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Senator Singh (Tasmania): In the parliamentary break in July I had the extraordinary opportunity to travel to Dharamsala, the exile capital of Tibet, with my colleague Senator Waters as part of an Australia Tibet Council delegation. The Australia Tibet Council supports this exchange as a way of assisting members of parliament to understand more deeply the situation of the Tibetan people.

Tibet lies within Chinese territory, amongst the peaks of the Himalayas, and is home to people with a deep and important connection to their culture and their home. Tibet has over 2,000 years of written history and, prior to occupation by China, existed as an independent sovereign state.

Tibetan identity is built on a foundation of profound spirituality and the leader of the Tibetan Buddhist religion, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, is known and revered the world over.

Tragically, the leadership and the culture it represents has been systematically undermined by an occupying regime. Since China asserted its authority in the region in 1949 the loss of life, property and significant sites of heritage—for example, more than 6,000 monasteries have been destroyed—has been equalled only by the corresponding loss of liberty, freedom of expression and culture. China has falsely imputed motives of violence and separatism to His Holiness in order to justify targeting Tibetan culture and has pursued a deliberate strategy of Chinese immigration and militarisation in order to subsume the local population.

Under Chinese rule, teachers and religious leaders require permission to practise and are typically subject to forced re-education. Local language is totally delegitimised. The everyday commerce and movement of residents in Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, is subject to intense surveillance and, as the Prime Minister in exile of the central Tibetan administration, Dr Lobsang Sangay, explained when he was in Australia a short time ago, it is impossible for ordinary citizens to express their deeply-held spirituality without fear of arrest, torture or even disappearance.

Since last year 49 Tibetans have taken the extraordinary step of setting themselves alight in order to highlight the oppression of their people and to assert a level of control over their own destiny. These self-immolations are not just acts of desperation; they are acts of political expression. Indeed, according to Dr Sangay, the self-immolations are somehow an assertion of freedom: ‘You can restrain my freedom but I can choose to die as I want.’ That a people should feel that their form of death is the only avenue for expression is an indication of the gravity and urgency of the situation in Tibet. Australia has a longstanding position of recognising China’s sovereignty over the Tibet Autonomous Region. But the principles of liberty, freedom of speech and expression, and security of heritage that the Tibetan people seek are universal standards. Unfortunately, for many the only option, in order to openly practise their culture, is to seek refuge in the exile capital, Dharamsala, located on the other side of the Himalayas in Himachal Pradesh in India. It is a city above the clouds on the slopes of the Kangra Valley, not easily reached by either the southern or the northern approach. It has, however, become home to the exiled government that represents Tibet.

I had the privilege of learning about traditional Tibetan Buddhism and meditation at the Gyuto monastery and meeting his eminence the Karmapa. We also met with the director of the Tibetan Nuns Project, Mrs Rinchen Khandro, at the nunnery at Sidphur and learned of her work and the support given to Tibetan nuns. The new reception centre for new arrivals seeking asylum, which has been funded by the US Congress, provides refuge and the necessary medical attention for new arrivals. Many arrive with frostbite and other injuries after enduring a journey across the Himalayan ranges to get to a place of freedom. The records revealed that from 1991 to 2004 the centre had hosted a total of 42,634 new arrivals from Tibet, more than half of whom were children and young people under the age of 25. Yet I was informed that since 2008, the time of the Olympic Games in China, the military presence had increased dramatically in Tibet across the borders and in the streets, which has led to a reduction of new arrivals at the reception centre in Dharamsala. Nevertheless, while there I was able to talk to some new arrivals, who had only been there a day, about their journey, their hopes and their ambitions now that they were free. Many had never had any formal education and had left their families behind for a future where they could be free to live out their lives.

What Tibetans are doing every day in India is really what they should be able to do in Tibet and what we all take for granted—that is, to keep their culture alive and practise their art, language and religion. I am so pleased the Indian government has provided support and the opportunity for Tibetans to educate their people so that they are able to learn their language and culture, and practise their art through the Tibetan Institute for Performing Arts and Norbulingka in Dharamsala.

The Tibetan Children’s Village is a remarkable achievement, with a number of students going on to become Rhodes scholars and leaders all over the world. In 1959, the Dalai Lama recognised that so many orphaned refugee children, separated from their families, would need a centre to care for and educate them. The TCV today houses, cares for and educates thousands of Tibetan children and it was indeed an honour to be able to meet them. Its mission is to ensure that all Tibetan children under its care receive a sound education and cultural identity and become self-reliant, contributing members of the Tibetan community and the world at large. I certainly believe that is being achieved at the TCV.

Not only did we met with the Tibetan parliament in exile, we also met with civil society—a number of Tibetan NGOs, including the Tibetan Youth Congress, the Tibetan Women’s Association, Students for a Free Tibet, Gu-Chu-Sum and the National Democratic Party of Tibet. Given the experience of the Tibetan people, it is perhaps no surprise that civil society has thrived when it has been allowed to. All of these organisations are run by passionate, dedicated individuals.

I am pleased that Australia continues to highlight the question of Tibet in the Australia-China Human Rights Dialogue. However, China has recently closed entry to the region and refused a request from Australian officials to visit there and neighbouring Sichuan province. At the same time, under the guise of maintaining stability, 3,000 new troops have entered Tibet, with soldiers standing on the street corners and outside people’s homes.

Ultimately, the Tibetan character is one of humility, gentleness and hopefulness. Each person I met in Dharamsala is imbued with a powerful conviction that democracy will outlast authoritarianism and Tibetan culture will once again thrive in the open air of their homeland. I sincerely hope that Australia and the world can continue to contribute to that worthy aim of making China understand that with power comes responsibility to all members of the human family.