The Human Torches of Tibet

The Human Torches of Tibet is an important piece of journalism, and we (Tibet Society) were glad to see the BBC broadcasting the 24-minute documentary on BBC World. However, it is ashame the BBC has not seen fit to find a place for it on one of its mainstream channels in the UK except for a five-minute condensed version on Newsnight. (For those outside the UK, the viewing figures for the BBC News channel are considerably smaller than those of BBC1 or BBC2).

The documentary is important as it highlights an issue which receives only sporadic attention from the media – namely the ongoing protests in Tibet. The average person in the street is unlikely to have heard of the self-immolations in Tibet, nor the tens of thousands of Tibetans who have taken to the streets this year to protest against the Chinese government’s continuing repressive policies.

Although we applaud and welcome the documentary we have several misgivings. For one, it was disappointing the angle taken was that of questioning the Dalai Lama’s non-violent policy. Surely the protests and self-immolations in Tibet and the reasons behind them are worthy enough of a documentary, without the need to question the policy of the Tibetan spiritual leader, who has now retired from politics?

The Dalai LamaOur main concern from the programme was the implication that many exiled Tibetans are dissatisfied with the Dalai Lama and his policy of non-violence. At one point the presenter expressed her surprise that “so many [exiled Tibetans are] prepared to criticise their spiritual leader [the Dalai Lama]”. Yes, there is a strong debate in the Tibetan exiled community on the way forward, given that ten years of talks between the Chinese government and representatives of the Dalai Lama have yielded absolutely nothing and in the interim period the situation for Tibetans in Tibet has only deteriorated. However, it is somewhat disingenuous to say (or at least imply) that there is widespread disillusionment amongst exiled Tibetans with the Dalai Lama.

Tibetans for years have taken their lead, both spiritually and politically from the Dalai Lama. In the past, few Tibetans would openly voice their disagreement with the Middle Way Approach. However, now that the Dalai Lama has stepped aside politically, the Tibetan people, at least those in exile, have the opportunity to express their own opinions without fear of opposing the wishes of their spiritual leader. But this will take time. Old habits die hard, and many Tibetans still want to first hear what the Dalai Lama has to say. Those who made their views known publicly during the Dalai Lama’s political reign have now come to the fore, but they are not necessarily representative of the majority of the exiled community.

It would have been interesting to hear more from the Kalon Tripa (Prime Minister), the first democratically elected political leader of the Tibetan people. Though the Dalai Lama’s opinion is important and newsworthy, surely that of the Kalon Tripa is what the world (and specifically China) needs to hear.

Nonetheless, debate is healthy and the cornerstone for democracy. But we must give the exiled community time to find its voice and allow the Kalon Tripa, the exiled government and the community as a whole time to get used to the vagaries of public opinion.

A point to note is the programme’s implication that Tibetans took the lead to protest from Westerners when it stated that in 2008 “as news of demonstrations (Olympic torch relay) reached the rooftop of the world, Tibetans rose up against their rulers”. In actualality the protests in Tibet began on 10 March 2008, whilst the first protests against the torch relay took place in London on 6 April 2008. The demonstrations and unrest (which continue to this day) was (and is) completely down to Tibetans in Tibet and their increasing frustration and resistance to China’s occupation and rule.

These points aside, we hope this documentary can be repeated on BBC channels in the near future so it can receive as wide an audience as possible. In the meantime, we have uploaded it onto our Youtube channel, so you can watch it and share the link with your friends and colleagues.

Click here to view the documentary on Tibet Society’s website.

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Day 6 – Press conference & departure

[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.

Links of interest:
Voice of Tibet: www.vot.org
Tibetan Medical and Astrological Institute: www.men-tsee-khang.org
Tibet Society: www.tibetsociety.org

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Day 5 – Dinner with the Kalon Tripa

[Thursday 6 October] Today, the delegation met the recently inauguarated Kalon Tripa (Prime Minister) Dr Lobsang Sangay, the first secular political leader democratically elected by Tibetans. Dr Sangay’s role has become even more important since the Dalai Lama decision to retire from politics earlier this year.

