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Tibetans in Exile in a Changing Global Political Climate

Many organisations campaigning on behalf of the Tibetan community persist in seeking some form of independence, self-determination or autonomy. In light of the evolving position of China in the world it seems that this stance (and indeed the stance of the Dalai Lama's government in exile) is becoming ever more unrealistic. Tibetan reactions to China's changing position in the world and the dwindling of western attention to their cause are changing the way Tibetans articulate their problems, priorities and indeed select their government. What are these concerns and how did they come to be so pressing?


Tibetans in Exile in a Changing Global Political Climate

Denis J Burke

This has seen Tibetans treated as terrorists and the same peeling back of civil liberties that has been such a cause of concern across the world [Wright-Neville 2004]. Perry’s ideas [Perry 2001] reflect the same concerns when she indicates that while protests on economic grounds and

Many organisations campaigning on behalf of the Tibetan community persist in seeking some form of independence, self-determination or autonomy. In light of the evolving position of China in the world it seems that this stance (and indeed the stance of the Dalai Lama’s government in exile) is becoming ever more unrealistic. Tibetan reactions to China’s changing position in the world and the dwindling of western attention to their cause are changing the way Tibetans articulate their problems, priorities and indeed select their government. What are these concerns and how did they come to be so pressing?

Denis J Burke ( is based in Ireland and has specialised in research on Sino-Tibetan relations.

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etween 2,000 and 3,000 Tibetans spill across the border into Nepal, India, and beyond every year [Caple 2004]. That ordinary people are willing to quit their homeland and endanger their lives by making a dangerous journey across the Himalayas is proof that something is rotten in the autonomous region of Tibet. Likewise, while the community in exile has seen success on an unprecedented scale, there has also been an abundance of problems. In this article I will examine the causes of discontent within Tibet and the assorted problems faced by the exile community today.

The Strike Hard Campaign

According to the publication of the Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy (TCHRD), Dharamsala Death Penalty in China [TCHRD 2006a] the ramifications of political protest in China are severe. Judges, lawyers and legal advisers are inadequately trained, inadequately paid and thus open to bribery and easily corruptible. Of particular concern in the report is the Endangering State Security Act which is vague, difficult to debate and often the charge brought to bear on political dissidents. Recent accounts of trials imply that evidence was fabricated, proper grounds for defence denied and the death sentence handed down without due consideration. While this may hold true of China generally, Tibet has allegedly seen far fewer executions for political crimes than Xinjiang in recent years [TCHRD 2006a]. Nevertheless, the legal system is clearly not in any minority’s favour. “…with less than 1 per cent of the total population, Tibet contributes more political prisoners than the rest of China’s provinces combined” [Misra 2000: 82]. China’s zero tolerance policy on crime, the strike hard campaign (first adopted in the 1980s) has found fresh life in the form of the global war on terror [TCHRD 2005].

protests related to foreign wrongdoing are tolerated and occasionally encouraged by the state, those undermining the state or suggesting any sort of independence movement are dealt with very harshly.

Political prisoners and their whereabouts are of great concern to Tibetans inside Tibet and in the community in exile. Namlo Yak, a former civil servant in Tibet who was arrested for passing on “sensitive documents”, told me during our interview that his family had not been informed of his arrest for months afterwards and they had assumed that he was dead (Namlo Yak, personal communication, November 2005). Reports from the TCHRD confirm that this is common practice. Even when families are alerted it is unlikely that they will be told of their relatives’ whereabouts, and harassment of families of the arrested is not uncommon [TCHRD 2005]. I have heard several first-hand accounts which imply that torture is rampant (Namlo Yak and Ben Ba Tsering, personal communication, November 2005). The Dharamsala-based support group Gu Chu Sum was set up to deal with former political prisoners. They are underfunded and somewhat disorganised but their reports confirm the patterns of arrest and torture (Tse Monling Penpa, personal communication, August 2006). A glance at most Tibet Support Groups’ (TSG) web sites reveals that there are ongoing campaigns to ascertain the whereabouts or secure the freedom of political prisoners. Without the means to address such issues from within Tibet, the exiles must use what resources they can to pressure China to investigate these arrests.

