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How to Kill a Story

China versus the Tibetans.

Feb 11, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 21 • By GORDON G. CHANG
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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.”

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