Worrying new figures seen by Byline Times show a significant drop in the past 12 years in the number of Tibetans successfully escaping China’s grip.
For decades, thousands of Tibetans have made the impossible decision to leave their family, their home and their country behind to escape Chinese occupation and what the Tibet Policy Institute has branded “cultural genocide”.
But new figures have revealed that a crackdown on the borders may soon put an end to the escapes.
Twenty years ago, Palchen Wangyal was among a group of 36 Tibetans to successfully make the trip from the capital city of Lhasa to neighbouring Nepal. At the time, he was just 14 years old and travelled most of the way on foot with his eight-year-old brother.
He recalls the journey from his new home in the remote Indian region of Dharamshala, where he lives among a community of refugees who have all made similar escapes from Tibet – including the country’s exiled leader, the Dalai Lama.
He still feels pain in his right hand from the severe frostbite he suffered while braving the treacherous snow-filled passes of the Himalaya and every day he thinks of his brother who he buried in the mountains.
“I thought that when we crossed the mountain and got some food, he would be fine,” he said. “But he was lying, unmoving and unable to talk. We tried everything to get him to breathe but he wasn’t moving at all. I thought he might have lost his consciousness but an elder monk who with us and knew something about medicine checked his pulse. He said it was hopeless and that he was already dead. I couldn’t do anything except to hold his body close with tears in my eyes.
The law states that ethnic minority culture should be seen as an inseparable part of a larger “revolutionary and socialist” Chinese culture.
“We couldn’t stay there long since we still had to cross the border and climb another mountain. We also couldn’t carry his dead body to India so we carried him back to an area with about three feet of snow and buried him there. We prayed for him and left his body behind.”
It took Wangyal 45 days to reach Nepal. His mother had sent him away when it dawned on her that he could never learn his own language, culture or history in school. She feared he would grow up to be Chinese rather than Tibetan. As for his brother, he says she thought he was too young but let him go after he pleaded with her. Today, he would have been 28 years old.
Living in an Orwellian Nightmare
The slow destruction of Tibetan culture, religion and language has been taking place ever since China rolled across the border in 1950 and began its occupation.
It has waged a quiet war against the Tibetan people through mass Chinese immigration, the strict control of all expressions of culture and national identity and the erosion of the Tibetan language by forcing all schools to teach children in mandarin rather than their native tongue. Pictures of the Dalai Lama are also banned and strict controls are placed on monasteries. Monks and nuns have been some of the biggest targets for China’s security forces.
The oppression has become so severe that, in the past 10 years, 156 Tibetans have set themselves on fire as a form of protest, but even this incurs brutal punishments. If they survive, they are thrown in prison. If they don’t live, that punishment gets passed to their family and, at times, to anyone who witnessed it.
Most recently, China announced it would introduce a new policy in May which will hold government, businesses, community organisations, villages, schools, military groups and monasteries responsible for encouraging “ethnic unity”. The law states that ethnic minority culture should be seen as an inseparable part of a larger “revolutionary and socialist” Chinese culture.
Rights groups have warned that the regulations are similar to those used to justify crackdowns on China’s ethnic Uyghur community in Xinjiang, which has led to more than a million people being imprisoned.
“Tibetans are living in an Orwellian nightmare where they are constantly surveilled, imprisoned for exercising their human rights, discriminated against in the job market and legal system and forced to watch the Chinese Government wage war against their very culture and way of life,” Bhuchung Tsering, vice president of the International Campaign for Tibet (ICT), told Byline Times.
“Under Chinese rule, Tibetans cannot freely practice their religion, speak their language or express their cultural identity in any meaningful way. Many Tibetans realise they have a better chance of maintaining their unique identity in exile, so they choose to flee.”
Fleeing Tibet has always been perilous due to the harsh weather, the patrolling soldiers and the cost of people smugglers, but Tibetans have seen it as worth the risk in order to preserve their nation and to gain some form of relative freedom. However, new ICT data shown to Byline Times reveals that, in the past 12 years, the number of people successfully making the trip has dropped from thousands before 2008 to just 18 in 2019.