However, the meeting for the Kalon Tripa was not until the evening. At the beginning of the day we awoke to a beautiful clear sky with the mountains behind Dharamsala visible for the first time on the trip, the mist having lifted. The sun and blue sky made the visit to the Tibetan Childrens Village School (TCV) in Upper Dharamsala all the more timely, as it has stunning views both down the valley and to the peaks above.

The General Secretary of the school, Thubten Dorje, showed the delegation around the campus, which has a capacity for over 2,000 students, and includes a temple, a baby unit, kindergarden and classrooms for students up to the age of 18. There also dormitories for orphaned children and those who have left Tibet without their parents.

TCV runs residential and day schools in Tibetan refugee settlements, with currently over 16,000 students. Approximately 80% of the 500 students graduating from TCV schools each year go on to higher education. Much of the money raised to run TCV schools comes from donations and sponsorships from the public (for more info contact Tibet Relief Fund).

The MPs then paid a visit to the offices of the China Outreach programme, also known as Drewla. The programme started in 2006 and aims to educate mainland Chinese about the reality of the situation in Tibet using social network tools. Thubten, Drewla’s manager, explained the process to the MPs over tea.

After Drewla, a series of meetings with prominent Tibetans took place before, during and after lunch, at the Common Ground Cafe. The cafe itself was of great interest to the delegation, as it is part of a non-profit venture which aims to bring Chinese and Tibetans together via forums and social media to promote an understanding and share experiences between the two communities.

First the MPs met Kaydor Aukatsang, Advisor and Special Coordinator on Development for the Tibetan government in exile. Kaydor is a newly appointed advisor to the Kalon Tripa. One of Kaydor’s main areas of focus is education, as the Kalon Tripa has a long-term goal for the community to produce 10,000 Tibetan professionals within 20 years. The MPs recognised this tied in with the Dalai Lama’s request for scholarships for Tibetans, and pledged to look into the matter upon their return (Tibet Society will be assisting and monitoring this action). Other areas discussed included technolgy, think tanks and increasing the capacity and resources of the exiled government.

Next the MPs met Ama Adhe, an 83 year-old former political prisoner who has been in exile for 27 years. Ama Adhe recounted her story of how in the 1950s she had been sent to a labour camp with 300 other Tibetan women and experienced horrific conditions and starvation. By the end of her internment she was only one of the 300 left alive. She appealed to the MPs to pressure China to end the ongoing repression in Tibet.

The MPs also had the opportunity to speak in depth to three young Tibetan men; Zorgyi, who works as a researcher for International Campaign for Tibet (ICT); Jampa, who has just started work with Human Rights Watch and previously worked with ICT; and Tsewang, who was shot during the 2008 protests in Tibet but managed to evade capture and escaped into exile.

The final meeting before dinner with the Kalon Tripa was at the office of Gu Chu Sum, the ex-political prisoners association. Vice President Lukar Jam welcomed the MPs and explained the work of Gu Chu Sum, which was set up to look after the welfare of former political prisoners in exile and to campaign for those still in prison. The MPs were shown the facilities, which provide education and vocational training for ex-prisoners. The unit also includes a restaurant and a shop selling goods made by Gu Chu Sum members.

The evening programme began with a formal meeting with Kalon Tripa Dr Lobsang Sangay in the new Kashag (Cabinet) building. At the entrance to the Kashag, which officially opened in June, was a vintage car used to transport the Kalon Tripa. James Gray was particularly fascinated with the car. At parliament James had sat in the Kalon Tripa’s seat, so he felt it was only right that he should be allowed to take the car for a drive around Dharamsala. However, it was pointed out that if he did he would be mistaken for the Kalon Tripa’s chauffeur rather than the Kalon Tripa himself!

Fabian Hamilton, on behalf of the delegation, congratulated Dr Sangay on his election as Kalon Tripa, and as Chairman of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Tibet invited Dr Sangay to a meeting at Westminster during his planned visit to London in early December. There will also be requests submitted for the Kalon Tripa to meet David Cameron, Nick Clegg and William Hague. (Tibet Society will keep supporters informed of any possible public events with the Kalon Tripa.)

