The Tibetan Diaspora: Adapting to Life outside Tibet (Part II)
By Seonaigh MacPherson, University of British Columbia
Anne-Sophie Bentz, Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies
Dawa Bhuti Ghoso
October 1, 2008
Tibet's leader, the 14th Dalai Lama, fled to India in 1959. Since then, Tibetans
in exile have successfully reconstituted their institutions and set up nongovernmental
organizations (NGOs) to keep their culture and language alive in the varied
places they and their children live, from Canada to Switzerland to India.
explored Tibet's history, its relationship with China, the creation of the
government in exile, the movement to India and Indian policy toward Tibetan
refugees, the settlements in South Asia, and the dispersion of Tibetans to
Here in Part II we examine how Tibetans have integrated into Asian and Western
societies, the diaspora's political success (including how it handled the 2008
protests), the divide between those in Tibet and Tibetans abroad, and what
lies ahead for the Tibetan diaspora.
The First NGOs
In the early years of Tibetan exile, a number of NGOs formed to support the
development of Tibetan civil society and self-help initiatives. The two main
NGOs are the Tibetan Youth Congress (TYC) and the Tibetan Women's Association
(TWA), both based in Dharamsala, India, with branches worldwide.
The activities of TYC and TWA include political activities; health, welfare,
and social service projects; environmental activism and community development;
educational activities; cultural activities; and religious activities.
Some of the NGOs active in the Tibetan diaspora are run exclusively by and
for Tibetans, such as TYC and TWA. Others are collaborations between Tibetans
and non-Tibetans, including the Tibetan Nuns Project, a charitable organization
that has a North American office in Seattle, and public advocacy organizations
like the Washington-based International Campaign for Tibet (ICT), Students
for a Free Tibet (SFT), and the Canada and US Tibet Committees.
The number of Tibetan NGOs has increased rapidly since the 1990s with the
entry of large numbers of Tibetans into the Americas and the popularization
of the Tibetan cultural and political cause among certain high-profile celebrities.
For example, Adam Yauch of the hip hop group the Beastie Boys initiated a series of Tibetan
Freedom Concerts in the late 1990s and formed the Milarepa Fund as a Tibetan
philanthropic NGO to disburse the royalties from Tibetan monks' participation
in Beastie Boys productions. These concerts and his endorsements contributed
to the burgeoning membership in Students for a Free Tibet (SFT) on North American
campuses during this same period.
Also in the 1990s, Tibetan society in exile democratized with the passing
and implementation of a new constitution, the 1991 Charter of the Tibetans-in-Exile,
which includes provisions to directly elect representatives.
This process of liberalizations was not only top-down but included grassroots
movements from intellectuals, youth, and writers who refused to self-censor
dissenting views that diverged from the majority or those of the Dalai Lama
and ruling elites.
Since then, new grassroots Tibetan publications (e.g., Tibetoday),
websites (e.g., www.phayul.com), and chat rooms have emerged.
Diasporization and Obtaining Citizenship
There are some indications that due to strong ideological
pressures, Tibetans have resisted diasporization and permanent residency outside
of Tibet. This is particularly true of some South Asian Tibetan refugees who
have not secured formal immigration status in their host countries even after
In Bhutan, Tibetans who renounced the right to return to
Tibet were granted Bhutanese citizenship. However, many chose not to do so
as they indicated they would like to return to Tibet one day; they remain refugees.
In Nepal, it is not possible to get citizenship.
Although Tibetans in India
can obtain Indian citizenship, very few have done so. It is unclear if ideological
pressure or obstacles on the side of the Indian government can explain why
so few eligible Tibetan refugees naturalize.
A liaison officer from the Office
of Tibet in New York said Tibetans have trouble obtaining Indian citizenship
because of the Indian government. Without Indian citizenship, they are denied certain
rights, including a passport and the right to vote.
The recent and seemingly
eager exodus of Tibetans to North America since the 1990s seems to be motivated
in part by the promise of Canadian or US citizenship with the concomitant
privileges such citizenship affords. There is certainly no evidence that
Tibetans are resisting procuring citizenship in these countries.
The exile government seeks to strengthen
the indigenous Tibetan society and population by encouraging Tibetans abroad
and development organizations to work in Tibet.
