By Hannah Beech / Dharamsala / TIME MAGAZINE
He has never been to Tibet, never breathed the thin air of the high plateau, nor spun a prayer wheel in the shadow of the great Buddhist monasteries. Yet on Aug. 8, 43-year-old Lobsang Sangay was sworn in as the head of the Tibetan government-in-exile. Born in a refugee camp in India and educated in the U.S., Sangay holds no passport or nationality, only a travel certificate. He expresses homesickness for a place that exists in the foreign mind as an otherworldly haven, and in the Tibetan one as an occupied homeland. “Like all of us in exile, I will never be completely at peace until I go to Tibet,” he says when we meet in Dharamsala, a scruffy settlement in the Himalayan foothills of India where the Tibetan refugee community coalesced five decades ago. “The question is: How do we get there?”
Sangay’s inauguration as Kalon Tripa, or Prime Minister, comes at a critical moment for Tibet — both for the 5.4 million Tibetans living inside China and for the 150,000 or so who have chosen exile. Young refugees whose votes carried Sangay to office are questioning their movement’s longtime commitment to nonviolent resistance, while an ongoing crackdown by Chinese security forces has failed to suppress dissent within Tibet.
Unlike protest campaigns in the 1950s and ’80s, the new wave of demonstrations has flared across the entire Tibetan Plateau, from what China calls the Tibetan Autonomous Region to Tibetan-dominated parts of Sichuan, Qinghai, Gansu and Yunnan provinces. Beijing routinely blames Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, for political instability on the high plateau. But many Tibetans argue that the Nobel Peace Prize laureate in fact prevents a violent uprising from erupting in the region. “There is so much anger in Tibet now; it is only because of His Holiness that the people don’t rise up,” says Tsering Migyur, a Mandarin-speaking undersecretary in the Dalai Lama’s office in Dharamsala. Migyur should know. For decades he was a senior officer for the Chinese police and military intelligence in Lhasa, serving as a minority poster boy. In 2000, however, he defected to Dharamsala. “China believes that once the Dalai Lama dies, the movement will lose power,” says Migyur. “But the Dalai Lama is actually China’s best friend because the next generation will not be so accommodating.”
The vast terrain has languished in a state of suspended political animation since 1950, when Chinese communist forces began marching in. Nine years later, rather than further submit to atheist overlords, the Dalai Lama escaped by horseback over the Himalayas to exile in Dharamsala. His flight precipitated an exodus of Tibetans to India, which granted them a refuge that has lasted for generations. Ever since, the cleric who was deemed at age 4 to be the 14th incarnation of a Tibetan deity of compassion, has been reviled by Beijing, which calls him “a wolf in monk’s robes.”
The intervening 60 years of communist rule have done little to quell the reflexive resistance of Tibetans, who believe their land was effectively independent when the Chinese invaded. (Beijing maintains that Tibet has been part of China for centuries.) China has brought modernity — roads, railways, power stations — to Tibet, but relations between the country’s ethnic Han majority and Tibetans have worsened in recent years. A mass migration of Han into Tibet threatens to culturally and economically overwhelm the sparsely populated but resource-rich plateau, sparking fears that Tibetans will become a minority in their own land. “We cannot afford to carry out our fight generation after generation,” says Ogyen Trinley Dorje, the Karmapa or third most senior monk in Tibetan Buddhism, who fled Tibet as a 14-year-old and has lived in Dharamsala since 2000. “If our culture is gone, if our religion is gone, even if we get our independence, what’s the point?”
Today, the global space for anyone Beijing deems an enemy has shrunk as governments and corporations scramble to accommodate China’s rising power. With his tireless globetrotting, jovial air and commitment to nonviolence, the Dalai Lama has single-handedly saved Tibet from the dust heap of obscure ethnic struggles. “Free Tibet” remains a chic crusade worthy of Hollywood’s attention. But the Dalai Lama, though in fine health, is 76 years old. While Tibetans believe he will be reincarnated, disputes over which child will be the next Dalai Lama will no doubt break out between the exiled holy men in Dharamsala and the political men in Beijing. It will also take time for the next Dalai Lama to grow up — unless the current spiritual leader takes the unprecedented step of ending the line with him, a possibility he raised in a Sept. 24 statement.