A discussion was held for an hour with Dr Sangay, which covered issues such as education (and the proposed scholarship scheme), long-term strategies to strengthen the exiled Tibetan community, negotiations with the Chinese government and the exiled government’s continued commitment to seeking genuine autonomy for Tibet.

Members of the Kashag then joined us for dinner, which was hosted by Dr Sangay. MPs were able to have one-on-one discussions with Kalons (Ministers) Dicki Chhoyang, responsible for the Department of Information and International Relations (DIIR); Tsering Wangchuk, Department of Health; Dongchung Ngodup, Department of Security; plus Cabinet Secretary Migyur Dorjee (a former UK Representative of the Dalai Lama),  DIIR Secretary Thubetn Samphel and Kalon Tripa Lobsang Sangay.

The evening concluded with presentation of khatags and mementos. The Kalon Tripa presented each MP with a genuine sample of Tibetan currency, used prior to China’s invasion in 1950. Dr Sangay said this was a reminder that Tibet had been an independent country prior to the occupation. Fabian Hamilton, in return, presented Dr Sangay with a Portcullis clock (from the Houses of Parliament). Philippa Carrick, CEO of Tibet Society, presented Lobsang Sangay with a small gift and an information pack about the work of Tibet Society and some small gifts to distribute amongst the Kalons.

Fortunately, Dr Sangay’s chauffeur was present when we departed so James Gray was unable to take the Kalon Tripa’s car for a spin as he had hoped!

Links of interest:

Tibet Relief Fund – http://www.tibetrelieffund.co.uk
Tibetan Childrens Village – http://www.tcv.org.in
Common Grounds project – http://www.commongroundsproject.org
Gu Chu Sum – http://9103.org

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Day 4 – Recent arrivals and grassroots

[Wednesday 5 October] We awoke to a warm, sunny day though the mists still veiled the mountains above and the valleys below. The first stop for the day was the Tibetan Transit School near Lower Dharamsala.

The Transit School houses and educates young Tibetans, aged between 18 and 30, who have  arrived from Tibet. As the Director of the school showed the delegation around the campus, we dropped into a number of classes, which aim to give the students employable skills by the time they graduate. Students are enrolled for up to five years. Classes we saw included computer training, tailoring, and art.

The MPs then met 12 students, all of whom had fled from Tibet within the past few months. The students introduced themselves and explained why they had decided to take the huge risk to flee Tibet. There were a number of reasons given, such as to receive a better education, to see the Dalai Lama and to learn more about Tibetan culture and language, however there was one common theme, which was to escape the oppression inflicted by the Chinese regime. Several of the students had family members or friends who had been arrested, so they had decided to flee to avoid a similar fate. One student had escaped with his pregnant wife, arriving just a month ago.

Riki Hyde-Chambers (Chairman of Tibet Society) explained to the students the purpose of the MPs visit and Simon Hughes recounted the MPs’ audience with the Dalai Lama. Both the MPs and students were then invited to ask questions to each other. Though initially nervous, the students gained confidence and explained in further detail the repression they faced on a daily basis in Tibet. Half the students came from nomadic backgrounds and told the MPs how the Chinese authorities were placing restrictions on herding and how the traditional way of life is under threat from government resettlement programmes. The students were particularly keen to emphasise that Chinese government propaganda should not be believed and asked how the situation was perceived internationally.

After tea, the presentation of khatags and a group photo, the delegation departed for the nearby Reception Centre, which receives newly arrived Tibetans who have made the perilous journey from Tibet. Unfortunately for us, the new arrivals had been granted a last-minute audience with the Dalai Lama, so had left just before we arrived. (The Dalai Lama meets all new Tibetan refugees.) Nonetheless, the delegation toured the new Centre, which opened in February 2011 in Lower Dharamsala replacing the the old Centre in Mcleod Ganj.