As Lhasa in particular has been opened up to foreign and Chinese tourists two problems gain prominence: Tibet’s indigenous culture is being relegated to antiquity, and the benefits of tourism are enjoyed almost exclusively by the Chinese in Tibet. Reports from travellers to the region suggest


that Chinese-organised tours treat Tibetan culture as if it were already a thing of the past with many important buildings, including the Potala Palace, being kept alive only as museum pieces. Ancient Buddhist religious practices and the materials that go with them (robes, prayer wheels, etc) are being turned into commodities to amuse tourists. Moreover, the hotels and services generally used by organised tours are largely Chinese-run while Tibetan establishments tend to catch backpackers and other budget travellers meaning that the balance of tourist revenue is going straight to Chinese entrepreneurs [DIIR 2004].

Higher education in Tibet is taught almost exclusively through Mandarin and access to higher institutions (apart from those dealing strictly with Tibetan language or traditional medicine) requires a high standard in Mandarin. Thus, while Tibetan language learning is encouraged and facilitated at school, it is, professionally, of little use to anyone with a career in anything other than teaching or editing. This further compounds Tibet’s dependence on Chinese labour in high technology and management sectors as most Tibetans are unable to receive education in these prominent fields (Namlo Yak, personal communication, November 2005). A former teacher at a university in Lhasa, Julie Brittain, described how most of her Tibetan students were the children of cadres, had little interest in what they were studying and had been streamlined into her programme because of quotas. She goes on to say that while pressure is high and timetables packed for Chinese students, Tibetans receive little encouragement and have an abundance of distraction free leisure time, often leading to alcohol abuse [DIIR 2004]. Even Epstein [Epstein 1983] who is decidedly pro-Chinese indicates that, when he was writing, advances in education in Tibet had been primarily vocational. This educational situation feeds problems of unemployment and an over-reliance on a more skilled Chinese workforce such that, if Tibet ever were to achieve some degree of real autonomy, the infrastructure would still require the presence of large numbers of Chinese for management and high technology jobs (Namlo Yak, personal communication, November 2005).

Those areas of the plateau closest to what is indisputably China have already been largely assimilated into greater China and Lhasa has been repeatedly described as a Chinese border city. By all accounts many Tibetan towns feature signs, news and commerce almost entirely in Mandarin [DIIR 2004]. Most new businesses and the capital required to start them are Chinese and the foreign direct investment that is fuelling the Chinese economic wonder only comes to Tibet in the pockets of Chinese investors. Moreover, though it is often overstated and exact figures vary, there are certainly grounds to believe that Han Chinese in Tibet now outnumber Tibetans. The risk this poses in terms of ethnic dilution is also overstated as the number of permanent Han residents is only estimated at 3 per cent of the population. The remainder merely pass through for usually not more than eight years to take advantage

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of government incentives or career start-up opportunities that are far more accessible than in inner China [Brown 1999]. Clearly this has other repercussions, namely, the draining of capital and skills and a transitory and inconsistently skilled workforce, further stunting real development.

Freedom of Religion

A particularly thorny issue in Tibet is religion. Questions concerning the recognition of high lamas will be dealt with at a later stage, here I will concentrate on everyday religiosity. Freedom of religion is the official line on Tibet and certainly the average Tibetan can practise their religion openly without fear of violence or immediate repercussions. But it has been observed that Tibetans who achieve any degree of upward social mobility are not openly religious “…no one who desires social status or to hold office in Tibet can show religious feelings, if they have them, in the open” [DIIR 2004]. Nearly half of the new refugees who arrive each year are monks and nuns [Adams 2005] which is indicative of the fact that they suffer more than others for their religious beliefs. “One-third of the political prisoners in Tibet’s prisons are nuns” [Brown 1999]. Aside from the turbulent history of the cultural revolution when religion was targeted as unbefitting of a Marxist state, monasteries have typically been singled out as centres of dissent and a close reading of occupied Tibet’s history seems to confirm this as many of the larger protests were conceived in the monasteries. The strike hard campaign mentioned earlier could not be used against monks or nuns whose only “wrongdoing” was continued devotion to the Dalai Lama. Thus compulsory patriotic education was introduced to every monastery in Tibet which included classes and essay writing that denied any aspirations of independence and required the “students” to denounce the Dalai Lama. As early as 1997 nearly all Tibetan monks and nuns had been re-educated in this way [TCHRD 2005].

