Tag Archives: human rights

Why are Tibetans in exile?

On today’s anniversary of the Tibetan Women’s Uprising, we remember the thousands of brave Tibetan women who gathered on March 12th, 1959 to demand Tibetan independence. It’s also a suitable time to explain why there are Tibetans in exile.

During 1949 and 1950 Tibet, an independent nation the size of Western Europe was invaded by China. Since then, the Tibetan people have become marginalized in their own country, Tibetan culture has been severely restricted, and hundreds of thousands of Tibetans have died as a result of the occupation, through torture, execution, suicides, and starvation.

From the late 1980s to the early 2000s, many Tibetans fled their homeland. Hundreds of Tibetan Buddhist nuns were part of this exodus. Most escaped on foot over the Himalayas and made their way to Dharamsala, India, home of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government-in-exile.

Tibet is ranked as the second least free country in the world, behind only Syria and worse than even North Korea.

Why are Tibetans in exile infographic

Torture and Imprisonment

For decades, nuns and monks have been at the forefront of calling for freedom in Tibet.

A wave of demonstrations against Chinese rule in 1987 was begun by monks and nuns. The protests were brutally put down but continued over the next few years.

Many nuns were imprisoned and tortured for taking part in demonstrations calling for basic human rights. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the was a new flood of Tibetans escaping Tibet and seeking refuge in India, including many nuns. By around 2000, demonstrators were arrested almost immediately and Tibetans were given long prison terms so getting out to tell their stories did not happen like before.

Tibetan demonstrations 1987

In 1987, monks and nuns played a dominant role in demonstrations for freedom in Tibet. The crackdown by the Chinese was brutal and a new flood of Tibetans escaped Tibet seeking refuge in India, including many nuns. Photo by John Ackerly

One Nun’s Story

In 1989, I took part in a protest march against the Chinese occupation of my motherland. I was caught and they took us straight to Gutsa Prison. They tied my hands at the back of my neck with a chain. While in this position they kicked, boxed, and slapped me constantly. I stayed in isolation for 18 days and was constantly interrogated and beaten. I stayed in Gutsa Prison for two and a half years.

After my release, I went to my village and then stayed secretly at my nunnery in spite of the ban on the re-admission of ex-prisoners… I decided to leave for India… We walked for about 18 days to Kathmandu. It was a very hard journey.

When I reached India I was able to enter Dolma Ling Nunnery along with three other nuns who came with me.

Escape into Exile

The Tibetan Nuns Project was formed in 1987 and almost immediately had to respond to a large influx of nuns escaping from Tibet and arriving in India.

Tibetans in exile Buddhist nuns in India

Tibetan refugee nuns in India in their classroom tent. When large numbers of nuns began arriving in India in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the existing nunneries were already overcrowded. The Tibetan Nuns Project was formed under the auspices of this association and the Department of Religion and Culture of His Holiness the Dalai Lama to provide long-term care for the nuns.

The nuns arrived ill and exhausted. Most refugee nuns escaping to northern India had no education in their own language, nor were they given education in their religious heritage while in Tibet. Many nuns were illiterate on arrival and could not even write their names.

In addition to the trauma of their escape, many nuns were in poor health and had faced arrest, imprisonment, and torture in Tibet at the hands of the Chinese authorities in Tibet for their peaceful demands for basic human rights. When released from prison, the nuns were forbidden from rejoining their nunneries in Tibet.

The Decline in Tibetans Escaping

“Fleeing Tibet has always been perilous due to the harsh weather, the patrolling soldiers and the cost of people smugglers, but Tibetans have seen it as worth the risk in order to preserve their nation and to gain some form of relative freedom,” wrote the Byline Times.

These days it is extremely dangerous for Tibetans to escape from Tibet and the number of Tibetans arriving in exile has dropped from thousands per year before 2008 to just 18 in 2019.

Tibetan nun killed escaping Tibet

In 2006, mountaineers filmed Chinese border guards shooting Tibetan refugees and killing a Tibetan nun in her 20s, shown here surrounded by three soldiers. The group of 43 Tibetans, mainly women and children, were trying to cross a mountain pass into Nepal. The shocking footage made global headlines.

While the repression today is not as heavy-handed as periods in the past, Tibetans enjoy no more freedom than they did 30 years ago. Inside Tibet, the Chinese authorities continue to impose severe constraints on the religious practice of Tibetan Buddhists. Surveillance is pervasive in nunneries and monasteries. Nuns and monks are subjected to routine re-education campaigns.