On entering one of the female dormitories, one young Tibetan woman was present. She stood up and we immediately noticed she was heavily pregnant and we realised it was the wife of the student we had just met at the Transit School. Having already met the Dalai Lama she had remained behind. She greeted us warmly and showed us her dormitory. She then talked about the reason’s why she and her husband had escaped (essentially to allow their baby to grow up in a free society). Her story was heart-breaking and many tears were shed. Being seven months pregnant she is unable to enter school, so she is worried about her and her baby’s future. Tibet Society will be monitoring her situation and encouraging the exiled government to help with this unique case.

The next destination was the Norbulingka Institute, which was named after the Dalai Lama’s Summer Palace in Lhasa and set up to preserve Tibetan culture by educating, training and employing Tibetans in traditional artistic and literary practices.

The Institute’s Secretary, Mr Dolkar Kyab, showed the group around the beautiful grounds, courtyards, workshops and the main temple. We were allowed into  workshops and met the students who were learning thangka painting, wood carving and decorating, screen printing, metalwork and sculpting. Mr Kyab then hosted a lunch in the Institute’s cafe. (If you are in Dharamsala the Institute is definitely worth a visit).

Dolkar Kyab, himself, is fascinating. As well as the Institute’s Secretary, he was elected this year to  parliament. He is also a former political prisoner, having been imprisoned for three years in 1994 for distributing leaflets on the teachings of the Dalai Lama. Once released he escaped into exile.

The group then paid a quick visit to Dolma Ling Nunnery, run by Rinchen Khando, a former Kalon (Minister) in the exiled government. Dolma Ling was the first nunnery to provide a higher educations for Tibetan nuns from all Buddhist traditions.

Currently, there are over 200 nuns fully engaged in study, practice, nunnery work, and self-sufficiency projects. Ms Khando then had tea with the MPs and explained how nuns had historically not received the same education as their male colleagues. However the current Dalai Lama had decreed that all monks and nuns should receive the same level of education, so Dolma Ling is providing nuns with a full education.

It was then back up the hill to Mcleod Ganj and a meeting with representatives of NGOs based in Dharamsala and several government organisations. After brief introductions the representatives and MPs had the opportunity to interact one-on-one, allowing MPs to learn about the work of Tibetan NGOs and have in-depth discussions on issues of particular interest.

Both the reps and the MPs came away saying the session was very productive. The organisations represented included: Tibetan Women’s Association, Tibetan Youth Congress (both regional and international reps), Students for a Free Tibet (India), Gu Chu Sum, China Outreach, Tibetan Centre for Conflict Resolution, Kunphen, National Democratic Party of Tibet, plus the government’s Settlement Office and Environment Desk.

The day ended with an informal dinner at Restaurant McLlo with some of the representatives and government officials.

Links of interest:

Norbulingka Institute: http://www.norbulingka.org/
Dolma Ling Nunnery: http://www.tnp.org/nuns/dolmaling
Tibetan Youth Congress http://tibetanyouthcongress.org/
Tibetan Women’s Association http://tibetanwomen.org/
Students for a Free Tibet (India) http://sftindia.org/
Gu Chu Sum http://9103.org
Kunphen http://www.kunphen.org/
National Democratic Party of Tibet http://ndp4tibet.org/

(Apologies for the delay in getting the blog updated – our internet access has been extremely limited. As we’ve been working on the visit during the day and evening it has meant we’ve had to rely on hotel systems, which both in Dharamsala and Delhi have been unreliable at best! Hopefully the rest of the blog will be up soon!)

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Day 3 – Part 2: Parliament, departments and an NGO

[Tuesday 4 October] In the morning, prior to the audience with the Dalai Lama, the delegation visited the offices of the Department of Information and International Relations (DIIR) and the Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy (TCHRD).

Ms Dicki Chhoyang, Kalon (Minister) with responsibility for the DIIR, spoke about the function of the Department and answered questions from the MPs. As well being responsible for the information and international affairs of the exiled government, the DIIR looks after the 12 Offices of Tibet around the world (including one in London), the Environment Desk, Tibet Online TV (a web-based news service – http://www.tibetonline.tv) and the Tibet Museum (which also has overseas travelling exhibitions).

