Maintaining Vitality in Exile: The Tibetan Refugees in South Asia

By Samphel, Thubten | Harvard International Review, Fall 2009 | Go to article overview

Maintaining Vitality in Exile: The Tibetan Refugees in South Asia


Samphel, Thubten, Harvard International Review


In the December 20, 2001 issue of The Economist, the magazine carried an article, "Home Thoughts From Abroad: Governments in Exile," an examination of the two dozen or so governments-in-exile that operate around the world. The article says that the governments-in-exile around the world are "as varied as the countries they purport to rule. By tar the most serious is the India-based Tibetan government in exile, headed by the Dalai Lama. The best proof that it matters is that China, the occupying power in Tibet since 1949, detests it."

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This misses an important point. Beijing indeed detests the setup in Dharamsala, the seat of the Dalai Lama in north India, even referring to the Dalai Lama as "a wolf in monk's clothes." But the point missed is that, besides stoking the ire of the Chinese government, the Tibetan government-in-exile has more importantly accomplished nothing less than the rejuvenation of Tibetan culture and has created and administered a cohesive and productive community underpinned by a strong and growing civil society. When future generations of Tibetans examine the Tibetan exile experience, they will point to the institutions developed in exile as the single most important element that ensured the survival of Tibet outside the plateau.

Indeed, one silver lining in the ongoing Tibetan tragedy is the resurgence of Tibetan culture outside of Tibet and the creation of a productive community in exile supervised and serviced by a small but effective bureaucracy. In the introduction to the book Exile As Challenge: The Tibetan Diaspora, its editors, New Delhi-based writer Dagmar Bernstorff and Friedrich-Naumann Foundation director Hubertus von Welck, identify three major reasons why "the Tibetan community in exile is one of the most resilient and successful refugee groups in the world." First, they point to the ability of individual Tibetans to survive and sustain themselves economically. Second, the educational system created in exile has succeeded in educating sectors of the population who would have been illiterate in traditional Tibetan society. Finally, the Dalai Lama has introduced democracy to his people and is turning over political power to a directly democratically elected leader, the kalon tripa. Sociologists attribute the success of the rehabilitation of the Tibetan refugees and their tight community to the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA). In the book The Tibetan Government-in-Exile: Polities at Large, the author Stephanie Roemer attributes to the CTA a central role in the successful "resettlement and rehabilitation" of Tibetan exiles.

In this sense, the government has done a great deal for its people despite possessing very few resources. The Tibetan community taking root in exile is all the more remarkable given Tibet's earlier remoteness and isolation, which stemmed mainly from geography but could partially be attributed to choice. For this reason, in the early days of exile, the Tibetan refugees often experienced a sense of wonderment laced with deep anguish; except the selfsame earth and the sky, everything was strange and unfamiliar. When the first Tibetan exiles left their home country for India, they not only trekked from one country to another, but also walked away from the medieval world and entered the 20th century. The challenges of those days were as much adaption to their new surroundings as much as to catch up with the rest of the world in terms of acquisition of knowledge in all fields. That the refugees are comfortably settled in the modern world these days reflects the quality of leadership provided by the Dalai Lama and the Tibetans' devotion to him, and the tolerance and generosity of the exiles' host countries, especially India.

Indeed, the Tibetan exile community has itself made huge efforts to improve its situation, enabling the Dalai Lama and the Indian government's contributions to amount to something. In particular, other exile communities can look to the Tibetans as they struggle to remain vital, by examining their efforts in community-building, cultural preservation and resurgence and education.

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