After receiving some education in lay or monastic institutions, some new arrivals can and do return to Tibet — estimates vary but may be 5 to 10 percent. However, very few (less than 2 percent according to author estimates) of the settled Tibetans in exile ever return to Tibet, even on a short-term basis.
Few settled Tibetans in India risk travelling to Tibet as they are without citizenship
protections. Although Tibetans with passports from North American or European
countries theoretically should be able to get visas and be protected by their
citizenship, they rarely go to Tibet, perhaps out of fear for their safety
and those of their families.
Likewise, the Central Tibetan Administration's (CTA) resettlement policies
have shifted in recent years. CTA encourages Tibetans who have recently arrived
in India to return to Tibet when and if it is safe and possible. This change
reflects concerns that the Tibetan population in the Tibetan Autonomous Region
(TAR) and other Tibetan regions will be further eroded by resettled Han and
other Chinese ethnic minorities.
CTA tries to offer high-quality Tibetan education and training to newly arrived
Tibetans under age 30 during their time in India. In CTA reception centers,
the official policy states that they do so in order to support most refugees'
return and contribution within communities in Tibet.
Integration in the West
With respect to individual opportunities and community sustainability, it
would appear that Tibetan diasporization in the West has proven successful.
They have succeeded in many small business enterprises and are resourceful
in adapting foods, goods, and services to cater to local needs.
In Europe and the Americas, most Tibetans live in communities that offer weekend
language and cultural schools, supports, and/or activities. Furthermore, many
Tibetans are members of a Tibetan NGO — local, national, and/or transnational.
Even smaller communities like those in Boston, Portland, Calgary, and Vancouver have well-established local Tibetan cultural associations that
support and sustain the culture, language, and social and religious lives of
the community. They participate in online discussion groups and news services,
sponsor speakers on a regular basis, and participate actively in the CTA branch in the Americas, including voting in the diaspora
Tibetan youth in the West continue to support the Tibetan Youth Congress
and Students for a Free Tibet. However, intergenerational differences can be
stronger in Europe and North America because these communities have little
autonomy over education or social services.
Researchers have observed that Tibetan children and youth raised in the West,
compared to those in South Asia, tend to lose the Tibetan language and participate
less in religious activities and events as they are more exposed to popular
culture. In addition, they are more likely to marry non-Tibetans.
CTA and many Tibetan communities and community organizations in North America
are recognizing the challenges of long-term linguistic and cultural sustainability
in the West and are engaged in research, policy, and program initiatives to
foster better cultural and linguistic sustainability strategies.
Most observers believe Tibetans have adapted their institutions and personal
lives remarkably well for a people who previously had little contact with modernity.
Many Tibetan refugees were, and some continue to be, catapulted from a largely
premodern, seminomadic or agrarian context into a largely postmodern, transnational
context and lifestyle.
Some premodern practices continue to be a resource as they negotiate life
outside Tibet. In particular, strong historical traditions of migration have
impacted their international migration patterns and experiences. For example,
many Tibetan refugees in the Americas are multilingual and have lived in three
countries in their lifetimes. They continue to travel across the diaspora to
visit family, to trade, or to participate in religious, cultural, or educational
activities in other regions.
Likewise it is common for Canadian and American
Tibetans to send their children to India for short periods to be educated in
the Tibetan language or culture at the Tibetan Children's Village (TCV) or
the College for Higher Tibetan Studies (CHTS) in Sarah near Dharamsala.
example, at the 2004 Kalachakra in Toronto, an elaborate 10-day Tibetan Buddhist
initiation overseen in this instance by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, thousands
of Tibetans attended from all over the Americas and Europe, with some coming
from as far away as South Asia.
And at any given time, the New
York and Toronto Tibetan communities have significant numbers of visitors from
India and Nepal, some working temporarily in community language and cultural
Integration in Asia
In India, Nepal, and Bhutan, most Tibetan children attend Tibetan-administered
schools. At the primary-school level, Tibetan is the language of instruction,
and many Tibetan cultural contents are integrated in the curriculum. CTA
developed a new education policy that offers a distinctive vision of education
for Tibetans across the diaspora, and they have a model (pilot) school in Dharamsala
implementing that policy.