Ms Chhoyang answered questions on the case of the missing Panchen Lama, the new Kalon Tripa and strategies of communicating with the Chinese public. On the question of whether broadcasting the news of the recent immolations may have a negative impact on the Tibet movement and even encourage further immolations, Ms Chhoyang said that one “cannot ignore” what is happening and that it is important to report the truth even if it is uncomfortable.

The group were then given a tour of the Audio-Visual Department of the DIIR, including a visit to the set of Tibet Online TV. There was a humourous moment when James Gray sat at the news desk and pretended to present a new Tibetan programme featuring British MPs, though with a particular Conservative Party slant. (Jeremy Paxman’s job is safe for the time being!)

The delegation then crossed the corridor to the offices of the Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy (a Tibetan-run NGO) and a meeting with the Executive Director Urgen Tenzin, who presented the MPs with khatags and TCHRD reports. After an introduction about the work of TCHRD, the group discussed details of human rights abuses, political prisoners and how information is sourced and verified.

Following the audience with the Dalai Lama and a quick break for a late lunch, the group were given tours of the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives (LTWA) and the Tibetan Parliament building, located at Gangchen Kyishong in Lower Dharamsala. The Director of the LTWA, Geshe Lhakdor, personally guided the group around the Library building, which included a fascinating look behind-the-scenes at the museum and the processes involved in preserving its collection of Buddhist texts, scrolls and manuscripts. We were granted a rare look at a 12th century manuscript, the oldest one in the exiled government’s possession. The LTWA is currently in the process of digitalising and translating the thousands of items in its possession, in order to allow access by the public.

The Speaker of the Parliament, Penpa Tsering, then met the group and took us across the government compound, to the Parliament-in-exile building. We were shown the main chamber and the Speaker explained the set up of the parliament, the departments for which it is responsible and the election processes.

The Deputy Speaker, Lopon Khenpo Sonam Tenphel, several Chitues (members of parliament), and the former Speaker joined the delegation for tea. Comparisons between the British and exiled Tibetan parliaments were discussed. Of particular fascination to the Tibetan parliamentarians was the UK’s lack of a constitution, which led Simon Hughes to give a brief history of the British Parliament, from its beginnings in the 12th century up until the 20th century and the Suffragette movement.

In the evening the delegation members were guests of the Speaker of the Parliament and treated to a cultural performance and dinner. We were also joined by Tibetan MPs. The venue for the evening was the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts (TIPA). Performers from TIPA showcased Tibetan culture with a series of traditional dances and songs in elaborate traditional costumes. The performance culminated with a dance that combined athletic prowess with graceful poise – producing a colourful whirlwind moving around the stage.

The day’s activities closed with a dinner, for the British and exiled Tibetan parliamentarians. Penpa Tsering, on behalf of the exiled Parliament, thanked the British MPs for their support and looked forward to strengthening the relationship with a visit of exiled Tibetan MPs to Westminster in the future (a programme which TIbet Society will be looking into for 2012 or 2013).

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Day 3 – Part 1: An audience with the Dalai Lama

[Tuesday 4 October 2011] Today was the undoubted highlight of the schedule –  a 30 minute private audience with the Dalai Lama.

At noon, and with great anticipation, we arrived at the security point outside the Dalai Lama’s residence, only to be told that the meeting was delayed as the teachings the Dalai Lama was giving were over-running. So while we waited the Dalai Lama’s Private Secretary gave us an impromptu tour around the hall and grounds where the teachings were being held – indeed, as the teachings were in progress! The area was crammed with several thousand people listening intently to every word the Dalai Lama said, with the majority being content to watch a live broadcast outside the hall on TV screens or just listen over the tannoy.

As the teachings came to an end we were whisked away and through security and into a lounge area in his residence. Ten minutes later the Dalai Lama entered, embraced his long-term friend Riki Hyde-Chambers (Chairman of Tibet Society), greeted everyone else and encouraged us all to sit down. The members of the delegation were introduced, Fabian Hamilton thanked the Dalai Lama for granting an audience, and a discussion began on a variety of matters began, including the Dalai Lama’s recent retirement  from politics, the lack of progress in talks with the Chinese government, environmental issues, education and the special relationship between Tibet and the UK.

