(Excerpted from Shambhala Sun magazine, May 2010 issue)
The Dalai Lama and the people of Tibet have taught us so much about kindness and compassion. It is our time to give back. Andrea Miller looks at the work of three important organizations supporting the Tibetan people both inside Tibet and in exile.
To escape the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR), refugees make an arduous trek across the Himalayas. Often their family’s savings have gone into sending them out, yet they cannot afford sufficient supplies for the journey and they arrive in Nepal malnourished, frostbitten, ill. The refugees know that if they’re caught en route by Chinese security forces, they could be shot and killed, and if they’re caught by the Nepalese border patrol, they risk being returned to their homeland, where they could face imprisonment and torture. Yet despite these hazards, refugees continue fleeing Tibet because the situation there is that dire.
“Tibet and the Tibetan people are going through the hardest time in our history,” says Lobsang Nyandak, the representative of the Dalai Lama to the Americas. “But in terms of reaching out to the international community, we are confronted with a powerful China everywhere in this globe.”
More than ever, this is a critical time to help Tibetans; and there are things that we can do. This article will focus on three of the many organizations that are supporting the Tibetan cause. Two of them – The Tibet Fund and the American Himalayan Foundation – are dedicated to humanitarian work. The third, the International Campaign for Tibet, is a monitoring and advocacy group.
Like the Tibet Fund and the American Himalayan Foundation, the International Campaign for Tibet (ICT) also has the mission to improve Tibetan lives. But ICT takes a very different approach, one of information and advocacy. It was founded in Washington, D.C., and maintains its largest office there, but it also has offices in Amsterdam, Berlin, and Brussels.
I connected with ICT’s Kate Saunders at her home base in London and I asked her how she got involved with the Tibetan cause. “I was traveling in India,” she told me, “and I met a group of monks who had just escaped from Tibet. I was working as a journalist at that time and had written a book on human rights issues in China, but when I heard the monks’ stories, I realized I didn’t know very much about what was happening in Tibet. Like so many people, I had read the Lobsang Rampa books when I was young, which gave me the impression Tibet was a Shangri-La with exotic lamas, but of course the reality is very far from that. Now I work on onitoring the actual situation on the ground and challenging China’s representations.”
ICT monitors and reports on human rights in Tibet, as well as environmental and socioeconomic conditions, and in this work they encounter many challenges. Saunders explains: “China seeks to block news about Tibet from reaching the outside world, so ICT gets fragments of information. We get partial stories and pieces of information that we have to try to confirm and put together. We’re working from official sources as well, so we’re looking at what China Daily says, we’re looking at the plethora of information on Chinese websites. Another important factor is that, since the global economic meltdown began, resources have been pulled from media outlets in the West. But at the same time China is injecting more than $46 billion into creating new media resources representing the state’s point of view. It’s a constant information war.”
In Tibet the penalties for low-level information sharing are more severe than almost anywhere else in the world. Recently the Chinese authorities announced a campaign against what it calls “rumor mongering.” One official statement said that not only can someone be punished for spreading a rumor, they can also be punished for listening to a rumor, that is, to anything that casts Chinese rule in a negative light.
This campaign is just one way in which China has clamped down on Tibet since protests began sweeping across the plateau in March 2008. The majority of these protests have been peaceful, but “the Chinese have attempted to represent what has happened as one violent riot on March fourteenth,” says Saunders. And they have used this to justify their crackdown.
The current climate of fear was brought home to Saunders when she was in Kathmandu last year and met a newly arrived refugee from Lhasa. “He was this smart, young guy, about twenty-four, and he’d come to Nepal with absolutely nothing,” says Saunders. “He’d been a witness to the protests in March 2008. He’d helped someone and as a result he was in danger. He never knew whether there would be a knock on the door in the middle of the night and he was becoming more and more anxious. So, he decided to take the risk to live in exile. I asked him about what had happened after March fourteenth and whether he knew anybody who’d been shot dead, because even now, two years later, we still don’t know how many people were actually killed, though sources indicate that hundreds lost their lives. He said to me, ‘I don’t know. What you have to understand is that we can’t talk to each other about these things. I can’t even tell my mother what I did on March fourteenth.'”
ICT has various ways of informing the public about the situation in Tibet and ensuring that Tibetan voices get heard. One of them is publishing Tibetan literature and blogs in English. Eastern Snow Mountain is a collection of writings produced inside Tibet about the protests since March 2008. Recently, ICT translated some of it into English and published it in their report, A Great Mountain Burned by Fire. It’s critical that the public is kept informed because that is what inspires them to take action. “When Tibetans come out of Tibet,” says Saunders, “they always tell us that when they hear about prayer vigils that are happening in different countries on behalf of Tibet, this makes them feel less isolated. It helps them remember at this very dark time that they are not forgotten.”
It’s likewise critical that governments are informed about the situation in Tibet and presenting reports to them is a cornerstone of ICT’s work. In the United States, it looks to members of Congress to express concern about political prisoners and to support dialogue between China and the Dalai Lama. ICT also works with the State Department on these issues. Mary Beth Markey, ICT’s vice president of international advocacy, explains how they work with parliaments and governments to make the case for why funding is needed to help Tibetans in specific ways. If ICT is successful, the government releases a notification saying they have funds earmarked to meet a particular need. Private aid organizations can then bid for the money and the government chooses the organization it feels is best equipped to make a positive impact.
The money goes toward a broad range of programs, says Markey. “It goes toward emergency humanitarian assistance and to refugees who have just crossed the Himalayas. It also provides medical assistance to Tibetan communities, child-mother welfare programs, scholarship programs for Tibetans to study in the West, and small development assistance programs inside Tibet to help Tibetans stay in the saddle a little longer.
“Of all the things we do,” says Markey, “for me the most satisfying is when we’re able to secure programmatic support, whether for inside Tibet or for the exile community in India and Nepal. It’s satisfying to witness the direct effect it has on Tibetans.”
“Tibet,” says Richard Blum, “is an important lesson to all of us as to how we ought to care about those who are less fortunate. His Holiness the Dalai Lama said, ‘Our religion is simple to understand; it’s all about compassion and kindness.’ So if you take that as a theme, you can go wherever you want with it. There are a million good places to go. I do have an interest in working in other parts of the world. But my heart has been, and always will be, in the Himalayas.
“Tibet is a way of thinking-a way of living that’s important well beyond its geographical or cultural boundaries. It’s a part of the world where people’s lives, like their environment, are very fragile. They need all the support and encouragement they can get. Whether you want to help through our foundation or another good cause, please do it.”