Like most immigrant groups, Tibetans have taken on aspects of their host cultures
after a few generations. In the case of South Asia, these cultural adaptations,
which range from an appreciation for Hindi pop music and films to the adoption
of Gandhian principles of nonviolent protest, have been gradual and small enough
to minimize intergenerational conflicts.
Diaspora's Political Successes
Through its various NGOs, the Tibetan diaspora has dramatically increased
international support for Tibetan human rights and, to a lesser extent, Tibetan
Policy on the Future of Tibet
The goals of the 14th Dalai Lama have varied over time, ranging from claims for total independence to more moderate demands for substantial Tibetan autonomy within a federated China.
Nevertheless, his Strasbourg Proposal, named after a speech he made to the European Parliament in 1988, is decisive. In this proposal, he officially relinquished Tibet’s claim for independence. Many Tibetans in exile were unprepared for such a radical position.
The Strasbourg Proposal outlined the main features of what was later to be known as the Middle Way Approach, a pragmatic political course that is the official line of the Dalai Lama, and thus of the Tibetan exile government.
Since 1987, CTA has identified over 108 international resolutions in support
of Tibet. Some of these resolutions include official awards and honors given
to the Dalai Lama, including the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize, the 2007 US Congressional
Gold Medal, and Honorary Canadian citizenship. Others were human rights resolutions
made against China on behalf of Tibetans.
The diaspora demonstrated its resourcefulness in March 2008 as protests in
Tibet mounted on the 49th anniversary of the 1959 Lhasa Uprising, when thousands
of Tibetans formed a "human sea" to protect the Dalai Lama as he was secreted
out of the country by his closest advisors.
The 2008 protests in Lhasa are largely believed to be a reaction to China's
policy of resettling non-Tibetans to the region. The protests spread rapidly
and went well beyond the borders of TAR into the populous Tibetan regions of
Sichuan, Gansu, and Qinghai. In outlying regions, the protests centered on
cultural autonomy and religious freedoms.
After news services began covering the story, the Chinese government called
in the Red Army. From that point, only a few covert videos of the protests
or Red Army crackdown made it to the international press. Although some ethnic
Han were reported killed in Lhasa, most of the casualties were Tibetan protesters.
Although the Tibetan diaspora and Tibetan diaspora organizations did not instigate or coordinate
these protests, there is no question that Tibetans in South Asia, North America,
and Europe, along with their supporters, quickly organized demonstrations and publicity events calling
for an end to the Chinese crackdown and for prominent leaders to not attend
the Summer Olympics in Beijing.
They circulated petitions and engaged in hunger strikes, marches, and protests
in New Delhi, London, Paris, and San Francisco. Despite significant communications
and geographical barriers, Tibetans in the diaspora and those in Tibet were
able to coordinate their activities in a limited way.
Across the Diaspora/Indigenous Tibetan Divide
Most Tibetan monks and nuns are recruited from rural regions in Tibet. After
ordination, many choose to join Tibetan monastic communities in South Asia
permanently or temporarily because of the opportunities they offer. The South
Asian Tibetan community has created strong religious and secular institutions
that parallel and even exceed those in pre-1959 Tibet.
Yet few urban and/or secular Tibetans in China are leaving, which means new
emigrants are overwhelmingly religious. Also, few Tibetans in China or abroad
are opting for the monastic lifestyle. In addition, Tibetans living in South Asia
do not have the same experiences as those living in the West.
These differences account for various fault lines that intersect one another:
religious versus secular, Tibetans in the homeland versus the Tibetan diaspora,
and South Asian Tibetan communities versus Western Tibetan communities.
Chinese policies have accentuated these patterns. In 1996, China passed a
series of laws and sanctions intended to restrict interactions and relations
between indigenous Tibetans and the diaspora. These included outlawing possession
of Dalai Lama photos, sanctioning parents who send children abroad for education,
restricting monastic recruitment, and launching a "patriotic reeducation" campaign
Chinese authorities successfully curtailed some of the interactions
and exchanges between lay Tibetans, but these policies indirectly encouraged monks
and nuns to emigrate as they would otherwise be denied a religious vocation
in Tibet. With the disappearance and apparent house imprisonment of the young
Panchen Lama the same year (1996), many high lamas and abbots chose to come
to India for safety while retaining their relations with their home monastic
and lay communities.