It was inspiring to hear the Dalai Lama retains his optimism for a positive outcome for Tibet. In particular, he believes the Chinese people themselves are key to change, and is heartened by their increasing interest in Buddhism and Tibetan matters. It was obvious he still lives by his motto “Never Give Up”.

The Dalai Lama said that educating the Tibetan youth was vital, and amongst a number of practical suggestions, he asked that Western countries, including the UK, provide scholarships for Tibetans. He  voiced particular concern for the environment, saying this was the most important issue facing the world today. Many problems, he said, can be mended, but the environment once broken cannot be  un-mended.

The Dalai Lama also drew attention to the lack of moral principles in many of those in authority, which has led to many of the world’s ills. He said leaders needed to stand by their moral principles and not be swayed by greed and power. He referred to China as being economically ahead of most countries but was behind in key principles such as freedom of expression, freedom of religion and other basic human rights.

The meeting went on for an hour, double our alloted time, at the end of which khatags were presented, and a group photo was taken outside the residence.

Afterwards, many of us remarked that we were in awe at the Dalai Lama’s ability to mentally switch so quickly from Buddhist teachings to thousands to a discussion on politics, ethics and much more with overseas MPs. His insights and suggestions left all of us with much to consider and deliberate in the coming days and weeks. More than one member of delegation said that meeting the Dalai Lama had been a life-changing experience!

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Day 2 – Arrival in Dharamsala

[Monday 2 October 2011] The overnight train from Delhi arrived at 7am in Pathankot. Tenzin Choedon from the Tibetan Parliamentary Secretariat greeted us at the station, and we clambered into cars to drive us the rest of the way to Dharamsala, stopping for breakfast en route.

We arrived in Dharamsala at about 11am, just as the mist was beginning to roll in. The hill-town was buzzing with monks, nuns, Tibetans and tourists alike. Today, was the third of four days of Buddhist teachings being given by the Dalai Lama. Amongst the crowds were some 1,000 Taiwanese, in Dharamsala especially for the teachings.

Following a rest and lunch, the party walked to Kirti Monastery for a meeting with Kirti Rinpoche. Just as we reached the building we were told the breaking news that another Kirti monk in had self-immolated in Ngaba, eastern Tibet. (The exact circumstances and the whereabouts and well-being of the monk are not known. Read more at Radio Free Asia.) To meet the Rinpoche (head lama) of Kirti Monastery suddenly took on a new dimension.

At the beginning of the meeting, Fabian Hamilton passed on the group’s dismay and sadness at the news of the immolation.

After welcoming the MPs and the rest of the delegation, with the traditional giving of khatags, Kirti Rinpoche answered questions from the group. He explained that the recent immolations (today’s is the fourth this year at Kirti) were a desperate attempt to draw the international community’s attention to the situation in Tibet. He said Tibetans were “totally frustrated” with China’s ongoing occupation and the lack of freedoms.

At the end of the meeting Fabian thanked Kirti Rinpoche for the meeting and assured him that those present would do their utmost to help bring a peaceful solution, not only to the current Kirti crisis, but to Tibet as a whole.

In the evening the delegation had an informal dinner at the Lotus Drum Stick restaraunt with two special guests, Tenzin Geyche and Ms Dicki Chhoyang. Tenzin Geyche has recently retired after over 40 years as the Private Secretary to the Dalai Lama. Tenzin’s role included travelling with the Dalai Lama on all his overseas trips. Ms Dicki Chhoyang is the Kalon (Minister) for the Department of Information and International Relations.

After two days of planes, trains and automobiles everyone is glad to finally be in Dharamsala and to have a good night’s rest in a proper bed! Tomorrow the programme starts in earnest with meetings throughout the day. However, the undoubted highlight will be an audience with His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

Group Update: Simon Hughes MP joined the group in the evening for dinner, after travelling from Amritsar. Simon will be with group for the rest of the trip. Youdon Aukatsang also joined the group today. Youdon is a Chitue (a Member of the Tibetan Parliament in exile) and is Director of Empowering the Vision, an NGO which gives skills and leadership training to young Tibetans. Youdon will be on hand throughout our stay in Dharamsala to answer questions and help facilitate meetings.