To protect his flock in this uncertain era, the Dalai Lama has cleaved what had been indivisible since 1642: the entwined spiritual and secular duties of his post. In March the Dalai Lama announced his political retirement to a tearful parliament in Dharamsala. The next month Sangay, a Harvard Law School graduate who wrote his doctoral thesis on the Tibetan government-in-exile, was elected the new Kalon Tripa. The People’s Daily, China’s mouthpiece, said Sangay was a “terrorist poised to rule.”
Old Conflict, New Anger
For years now, the Dalai Lama has stressed that he wants only genuine autonomy for Tibet, not outright independence — an approach he calls “the middle way.” Years of negotiations between Beijing and Dharamsala have yielded no common ground. I have never met a Tibetan who expresses anything other than adoration for the Dalai Lama as a spiritual leader. Nevertheless, an increasing number of Tibetans see his efforts at peaceful compromise with China as ineffectual and even counterproductive. A Lhasa businessman I cannot name says something close to heresy for ears attuned to praise of the Dalai Lama’s every utterance: “His Holiness does not live in Lhasa; he does not understand. Negotiations will never work. China will never give us freedom unless we rise up.”
Anger and frustration boiled over in 2008 when demonstrations culminated in deadly clashes between Tibetans and Han migrants and a bloody crackdown by Chinese security forces. Since the unrest, hundreds of Tibetans have been jailed, and Chinese troops roam the region. Tension remains high. Hardly a month goes by without some dissent in an isolated monastery or encampment.
On Sept. 26 two teenage monks from an ethnically Tibetan part of Sichuan lit themselves on fire to protest Chinese religious restrictions. It wasn’t the first time. Next to the Dalai Lama’s monastery in Dharamsala stands a slender black obelisk called the Tibetan National Martyrs’ Memorial. Recently, the base of the memorial was plastered with pictures of Tsewang Norbu, a burly monk wearing sunglasses. On Aug. 15 the 29-year-old, also from Sichuan, set himself on fire. As he burned to death, Norbu shouted slogans calling for freedom in Tibet.
The self-immolation, at least the fourth this year by a Tibetan monk in Sichuan, might seem a contradiction. Life has improved economically in these far-flung lands, whose major export prior to the communist takeover was yak tails used in the U.S. for Santa Claus beards. Some of the newly arrived Tibetans I meet in Dharamsala acknowledge that the living conditions back home were better than in this ramshackle Indian hill station, with its rutted paths and dreadlocked tourists. Even the climate takes getting used to for these high-altitude people: yak-butter sculptures, sacred Tibetan offerings, melt in Dharamsala’s heat.
Yet each year hundreds of Tibetans brave arrest or frostbite to cross the Himalayas into exile. In Tibet today, celebrating the Dalai Lama’s birthday or downloading a picture of him invites imprisonment. Tibetan students have to attend patriotic-education sessions, and Tibetan civil servants cannot publicly practice their faith. After all these years, communist-ruled Tibet has never had a Tibetan party secretary, the top local post. “The idea of the middle way is fantastic, but given the current Chinese government, there’s no way it will work,” says Tenpa Dhargyal, a 30-year-old Tibetan who was jailed twice in China for his pro-Tibetan activities and later escaped to Dharamsala. “When I came out of jail the first time in 2006, people wondered why I wasted my life on this struggle. But when I came out the second time in 2008, young Tibetans’ attitudes had changed. They understand we must all fight together.”
The Dalai Lama’s commitment to peaceful resistance places the Tibetan movement on moral high ground and gives it international appeal. Now young Tibetans who were born in exile congregate in cafés in Dharamsala to discuss the revolutions unfolding in the Middle East and North Africa. There is much parsing of how South Sudan and East Timor achieved nationhood. “Until independence happened in these places, people would say, ‘Oh, freedom is impossible,'” says Tenzin Jigdal, program director for Students for a Free Tibet. “But it happened because people gave their lives to the struggle. Our resistance has remained largely nonviolent, but there is no way we can make judgments on Tibetans inside Tibet because they’re the ones facing Chinese repression.”
