Exile’s Fate: Diaspora or Return to Tibet

The White House hosted a Dalai Lama who is now in many ways different from global icon of the past. Tenzin Gyatso (birth name of the 14th Dalai Lama) is a retiree and no longer the head of a government in exile. His elected successor as head of Tibetan Central Authority is a research scholar from Harvard Law School. Lobsang Sangay, 43, is a secular prime minister and not a monk, indicating a significant break with the tradition of theocratic rule.

The Dalai Lama’s retreat from political leadership reflects the changes sweeping over the Tibetan community, both in exile and in the homeland. A new era is dawning for Tibetans, forcing many Tibetans to wake up from the dreams of the past 60 years of exile.

The Dalai Lama’s retirement from politics means that his Gelugpa, or Yellow Hat monks, have lost their dominance over religious affairs and are now merely one of several schools of Tibetan Buddhism. The older schools – the Nyingma, Kagyu and Sakya – are showing greater vitality in terms of recruitment of followers and formation of new temples. These Buddhist schools and the polytheist Bon religion are unlikely to ever again accept Gelugpa dominance.

The coming of age of a could well result in a schism between Yellow Hat factions inside and outside of the Chinese borders. The Gelugpa inside China tend toward religious conservatism and traditionalism, while the exiled monks have been much more exposed to Western lifestyles and liberal values. The China-based Yellow Hat monks are insistent that the next Dalai Lama must be a full-blooded Tibetan born in Tibet.

In response to the nativist demands, the Dalai Lama dropped his suggestions of a foreign-born rebirth and instead made high-profile visits to Tawang, a part of the Tibetan Plateau seized by the British colonialists and incorporated into India as the state of Arunachal Pradesh. The rebirth of a Dalai Lama on that long-contested borderland would reopen the territorial dispute between Lhasa and the former British Raj, in present-day terms, between China and India.

The future of the once all-powerful Gelugpa is uncertain, though one fact does stand out: Their preeminence is a thing of the past, and the issue at hand is one of sectarian survival not of return to political power.

Repatriation as a final option

The ardent loyalists who took up arms in revolt against the Red Army from the mid-1950s until the 1970s are by now deceased. The passing of the old guerrillas raises a new question: Has the time come for Tibetans born in exile to return to Tibet?

Under Chinese law, the grandfather generation committed acts of rebellion and treason during the two decades of violent struggle. However, their children and grandchildren who have not committed any crimes against China are still technically Chinese citizens. Unlike the Vietnamese exiles, there are no procedures or program of repatriation.

Inside refugee camps in India and Nepal, many younger Tibetans are eager to visit their ancient homelands in Central Tibet or the outlying regions of Amdo and Kham. Curiosity is a driving force, of course, but their main motivation is to find a spouse and gainful employment. The new sense of homesickness is based on a hard cold fact of rising wealth across South Asia, as explained by Karma Kelsang, 32, at a refugee camp north of Pokhara, Nepal.

“Here and in India, refugee status means Tibetans cannot qualify for government positions or decent jobs in local-owned businesses. All we are left with are the lowest paid farm work or selling trinkets to tourists. Without a decent job, no local girls are interested in marriage and our younger Tibetan women are intermarrying with Westerners so that they can emigrate to North America or Europe. Our refugee camps have become homes for the elderly and bachelors. We Tibetan exiles are soon going to die out.”

Asked if he has a girlfriend, Kelsang shook his head. “The only place I could possibly find a bride is in my home region of Amdo, but how can I go home when all I have is refugee papers and not a passport?”

Kelsang’s father was a member of a hard-line CIA-trained paramilitary faction led by the commander Gyato Wangdu, who led guerrilla raids into Tibet from secret bases inside Nepal’s Mustang region. “My father never expressed anger toward the Chinese. He fought, they fought – fair enough. His bitterness was toward the wealthy Tibetans in Dharamsala who profiteered from the American aid and never lifted a finger in battle. At the end of the struggle, the Khampa fighters were abandoned and forgotten.”

Irrelevance of the Free Tibet movement

Asked about the prospects for Tibetan independence, he answers: “Of course, everyone talks about free Tibet, but how can that happen when China is the world’s most powerful country? And now much stronger than when my father fought the Chinese. The people who run the Free Tibet movement are pocketing the donations; nothing’s coming across to our refugee camp. Take a look around – you can see we have nothing.”

At midday, elderly women sat listlessly in the shade of their mud huts. Pots of porridge steamed over smoky fireplaces. “Grass is treasure around here among the locals, so there is none for us to raise milk cows,” he said despondently. “Some Americans promised to build a new monastery, but this has been going on for years with little progress. We can’t trust them or the lamas from India – they’re just using our poverty to raise money for themselves.”

Kelsang led me to a maze of stone walls without a roof. “This used to be the offices of the CIA and the Khampa guerrillas. It’s just a weed patch now.” He spat and then walked back toward the river.

“There’s nothing for me here in South Asia. My only hope is to find a wife and a home in my family’s land in Amdo, but I don’t how to get there.” Asked about the Chinese, he answered, “My father’s life proved that we cannot defeat them by military force. Today, there is no choice other than to get along with them as neighbors and, hopefully, as partners and friends. We have to be realistic, if we are ever to return home.”

Kelsang’s appraisal raises the question of whether the secular government in exile can negotiate favorable terms for repatriation with the Beijing government and the Tibetan Autonomous Region. With China’s prosperity and rising incomes inside Tibet, the exiles are facing an increasing disadvantage versus their countrymen who opted to stay rather than go into exile with the Dalai Lama.

Yoichi Shimatsu, Editor at Large with April Media, works in the Amdo region as an environmental economics consultant and has produced video documentaries on Tibetan exiles in Nepal and India.

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