Although Tibetans in North America and Europe face stronger intergenerational
language and culture loss than those in South Asia, they have greater access
to international power brokers perceived to be allies in the struggle for Tibetan
self-determination. North American and European Tibetans also have more financial
resources by virtue of the higher standards of living in these regions.
At the same time, it is important not to exaggerate differences and divisions
within the diaspora. There are frequent and multiple exchanges and movements
of people, ideas, and customs between the various settlements and national
Globalization has contributed to making Tibetans in South Asia at least as,
if not more, modern as those in the West. Many North American or European Tibetans
are often surprised to see Tibetans in South Asia who are more fashionable,
more informed, or more aware of popular cultural movements than they are.
Divisions between the Tibetan diasporas of South Asia and the West
become more apparent when considering monastic rather than secular cultures.
Monastic education and institutions, which are very strong and active in South
Asia, serve as a temporary or permanent refuge for many new recruits from Tibet. This cannot be said of North America, where Buddhist centers and
monasteries are small and scattered and where the attrition levels of ordained
monks and nuns remain high.
Conflicting views of "authenticity" are more pronounced when comparing diaspora
and indigenous Tibetans. As with many diasporas, the Tibetans in exile see
themselves as the legitimate custodians and emissaries of the Tibetan culture,
religion, language, and political aspirations. But the gap between secular
Tibetans abroad and in Tibet widens as they become steadily immersed in the
popular cultures, media, values, languages, thought, and education systems
of the places where they live.
In contrast, monastic Tibetans continue to display a far more fluid exchange
between their members in Tibet and in exile. The leading lamas of all lineages
have built or rebuilt monasteries in India and the Himalayan regions, and,
as noted earlier, new recruits continue to arrive in significant numbers from
The lamas are reported to have daily telephone contact with their monasteries
in Tibet in many cases, and they move frequently between Tibet, the Indian
monastery, and their various associated organizations, students, and sponsors
around the world. Furthermore, some monks and nuns return to Tibet after studying
in South Asian Tibetan monasteries.
Yet there are growing social gaps between the Tibetans in exile and those
For example, the education levels of indigenous Tibetans are some of the lowest
in the world. They display strong monolingual tendencies in which they either
remain unilingual Tibetan speakers or face rapid first-language attrition and
intergenerational language loss when they are exposed to Chinese through education
or economic and social assimilation. Indigenous Tibetans are poorer and have
less access to both traditional and modern health-care services as compared
to most Tibetans in exile.
In contrast, most Tibetans in exile enjoy much higher levels of education
up to the secondary level if not higher. They tend to be multilingual with
easy access to English as an alternative or global language.
Most Tibetans in China are excluded from the curricular reforms and increased
access to English-language education. Although some of this neglect stems from
a lack of teachers and funding, much of it can be attributed to the highly
unequal distribution of the benefits of China's development between Han and
non-Han peoples, and between the centers/urban areas and periphery/rural areas.
Migration poses a significant challenge for small indigenous and refugee populations
like the Tibetans, who continue to struggle to conserve their language and
culture within a globalizing world.
Although initial Tibetan-exile efforts to establish settlements and institutions
in South Asia proved remarkably effective in the short term, maintaining distinctive
institutions and communities becomes more difficult as the children of Tibetan
exiles grow up distant from their roots and as Tibetans themselves move from
one place to another.
That said, governmental and nongovernmental organizations have increased in
number, complexity, and sophistication, offering new opportunities for cultural
and linguistic survival.
In particular, the dramatic rise in migration between South Asia and North
America provides important resources for Tibetans seeking to bridge the very
underdeveloped conditions of their homeland and their South Asian communities
with the considerable political, economic, and educational resources of the
The lasting impacts of the March 2008 protests remain to be seen. The violence
of the Tibetans in Lhasa toward some of the Han settlers and business people
is an indication of mounting Tibetan frustrations and helplessness over the
social and economic inequities they face with respect to both the Chinese colonial
and diaspora communities.
Yet the very scope and strength of the protests demonstrates that time, distance,
and political autonomy have not eroded the underlying sense of unity among
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