Lhasa’s red light district, bars and night clubs are often kept off limits to Chinese but freely accessible to Tibetans (Namlo Yak, personal communication, November 2005) which serves to feed social delinquency, alcoholism and moral

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degeneration. Though Tibetans are exempt from China’s one-child policy, senator Brown reports forced abortions and sterilisations amongst some Tibetan women [Brown 1999]. Finally, though the police and military presence in Tibet is not as intense as it once was, reports suggest that these have been replaced by closed circuit television (CCTV) and plain clothes surveillance creating an oppressive environment in which ordinary people are constantly being watched [DIIR 2004].

In short, Tibetans are subject to widespread social marginalisation in terms of access to education, commercial endeavour and fundamental religious rights. While it would be an overreaction to assume that this is all part of a carefully calculated plan executed by the agents of Beijing there is certainly no evidence to suggest that China is doing anything to address these problems. Furthermore, the disregard shown to Tibetans in terms of tourism and the undermining of their rights to practise religion are doubtless the direct consequence of Chinese government policies.

The Community in Exile

Many Tibetans clearly flee Tibet as a result of persecution, others send their children in the hope that they will receive a better education and a chance to learn their own culture abroad, some are former political prisoners whose lives in Tibet are dogged by surveillance, and some come because they wish to see the Dalai Lama. Most do not travel on Chinese passports and thus, upon arrival in Nepal are stateless refugees and in most cases cannot even safely re-enter the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Police harassment of Tibetans, mostly for petty bribes, is extremely common in India and Nepal as police are generally aware that Tibetans do not have documents and are vulnerable. While India, most western countries and, to a lesser degree, Nepal and Bhutan offer a safe haven for the refugees, merely escaping Tibet is not enough to guarantee a safe, problem-free existence.

In Dharamsala, where almost all of the exiles stop for at least some time, there is a distinct divide between those born in exile and those who made the journey across the Himalayas. Those born in exile are sometimes accused of being spoilt and not really Tibetan (Samdhup, personal communication, October 2005). A great many of the exiles are orphans and spend the early years of their lives in institutions like the Tibetan children’s village. In the majority of cases this provides a solid education and prospects for the future but a minority, for a variety of reasons, end up unemployed, selling drugs to tourists or begging.

Many succeed in acquiring other passports and those in India were, until fairly recently,1 granted special identity cards that (just about) allowed for international travel but there are still a number who have no papers and no official identity.

Identity is also a problem within this small community. Pan-Tibetanism does not really exist and the range of sects of Tibetan Buddhism, variations of the language, styles of dress and, importantly, versions of recent history, are not consistent throughout the exile community. Though ideally Tibetans believe in themselves as one people with the single goal of freeing their homeland from oppression, the reality is that they are from a diffuse range of backgrounds. The government in exile, like most world governments, does its best to instil a sense of common ground amongst the refugees but this leads to a lack of recognition of significant differences. Examples of this include: lack of historical recognition of the Khampa uprising, the most significant resistance to the Chinese invasion, probably due to the Dalai Lama’s policy of non-violence [Babayeva 2006 and McGranahan 2005]; the Shugden sect which enjoys a prominent position in Tibet and has undermined the Dalai Lama in exile. He has, in response, banned the sect. Several monks of this sect have been found dead under suspicious circumstances in monasteries in India [Misra 2003]. This approach could be called uniformity for the sake of unity and, though the circumstances are admittedly difficult, such attempts to silence history and ignore regionalism will most likely only cause these issues to further foment.

In spite of efforts like the Voice of Tibet (a similar enterprise to Radio Free Asia) communication between the community in exile and Tibet is patchy at best. Few


who leave Tibet and settle elsewhere return and so news of the diaspora is limited at home. The process of democratisation, which I will discuss in detail later, may be making positive advances in exile but the lack of reliable communication with Tibet itself means that those at home are largely oblivious to the situation (Tashi Phuntsok, personal communication, August 2006). Phuntsok also indicated that many NGOs’ hope of using the Beijing Olympics as a rallying point for discussion of Tibet was met by the ignorance of most new arrivals from Tibet who were unaware that China was even hosting the games. It is singularly difficult to mobilise Tibetans in Tibet due to this communication problem not to mention that it is a great hindrance to family communication.

