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.”

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