The great escape
In January, a sturdy, pink-cheeked teenager straggled into a dormitory in the foothills of the snow-capped peaks guarding Dharamshala. It was the end of a dangerous three-month-long winter passage from China to Nepal to India.
The runaway monk escaped from the Tibetan plateau known as the ‘roof of the world’. He may never return to see his father, siblings and yaks on the pastures of an ethnic Tibetan outpost so remote that he was unaware of its surrounding location. But he grew up dreaming of a foreign land.
“When I was in Tibet, I heard of the human rights in India,” Yeshi Phuntsok, 18, told the Hindustan Times in the Tibet Reception Centre.
The complex built last year has room for 500 refugees from Tibet, a region posting double-digit GDP growth for two decades. The refugee centre houses 60 refugees. Not everybody who tries can make it out of China, in the manner of this boy who paid a tout his family’s savings, dived under piles of luggage at military checkpoints, hid in a Nepal safe house and dangled on a steel rope across a border stream in darkness."Now that I am here", said Phuntsok, "I feel relieved."
The round-faced monk dressed in jeans and grey windcheater looks like an ordinary boy next door. But the new refugees trickling in from Tibet in China to the exiled Tibetan government in India have brought with them extraordinary stories of undercover border crossings and eye-witness accounts of unarmed monks, nuns and nomads staging the most daring mini-revolts against Chinese rule since ethnic riots erupted in 2008 on the streets of Lhasa, capital of the Himalayan kingdom. Since March 2011, 22 Buddhists chanting slogans for ‘freedom’ and the return of the exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, have self-immolated — including half a dozen this year. Several
reportedly drank gasoline to ensure they succumbed to the flames.
Videos and photographs of the burning monks and nuns have circulated worldwide despite local authorities nipping the Internet and telephone network. Foreign journalists are barred from visiting the restive regions to verify what’s going on. The monks are coming to India, home to 100,000 exiled Tibetans, and disclosing their versions. Phuntsok mapped his journey from Kham to Lhasa to the border-town Dum to Nepal’s capital Kathmandu to Delhi to Dharmashala after surviving knuckle-crushing beatings and electric shocks for one month and seven days in a Chinese prison last summer. He was 17. The monk shouting slogans by his side was 15. Their crime: holding a placard scrawled with slogans for the long life and return of the Dalai Lama.
“The police and military came soon after my friend and I raised slogans,” he said. “I knew I’d be put behind bars. But I did it because being Tibetan, I felt like I had contributed something for Tibet.”
Afraid of a widespread uprising, Beijing has sealed off Buddhist monasteries and moved in armed police in nomadic reaches far from the Tibetan capital Lhasa. Dharamshala is known as little Lhasa. The hill-town hosts the Tibetan government-in-exile and the Dalai Lama, who fled from China to India in March 1959. Beijing blames the Dalai Lama for ‘splittist’ campaigns to separate Tibet from China and for instigating the current self-immolation protests.
“Since last year, there have been individual incidents of self-immolation in Sichuan and other Tibetan regions, and we are pained at these deaths,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei was reported saying. “According to what we know, many self-immolations are directly connected with the Dalai clique’s inciting of popular feelings overseas”.
The Dalai Lama denies the charges and says he campaigns peacefully for autonomy and cultural, religious freedom that are being denied to Tibetans under Chinese rule. Tibet expert Robert Barnett says the self-immolations indicate a ‘very major change’ in the movement for Tibetan autonomy. “The movement now covers a wider geographic area and a wider range of social classes,” said Barnett, director of the Modern Tibet Studies Program at Columbia University in New York. From the early 1980s to 2008, Tibetan protests were mainly urban and localised in Lhasa.
“Now they include small rural towns in the east, including farmers, nomads, and students,” he said. “Monks and nuns are developing more effective strategies to indicate their concerns and communicate to the outside world.”
India needs to keep an eye on this change of mood (see box) among exiles, should the protests inflame Tibetans outside China.
Since the Lhasa riots of 2008, which Beijing blamed on the Dalai Lama’s office, the China-Nepal border is so tightly secured that less than 1,000 Tibetans per year are coming to Dharamshala, compared to thrice as many before 2008.
Tibetans caught on the Nepal border are known to be sent to jails in Lhasa and transported back to their hometowns. An 18-year-old was the last monk to arrive from the Kirti monastery town in southern Sichuan — the locked down centre of the standoff between Buddhist monks and the Chinese military — to Kirti monastery in Dharamshala.
Wrapped up to his chin in maroon robes, he cited anxiety about the family he left behind and declines to reveal his real name. His fake name is Doung Tug, and within a year he has lost a half-brother and a classmate to self-immolations for the Tibetan cause. “I came to India to enjoy freedom, he said.
Talking about his half brother Rigzin Dorje, 19, Tug said, “His plan was to raise his own family and live the nomad's life,” Tug said. Last month, he stood outside a school and burnt himself. As the boy ended his narrative of the Chinese military and plainclothes police inside monasteries and forced ‘patriotic re-education’ lessons to denounce the Dalai Lama, an older monk spoke up.
“Many more Tibetans, not just from Kirti monastery, but from all over Tibet,” said Kanyag Tsering, a monk in contact with his counterparts in China’s Kirti, “want to come to India.”