The Tibetan diaspora has been applauded by many for maintaining a generally peaceful and unified existence but it bears emphasis that they are not without social problems just like other groups and there are already significant strains on the ideas of unity and non-violence.

Restrictions, official and otherwise, on religion, education and veneration of the Dalai Lama are amongst the many reasons why so many Tibetans leave their homes each year and the prospects of these problems being resolved in the near future are slim. “Tibet has one of the smallest concentrations of NGOs in the world” [Caple 2004]. The PRC administration of Tibet is unwilling to admit that anything is wrong there; therefore any reforms will doubtless be very slow. In exile, steps are constantly being taken to address social concerns but the lack of unity on political, historical and regional grounds is being treated as the proverbial elephant in the living room, ever present but largely ignored. In the context of these problems, at home and in the diaspora, Tibetans push on towards a precarious future.

Major Concerns of Tibet

The process of democratisation and the struggle to free Tibet link into manifold concerns that dominate Tibetan discourses around the world. Primary amongst these concerns are the state of negotiations with Beijing, the implications for Tibet of China’s hosting the Olympic Games and the direction of the Tibetan movement after the Dalai Lama XIV. The position of China in the world is the underlying thread that unites these concerns as, even when perceived in a positive light, a sentiment persists in Tibetan discourses that the world bases its relations with China on economic concerns first and everything else second.

The Olympic Games 2008 represent a great opportunity for Tibet to draw attention to its cause. The recent success of Mia Farrow in shaming Beijing on Darfur will doubtless provide encouragement. This would not be the first time that the Olympics have been politicised, with the Moscow 1980 games as one example and the Seoul 1988 games as another [Liu 2007]. Extensive questioning during interviews in Dharamsala and London suggest that generally Tibetans are optimistic about the games one way or the other. A feeling prevails that even if Tibet fails to achieve sufficient media attention, the games themselves will stoke up enough attention to force China to rethink its position or, at the very least, that western TSGs will be able to make noise in Beijing. The initial campaign asking athletes to boycott the Olympics has been abandoned on the basis that it is not right to press sportspersons to abandon what may be their only chance as Olympians (Tenzin Dharden Sharling, personal communication, August 2006). The International Tibet Support Network has made progress in trying to tie up a mutual strategy amongst huge numbers of TSGs and so far they have met with some success. The games have certainly brought to the fore discourses on the lack of unity of TSGs and the lacklustre approach of many western supporters (Kalsang Phuntsok Godrukpa, personal communication, August 2006).

Though there is also great hope that the number of tourists and foreign journalists in Beijing for the games will have a positive effect, Tenzin Tsundue remains adamant that China has some enviable abilities, and one of them is showmanship. Once it achieves the world spotlight, says Tsundue, the international community may well be so dazzled by China’s “mask” that they will forgive them a great deal. Rather than believing that democratisation or enlightenment of some sort will result from the games, Tsundue pointed out that it is a sporting event and not an educational workshop; there is no reason to suspect that visitors to Beijing will spend their time trying to promote civil society (Tenzin Tsundue, personal communication, August 2006). Tashi Phuntsok similarly pointed out that though the Olympics have been politicised in the past, the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) decision to grant Beijing the Olympics was not a political one. They must, first and foremost, decide whether or not a country is equipped to handle the games (Tashi Phuntsok, personal communication, August, 2006).

The IOC said that they believed the games could only be a force for good in China even quietly reassuring critics that any major human rights violations could lead to a withdrawal of the games. Both Tashi Phuntsok and Thubten Samphel said in an interview that they welcomed such conditions but would be happier to see more actual pressure put on China to improve their record (Tashi Phuntsok and Thubten Samphel, personal communication, August 2006). While Kalsang Phuntsok Godrukpa, of the Tibetan Youth Congress (TYC), said that he objected to Beijing hosting the Olympics he also pointed out that this objection was simply because he felt the games are a good opportunity to embarrass China and that he believes the IOC had good intentions in granting Beijing the Olympics. Also worth noting is that the Beijing Olympic committee allegedly committed to complete press transparency during the games but no one I spoke to believed this to be realistic. The office of Tibet in London, in fact, claimed that the same promise has been made, and broken, before.2

