Dharamsala, India

At the Tibetan Children’s Village, where India’s high mountains meet the first row of the Himalayas, the latest arrival is a two-and-a-half-year-old girl, who came last February. Before 2008, when China effectively closed its border, children used to stream into Dharamsala to attend this school for refugees.

The story is the same at the Transit School, for older children and young adults who have escaped their homeland on the Tibetan plateau. Located in the valley far below the Children’s Village, this institution now has only 280 students. It used to feed, house, and teach over 800.

And in Kathmandu, the Tibetan Refugee Reception Center reported that 871 people escaped from Tibet and came to Nepal in 2011. Last year, journalist Maura Moynihan told me, fewer than 600 reached the Kathmandu center. Last March, she saw only 20 Tibetans there. Last week, she counted 6. Before 2008, 2,500 to 3,500 fled each year. The reception center in Dharamsala, home of the Tibetan government-in-exile, is now also empty.

These days, the monthlong journey across the Himalayas to Nepal is more dangerous than it has ever been. Beijing is behind an unprecedented crackdown there, where the Chinese used their economic might to get the government in 2009 to ban “anti-Chinese activities.”

Kathmandu, responding to Chinese pressure, has worked hand-in-glove with Beijing to stop the refugee flow. The Nepalese have consistently violated their so-called gentlemen’s agreement with the U.N. high commissioner for refugees by allowing Chinese troops to pursue Tibetans inside Nepal and, in defiance of human rights norms, return them to China. Nepal’s border guards even sell Tibetans they catch to the People’s Liberation Army, according to observers on the ground. With the closing of the traditional escape routes to Nepal, especially the Nangpa La Pass near Everest, there are only two out-of-the-way paths across the high mountains.

“China is killing the story,” says Moynihan, who has watched the comings and goings at the Kathmandu center for three decades. “They do not want witnesses.” Because Beijing has almost completely sealed its long border with India, Nepal, and Bhutan, fewer Tibetans are able to speak to those outside, at a time of desperation over Chinese rule.

At last count, 99 Tibetans have set themselves on fire since February 2009, almost all of them inside China and most of them last year. The last confirmed suicide, that of a 26-year-old man named Konchok Kyab, occurred in China’s Gansu Province on January 22.

Inside Tibet, authorities in recent weeks have moved to stop the fiery protests, claiming the self-immolations are the work of organized networks under the direction of the Dalai Lama. In the second half of January, officials arrested at least eight Tibetans for promoting the suicides. On the 26th, two Tibetans were put on trial for intentional homicide for inciting eight people to set themselves on fire. Both were convicted and given heavy sentences last week.

Imprisonments, of course, will not end the suicides. “This is a people’s movement, so it is hard to say when they will stop,” says Kirti Rinpoche, the chief abbot of the Kirti Monasteries, in December in his office in the Dharamsala hills. “The suicides were caused by China’s oppression, so they will stop when the oppression stops.” Chinese authorities, however, have no intention of ending oppression. For the last two years they have locked down his monastery in Ngaba, the home of many of the monks who have taken their lives by fire.

Since the first self-immolations, this horrifying form of protest has spread throughout Tibetan society, and now even mothers are killing themselves, leaving behind young children. The willingness to take one’s life is against the tenets of Tibetan Buddhism and the wishes of its leader, but the suicides stem from Tibetan selflessness, which activist Tenzin Tsundue says comes from an ingrained culture.

Beijing’s decades-long attempt to suppress Tibetan culture, religion, and way of life—what Kirti Rinpoche calls “identity genocide”—is obviously floundering. The Chinese overlords do not seem to understand their Tibetan subjects. Their policy is to overwhelm the people of Tibet with economic development and modernity, yet their efforts have only stiffened resistance. Tsundue, with his trademark red bandana around his forehead, explained it to me this way: “Our life depends on the struggle. The struggle makes sense of our lives.”

And that struggle, which has now taken the form of self-destruction, has galvanized the Tibetan exile community at a time when it was dividing into rival camps. The Dalai Lama has been promoting his “middle way”—autonomy inside the People’s Republic of China—while other exiles demand rangzen, independence. The dispute has, in recent years, become bitter, and some have openly criticized the Dalai Lama for trying to work out an accommodation with Beijing. Yet the horrific suicides have reminded exiles they have a common responsibility to those facing unrelenting repression in Tibet. The challenge for the scattered Tibetans going forward is preserving their sense of community.

That is why Lobsang Sangay, who heads the Tibetan government-in-exile,is his own education minister. He is insistent on teaching Tibetan identity and raising learning standards. His favorite story is that of a woman who fled Tibet but later returned to care for her family. She had attended Indian schools while in exile, so she was not permitted to attend college in Tibet. For six years, she returned to India every year, trekking over the mountains, to take exams and pick up course materials she smuggled back into Tibet. Eventually, she earned her Indian college degree and, after finally leaving Tibet, a Ph.D.

Education is the focus of the struggle between Tibetans and Beijing. Inside Tibet, Tibetans cannot build private schools, and monasteries are being closed or tightly monitored. Public education is all about spreading Chinese language and influence. Outside, in India and Nepal, few children are reaching freedom, and consequently schools lack new students. For the Tibetans to prevail, they have to pass on their culture and religion to the next generation.

At the moment, it looks like Beijing has all the advantages. Tsundue talks about the necessity of “decolonizing” education in Tibet, but that cannot happen as long as the Chinese rule—and occupy—his homeland. Yet as powerful as China may seem these days, there is no final victory over those who refuse to submit. Tsundue proudly speaks of his people’s “irrational resistance.”

Lukar Sham resisted reeducation, surviving five years in a Chinese jail in Tibet. He now runs the Gu-Chu-Sum halfway house in Dharamsala for ex-political prisoners who, like him, were able to escape after release. The upper floor of the house is devoted to an exhibit of photographs of the victims of Chinese violence in Tibet, a graphic education for Tibetans who grew up in exile and so know only the peace and serenity of this Indian hill city.

Surrounded by a dozen friends in a damp kitchen at the end of last year, Sham tells me his people will outlast the occupier. “We failed when we fought the Chinese,” he said with a smile, “and we failed when we negotiated with them, but we will not fail to sustain our community.”

Gordon G. Chang is the author of The Coming Collapse of China (Random House).

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