More Tibetans flee homeland
The Karmapa Lama fled China last week because he wants to pursue
KATHMANDU, NEPAL, AND BEIJING
The 14-year-old Karmapa Lama survived a formidable obstacle course last week to arrive in India, like tens of thousands of his compatriots before him.Skip to next paragraph
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Yet the trek - scaling the planet's highest mountain passes, forging near-freezing waterways, and trekking along the precipices of deep, barren gorges - is unlikely to deter more Tibetans from making the treacherous trip to the center of the Tibetan diaspora.
"Winter is the worst time to try to leave Tibet," says Tashi Wangdi, minister for religion and culture in the Tibetan government-in-exile headed by the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala, India. Mr. Wangdi met the Karmapa last week. But "more and more Tibetans are fleeing their homeland to escape the reality of Chinese-occupied Tibet."
The Karmapa Lama, the highest ranking religious leader to leave Tibet since the Dalai Lama, heads one of Tibetan Buddhism's four major schools. His defection "will certainly embarrass the Chinese government because it shows that all its propaganda cannot whitewash the appalling controls on religion and culture in Tibet," says Mr. Wangdi.
The Chinese government's attempt to wipe out Tibetan nationalism by clamping down on Buddhist temples apparently triggered the Karmapa Lama's defection last week. He risked the Himalayan odyssey "in search of religious freedom and education," says Rinchen Khando Choegyal, minister of education in the Dalai Lama's government. China's official reaction to the Karmapa's journey was that he was expected to return.
Mary Beth Markey, a rights monitor at the Washington-based International Campaign for Tibet, says the Tibetan diaspora, which stretches from Nepal to India to Switzerland to the US, now numbers more than 100,000 refugees, and is growing.
Each year, about 3,000 to 4,000 Tibetans are processed through a refugee camp on the outskirts of Nepal's capital, and about half are monks or nuns, says camp director Jigme La.
"Some who flee here have been tortured and imprisoned, while others have been barred from entering any monasteries in Tibet," Mr. La says.
Wangdi says that "if the Chinese government doesn't end its attacks on Tibet's temples and its culture, many more Tibetans are likely to attempt to flee."
An underground railroad that criss-crosses Tibet and ferries Tibetans fleeing life under Chinese Communist rule surfaces at La's refugee camp, and later winds its way on to Tibetan settlements in India.
The Tibet-Nepal stage of the journey is so costly in terms of casualties that few Tibetans, except the railway's "conductors" and refugees apprehended along the route, ever retrace their steps back into Tibet.
"Most of the refugees who escape want to stay permanently in exile," says Bhuchung Tsering, a Tibetan spokesman at the International Campaign for Tibet.
Refugees caught inside Chinese borders are "placed under permanent surveillance," says Mr. Tsering, while "the families of those who make it to India are often held as virtual hostages by the Chinese government."
Dozens of refugees interviewed at the Kathmandu center asked not to be identified, with each citing fears that the Chinese government could take reprisals against family members left behind in Tibet.
Surrounded by hills and strewn with multihued Buddhist prayer flags, the simple brick building that serves as a temporary barracks and processing center for the refugees resembles a tiny patch of Tibet that has been transplanted onto the Nepalese countryside.
Many of the refugees, who range from infants to the elderly, carry only a ragged knapsack filled with personal possessions. Most are destitute, and the reception center issues about $50 to each Tibetan exile to begin a new life in India.
"I love my homeland, but I had to leave it in order to study Tibetan culture and Tibetan Buddhism," says a teenaged refugee. The would-be monk adds that the Chinese authorities had blocked him from entering a Tibetan monastery, and says "My only option now is to join one of the Dalai Lama's monasteries in India."