Gu Chu Sum, amongst others, went further to say that they believed there was a real risk that the Olympics would precipitate a case of “round up the usual suspects” with known political dissidents being rounded up and arrested in the months preceding the games (Tse Monling Penpa, personal communication, August 2006 and Namlo Yak, personal communication, November 2005). The Olympics may yet prove to be highly beneficial for both China and Tibet and certainly optimism prevails amongst the exiles. Nevertheless, there are a number of causes for concern and the efficacy of the Olympic campaign is already doubted by some. There is hope,

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nevertheless, that the campaign will bring fresh international attention to the cause.

Autonomy and Independence

As far as negotiations between Beijing and Dharamsala go, the fundamental stumbling point seems to be that it is not enough for the Dalai Lama to seek auto nomy rather than independence. Beijing wants confirmation that any claim to inde pendence past, present or future will not be forthcoming [Sperling 2004]. There are also historical complications that jeopardise China’s jurisdictional claims over Tibet [Carlson 2004]. Furthermore, as mentioned above, China has no desire to negotiate with Dharamsala per se but rather wishes to hasten the return of the Dalai Lama. China’s political manoeuvring has so far proven highly effective. To grant Tibetans the status of national minority allows for nationalist discourses to grow exponentially and still remain within the context of greater China. Making the asso ciation between imperialist, foreign attempts to undermine the motherland with the Tibetan cause was also shrewd: it means that any claim of independence will not curry favour with most ordinary Chinese people [Sperling 2004]. Dharamsala’s position has been consistent since the Strasbourg proposals were put forward; not independence but “complete domestic autonomy” (ibid). The talks are currently stalled and TYC believe that not enough is being done to carry them forward on Dharamsala’s side (Kalsang Phuntsok Godrukpa, personal communication, 2006). Godrukpa’s objections to the so-called middle way approach (advocating autonomy not independence) stem from the problem that the middle approach should be a path between two realities and that this is impossible in this situation. “The middle path is not between two facts, on the one side is a whole bunch of lies and on the other side is the truth, so this is not a middle path” (Kalsang Phuntsok Godrukpa, personal communication, August 2006).

Tenzin Tsundue’s answers to questions relating to Dharamsala’s approach hinted at a gradual erosion of patience with the situation amongst the exiles. He acknowledged that something was happening with these negotiations but that it was simply not enough and that it was possible that the Chinese are just dangling the possibility of

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further progress as a means to placate the exiles who, he believes, are not realistic enough in their aspirations. “We seem to be very romantic and idealistic and not very down on the ground so I don’t think this is really going anywhere” (Tenzin Tsundue, personal communication, August 2006). This may well be true, but the onus is arguably on Beijing to make them work as they unquestionably hold more trump cards. Tibet has nothing to bring to the table other than the constant undermining of China’s international reputation, a tactic which is becoming increasingly ineffective. Tsundue also said that there was a possibility that the current approach may be modified in the lifetime of this Dalai Lama and he hoped that informed, representative, discussions would replace negotiations.

Patience then is clearly wearing thin in the Tibetan camp and Beijing’s position is not allaying exile concerns that negotiations are merely a stalling tactic. Though the middle way approach was popularly supported at the time of its official adoption, prevailing sentiment in the community in exile suggests that this support may be dwindling as progress is simply not forthcoming.

Dalai Lama and His Successor

The Dalai Lama is of central importance to any discussion of Tibet. Tenzin Gyatso is older than 70 years and, though Buddhist philosophy may state that his successor will simply be the next manifestation of this enlightened being, the rest of the world does not necessarily share this belief. As a monk and a leader he has demonstrated enviable statecraft and his prestige is reflected by the lively array of world leaders who have been happy to meet him, but there is no reason to assume that this will apply to his successor. What happens after his inevitable passing is of course only a matter of guesswork and several conditions already in place suggest that this will be a complicated problem. The simplest to discuss is that there are elements within the Tibetan community who are holding back on more radical action purely because of his leadership (Kalsang Phuntsok Godrukpa, personal communication, August 2006). That this will lead to guerrilla warfare or a sustained campaign against the Chinese in Tibet is highly unlikely but petty acts of terrorism should not be ruled out and the consequences of such action are wildly unpredictable. Tenzin Tsundue was a little more optimistic however when he told me that he believes Tibetans have enough unity to continue the peaceful path in the Dalai Lama’s absence (Tenzin Tsundue, personal communication, August 2006).

