The Sorry Saga of Bhutan's North

The Sorry Saga of Bhutan's North
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Thursday, February 18, 2010

Secret of the world's 'most successful' refugees, the Tibetan community

Mumbai: Today is Losar once again. In fact, it is a golden jubilee of sorts — of 50 years in exile. But Tibetans are not celebrating. The pall of gloom of the 2008 riots still hangs over the community, and the government-in-exile or the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) has asked for festivities to be muted.

Most of the older generation of Tibetans living in exile in India had trekked mountains and forests to flee to an alien land. They had neither money nor hope, their country having been taken away from them. Yet today, the Tibetan refugees across the world are considered the “most successful” refugee community.

Much of the credit for that achievement should go to the CTA’s efforts to preserve Tibetan culture, and making the refugee community educated and financially strong. In fact, a 2001 article by The Economist surveyed the two dozen governments-in-exile that exist and found the Tibetan one to be “the most serious”.

While most other such governments function as pressure groups, like the internet-based Rhodesian government-in-exile that lampoons the post-independence Zimbabwean government, the CTA is a democratic set up, with a parliament, democratically elected ministers and a prime minister. Also, 46 agricultural or handicraft-based settlements have been established across India, Nepal, and Bhutan for the community-in-exile.

According to a 2000 survey by the planning commission of the government-in-exile, about one lakh Tibetan refugees live in these settlements. There are also welfare officers, schools, hospitals and clinics, co-operatives, courts to settle civil disputes (although criminal cases are handled by the local police of the host country), old-people’s homes, and monasteries nearby to service the refugees.

Karma Yeshi is a product of one such settlement. Today the editor-in-chief of the Voice of Tibet in Dharamsala, the only radio channel in India in the Tibetan language, he was born at a construction site in 1967. “I am told that I used to be tied to a tree while my parents were building a road in Sikkim. They had no other alternative because they were penniless in a foreign country,” he says. His parents had followed the Dalai Lama to India in 1959 and worked as construction labourers to make ends meet. In 1969, when they heard of the Tibetan community centre in Himachal Pradesh, the family moved to it. “I have much to thank our government for. My family was taken care of, my schooling was free, and I was even sent to Punjab University on a scholarship.”

So strong is the lure of the education system of the CTA, that many of the Tibetans in China who risk their lives and come to India to become refugees are children who want schooling. Tenzing Thargay and Tenzing Palmo, a brother-sister duo, spent ten years in Tibetan Children’s School in Dharamsala. The sister is now in Italy, while the brother has returned to Lhasa where he runs a restaurant. Thargay says, “In Dharamsala, I was able to get quality education. Also, I learned more about Tibet’s history and language, which no school in Lhasa can provide me.”

In all, the CTA runs 82 Tibetan schools in India, Nepal, and Bhutan. And for those who want to pursue further education, there is the Central Institute of Higher Tibetan Studies in Dharamsala, Tibet House in New Delhi, the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives, the Norbulingka Institute, and the Amnye Machen Institute in Dharamsala. There is also the Sarah College of Higher Tibetan Studies in Dharamsala which teaches young Tibetans and students from the West, South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, and Mongolia the Tibetan language, the country’s literature and history, as well as the Buddhist philosophy.

The Tibetan refugee community that was about 80,000 in 1960 in India, Nepal and Bhutan has now grown to 1,60,000 according to a 2009 survey. Considering that, when the Tibetans went trekking from one country to another, they were also moving from a medieval world to the 20th century, their adapting to a foreign land is nothing short of remarkable.

Thubten Samphel, secretary of the department of information and international relations for the CTA and the author of Failing Through The Roof says, “What the CTA has done in the last 50 years is noteworthy. While Tibet’s culture is continuously
destroyed in China, it is being preserved here in a foreign land.”


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