“For several years before 2008, there were a few thousand Tibetans escaping every year, most of them taking residence in India and Nepal,” Tsering continued. “This, together with the more than 100,000 Tibetans in exile who had come in the years immediately after 1959, helped Tibetans establish an incredibly resilient community in exile that has recreated major Tibetan Buddhist monasteries, developed a remarkably successful education system and even transitioned to a democratic form of governance.
“These actions have helped to ensure the continued flourishing of Tibetan culture outside of Tibet. At the same time, the Tibetan exile community, led by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, have introduced Tibetan culture and religion to all corners of the world, attracting countless new followers who are helping to keep Tibetan traditions alive.
“The Indian Subcontinent has thus become the base for the preservation of Tibetan culture. The decline in refugees certainly makes it harder to maintain some of the institutions they have built in exile, for example schools specifically set up for new refugees that are not seeing any new students.
“One thing that is for certain is that China’s clampdown on Tibetans’ ability to escape Tibet is a tragedy for those Tibetans, because they are forced to remain in what the watchdog group Freedom House repeatedly calls the second-least-free place on Earth, behind only Syria and worse than even North Korea.”
The figures show there has been a steady decline but the steepest fall took place from 2018 to 2019 when the number fell from 49 to 18.
Bringing Nepal On Board
John Jones, of the UK-based campaign group Free Tibet, explained that one of the reasons China wants the border closed is so it can avoid scrutiny.
He said: “The decline in numbers is certainly, in part, due to the increased security on the border with India. The numbers started to noticeably decrease after 2008 but really dropped after 2012 when authorities began to confiscate passports of Tibetans living in border areas and also imposed restrictions on travel to Lhasa. In addition, there has been increased surveillance and controls on the borders where the mountain passes are.
“Beijing has a strong interest in preventing Tibetans from escaping because they can provide first-hand information of the human rights abuses that they routinely are subjected to. They can also explode Beijing’s claims that Tibetans are happy, prosperous and keen to be governed by China. Since 2008, China has significantly stepped up security across Tibet to ensure that there is no repeat of the mass, country-wide demonstrations there, which received global media attention. The heavy-handed response to the protests, involving live gunfire, beatings and mass arrests, was met by international criticism that was embarrassing for Beijing.
“Ever since, Beijing’s primary goal in Tibet has been ‘stability maintenance’, eliminating protests and opposition by identifying potential troublemakers, imposing mass surveillance and preventing the spread of negative information. Tightening the borders and denying Tibetans the chance to recount their experiences in a safe environment, without fear of arrest, is a crucial part of this strategy.”
Another part of China’s strategy has been using power and influence in neighbouring Nepal, which is the gateway out of Tibet for most who flee.
The Nepali Government was once welcoming to the refugees but, as its relationship has grown with Beijing, it has begun sending many back across the border.
In leaked US cables published by WikiLeaks, a diplomat notes that Nepal’s policy of permitting Tibetan refugees to remain quietly in Nepal while accommodating Chinese demands to prevent “anti-China” activities is “under increasing strain”. This is despite an agreement with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to allow Tibetans safe passage through Nepal to India.
The cables go on to talk about Beijing offering financial incentives for the handover of Tibetan asylum seekers in Nepal and Beijing’s requests that the Nepali Government increase its border patrols. Meanwhile, Tibetans already living in Nepal have now found themselves banned from marking the Dalai Lama’s birthday and face government crackdowns on pro-Tibet demonstrations.
“If this trend continues, it will mean that the world hears less and less about Tibet,” added Mr Jones. “Some of the most highly respected advocates for Tibet, such as Golog Jigme, Dhondup Wangchen and the late Palden Gyatso, are refugees who could recount life under the occupation, right down to the torture that they were forced to endure in prison. This is unimpeachable evidence that those who hear it find hard to forget.
“Given the other crises in the world at the moment and the difficulties in getting information out of Tibet, Tibet is receiving less coverage than in the past. Preventing further refugees from escaping risks making the current silence on Tibet more deafening, as well as denying an escape route to Tibetans suffering on a daily basis.”