As far as finding his successor is concerned, there are numerous complications. The current Dalai Lama has already stated that he will be reborn in a free country and, as evidenced by the relatively recent recognition of Lama Yeshe’s successor in Spain, it is not impossible that Dharamsala’s choice of Dalai Lama may not be ethnically Tibetan.

This process will be complicated by the fact that Beijing will almost certainly strive to recognise its own selection for his successor citing historical precedent as justification. History could not be less clear on just what that precedent actually is as Tibet’s version and China’s version of events are in stark disagreement on the details [Powers 2004]. Suffice it to say, at some stage, at least one Dalai Lama was recognised through a lottery system presided over by representatives of the Qing dynasty. China now claims that on this basis they were able to recognise the child Panchen Lama of which there are now two – one Tibetanrecognised, the other Chinese-recognised. This could very well lead to a situation where two Dalai Lamas will be selected.

The Panchen Lama is also a complicating factor. Without the recognition of the Panchen Lama (as he is under house arrest or dead) the Tibetan choice of Dalai Lama will need the blessing of the next highest Lama, the Karmapa, who has yet to demonstrate that he is entirely on Dharamsala’s side and who has not, in this incarnation or a previous one, been called upon to legitimise the choice of a successor. This confused line of succession will not make it easier to legitimately claim that the exiles have selected the right child.

Should the selection prove to be straightforward there is the additional problem that it will take at least 18 years for the new Dalai Lama to be old enough to take power. In the past this always led to the appointment of a regent and, once again, the logical choice in this case seems


to be the Karmapa. This could go either way; he may finally represent an acceptable leader for both Beijing and Dharamsala [Misra 2003], it cannot be ruled out that he would prove to be too much in Beijing’s favour or he may simply pass on the opportunity to take political power (which may well be in keeping with the current Dalai Lama’s drive towards democratisation) leading to a power vacuum. No matter in what way this situation is examined, Tibet will suffer confusion, power play and weakness for a period following on from the 14th Dalai Lama’s death.

Unpredictable Evolution

Further obscuring any guess at the likely future of the Tibetan situation is the un predi ctable evolution of China itself at the moment. As scholars around the world analyse, argue and often disagree on the possibilities of democratisation in China, Tibetans in exile see a recurring dynamic in the world’s dealings with their anta gonist: money. This is not always construed, as may be imagined, as the materialistic west forgetting the little guy in pursuit of the next gold rush, but opinions vary widely. Thubten Samphel of the DIIR expressed the opinion that it is a positive thing for China and indeed the world that China is enjoying such economic success. If, as many speculate, this success does lead to massive reform it is better, says Samphel, that it occur gradually as any massive upheaval in the PRC would have repercussions for the rest of the world that neither the global economy nor its humanitarian counterparts are remotely equipped to handle (Thubten Samphel, personal communication, August 2006). One central Tibetan administration justice commissioner voiced the common concern of many Tibetans I spoke to that China’s reforms so far have been aimed at placating criticism and not at seriously addressing the problems underlying those criticisms. “Like the elephant’s trunk he shows the world is not the teeth he chews us with [sic]” he said. Tenzin Tsundue was a touch more cynical about international dealings with China. In response to a question concerning the benefits of international re cognition of the government in exile he responded that most governments weigh their business concerns very heavily in any dealings with China. “The value of truth and history needs to be contrasted with the value of business relations with China”. He assessed China’s reforms thus, “the head is capitalist, the body is com munist” (Tenzin Tsundue, personal communication, August 2006). And Karma Yeshe, of the Voice of Tibet, said he believed that human rights are being used by the international community like trump cards; when business is good they are not played, when business is bad, human rights become an issue (Karma Yeshe, personal communication, August 2006).

