[Friday 7 October] Suddenly it was the final day in Dharamsala. Everyone wished to stay longer in order to explore the town and region more, further develop the friendships made and to delve further into the workings of some of the amazing projects we had seen. However, MPs have busy schedules, so the 2 day journey home would commence later on in the day. But before leaving, there were a few more engagements.
The first item on the agenda was a visit to the Voice of Tibet (VOT) office. VOT is the only dedicated Tibetan radio service that broadcasts into Tibet (two other services, Radio Free Asia and Voice of America, have Tibetan language programmes as part of their larger remit). It produces a 45 minute daily show in Tibetan, with the latest news and developments, which is repeatedly broadcast throughout the day. There is also a programme in Chinese, and in the past two weeks VOT has begun a web-based video service. The MPs were particularly interested in the attempts the Chinese government makes to jam VOT broadcasts and the ways VOT tries to circumvent them.
The delegation then headed to the offices of the Department of Information and International Relations for a scheduled press conference. The room was packed with journalists from every Tibetan news service plus correspondents from several Indian and international news agencies.
Penpa Tsering, the Speaker of the Tibetan Parliament in exile, introduced all five MPs to the press – Fabian Hamilton, Simon Hughes, James Gray, Cathy Jamieson and Nic Dakin – as well as Tibet Society’s Chairman Riki Hyde-Chambers and CEO Philippa Carrick. After thanking the Speaker and the Parliament in exile for hosting the UK delegation, Fabian Hamilton, made some observations on the trip and the various meetings, in particular the audience with the Dalai Lama, meeting the Kalon Tripa and the visits to the Transit School and Tibetan Children’s Village School.
The other MPs also gave their impressions and thoughts before taking questions from the press. Simon Hughes highlighted conflict resolution as a key focus for parliaments around the world, stressing that prevention of conflicts should be given at least as much time and resources as is put into conflicts themselves. James Gray reflected on his trip to Tibet a year ago, under the auspices of the Chinese government, and how he appreciated now being able to see the situation from the Tibetan point of view. Cathy Jamieson said she would be raising the issue with her colleagues and believed that Scottish devolution could be an example used to show China that proper autonomy is a viable option for Tibet. Nic Dakin noted that he had been struck by the optimism of the Tibetan people, both long-term exiles and recent arrivals.
The questions included clarification of the UK’s policy on Tibet (which Fabian Hamilton clarified had not changed and was in line with other international government and what the Dalai Lama says, i.e. that Britain recognises Tibet is currently part of the People’s Republic of China, but that it has serious concerns about the situation in Tibet and calls for negotiations to seek a peaceful solution), Britain’s historic relationship with Tibet and the recent immolations.
As the press conference continued, word was received that two further immolations had occurred, though details were sketchy. Philippa Carrick made reference to the breaking news and said that Tibet Society will continue to work to highlight the ongoing repression in Tibet, which has become so desperate that monks are willing to sacrifice their lives in order to bring it the world’s attention, and to press the authorities to ask China why this is happening if, as they purport, there is purportedly religious freedom in Tibet.
Following the press conference the MPs mingled with the journalists, who were able to talk to and interview the MPs in one-on-one situations.
The delegation then paid a visit to the museum of the Tibetan Medical and Astrological Institute (Men-Tsee-Khang). The Institute was set up by the Dalai Lama in 1961 to preserve and promote the traditional system of Tibetan medicine and astrology. It has a college, research department, pharmaceutical department and branch clinics in Tibetan settlements across India. The museum has displays of traditional ingredients, plants and surgical tools, as well as ancient texts and paintings depicting treatments and the ancient astrological calculation system.
The museum was the final official part of the programme, however, Fabian Hamilton invited those interested to visit a unique school, several kilometres outside of Lower Dharamsala, where he was sponsoring two children. Set up by a Tibetan monk for children of Indian street workers, it provides food, clothing and a home as well as an education. All the MPs accepted the invitation. Fabian met his two sponsored children and they and 20 or so of their fellow students, aged between 5 and 16, joined the MPs for an informal but lively question and answer session.
The children were obviously happy in their home, and relayed how they wished to make something of their lives, with career ambitions ranging from the police service to being an astronaut! One even wanted to become a politician, which raised a great cheer from the delegation! Another humorous moment came when James Gray began entertaining the children with his ‘dancing eyebrows’!
As the school is short of books, the MPs pledged to send a package of requested titles and subjects upon their return to the UK. Requests included “The Lord of the Rings”, the Narnia series by C.S. Lewis and books on history and space exploration. The all-too-brief encounter ended with a series of photos. The MPs were genuinely moved by this small project and in particular the fact that it was a Tibetan-run project aimed to give something back to the local Indian community.
After lunch, at the popular Common Ground restaurant, the MPs finally had a few hours to explore the town. In the evening the delegation reconvened and were met by the Speaker of the Parliament, Penpa Tsering. Cathy Jamieson’s husband, Ian, was particularly impressed that Penpa arrived on a motorbike, and as a fellow rider an immediate bond was struck up. Penpa presented khatags to the delegation, thanked us all for the visit, saying that he had received many messages of gratitude from officials and NGOs who were encouraged by the visit and the interest shown by the MPs.
Fabian, on behalf of th e delegation thanked Penpa for his hospitality and said that the MPs looked forward to welcoming exiled Tibetan parliamentarians to the UK in the near future. He added that, on their return to the UK, the MPs would be considering and undertaking a number of practical suggestions that arose during the visit. Philippa Carrick thanked both Penpa Tsering and the UK MPs for making this an encouraging and productive exchange visit and that Tibet Society will continue to promote such activities, in order to not only strengthen ties between the two parliaments, but also to promote a greater understanding of the situation inside Tibet and to bring about a just and peaceful resolution.
As the delegation left Dharamsala in the early evening, the mountains above were once again visible and the peaks were beautifully displayed with a backdrop of red and orange tinged wisps, as if not only saying farewell, but to not forget Tibet, its people and its colourful and unique culture.
Epilogue: On the journey back, just as we were boarding the overnight train to Delhi, Cathy Jamieson received a phone call. It turned out to be Ed Miliband asking her to join the Shadow Cabinet, as a Shadow Minister of the Treasury. Cathy accepted, adding it was quite surreal being given such an opportunity whilst in northern India trying to board an overnight train and negotiating the mass of passengers, porters, luggage and hawkers that seem ever-present at Indian railway stations!
The camaraderie of the MPs and delegation members was in full evidence as, for a bit of fun on the last night together, it was decided to see if we could fit the whole delegation into one compartment on the train – normally made for 4 people (our delegation comprised 14). The photos indicate we were successful!
Final note: Tibet Society will be following up with the participating MPs on the practical suggestions that arose during the week, and a follow-up meeting has already been proposed to this end. We will keep supporters informed of developments and ways they can help.