This month, Human Rights Watch reported that China’s education policy in the Tibet Autonomous Region is significantly reducing the access of Tibetans to education in their mother tongue.

Tibet Today: An Orwellian Nightmare

“Tibetans are living in an Orwellian nightmare where they are constantly surveilled, imprisoned for exercising their human rights, discriminated against in the job market and legal system and forced to watch the Chinese Government wage war against their very culture and way of life,” said Bhuchung Tsering of the International Campaign for Tibet.

“Under Chinese rule, Tibetans cannot freely practise their religion, speak their language, or express their cultural identity in any meaningful way. Many Tibetans realize they have a better chance of maintaining their unique identity in exile, so they choose to flee.”

Tibetan Buddhist nuns arrested by Chinese

From a video showing Tibetan nuns evicted from Larung Gar in Tibet being “re-educated.” Wearing military fatigues, the nuns are being forced to sing a Chinese Communist Party song, “Chinese and Tibetans, children of one mother”. The Tibetan Center for Human Rights and Democracy has reported that the Tibetan nuns held in China’s re-education camps have been gang-raped and sexually abused.

John Jones from the UK-group Free Tibet said China wants the border closed to avoid scrutiny.

Jones said, “The decline in numbers is certainly, in part, due to the increased security on the border with India. The numbers started to noticeably decrease after 2008 but really dropped after 2012 when authorities began to confiscate passports of Tibetans living in border areas and also imposed restrictions on travel to Lhasa. In addition, there has been increased surveillance and controls on the borders where the mountain passes are.

“Beijing has a strong interest in preventing Tibetans from escaping because they can provide first-hand information of the human rights abuses that they routinely are subjected to. They can also explode Beijing’s claims that Tibetans are happy, prosperous, and keen to be governed by China.

“Since 2008, China has significantly stepped up security across Tibet to ensure that there is no repeat of the mass, country-wide demonstrations there, which received global media attention. The heavy-handed response to the protests, involving live gunfire, beatings and mass arrests, was met by international criticism that was embarrassing for Beijing.”

March 10th 2019: 60th anniversary of Tibetan Uprising Day

On March 10th, we wanted to give you a reminder of what has happened in Tibet over the past 60 years. These days, we don’t get much news out of Tibet, but from accounts that we are hearing, the political and religious repression continues.

On March 10th, Tibetan Uprising Day, we pay tribute to the brave women and men who sacrificed their lives calling for basic human rights and freedom in Tibet.

Tibetan Uprising Day: March 10, 1959

This year marks the 60th anniversary of the Tibetan Uprising on March 10th and the Tibetan Women’s Uprising on March 12th. Six decades ago, thousands of Tibetans gathered in Lhasa to surround the home of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama because they feared that he would be abducted or killed by Chinese forces. The vast crowds of Tibetans were protesting the Chinese occupation of Tibet and the suffering they had endured since the invasion of their country in 1949.

Tibetan Women’s Uprising: March 12, 1959

Tibetan Women's Uprising, March 12 1959, protest in Tibet, Tibetan women protest

This photograph by the Associated Press is one of the only images from March 1959 showing thousands of Tibetan women surrounding the Potala Palace in Lhasa, the main residence of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, to protest against Chinese rule and repression in Tibet.

We also commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Tibetan Women’s Uprising, remembering the brave Tibetan women who gathered in their thousands on March 12th, 1959 to demand Tibetan independence.

Tibetan women continue to be a steadfast presence in leading the non-violent and peaceful resistance to the repression in Tibet. Tibetan nuns have played a very prominent role in calling for basic human rights and religious freedom in Tibet. Consequently, they have suffered greatly, such as the famous “singing nuns” of Drapchi Prison. Nuns have been arrested, imprisoned, tortured, and killed. They have been expelled from their nunneries and their nunneries have been destroyed. You can read some of their stories here.

Dalai Lama’s Escape into Exile

Fearing for the lives of his people, on March 17, 1959, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, left the Potala Palace and slipped through the crowds disguised as a soldier, setting off on a long, perilous journey into exile in India. He traveled at night and crossed the Himalayas on foot with a small group of soldiers and cabinet members. Unaware of His Holiness’s escape, the Tibetans refused to disburse the area around his home. In response, China’s People’s Liberation Army launched a brutal attack on innocent civilians, immediately killing about 2,000 Tibetans. It is estimated that 87,000 Tibetans were killed, arrested, or deported to labor camps following the uprising.

