Each year many Tibetans make the perilous journey across the world’s highest mountain range seeking refuge in India to escape the violent suppression waged against Tibetan culture by communist China. Denied genuine freedom inside Tibet, fear coats the landscape, with Tibetans unable to express openly their political hopes. To do so would be a form of suicide as every aspect of society under Chinese occupation is monitored and tightly controlled. Ever fearful of informers, and knowing the brutal consequences of speaking-out, Tibetans suffer a paralysing frustration which cannot be allowed to surface for fear of attracting the unwelcome attention of the communist Chinese authorities. For the majority there exists an almost permanent state-of-terror, knowing that at any time homes can be raided, arrests made, followed by torture and on many occasions execution. Yet for the tourist vultures who descend upon Tibet during the summer months signs of this burden are seldom seen, instead they are faced with the welcoming smiles of a genuinely warm and kind hearted people. Such a greeting reinforces the reputation of Tibetans as a robust and happy people, however behind closed doors, away from the rapacious camcorders of foreign intrusion, an unbearable sadness dominates. One that compels some to risk the world’s most dangerous odyssey.
Should escaping Tibetans manage to avoid the bullets of Chinese and Nepalese security forces and eventually reach the safety of Indian territory, most make their way to the Dharamasala, home of the exiled Dalai Lama and his Administration. Their personal details having been recorded they wait, expectation filling their eyes, in long lines to receive a blessing from their supreme political and spiritual authority. Clearly overwhelmed and barely able to contain their joy some break-down and weep, others experience a cathartic unburdening of the oppression and injustice which they have experienced, informing the Dalai Lama of personal abuses they, or family members, received. Some talk of the struggle for Tibet’s independence and the resistance to Chinese rule, the Tibetan leader feels and hears the cry of his people and knows what lies in their hearts.
However the transition from escapee to refugee is a difficult road, adapting to new circumstances, within a Tibetan community relatively confident and settled within Indian society, basic educational and medical support is provided by the Tibetan Administration, yet much is alien and challenging. At least there is now the air-of-freedom to breathe, no longer fettered by the oppressive chains of Chinese domination there is an occasion to continue the struggle for Tibet without fear, suppression and censorship. There are a number of organisations to join, the Tibetan Youth Congress, Tibetan Women’s Association, or the ex Tibetan political prisoner’s group Chol-Ka -Sum, all of which advocate independence for Tibet. For any Tibetan previously silenced by years of disabling oppression it must be an intoxicating feeling to have such opportunity, yet although on the dusty streets of India there is no law against carrying Tibet’s national flag, and protesters can openly call for Tibet’s freedom, there are nevertheless forces-at-work, albeit more subtle, which in their own way exercise a degree of censorship and oppression.
Interestingly these have accompanied every Tibetan seeking a life-of-exile since 1959 and their origin lies in the profound sense of loyalty and respect which Tibetans hold towards the Dalai Lama. It is a devotion not witnessed in the West since perhaps medieval times, when the Pope was in every sense of the word considered holy. Demanding of itself, and willingly accepted on a personal Tibetan level, complete obeisance, and generating a public conformity and pattern of compliance, this operates within a cautious and conservative Tibetan culture lacking any tradition of democratic opposition or political critique. Unless counting times when Tibet was independent and Tibetan plays could feature the lampooning of Tibetan government figures (not though the Dalai Lama) to the delight of Tibetan audiences. Who could indulge through laughter, silently held views. This being the point, there seems to be an historic cultural tradition where privately an individual holds a range of burning political opinions with respect to the Tibetan Government, yet maintains a conformist public façade. The influences which encourage such censorial compliance spring from the reverence held towards the Dalai Lama, take the following words from Tsewang Dhondup who fled from Tibet in May 2009: “To be honest, what I want is independence, but I think it’s important for Tibetans to follow whatever His Holiness the Dalai Lama says.”
This is a common view held by Tibetans, a middle-way position on the Dalai Lama’s policy is a far safer option than being seen to be openly critical, which exposes a real risk of being charged with opposing and insulting the Tibetan leader. A crime in Tibetan society from which there is no rehabilitation, often no more than a baseless accusation is required to forever brand an individual, suspected, charged and punished
This combination of piety and fear ensures a submissive and overwhelmingly silent community, one that presents virtually no critical examination or opposition to its own Administration. It is a particularly virulent form of censorship in that it exists, not by violently oppressive measures imposed by authority (as experienced in Chinese occupied Tibet) but through the self-imposed and cultural compliance of individuals. In that sense it is far more effective and guarantees a staggering degree of operational freedom and authority to the exiled Tibetan Administration, that governments around the world can only enviously dream of. Supported without question by a deferential population autocracy continues to dominate the exiled Tibetan political landscape permitting the Tibetan Administration (formerly known as the Tibetan Government In Exile) to follow even the most controversial and potentially dangerous courses of action, in the knowledge that criticism will be virtually non-existent, and importantly can always be easily managed through encouraging charges of being opposed to the wishes of the Dalai Lama. This can be achieved through its extensive network of officials and supporters, it takes only one word in the right ear and a Tibetan settlement can be set- ablaze with rumor and allegation. No Tibetan wishes the cold eye-of-suspicion upon himself or his family, much easier to comply and keep political opinion indoors.
So it is that the Tibetan Administration operates without any restraint or accountability, supremely confident that it will be unchallenged, and arrogantly indifferent to the stifled opinion of Tibetans. This explains why and how it is able to impose, unopposed, upon its people a strategy which surrenders Tibetan nationhood, accepts communist Chinese law on so-called autonomy, and concedes that Tibetans are not a people, but a Chinese minority nationality. In any other political struggle such treacherous action by a leadership would result in the storming of government headquarters demanding answers and a radical change of policy. Certainly the Irish, Palestinians, Kurds and East Timorese would not have tolerated such an autocratic betrayal, yet virtually all Tibetans have remained obediently silent as their Administration promotes the abandonment of Tibet’s nationhood. Should negotiations between the Dalai Lama’s private envoys (Note: Not official Tibetan Government representatives, itself a great concern) and communist China move forward, with an acceptance of Chinese demands, no doubt those Tibetans returning (and how many will want to?) to life inside a still oppressed and marginalized Tibetan culture, may draw some meagre comfort in the face of continued suppression, by being able to say that they were not disloyal to His Holiness. By then the prison door will be slammed shut!