India's Tibetan Exiles Call for Help

A senior monk says the world, and especially India, must intervene to stop Chinese repression of pro-democracy protests in Lhasa
Tibetan activists and supporters wave placards and flags as they take part in a peace march along with the group of around 100 core marchers in Dharamsala on March 10, 2008, to commemorate the 49th anniversary of the Tibetan Uprising Day. MANAN VATSYAYANA/AFP/Getty Images

It is dusk in Dharamsala, the Himalayan hilltop home of the Dalai Lama—the spiritual leader of 6 million Tibetans—and the seat of the Tibetan government-in-exile. The air has begun to cool, and the bucolic mountain surroundings have become still. From a distance you can hear the chanting from a candlelight procession to the monastery where the Dalai Lama lives. As hundreds of monks and ordinary people file into the monastery, the prayers become clearer. "May the supreme jewel Bodhichitta that has not arisen, arise and flow; and may that which has arisen not diminish, but increase more and more."

Woeser Rimpoche, one of the most senior lamas in Dharamsala, is watching. With his red robes and ramrod posture he is an impressive figure. But his face is full of sorrow. "That prayer is for the Chinese; we are the only ones praying for them. We pray that they may have compassion in their hearts, that they may leave our people to live in peace and retain their identity," he says.

It may be an unrealistic wish. The procession has been a daily affair in Dharamsala since Mar. 7, when Tibetans began to demonstrate against Beijing. The Chinese repression of the Tibetan uprising is now in its second week and, despite the rimpoche's prayers, Beijing shows no fatigue or remorse, only an increasing determination to curb the protests.

India's Support is Crucial

In Tibet's capital, Lhasa, there is an uneasy calm. The Chinese army is out in force, conducting house-to-house searches, and hundreds of young monks and students have been jailed. In the surrounding areas there are still protests. The latest news shows young Tibetans in the adjoining areas of Ando, Gansu, and Qinghai rushing through the streets, some on horseback, pulling down Chinese flags and hoisting the green and white flag of Tibet. According to the press office of the Dalai Lama, more Chinese soldiers are being sent in to suppress these protesters.

The rimpoche says, with passion, "The Indian government really needs to support us at this time. Their support is critical to us." It certainly is. India has been host to Tibet's exiled political and religious leaders since 1959, Beijing suppressed an uprising (China annexed Tibet in 1950) in Tibet and the Dalai Lama and his followers were given refuge. Since then about 100,000 Tibetans have made India their home, creating a mini-Tibet wherever they live—Tibetan schools and monasteries flourish in India, most financed by India.

The rimpoche was one of those refugees—but a more recent one. He fled in 1990, and his memories are fresh, the relationships in Tibet still strong. "The most devastating thing happening is to the monks. I feel so sad," he says. The lama is a tall, muscular man of 42, with a determined jaw and plenty of inner passion. While the Dalai Lama has advocated the "Middle Path" with China—whereby Tibet would remain within China but with its own religion and culture—many Tibetans, led by the Tibetan Youth Congress, would like Tibet to be independent. The rimpoche, who was one of the founders of the Tibetan Youth Congress, sounds torn about which path would be the best one.

"They Beat You Ceaselessly"

But about this he is clear: Neither the exiled government nor the Dalai Lama instigated the protests in Tibet, as Beijing has repeatedly suggested. Contact between Tibet and the world is limited to begin with; it would be difficult to manage such a thing from India. Instead, he says, what's happening in Tibet is a people's movement, a spontaneous uprising. He says it is coming from a second generation of Tibetans who, despite China's investment in Tibet, have not seen a better life. They are tired of being marginalized in their own homeland and are tired of the destruction of their identity and culture.

The rimpoche should know. He was born in eastern Tibet. He comes from the Woesar monastery and is the highest ranking monk in that area. He is believed to be a reincarnated lama. When he became political he was imprisoned. The prison conditions were grim. "There is no food. You sleep and stand on the cold, cold ground. They beat you on your knuckles, they beat you ceaselessly. They electrocute your body, and especially inside the mouth," he recalls.

He fled to India and, once in Dharamsala, he founded a movement called Gu Chu Sam—the former political prisoners' association. The group, along with the Tibetan Youth Congress, is one of the most influential and vocal groups in Dharamsala. He worries terribly about the young monks who could be facing the same harsh treatment he endured in Chinese prisons.

China's Economic Might May Stifle Response

But the protests in his home country are a relief, an inevitable venting of suppressed anger. "I'm relieved that the struggle and desperation in Tibet has released its steam. If this had not happened inside Tibet, the sympathy of the world may not have taken place," he says. His friends in Tibet have sent him a message: They've been resisting for 50 years, and the world has not listened. Now, in the run-up to the Olympics and on the 49th anniversary of the Tibetan exodus to India, they decided vigorous protest was the only way to get world attention.

Like many Tibetans, the rimpoche is frustrated with India's silence on Tibet. The lama says India is not looking at her historical, thousand-year connection with Tibet and Buddhism (Gautama Buddha was born in India). Instead, India is looking at Tibet from a recent historical perspective—since 1959, and more importantly, since 1962, when China won a border war with India. "If India steps up to the issue of Tibet, it could really claim its place as a global leader," he says.

But the world's economic interest in China has resulted in a meek global response. Under these circumstances, the Tibetan protests could peter out; the Olympics don't start until August, and the world has a short memory. The rimpoche, meanwhile, will continue his prayer for China to develop inner compassion.

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