But how realistic are these interpretations? Guthrie presents a positive image that indicates that through reforms China will eventually democratise going by the massive increase in local elections and reform of private business laws as evidence [Guthrie 2006]. The recurring thesis of Mehdi Parvizi Amineh would seem to back this up: industrialisation creates conditions to attract foreign direct investment thus stimulating growth, education (and everything that goes with it) and creates the institutions of a system of free government and the society required to maintain it [Amineh and Houweling 2005]. China is, however, an exception to such theories. In the first place the foreign direct investment in question is coming in largely on the terms of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) (e g, the famous case of Google facilitating censorship), education is still under the exclusive control of the CCP and as long as hardliners remain in positions of power to pressure potential reformers, public and private life will remain largely within its control. Furthermore, as highlighted by Tashi Phuntsok, those who adapt to new



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reforms fastest will be those in urban mainland China and that is certainly not Tibet’s position.

Concerning international governments, one can only imagine that if China was not crucial to the world economy other actors would take a harsher line on its human rights infringements. From the perspective of Tibetan observers, for better or worse, business comes first with China.

The case of the community in exile is difficult to examine in the context of other political situations and the reason is probably because the range of problems they face, and the level of their engagement with them, is not really comparable to even superficially similar groups. The unusual nature of their leader (and the means of selec ting his successor), and the adaptability of the CCP, coupled with inter national attitudes toward them, are major reasons why the concerns of the Tibetan community today are not merely complicated but almost insurmountable and, as yet, unsolvable.

Postscript March 2008

The interviews and personal communications cited in the article above were conducted between November 2005 and August 2006. At that stage it was already clear that the Tibetan community in exile was preparing to use the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing as a protest platform. Also apparent was a waning optimism, dissipating doubts concerning China’s willingness to engage in meaningful negotiations with the government in exile. Furthermore, many of those interviewed hinted that they found western support for their cause frustratingly vapid.

The riots and popular protests which took place in several locations in March 2008 can be traced to internal and external developments, as stated in this article, and may signal a revised articulation of the Tibetan movement and the individuals’ struggles for independence.

Though the Dalai Lama’s middle way approach still enjoys popular support, it has not brought substantive progress in 20 years. China, in hosting the Olympics, has the opportunity to display to the world its dramatic transformation. It is, in some ways, the culmination of three decades of social, economic, and political striving towards newfound respect and prosperity for China.

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The opportunity this presents for the Tibetan movement, to attempt to upstage the event

– and embarrass China in the process – is too historic to be missed. Support groups and sympathisers around the world are trying to do just that, while keeping in line with the wishes of the Dalai Lama.

Many of these groups (e g, the Tibetan Women’s Association, Friends of Tibet, Students for a Free Tibet) has been preparing for this since the International Olympic Committee announced that Beijing would host the games in 2008. Yet none of their efforts generated sufficient attention to put Tibet firmly in the spotlight. Regrettably, two weeks of protests and riots, frequently manifesting in violence and disorder, have drawn more attention to Tibet worldwide than the prior two years of non-violent agitation.


1 Until recently, India’s policy towards Tibetans was that they were refugees. Now they are regarded as pilgrims implying that they are in India for religious reasons only and that they are expected to return to their county of origin [Misra 2003].

2 At the opening of the Gormo-Lhasa rail line foreign journalists were not permitted to board the first train to make the journey on the basis that it was full (Tashi Tsering, personal communication, August 2006).


Adams, W F (2005): ‘Tibetan Refugees in India: Integration Opportunities through Development of Social, Cultural and Spiritual Traditions’ in Community Development Journal, Vol 40, No 2, April.

Amineh, Mehdi Parvizi and Henk Houweling (eds) (2005): Central Eurasia in Global Politics, Brill, Leiden.

Ardley, Jane (2003): ‘Learning the Art of Democracy? Continuity and Change in the Tibetan Governmentin-Exile’ in Contemporary South Asia, 12 (3), Carfax.

Babayeva, Yuliya (2006): ‘The Khampa Uprising: Tibetan Resistance against the Chinese Invasion’, Pace University.

Bishop, Peter (2000): ‘Caught in the Cross-Fire: Tibet, Media and Promotional Culture’ in Media, Culture and Society, 22, 645.

Brown, Bob (1999): ‘Chinese-Occupied Tibet and the Tibetans in Exile’, The Australian Greens, December.

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