News and Views on Tibet

A refugee’s best friend: Interview with Thubten Samphel

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Thubten Samphel’s interview with Claude Arpi

March 13, 2009

Everest beckons

Fifty years ago on March 10, 1959, the entire population of Lhasa, the Tibetan capital, revolted against the Chinese troops who had invaded the Land of Snows in 1950.

The uprising failed, and the Tibetan temporal and spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, had no choice but to flee his country and take refuge in India. He was followed by 85,000 of his countrymen.

Thubten Samphel, now the Secretary of the Department of Information of the Central Tibetan Administration in Dharamsala, was one of them. Samphel, who fled his country as a child, was educated in one of the best colleges in India, and now works as the spokesperson of the Dalai Lama’s Administration. He has recently penned down his experiences as a refugee in a book, Falling through The Roof, (excerpts) published by Rupa & Co.

In a relaxed atmosphere surrounded by his children, the next generation of refugees, he told Claude Arpi what it feels like to be a refugee for 50 years. He made it a point to clarify, however, that he was speaking in his personal capacity and not as the spokesman for the Tibetan government in exile.


My first question: do you still consider yourself as a refugee after 50 years.

Oh, yes!

How long did you live in Tibet? How old were you when you came to India?

I was born in 1956 and I left Tibet for exile in 1962. I was born in Lhasa. My parents worked as servants for His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s mother whom we call The Great Mother. After the uprising of 1959, my brother took me to Southern Tibet, a place called Tingri (near the Everest base camp). He was doing some road construction (for the Chinese). From Tingri, it is very easy to cross over to Nepal; it is just a few passes away.

Did you parents come with you?

At that time the movements of the adults were very strictly restricted. As a kid, it was easier for me (to leave Lhasa). I was allowed to go with my brother.

How did you cross the border?

We crossed to Solu Khumbu (the Nepali district at the base of the Everest). From Tingri, on a clear day, you can always see Mt Everest.

What are your souvenirs from your days in Tibet? Do you still remember?

The most memorable souvenir is the Potala. In those days, the town was less developed than today; from wherever we would look, we could see the Potala Palace. In Tingri, it was more the scenery that I remember. Looking towards the South, you could see Mt Everest in all its majesty.

At that time, we did not know about (Sir Edmund) Hilary, but we had heard that the (Sherpa) Tenzin Norgay had climbed Everest.

‘No problem’

Were you smuggled into Nepal?

No, if I remember correctly, at that time, there were good relations between Nepal and China. Some Sherpa merchants used to cross the border back and forth. We managed to join a group going from Tibet to Nepal. They took us over the passes and we finally reached Solu Khumbu where we spent some time. Perhaps two to three months. I still remember going to school there. Then we decided to go on a pilgrimage to India. We visited Bodh Gaya, Varanasi and Sarnath. Later on, we contacted my sister-in-law’s relatives who lived in Darjeeling and went there to meet them. It was at the time of the 1962 war with India.

You started your schooling in Darjeeling?

Mrs Tsering Dolma, His Holiness’ elder sister, was there at that time, and though I was supposed to join a school in Darjeeling, she decided to take me to Dharamsala where I joined the Tibetan Children Village (TCV). It was just the beginning of the TCV. I was in Dharamsala for about six months. It was sometime in 1963. Finally, three girls and I were sent to a missionary school in Kalimpong. It was during the winter of 1963-64. Till class 11, I studied in Kalimpong at Dr Graham’s Homes. Later, I went to St Stephen’s College in Delhi.

How did you get admitted to St Stephen’s? Was it difficult to be in Delhi?

I had very good marks. I had an Italian sponsor from Milan who paid for my studies. I first thought it would be very difficult to be admitted; St Stephen’s had such a good name! We were called for an interview. The Principal asked me: “Do you know Dr Dawa Norbu (the first Tibetan to earn a PhD from the US)”. I said, “Yes, I am staying with him”. He said: “Ok, in this case, no problem”. I had no difficulty getting admission.

Dawa Norbu was a known scholar at that time?

