Matthew Walls/the Gauntlet

Dispatching from Darjeeling

Tibetan refugees hold nightly protests in northeast India

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Darjeeling, India--Mar. 17, 2008

For the around 250,000 Tibetan refugees living in northern India, the recent protests in Lhasa and China signify an opportunity to draw international attention to their ongoing crisis.

Darjeeling, a city in the northeast Indian province of West Bengal, is barely 80 kilometres from the border of Tibet and is home to one of the largest Tibetan refugee populations. Though predominantly Nepalese, Darjeeling is also a major centre of Tibetan culture with several large gompas (temples), including the Bhutia Busty Gompa, which houses the original copy of the Tibetan Book of the Dead.

Since the intensification of protests in Lhasa on Fri., and the subsequent spread to the rural areas of Tibet and other Chinese provinces, Darjeeling has been the scene of daily demonstrations in an effort to draw international attention to the crisis and plead with the Chinese government to pursue a non-violent negotiation.

Before sunset each day, a large rally is staged in the chowkrastha (central plaza). Protestors, in communication with family members in Tibet, claim as many as 100 have died in the clashes in Lhasa alone. The rallies, drawing numbers perhaps as large as the Lhasa protests themselves, have been, and are certain to remain, strictly peaceful but highly energetic. Protesters wave Indian flags along with Tibetan flags--which have been banned by the Communist Party in Tibet. As the sun sets, the rally forms a candle-lit procession, which takes 45 minutes to pass as they parade through the streets of the hillside community.

The procession is highly structured, led by hundreds of monks, dressed in red, carrying large Tibetan flags and photos of the Dalai Lama. Following the monks are children of the Northeast Tibetan Youth Congress dressed in their British-style school uniforms and yellow sashes, which represent their membership. The youths are followed by thousands of Tibetans of all ages and walks of life--women first, followed by men. The demonstration is a complete cross-section of the Tibetan refugee community, with every voice singing and chanting in perfect unison. The unified message is very clear: after nearly 60 years, the refugees' determination for peaceful liberation from China in India has not waned.

The Tibetan struggle for independence began with the Chinese invasion of the sovereign Himalayan state in 1950. An uprising in 1959, of which Mar. 10 was the anniversary, saw the expulsion of the Tibetan government, which is run in exile by the Dalai Lama in India. It is estimated that since 1950, 1.2 million Tibetans have been killed by the Chinese government and over 90 per cent of the Tibetan gompas and culturally sensitive sites have been destroyed. Under Maoist governance in China, Buddhist activities ­--intrinsic to Tibetan culture--were made illegal. This position has softened only slightly in recent years. The Chinese government has also orchestrated a massive resettlement program. Now, Tibetans are an ethnic minority in Tibet.

The official position of the Chinese government leading up to the inevitable media attention of the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics is that China's relationship with its Himalayan province has improved to the point that Tibetans are in fact grateful for improved living conditions. That sentiment cannot be found amongst the refugee population in Darjeeling.

The protests currently underway in Tibet and China are on a scale that the People's Republic has not had to cope with for several decades. For the refugees in India, this signals the start of a second uprising and a new chapter in the Tibetan struggle. As the Olympics draw near, the restlessness of Tibetan populations worldwide can only be expected to intensify. The Chinese reaction has already been characteristically heavy-handed. Tibetan uprisings have previously been quashed with lethal force, mass arrests and indefinite detentions, but the refugees hope that, with media and international attention, Chinese President Hu Jintao will opt to use this as an opportunity to pursue a more peaceful route of negotiation.