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Sunday 2 October – arrival in Delhi

Arrived in Delhi after 8 hour flight from London. Turns out today is national Mahatma Gandhi day in India! This evening we board an overnight train to Pathankot in northern India (and then continue onto Dharamsala). However we have already had our first meetings.

The delegation met with the Dalai Lama’s Representative in Delhi, Tempa Tsering, who welcomed the MPs and the delegation to India and presented everyone with khatags (Tibetan ceremonial scarves).

Tempa Tsering said that the relationship the Tibetan government in exile has with Britain is probably the closest it has with any country bar India, given the shared history, treaties and more recently its friendship. Mr Tsering said that Tibetans respected the British values of ‘seeking truth and supporting justice’.

The group also met with Deputy High Commissioner for the UK Julian Evans and Simon Sharp, Political Officer from the High Commission. Both Julian and Simon answered questions about the work of the Delhi office and its relations with the Tibetan government in exile.

Group update: Sadly, Malcolm Wicks had to withdraw from the trip the day before we set off, due to personal reasons. Simon Hughes will be joining us in Dharamsala.

Now we are preparing for our train journey and tomorrow Dharamsala!

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Tibet Society to take five UK MPs on exchange visit to Dharamsala

As part of an ongoing parliamentary exchange programme, Tibet Society will be facilitating a visit of five UK MPs to the Parliament of the Tibetan government in exile based in Dharamsala, northern India. The MPs will be in Dharamsala between Monday 3 and Friday 7 October and, whilst there, the delegation will meet the recently inaugurated Kalon Tripa (Prime Minister) Dr Lobsang Sangay, Ministers of the exiled government as well as representatives and officials. An audience with the Dalai Lama is scheduled for Tuesday 4 October.

The programme will also include visits to the Reception Centre for newly arrived refugees, the Tibetan Transit School, the Gu Chu Sum movement that helps former political prisoners and the Tibetan Children’s Village School amongst others. During the week, Tibet Society will be hosting an interactive tea reception for MPs to meet representatives from NGOs and institutions operating in Dharamsala.

The MPs are:

Fabian HamiltonLabour MP for Leeds North East, Chair of All Party Parliamentary Group on Tibet

James GrayConservative MP for North Wiltshire , Vice-Chair of All Party Parliamentary Group on Tibet

Simon HughesLiberal Democrat MP for Bermondsey and Old Southwark, Deputy Leader of the Liberal Democrats, Vice-Chair of All Party Parliamentary Group on Tibet

Nic DakinLabour MP for Scunthorpe

Cathy JamiesonLabour MP for Kilmarnock and Loudon

Tibet Society initiated an MP exchange programme following a visit of Tibetan MPs to London in 2005 and first took a delegation of UK MPs to Dharamsala in 2007. This has been followed by two delegations of Tibetan MPs visiting London and a further delegation of British MPs travelling to Dharamsala in 2008.

The aim of the exchange programme is to support Tibetan democracy and help build democratic processes. This is achieved by offering opportunities for Tibetans to advocate directly to British MPs, forging greater understanding between British and Tibetan parliamentarians and observing the practices of each others’ parliaments.

Tibet Society is the Secretariat of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Tibet (APPGT). The APPGT, founded in 1986, consists of MPs from all three main parties, who have joined out of their interest and concern regarding the Tibetan cause and Tibetan people. The stated purpose of the group is: “To put pressure on Her Majesty’s Government to encourage negotiations between the Chinese government and the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government in exile, whilst recognising that Tibet is an occupied country which had independent links with Britain.”

We will be posting blogs during the trip, including updates on meetings, photos plus insights and anecdotes from ‘behind-the-scenes’. So please check back.

You can also follow Tibet Society on facebook and twitter @tibetsociety. Further details of our work and campaigns can be found at www.tibetsociety.com.

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