By Ruth Conniff
October 26, 2005
I went down to Dharamsala, India, earlier this month to interview the Dalai Lama and ended up meeting a number of interesting people in the process.
Dharamsala, as you may know, is the town in the foothills of the Himalayas where the Dalai Lama lives. And in case you’re interested in visiting there, you have to endure a long bus ride from New Delhi, or take a train-taxi combination, such as I did. Flights to a nearby airport are infrequent, seasonal and quite expensive.
The Tibetan government in exile set up interviews for me. The wonderfully friendly and helpful Jigmey Tsultrim was my escort.
He introduced me to Ngawang Woebar, a monk who was a political prisoner in China and now heads the Gu-Chu Sum Movement (the Tibetan ex-political prisoners’ association). The Chinese imprisoned Woebar for four months in 1987 for taking part in a peaceful protest and subjected him to constant interrogation. He escaped to India through Nepal in 1991 after his monastery was pressured to expel him the previous year. Woebar narrated to me, through a translator, his travails in a very matter-of-fact way without any bitterness or rancor. In fact, he even smiled a number of times, in spite of the grim political conditions he described for people living in Tibet. (His organization estimates that there are currently more than 1,200 political prisoners in Tibet.) Woebar ended our conversation by appealing to Americans, including American athletes, to boycott the Beijing Olympics in 2008 unless there’s dramatic improvement on the Tibetan front.
“China tramples on its people,” said Woebar. “An estimated 1.2 million Tibetans have died during the Chinese occupation. Plus, Tiananmen Square has happened. Since the Chinese government shows no respect for human rights, it is illogical for it to host the Olympics.”
I also met Tsultrim Dorgee Chunang, the general secretary of the Tibetan Youth Congress. This organization disagrees with the Dalai Lama’s nonviolent tactics and his compromise demand for genuine autonomy for Tibet, rather than full independence. The Youth Congress reflects the impatience that many young Tibetans have with the Dalai Lama’s cautiousness, and it has organized hunger strikes and self-immolations during visits of Chinese officials to India.
“At our meetings, some of our members have expressed frustration with His Holiness’s nonviolent approach, and have asked that why doesn’t the Tibetan Youth Congress go in for violence?” said Chunang. “But the Dalai Lama has threatened to resign from the leadership if this happens. After him, our thinking may change.”
Every year, between 2,500 and 3,000 Tibetans flee China for India through the Himalayas and Nepal, and it is the job of Dorjee, the director of the Tibetan Reception Center, to help set them up initially.
Dorjee, who fled Tibet as a six-year-old with his parents, showed me heart-rending photographs of Tibetans with frostbitten and gangrenous hands and feet, developed during their perilous journey to exile. In rooms below his office were housed entire families who had just completed that journey.
And, yes, I did meet with the Dalai Lama himself. For details of that, I’m afraid, however, you’ll have to wait for a little while.