By Maura Moynihan
DHARAMSALA—As often happens in India, this year March 10 was followed by Holi, the Hindu festival of spring.
Dharamsala, seat of the Tibetan government in exile, glowed with pink, orange, and purple powder, dusted on footpaths and smeared over the faces of cheerful tourists and Indian celebrants. And as happens after every March 10, bars and cafes filled with debate over the state of Tibet.
Lhasang Tsering gave up a scholarship in the United States to join the Tibetan Resistance forces in Mustang in the early 1970s. He has fiercely argued the case for Tibetan independence from his Dharamsala home and iconic bookshop, the BookWorm, perched on the edge of McLeod Ganj, where the road winds down the hill toward the Dalai Lama’s temple.
“When I think of the people inside Tibet, how they suffer, I feel shattered,” said Lhasang, his face wrenched in sorrow.
“Everyone recognizes the many achievements of the Tibetans in exile, but we did not flee our country to become the world’s most successful refugees. We’ve failed as freedom fighters. There is too much talking about talks with China, which have failed, not enough about the ground reality in Tibet.”
On a rooftop café near the BookWorm, Lhasang Tsering met with Chin Jin, from the Federation for a Democratic China, who has initiated a new relationship between Tibetan exiles and Chinese democrats.
A historic year
They discussed China’s looming economic, environmental, and political crises, why and how Chinese Communist Party will respond to unrest with force.
“The present financial crisis is an opportunity for Tibet, it threatens the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party,” Lhasang Tsering said.
“There is a chance the Communist Party will go too far, and people just won’t be able to take it anymore. We have to be prepared to seize the moment when it comes.”
“2009 is an historic year in China,” Chin said.
“Look how many anniversaries are coming—60 years of Communist victory over the Nationalists, 50 years of the Dalai Lama in exile, 20 years after the Tiananmen Square massacre, 10 years of Falun Gong outlawed.”
“I knew we had to do something, so I brought 31 Chinese democrats to Dharamsala this March 10, to give the Tibetans our whole hearted support, with the hope that they will join with our movement, to reshape China, and thus the world.”
Chin’s colleagues had never visited India before, or met the Dalai Lama, or seen Tibetan homes and temples.
“Chinese people rarely visit the Indian subcontinent, and they loved it,” Chin said, smiling as an enormous bullock sauntered in and out of a Tibetan shrine behind a tea shop, where a gracious Himachali lady poured drinks for a cluster of American students.
“We made so many new friends here. My group really wanted to understand the real suffering of the Tibetan people, they never really knew the story—we all grew up reading Chinese propaganda. This is the first time they’ve seriously examined the issue.”
Role of the West
Both men shared concerns that the Chinese Communist Party will exploit the financial crisis to weaken human rights talks with Western governments, and that the West has unwittingly enabled the party of Mao Zedong to stay in power for so long.
“I was a teenager in Shanghai in 1972, when Nixon came to China. An elderly friend of my father’s started to cry when Nixon came. He said, ‘Now the USA has come to the rescue of the Communist Party, and this will prolong the suffering of the Chinese people for many more years.’”
“He was right. If Western powers don’t use their leverage to promote political reform in China, if they keep this dictatorship in power, it will be a tragedy not only for the Chinese and Tibetan people, but the world.”
One the day after Holi, March 12, the Tibetan Women’s Association led a candlelight vigil at dusk. Buddhist nuns, young refugees from Tibet, encircled the mani shrine in McLeod Ganj, chanting prayers for a Free Tibet, carrying Tibetan flags and portraits of the Dalai Lama.
The procession descended the hill to the gate of the Dalai Lama’s temple, where the Tibetan Youth Congress has erected large banners with names and faces of the dead—men, women, and children, most from Kham and Amdo—killed for their loyalty to their exiled leader.
As Chin bade farewell to Dharamsala, he gave his new Tibetan friends pictures of Chinese democrats killed and tortured by the Chinese Communist Party.
“Hang their faces on this wall. And the Uyghurs, Mongols, all the martyrs. We have the same vision, the same goal. A Free China will bring a Free Tibet.”
Maura Moynihan, a writer and musician, has been a consultant to the Rubin Museum of Art in New York City, America's largest Himalayan and Tibetan cultural institution. She worked for many years as a refugee consultant in India and Nepal and recently completed a master's degree in political science at the New School.