city of exiles

On a dusty street in Lhasa, Tibet, a demonstration has gone bad. Tensions have been escalating for days; murmured opposition and spontaneous flashes of dissent spreading and finally igniting mass demonstrations from the Capital to every regional centre in Tibet. The security forces have been observing, documenting, falling back as numbers have grown.
Today is different. The street is alive with banners and the maroon robes of monks and nuns mingling with the lay population. Suddenly, skirmishes and baton charges; chants turning to screams, the sting of tear gas and then gunfire. A monk is hit and killed instantly. Amid the panicked confusion a young man races to his side before the body is trampled. He’s trying to drag him free of the melee when he’s hit twice in the left arm by rifle fire, and the world turns to blood and dust.

It’s the 24th of March, 2008. Tibet is aflame as the ghosts of the 1949 invasion rise up in advance of the global spotlight tracking toward the Beijing Olympics.

Sixteen months later, the earnest young man has found himself upstairs in a quiet reception centre in Himachal Pradesh in northern India, relaying his story in detail to six Australian parliamentarians and their guides and associates. Three young monks, also recent arrivals, listen with eyes downcast.

Carefully, through a translator, he sketches one strand of a human and environmental tragedy now into its third generation. Badly wounded and delirious, he was rescued by his brother and dragged away from the chaos in the streets. He and his brother went underground for six months in a neighbouring village. With no possibility of medical assistance, his left arm began to rot. They made preparations for departure with two others. He is brief in his description of the nightmarish passage to Nepal across some of the most hostile terrain on earth, and eventual arrival here in Dharamsala, the city of exiles.

Deftly, he eases his arm out of its sling. The scar tissue has splashed outward and flowed like wax, permanently paralysing his left hand. There is no anger here, just determination that his story finds its way into the world.

The reception centre is one small part of the complex infrastructure of trauma and survival that we have been given a privileged insight into over the last six days. It is here that new arrivals are processed and referred for medical help, counselling or short term accommodation. It is uncharacteristically quiet here, we’re told. Since last March, the Chinese Government has closed the border and the flow of exiles and information has constricted to a bare minimum. For the time being, this is a refuge virtually empty of refugees.

Dharamsala is a capital without a country; home to the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) and the Parliament in Exile, the Tibetan Children’s Village, and key cultural institutions including a national Library, Museum and Institute of Performing Arts. Built by hand into the steep forested hillsides high above the northern Indian plains, the township of 20,000 is a busy tangle of narrow, high-walled streets lined with tiny souvenir stalls, tea houses and net cafes. Travellers from all over the world mingle with monks, nuns, motorbikes, cattle and cars in the steep alleyways which reveal occasional glimpses of impossibly steep mountain ranges inscribed with ice far above.

Dharamsala is many things; a refuge, time capsule, seedpod, living archive and seat of an active democracy. At the Tibetan Institute for Performing Arts (TIPA) we’re gifted with an hour of flamboyant performance art on the night of our arrival, with the spectacularly costumed troupe invoking centuries-old traditional dances from the roof of the world. At the home of the Parliament, the Speaker gives us a wry insight into the world of Tibetan democratic intrigue while we try out the seats and get our heads around the complex politics of the diaspora. We have met the Prime Minister in exile, genial and reserved in the signature maroon robes of the Sangha, and been introduced to several of his Ministers. Collectively, they are responsible for the flesh-and-blood operations of this hill city and the émigré communities scattered around the globe. But each of them also holds forbidden responsibilities for the six million Tibetans who stayed behind, people whose ever-present absence lies behind every single conversation we have during our time here.

Against the relentless burning and bulldozing of monasteries and five decades of ‘patriotic re-education’, Dharamsala represents a priceless and defiant store of cultural artefacts and living world heritage, probably one of the most important on earth. The Museum holds an extraordinary collection of paintings, statuary and documents smuggled out of the country in advance of successive waves of deliberate and systematic destruction. Our delegation watches as Ngawang Yeshi, the urbane Secretary of the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives, unwraps a sheaf of soft paper inscribed with elegant Tibetan calligraphy. How old, one of our party asks? “Twelfth Century,” he replies, flipping back a couple of the pages so that we can take a closer look at the spidery characters inked by human hands more than eight hundred years ago.

These texts – the library walls are lined with hundreds of them – describe the Buddhist underpinnings of society here: part science, part philosophy, part religion. We met a number of senior monks including Nechung Kuten, Ven. Thupten Ngodup, also known as the Oracle of Tibet. At specific times he is taken into a ritual trance to help divine answers to particularly intractable questions.

On Friday morning we visit the Tibetan Children’s Village. Not sure what to expect, we alight in a courtyard and into one of the highlights of the trip. This is Dharamsala’s main school, tending to children from infant age up to primary school. It plays a dual role; part orphanage, part school, and is at once the most cheerful and tragic hour of our visit. The underlying cultural and human devastation of Tibet is most stark seen through the eyes of children smuggled out of the country into the care of the Government in exile, with one or both parents remaining behind. We’ve seen some of their art in the reception centre a few days previously; now memories of stark children’s’ drawings of horror and violence underlie the cheerful scenes in the schoolrooms.

Dharamsala is also the home and headquarters of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama.

In 1959 the young sage fled Tibet as the first convulsive waves of unrest were being settled with live ammunition and mass arrests. Fifty years later, he’s still here, in the place he founded with the help of Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in 1960.

It is impossible to describe the reverence and trust in which the Tibetans hold this one single human being. He stands at the centre of overlapping worlds of Tibetan political leadership, civil administration, international diplomacy and spiritual guardianship. In Dharamsala, his portrait – aging gracefully across five decades – smiles at you in every chai shop and on the dashboard of every taxi. In Tibet, possession of these images are prohibited and will buy you jail time or worse.

We are gifted with an hour and a half with this gentle, incisive, careworn man, who somehow manages to establish instant and genuine rapport with each of us in the briefest of encounters. At issue is what happens now: dialogue between Dharamsala and Beijing is frozen, Tibet lies under virtual martial law, and an unknown number of political prisoners are still paying an unspeakable price for their part in the ongoing unrest. The situation is as bad as it’s ever been, with world attention momentarily elsewhere as Xinjiang ignites and Tibet fades from view.

Still, there are always hopeful signs – the global movement has never been stronger, we’ve been given a number of useful ideas for how we can help in Australia, and there are intriguing signs of a debate on the Tibet ‘question’ within China itself. (1)

Despite the absence of any formal diplomatic status we have already drawn several sharp warnings from the Chinese Embassy in Australia to stay out of China’s internal affairs. The fact that the Chinese Government’s hard-line stance on Tibet is precisely the cause of its status as a global issue seems to have been lost in Beijing, but the cross-party group has returned with a new determination to work with goodwill and constructively engage with all sides of the debate.

Our delegation visited Dharamsala at the invitation of the Government in exile, working to a painstaking schedule assembled over many months by the Tibetan Parliamentary Secretariat and the Australia Tibet Council. It is the first time an Australian cross-party delegation has ever visited, and hopefully won’t be the last.

One day, Tibet will be free.