In 2004, Lobsang Dorjee began the long and treacherous journey from Tibet across the Himalayas, through Nepal and into India.
Dorjee's story is common to other Tibetans who have escaped oppressive Chinese policies-- his father was killed and he lived homeless and illiterate in Tibet after his family was kicked out of a monastery during the Chinese invasion.
The plight of Tibetans in China has been dire since the Chinese Communist Party took over the small agricultural region of Tibet. For 51 years, Tibetans have continually asked for religious and cultural freedoms and the right to their own land. Human rights abuses have been rampant in the region, especially in the last few weeks, as Chinese forces cracked down on a protest during the Chinese lunar New Year.
Regardless of recent clashes, new generations of Tibetans like Dorjee are optimistic about the future of their country. The Tibetan government-in-exile reformed late last year, proving the strength to the Tibetan diaspora. The 14th Dalai Lama stepped down as the political leader and a new democratic government-in-exile took over. Tibetans may finally have the tools to start winning the fight for their basic freedoms.
"It seems that wherever I look, it's all problems and there is no one I can ask for help," Dorjee said. "More than ever, I miss my mother, but still I try to make myself happy through helping others and being involved in the Tibetan cause."
Unable to communicate with his friends and family at home, Dorjee said that although he is grateful for the opportunities that living in India has provided, being away from his family has been very difficult.
He joined a monastery in India through the advice of his friends, but quit shortly thereafter to reside in Dharamsala, India, the home of the 14th Dalai Lama. Now 24 years old, Dorjee has become an Indian citizen.
"The best thing to do is inform people about the plight of Tibetans and so that's what I'm here to do. I have learned great skills in India and when I can go back to Tibet I will open up a restaurant. It is good to have that to look forward to."
Dorjee was 17 years old when he left Tibet. He fled for the hope of freedom, leaving behind his mother, brothers and sisters.
The 14th Dalai Lama is currently advocating a 'middle way' approach with China-- that is, working to end human rights abuses and establish suzerainty. Suzerainty is a form of governance where one country, in this case China, has control over a region's foreign affairs while allowing the region domestic autonomy. It would allow Tibet to have its own government while still being part of China. Tsering Asha Leba, president of the Calgary chapter of Students for a Free Tibet, however, says that this is not the end result that SFT wants.
"Our main mission is supporting and advocating for an independent Tibet," she said. "The first and foremost issue for the Dalai Lama is to stop the cultural genocide of Tibetans inside of Tibet, like our language. You can't teach Tibetan in schools anymore and there is no religious freedom. We want an independent Tibet that our history tells us we had."
Younger generations of Tibetans remain hopeful for the future and, with a new government-in-exile, they may now be equipped with the proper tools to create change.
A dramatic history
Ownership over the region has been a continual issue between Tibet and China.
China has claimed ownership of the Tibetan region since the Yuang dynasty beginning in 1271, but had no effective control of Tibet from 1912 to 1951. China states Tibet had enjoyed an autonomous period under an overarching subordination to China. Like many of its other states, China claimed Tibet a special-status state with suzerain control of its domestic affairs.
China asserted its power over Tibet in 1912 with a declaration that Tibet would, in the future, come within the sphere of internal administration. Great Britain repudiated this declaration by essentially reprimanding China's right to actively intervene in Tibet's internal affairs, but still recognizing the suzerain right of China in Tibet.
The invasion of Tibet began in 1950, when the People's Liberation Army of China -- under the rule of Mao Zedong-- entered the largely agricultural Tibetan region of Chamdo and defeated the sparse and unprepared Tibetan army.
A top secret document published on Oct. 6, 1950 from the American Department of National Defense stated "China has claimed suzerainty over Tibet since 1751. However, the claim has been only nominal and the country has maintained itself in isolation and autonomy for a considerable period."
The report concluded that China would gain little in economic means and would be virtually useless in a military sense by controlling Tibet -- it would only create problems with supply and drain Chinese resources. The only clear advantages of the invasion appear to be an enhancement of Mao's prestige, an increased presence of communism in Asia and a more effective way to facilitate communist infiltration into India. The chief strategic importance of controlling the Tibetan region was political: it diverted global attention away from Taiwan, a situation under public scrutiny at the time.
There was an outcry from Tibetans after the 1950 invasion, calling on the international community to condemn China's forceful takeover of the land. In a letter addressed to the Governor General of Canada on Aug. 5, 1958, Tibetan representatives claimed Tibet was an independent country with no stock of modern weapons of war within its boundaries.