Dalai Lama escaping Tibet, March 1959,

His Holiness the Dalai Lama, age 23, escaped from Tibet in 1959. India offered him asylum and a home in Dharamsala, where he was permitted to set up a government-in-exile.

“After the flight of the Dalai Lama, Mao crushed Tibet with a vengeance,” said an article “Genocide in Tibet” in The Washington Post. “Institutions of government and education were systematically destroyed; the Buddhist religion was labeled a ‘disease to be eradicated’; nearly 1.2 million out of about 6 million died through armed conflict and famine; large numbers of Tibetan children were forcibly taken from their families and sent to Chinese orphanages for ‘reeducation.’ Research suggests that close to 1 million Tibetans tried to escape to India, Nepal, Bhutan or other regions of their country, but given the vast distances, lack of food in mountainous terrain and military invasion, most either surrendered to the Chinese or died in flight. In the end, only 110,000 Tibetans survived the journey over the Himalayas to join the Dalai Lama in India.”

Cultural Revolution inTibet, monastic university, Ganden Monastery, one of the three great monastic universities in Tibet, before and after the Chinese Cultural Revolution.

Ganden Monastery, one of the great monastic universities in Tibet, was destroyed by the People’s Liberation Army during the 1959 Tibetan uprising and reduced to rubble during the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Over 6,000 monasteries and nunneries have been destroyed since the Chinese occupation of Tibet.

Tibetan Buddhist Nuns in Exile

Under the leadership of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan refugees were able to establish settlements all over India on unused land provided by the Indian government. Tibetans were able to set up a Central Tibetan Administration and Tibetan schools in a systematic attempt to restore their cultural institutions. The main monasteries of Tibet were rebuilt in India. While traditionally there had been little education of girls in Tibet, His Holiness said that the new school system should educate boys and girls equally.

Tibetan nuns in exile, Tibetan Buddhist nuns escape,

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, many nuns escaped to India. The Tibetan Women’s Association organized emergency aid for the nuns. Tibetan exiles donated clothing and essentials such as cooking pots to help the newly arrived nuns who were camping by the side of the road. Photo: Tibetan Nuns Project Archive.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, following a loosening of restrictions in Tibet and a wave of pro-independence protests, there was a new influx of Tibetans escaping Tibet, including many nuns. The nuns had walked over the Himalayas and were ill and exhausted. Many had been imprisoned and tortured. While one or two nunneries had been established in exile, they were poor, overcrowded, and struggling. The existing nunneries did not have the capacity to take in the many newly arrived nuns.

The Tibetan Nuns Project was formed under the auspices of the Tibetan Women’s Association and the Department of Religion and Culture of His Holiness the Dalai Lama to provide long-term care for the nuns. The Project secured housing, medical care, and most importantly, education for these refugee nuns.

Tibetan Buddhist nuns help build Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute

Tibetan Buddhist nuns help build Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute. Photo: Tibetan Nuns Project Archives.

Over time, the Tibetan Nuns Project built two large nunnery complexes, Dolma Ling and Shugsep. Dedicated to educating nuns in India from all Tibetan Buddhist lineages, the Tibetan Nuns Project had to start an education system from scratch.

Most of the nuns who escaped from Tibet and arrived in India were illiterate and couldn’t even write their own names. Now, over 700 nuns at seven nunneries in India, have the opportunity to study in educational programs focused on the full course of philosophical studies leading to the highest degrees of their traditions.

The accomplishments are many, but there is still much more to do to empower and educate the nuns and to preserve the rich wisdom tradition of Tibetan Buddhism.

Over the last decade, the number of Tibetans escaping from Tibet has plummeted. The plunging number of refugees from Tibet is attributed to tighter surveillance, stricter border controls along mountain passes by the Chinese, and closer ties between Beijing and Nepal, whose relations have become friendlier in recent years.

The oppression inside Tibet during the past 60 years has come in waves. While things are now quieter in Tibet, Human Rights Watch has reported that the apparently benign terms used by Chinese authorities such as “stability maintenance” mask repression there and are, in fact, used to ensure total compliance and surveillance by officials of ordinary Tibetan people.