Yes and his book Red Star over Tibet had just been published.

I come back to my first question: explain to me why you are still a refugee after 50 years. It is also the story of your book, a novel recently published by Rupa.

Yes, I am still a refugee. I have lived through the entire process of being uprooted, I have hardly lived in a land which I can identify as ‘my land’; my culture is lost (in my homeland), culture is everything (for a man). That way I will always be a refugee (as long as I don’t return to my country).

I had to live in a land which is not mine; regardless of the fact that I am relatively comfortable in India, it is not ‘my’ country, most of my life, I lived in someone’s country.

Even though you have Indian food habits, you speak an Indian language, you even have an Indian accent and you are dressed like any Indian, you feel something is missing?

Yes, there is something missing because I know that I do not belong here. I am still a refugee. I have gone through the process I just described. Perhaps my children will feel that India is their home, this I can’t say. Our generation was born in Tibet, we have gone through this uprooting experience, we will remain refugees. Our true ‘home’ is Tibet.

This will not change unless you return to Tibet?

That’s right.
The core identity

Tell us about your motivation to write a book, a novel on the different aspects of a refugee’s life?

The main motivation is that I felt I have gone through this traumatic experience. This is a story in itself, isn’t it? At the same time, it is the first time that ‘Tibet as a culture’ has experienced ‘exile’. It has never happened before in the history of Tibet, except for a short period during the reign of the Thirteenth Dalai Lama. He went to China, Mongolia and India. But it was not the exile of an entire culture (like today). (For example, after 1959) all the important Lamas of Tibet fled to India.

Is it not also true that in Tibet, you had never so many Lamas coming together? Even people from different regions are now working closely together.

That is the positive development of being in exile. This is the silver lining. The sense of unity has been reinforced, both politically and spiritually. In Tibet, we had Tibet (our country), so we had a tendency to reinforce our regional differences. Same thing about spirituality. But since Tibet is in the hands of the Chinese, when we say ‘Tibet’, or ‘we, Tibetans’, we are now thinking in term of entire Tibet. There is much less, “I belong to Kham, Central Tibet or Amdo province. When we say Tibet, we are speaking in terms of 2.5 million sq km of the plateau. This is a positive development. We have strengthened our unity.

Do your people in India understand what it is to be refugee in India? Was it a motivation for you to write? To change the image of the Tibetan refugee who sells sweaters on the pavement?

The new generation of Tibetan refugees is uprooted. Further, they have no first hand experience of Tibet. They may have read books, but it is not real. This entire chapter of Tibetan history is a closed book for them, or their knowledge is purely theoretical. My motivation was to pass this knowledge to the next generation. For our generation, this traumatic experience has been part of our personal development. For those born here in India, it is important that they know (what we have gone through).

In your book, you mention a historical fact: the formation of a Communist Party of Tibet in exile. You seem to have been marked by this event. Is it correct?

Yes, it is a historical fact. I wanted to highlight the choice before the young Tibetan refugees. One of my characters says: “It is Communism which destroyed Tibet, why should I follow Communism?” The choice before our generation was: should we follow Communism to rebuilt Tibet? Communism was often identified with modernity. The other choice was: to be faithful to the rich cultural tradition of Tibet. It is a choice in front of the main character (who created the Communist Party of Tibet) and is later recognized as a reincarnated Rinpoche (Lama). Regardless of what the other characters may think, he decides that his core identity is the Tibetan traditional heritage and (finally) rejects his Party Card for the monk’s dress. Some say that he is an opportunist, but I think that he makes a genuine decision.

Marx and the monk

Have you been inspired by His Holiness who often says: “I am a Marxist monk?” Is it incompatible to be a Buddhist and a Communist?

I think that His Holiness says “I am a Marxist” because he is impressed with the egalitarianism of Marxism. The fact that people are equals in terms of possession and wealth; the fact that no one should starve and at the same time, no one should be extremely rich, like it is the case in Capitalism. (I think that) this has attracted His Holiness. But the way it is implemented (forcing people into the state of equality); the Leninist way to impose this theory by sheer brutal force, His Holiness does not appreciate this. In China, it is a military-ruled State which forces people into the equality. The Chinese Communists have very successfully integrated this into their politics.

