our community together, educating our children, and preserving our culture. These are the strengths, which are very vital for the success of our non-violent struggle.

I also want to tell you that we may not have succeeded in eliciting a positive response from the Chinese government so far but the Chinese people have shown a lot of positive response. There is much attraction among ordinary Chinese people towards Tibetan Buddhism, as they find here all the answers to questions that torment them. If they get to benefit from Tibetan Buddhism, they will certainly have a more positive attitude towards our people. There are also Chinese intellectuals, scholars and writers who have expressed their appreciation for His Holiness’s Middle-Way approach.

OWSA: That brings us to the question: Why is it that the Dalai Lama abdicated the dream of complete independence and proposed the Middle-Way approach? Is it because he thinks that it is not a practical thing to demand, keeping in mind the might of China? Or given a choice, would you prefer an independent Tibet?

TS: This is for a simple reason. His Holiness has explained it fairly well. He says what is of utmost importance for Tibetans is their culture and spiritual heritage. For, it has all-embracing, enduring and universal values. He says the only contribution Tibet can make to the world is in the area of culture. In terms of material contribution, we can offer nothing to the world. Therefore his emphasis is on preservation of this culture. For this, we need an operating space. His Holiness says if China and Tibet can live in peaceful co-existence, it will be good for both. It was on this basis that His Holiness felt the need to live in harmony under the Chinese Constitution.

OWSA: Why is that there is so much of emphasis on Tibetan cultural and spiritual traditions? This apart, we don’t really get to know anything about Tibetans.

TS: Apart from our cultural and spiritual heritage, it is like any other country. What defines Tibet is our spiritual tradition. This tradition contains the ‘technology’ to tame your mind so that you become a happier and more productive person. We feel it is the responsibility of the world community to help Tibet protect this culture, which is non-threatening and which does not advocate war or violence. What it advocates is respect, mutual understanding and tolerance towards each other.

OWSA: It is said that the human rights situation is quite grim back in Tibet. What kind of feedback are you getting?

TS: It’s really bad. Everyday violations are leaving Tibetans very resentful. We may be materially backward but we are also human beings. We don’t want anyone to tell us constantly to do this or that. We need to be treated with respect. The Chinese authorities have put all kinds of restrictions on the movement of our people. There are reports that suggest the Chinese government is preparing for a major crackdown.

There is an undeclared martial law. The presence of police and paramilitary all over Tibet has increased manifold. There is constant surveillance of the activities of Tibetans either through close circuit televisions or by people. They are constantly watching us.

OWSA: It sounds very Orwellian.

TS: It indeed is. They are at you all the time, behaving in very arbitrary manner, barging into your house, picking you up for no rhyme and reason…

OWSA: The Chinese government says they have brought a lot of development in Tibet. What do you say about that?

TS: There is no doubt about it. Tibetans too have benefited but very marginally. Therefore our questions to China are: Why this development? What’s the motivation? And who benefits from this? Most of the benefits of this so-called development go to the Chinese settlements.

Because of this economic boom, because of the ‘development’ more and more Chinese migrants have come to settle in Tibetan areas. They have taken over our lands, our jobs, and our future. All these have added to the resentment among Tibetans.

Also the ‘development’ that has happened there is mainly infrastructural – airports, roads, new railway lines, etc. More so, this infrastructural development is to facilitate increased Chinese incursions and control. The roads and railways are also means to transport our mineral resources to mainland China. So they are also robbing us of our natural wealth.

OWSA: What is the socio-economic condition of Tibetans living there?

TS: Pathetic to say the least. In the Human Development Index prepared by UNDP, Tibet is down below. It is worse than even some of the African countries. Poverty, illiteracy and unemployment are pervasive.

OWSA: What is the overwhelming sentiment? Is it for complete independence or genuine autonomy?

TS: In order to gauge the sentiment of the Tibetan people in the aftermath of the last year’s continuous demonstrations, His Holiness called a special weak-long meeting last year here in Dharamsala in late November.

An overwhelming majority of participants supported the Middle-Way approach. I may add here that these participants were not representing just themselves, but also their respective organisations, and therefore reflecting collective thought.

There was also an attempt to solicit opinion from Tibetans living in Tibet on this issue. For this, 17,000 Tibetans were contacted in Tibet and their opinions were sought. Out of this, 5,000 people supported the Dalai Lama’s Middle-Way approach; another 3,000 left it to His Holiness to decide; and about 1,000 said that we should strive towards complete independence.

We are going to discuss the issue further in the upcoming session of the Tibetan parliament sometime later in March.

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