"With about 500,000 of their so-called 'liberation army', they over-powered our frontier guards . . . and attempted to destroy our religion, culture and traditions. Not only have the Chinese communists occupied our country making every effort to exploit our people, but they have also made Tibet into a huge arsenal that can have no other conceivable purpose than a future offensive against her neighbouring countries and the world at large."
The tension between China and Tibet came to a head in 1959. Delegates of the 14th Dalai Lama allegedly reached an agreement with the newly established People's Republic of China, affirming China's sovereignty of Tibet on May 23, 1951, but this claim was repudiated by the 14th Dalai Lama on March 26, 1959 as having been "thrust upon the Tibetan Government and people by the threat of arms." The Dalai Lama claimed his government the only legitimate one of Tibet. The 1959 protest of the treaty, known as the 1959 Tibetan Uprising, erupted in Lhasa, the Tibetan capital. The Tibetan government-in-exile reported 86,000 Tibetan deaths, citing "secret Chinese documents captured by guerrillas" during the rebellion.
Fleeing to survive
Asha Leba's grandfather was among the first Tibetans to flee the country. He left the monastery and took the 17-day journey over the Himalayas in the same group as the 14th Dalai Lama.
"He said he wasn't really afraid when crossing the Himalayas because by that point it was just a survival instinct that they all had," Asha Leba said.
"You didn't have time to be afraid and would die if you didn't leave. When they ran out of food or water, they had to eat the soles of their shoes because they were made out of yak and [had to] have snow as water."
In Nepal, they were taken prisoner because they had no visas, but Asha Leba explained the group was lucky and were allowed to move forward into India. Now, it has become more difficult and dangerous for refugees to enter Nepal.
"Nepal has the one-China policy, so it's even worse when you get to Nepal because you really don't know what will happen," she said. "In the time of my grandpa, they were more sympathetic. Now they are more supportive of China, which is logical because China has given them so much. But it's almost like a scare tactic."
In past years, an average of 3,000 Tibetans a year followed in the 14th Dalai Lama's footsteps in order to find a space to express their distinct culture and identity. According to the International Campaign for Tibet, the number of Tibetans crossing into Nepal in 2008 dropped dramatically from 3,000 to 652 due to "China's ensuing crackdown on the overwhelmingly peaceful protests."
Most recently, on Sept. 11, 2011, 23 Tibetan refugees were arrested and detained by Nepalese police for 11 days. The refugees were eventually released into the hands of the United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees, despite the Chinese embassy fighting for the individuals to be forcibly repatriated.
On Aug. 24, before the detainment of the 23 Tibetans, there was a proposed policy change in the Chinese Criminal Procedure Law, which would allow police to detain deported individuals and hold them in secret detention for up to six months without family or legal contact. This law would extend the current law, which subjects suspects to confinement in their homes for up to six months without trial or legal counsel. Asha Leba explained that those who are sent back are in even more danger because they are targeted, especially with the new proposed policy.
Standing their ground
The Tibetan government-in-exile is making drastic changes in order to be fully equipped to fight for their rights. In a move that changed thousands of years of tradition, the 14th Dalai Lama stepped down as political leader and will continue to serve only as the spiritual leader. In a powerful speech on the day the new leadership was implemented, the Dalai Lama proclaimed that the power of Tibet lies in the hands of all Tibetans, not in the leader. The inauguration of Lobsang Sangay, the new political head of Tibet, took place on Aug. 8, 2011 through democratic elections. Prime Minister Sangay said the elections "should send a clear message to the hardliners in the Chinese government that Tibetan leadership is far from fizzling out-- we are a democracy that will only grow stronger in years ahead."
The change in tradition was difficult for an older generation of Tibetans to accept, Asha Leba said, but she believes the change will be beneficial. "I'm a huge supporter of the younger generation of Tibetans to be able to instil change," she added.
Chris Ng, a University of Calgary fourth-year economics student who moved to Canada from Hong Kong seven years ago, said that it is difficult for Chinese students to have an opinion about the state of Tibet because the media often distorts the truth.
"It is the Chinese government that cares about Tibet," he said. "But the Chinese people don't know much. The government doesn't give out much information about Tibet, so it is harder for the people to have a view on this issue. Some people in China might get captured if they speak out so most people won't talk much or know much about it."
He said that although Hong Kong is an autonomous region and information flows freely, there are many discrepancies about what is being told and what actually happens. Ng and his friend Nicholas Zhou, another fourth-year economics student who moved from mainland China seven years ago, referred to the Tiananmen Square protests as an example of a distorted event. Although Zhou said China often hides things to appear in a more positive light, western media often propagate events to make them seem worse than they are.
"The winner writes the history. It's hard to get both perspectives," said Zhou.
He added that Tibet has always been a part of China and questions the proposal to make it an independent state.