Kalon Tripa Sangay walks a delicate line. As a youngster, he was a leading member of the Tibetan Youth Congress, a growing proindependence group based in Dharamsala, which China’s People’s Daily has deemed a “pure terrorist organization.” Now that he represents a government-in-exile bound to the middle way, Sangay has adopted a stance that is logically sound but politically unsatisfying. “I say that Tibet was historically independent and we have the right to self-determination,” he says. “But pragmatically I’m not for independence.” Many Tibetans in exile take this as a placeholder position. “When the Dalai Lama is gone, the fight will go on, because it’s the struggle of a nation,” says Tenzin Chokey, the Tibetan Youth Congress’ general secretary. “It’s up to the Tibetan people to push the cause of independence forward. It’s our turn.”
What can the next generation do, apart from striking a match in a futile, fiery display? A militant struggle will rob the movement of its moral sheen. Besides, the Tibetans have no military force. Protests make headlines, but every act of dissent sparks a crackdown. Hundreds of clerics have been sent away from the monasteries where the monks martyred themselves, and three have been jailed for what the Chinese authorities said was their role in “intentional homicide.” Even in Dharamsala, where the local economy depends on the commercialization of the Free Tibet movement — from coffee mugs and bumper stickers to new-age crystals of doubtful Tibetan provenance — a nihilism is taking hold. A popular anthem by JJI Exile Brothers, a Tibetan rock band, is called “Thunder in the Temple,” and its lyrics go: “Monks are with the gun/ Eagle in the black cloud/ Rats are on the run.” I meet the band’s three brothers in a windowless room with SAVE TIBET spray-painted on the wall. They are full of existential angst, and very stoned. “Music is our only weapon,” says guitarist Tenzin Jigme. “Tibet has no freedom, and we don’t belong in India. All we can do is sing our revolution.”
A Containment Strategy
Tibet may be remote, but it is also squeezed in between declared nuclear powers. Everyone, from the colonial British to the Indians and Chinese, has tried to use the Himalayan region as a buffer. A proxy battle is playing out in Nepal, which has a Tibetan community of around 20,000 exiles. (Most Tibetan refugees heading to India first pass through Nepal.) “While the rest of the world isn’t paying attention, Nepal is slipping into Beijing’s orbit,” says Sangay. “China says it doesn’t interfere in other countries’ internal affairs, but in Nepal the victims are Tibetans.”
Earlier this year, on the birthday of a senior Tibetan cleric whom Beijing does not recognize, I visited Bodhnath, the enormous Tibetan stupa in Kathmandu, Nepal’s capital. On this afternoon, locals were prevented from worshipping and the neighborhood was lined with security forces in riot gear. I ducked into a wedding, where a group of Tibetan Youth Club activists were celebrating over yak-butter tea. Since 2008, they told me, China has pressured Nepal to contain what Beijing calls “Tibetan splittists.” Tibetans in Nepal now risk arrest for wearing a SAVE TIBET T-shirt. Chinese agents have entered Nepalese territory to nab Tibetan refugees. Everyone worries about informers. Amid the wedding festivities, a Tibetan woman leaned over and asked to write something in my notebook: “One man sitting [near you] was staring and trying to listen to your conversation.” No one knew him. Was he a spy?
In August, China’s security chief Zhou Yongkang visited Kathmandu and a further crackdown ensued. The Dalai Lama’s representative in Nepal was arrested. Before leaving, Zhou pledged nearly $50 million for Nepal. China has already helped the landlocked nation build roads, dams and bridges. “Nepal is a poor country, and it needs money from China,” says Gaden Tashi, a Tibetan radio journalist in Kathmandu. “Tibetans are the one natural resource Nepal can offer China.” And when the moderating influence of the Dalai Lama is gone, Tashi predicts the fury of local Tibetans will explode. “It will not take time at all for Tibetans in Nepal to radicalize,” he warns. “It will be a new chapter, one with violence.”
The Chinese military is fortifying Tibet’s border with Nepal. Even so, last year around 800 Tibetans made their way to Dharamsala. One morning I visit the Tibetan Reception Center, where the government-in-exile is processing 43 newly arrived refugees. Many are children sent alone with a paid guide, including 9-year-old Tsekyi Lhamo, whose mother wanted her to get a Tibetan education unavailable back home. “I promised to study hard and make her proud,” the girl says, blinking back tears. Lhamo shows me all that her mother gave her to take on the journey: a small duffel bag, a blue hooded jacket, two family photos and a wrapper from a pack of biscuits she ate while trekking through the mountains. When will she see her mother again, I ask. “When I grow up,” the girl replies. “Then I will go back to Tibet.” She may learn, as generations of Tibetans before her have, that it’s a long way home.