Repression of Human Rights and Religion in Tibet

Tibetan culture and identity is inextricably linked to Tibetan Buddhism. Buddhist principles and practice are deep in the Tibetan psyche and part of daily life for most Tibetans. The vast majority of Tibetans are devoted to the His Holiness the Dalai Lama and they long for his return to Tibet. Monks and nuns play a key role in their communities, providing guidance and education.

The greatest casualties of the Chinese occupation of Tibet have been Tibet’s religion and culture. One can’t begin to describe here the countless ways in which the Chinese authorities have waged war on Tibetan Buddhism and Tibetan culture. The destruction of over 6,000 monasteries, nunneries, and sacred places before and during the Cultural Revolution was only the start. All aspects of religious practice are closely monitored and controlled. There is a massive army and police presence in Tibet. Nuns and monks are particularly targeted by security restrictions.

Simply possessing an image of His Holiness the Dalai Lama can result in sanctions, arrest, and even torture. Now in a bizarre move, monasteries and nunneries in Tibet are being forced to display portraits of Chinese President Xi Jinping and Mao Zedong on their altars or face punishment.

To decrease the influence of monastics and to prevent a new generation of Tibetans from mastering their language and connecting to their traditional culture, the Chinese Communist Party recently banned Tibetan monasteries from offering Tibetan language classes.

For decades, nuns and monks have been forced to endure “patriotic education” sessions to try to break their beliefs and their allegiance to His Holiness the Dalai Lama. The boy who was chosen as the reincarnation of the Panchen Lama by His Holiness the Dalai Lama has been missing for over 23 years. November 1995, the Chinese government selected a different boy.

March 10th, Tibetan Uprising Day, Tibetan demonstrations, protests by Tibetan Buddhist nuns

Draped in the Tibetan flags, Tibetan Buddhist nuns in India take part in peaceful demonstrations to mark the anniversary of Tibetan Uprising Day, March 10th. Photo courtesy of Olivier Adam

Now China is maneuvering to control the selection process of the next Dalai Lama. His Holiness the Dalai Lama has spoken forcefully against this. He said, “The person who reincarnates has sole legitimate authority over where and how he or she takes rebirth and how that reincarnation is to be recognized.”

“It is particularly inappropriate for Chinese communists, who explicitly reject even the idea of past and future lives, let alone the concept of reincarnate Tulkus, to meddle in the system of reincarnation and especially the reincarnations of the Dalai Lamas and Panchen Lamas,” said His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

On March 10, 2019, we won’t know what is happening inside Tibet. In February China closed Tibet to foreigners, journalists, and diplomats and Tibet is to remain closed until April 1st to prevent the world from bearing witness.

Preserve Tibet’s precious wisdom and culture

“We, here in exile, cannot materially help our people in Tibet, who are confronted with the destruction of all that they love and cherish. We can only pray with all the strength of our hearts that their nightmare of agony and terror will disappear in the not too distant future.” His Holiness the Dalai Lama wrote these words in 1962 on the third anniversary of the Tibetan National Uprising Day.

He went on to say, “There must be an end to the policy of force and intimidation which it [China] is pursuing in Tibet and that the only solution to the Tibetan problem is a peaceful settlement consistent with the fundamental rights and freedoms of the Tibetan people.”

Tibet’s unique religion and culture are global treasures that must not be lost. This wisdom tradition has so much to offer the world now and in the future.

Exile is the only chance for Tibetan Buddhist nuns to get an education.

Tibetan calligraphy, Tibetan language

A Tibetan Buddhist nun practices Tibetan calligraphy at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute in India. The Tibetan nuns in exile are helping to hold on to Tibet’s precious religion and culture. Photo by the Nuns’ Media Team

By helping the nuns and nunneries, you are helping to preserve Tibetan Buddhism and are providing the opportunity for these brave, dedicated women to be educated and become teachers and role models. Without the generosity and compassion of Tibetan Nuns Project supporters, over 700 nuns would not have the necessities of life such as education, shelter, food, clothing, and health care. Most of the nuns in India are from Tibet and cannot return to their homeland. They are forced to live as stateless refugees. Other nuns are from remote and impoverished Himalayan regions of India where there is little or no education available to girls and women.

The world needs Tibetan Buddhist nuns now and the wisdom, courage, compassion, and dedication that they embody and bring to humanity. Nuns are holders of a vision we must protect.

With prayers for the well-being and happiness of all sentient beings.