"The English and French took North America from the First Nations, but if the First Nations asked for their land back, the government wouldn't give it to them," he said. "[China has] lots of those minority states of different races that are still controlled by Chinese government. [Because] we have lots of [minority states] in China, if Tibet wants to go, the rest of them will go and follow them-- half of China will be gone."
Regardless of whether or not China holds legal rights to the land, Asha Leba said the human rights abuses that followed the invasion and continue today are catastrophic, but the abuses don't extend only to Tibetans.
"It's wrong what the [Chinese government] is doing it to Tibetans, but it's even more wrong that they are doing it to their own people and getting away with it," said Asha Leba.
She explained that, because of Canada's strong trade relationship with China, many human rights abuses go unquestioned, although she does not think that people ignore human rights abuses on purpose.
"I think that people often just don't realize what's going on," she said. "It's easier to conceal what happens. I know that once people realize what's going on, they want to help. It's just getting the correct information out there that is the hard part, especially when the [Chinese government], a propaganda machine, will spit out anything to make themselves look good. For some people it's easy to believe."
An article released in the Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy Press on Sept. 25, 2011 claims self-immolation continues to be a grave situation in Ngaba, Tibet. Monks Lobsang Kelsang and Lobsang Kunchok staged peaceful protests with signs saying "Long live the Dalai Lama" and "We want religious freedom in Tibet" before setting themselves on fire. In the last 12 months, 16 nuns and monks have self-immolated in protest against Chinese policies.
Tibetan exile groups claim six protestors were killed in a peaceful demonstration on Jan. 23 and 24 during the Chinese lunar New Year, although other reports have said that five Chinese police were wounded in an act of violence by the Tibetan protestors. Because the area is off-limits to foreign media, it is impossible to know which account is correct. These clashes occurred just two weeks before Prime Minister Stephen Harper arrived in China to promote trade agreements.
In a statement on Jan. 26, Tibetan Prime Minister Sangay urged the world media and the United Nations to send a fact-finding delegation to the region and send a message to the leaders in Beijing that the killing of Tibetans is a clear violation of Chinese and international laws, and that such action will question China's moral legitimacy and standing in world affairs.
"Chinese police fired indiscriminately on hundreds of Tibetans who had gathered peacefully to claim their basic rights," Sangay said. "Basic human rights are being denied to Tibetans, the fragile environment is being destroyed, Tibetan language and culture is being assimilated and Tibetans are economically marginalized.
"The use of violence against Tibetans is unacceptable and must be strongly condemned by all people in China and around the world. I call on the international community to show solidarity and to raise your voices in support of the fundamental rights of the Tibetan people at this critical time," he proclaimed.
Sangay requests Tibetans in China to refrain from celebrating the Tibetan New Year on Feb. 22 to prevent further crackdowns from the Chinese police.
The Chinese Communist party will be changing power in October 2012 from Hu Jintao, but U of C anthropology professor Alan Smart said he doesn't think this move will change anything, at least initially. Smart currently teaches a political anthropology course and has extensive background in Chinese society and urban research. He said that whoever takes over as head of the party will be well-versed in communist laws and will have been with the party for a substantial period.
"Whoever takes power will follow the trends of the past government and won't make major changes. I particularly don't anticipate any drastic changes," said Smart.
Our relationship with Tibet
In the first week of 2012, China gained a large role in the Alberta oil sands, not just buying stakes, but also taking over whole operations. Chinese state-controlled companies are major players in Alberta's oil sands policies.
"The Canadian government realizes that they can't rely as much on the United States as the driver of the economy, and that will mean that they are attracted to playing nice with China," explained Smart. "In the Canadian case, it seems clear that when the Harper government came to power, they were quite likely to object to human rights abuses, but they have been toning that down in the last couple of years."
Smart said that in most international meetings that include China, there is a ritual period to point out human rights abuses and China expects that.
However, "when you start to point out human rights abuses in other ways, then you are more likely not to get the deals," he said.
With the spark of dissent across the world through the Arab Spring and the Occupy movement, a blind eye towards human rights abuses in Tibet is an anachronism of our time. Even with the growing presence of China in Canadian trade, the outcry of Tibetans will be hard to ignore in the future. The new democratic government-in-exile, under the rule of Prime Minister Sangay, promised that the sacrifices of young Tibetans who have self-immolated, protested and worked for the Tibetan cause around the world will not be forgotten. The younger generations of Tibetans will continue to speak out against the oppressive Chinese rule and this time, their voices will be heard.
"It would be beautiful to see China, Tibet and Nepal getting along," said Asha Leba. "I don't know if that's realistic, but I hope it is."
Translations by Gyalsten