Have you been a Communist?

When I was in Tibet, we were recruited into the Young Pioneers. It was one step below the Communist Youth League, but I was too young to understand and we had no choice. In exile, I was just an interested observer.

In 1985 you visited Tibet as a Member of the Fourth Fact-Finding delegation sent by Dharamsala to Tibet. Can you tell us about your experience? What were you expecting?

I was very excited. At the same time, we were quite naïve. We had only got our knowledge of Tibet from older people or books. We did not know anything about the ground realities. Before leaving, we thought that the big cities would be full of Tibetans; it was not the case. In many urban centers, there was a majority of Chinese whose language was the only working language. But when we went to the countryside, a few kilometers away, for example away from Khumbum (in Amdo province) or Xining (border town with China), we felt in Tibet. There were yaks, tents, nomads; we felt “This is Tibet”.

What was your experience with officials?

The only genuine, human contact we had with an official was with the interpreter when we were traveling. He was a Tibetan from what is today Yunnan province. We were alone in a corridor of the train. He told us his hope for Tibet cultural development; he wanted it to be the best in the world. When he spoke of ‘culture’, he meant the educational development to be of a very high standard. Whatever the face they ‘officially’ showed, I felt that the Tibetans were very genuinely interested in Tibetan culture. The Chinese officials had two agendas. The first one was to brainwash us. When they saw that brainwashing was not working, they tried to find what we were thinking. For example, “what do you think of the Hong Kong model for Tibet?”

Even politically?

Yes, after or outside meetings, they would come with their interpreters to try to gather information on what we thought about various aspects of the Tibetan issue.

My friend Hope

Today, you are a senior official of the Tibetan government. How do you see the future after 50 years in exile? Do you think that you will go back to Tibet one day?

Regarding the recent general meeting (held in Dharamsala in November), we reaffirmed our faith in His Holiness’ Middle Way approach. Though some Tibetans expressed the view that we should stop the negotiations with Beijing, the majority thought that we should continue with the Middle Way.

I feel that the current Chinese leadership is in a corner. If they let go on Tibet, other people like the Mongolians or the Ugyurs in Xinjiang, will say, “We want similar rights. We want what you have offered to the Tibetans.” I feel that the Chinese leaders are in a Catch 22 situation. They are in a difficult position. On the other hand, no leader is today in a position of authority, like, let us say, Deng Xiaoping. There is not one person who, with his sheer personality, can decide on very complicated issues like the Tibetan one. Compared to Mao or Deng, the present leaders are very junior, they don’t have the same (strong) personality; they don’t have the experience; they can’t carry forward the entire Chinese nation. They can’t take decisions on very difficult issues.

No decision is not good for the Tibetan cause?

It is the reality that we need to face. We feel that either they will not take a decision, or they will pass the decision to the next generation. Unlike Mao or Deng, they feel that if they take a decision on complex issues, their own position, their own career will be negatively affected.

Do you think that there is a power struggle at the level of the Politburo?

On the issue of Tibet, those who take the hard line will always win.

Isn’t that a very pessimistic statement?

It is a reality, because nobody today wants to be accused of betraying the Chinese nation. Nobody wants to be seen siding the ‘splittists’. The hardliners are in control. Today, even if President Hu Jintao wanted to implement a solution which is sensible, reasonable, he would be prevented by the hardliners.

What about Wen Jiabao, the Chinese Premier who was seen with (the reformer) Zhao Zyiang on Tiananmen Square in 1989?

He is also prisoner of Chinese politics. But there is some hope with the next generation of leaders.

You start your novel by saying that China can have two capitals: one political, Beijing, and one spiritual, Lhasa. Can you explain?

If China wants to wisely sort out the issue of Tibet, they should consider Tibet’s spiritual tradition as an asset. It is a great capital for China. Today, they are putting down Buddhism, it is wrong. Today, people have lost faith in Communism, but they want to believe in something. Money, profit is only good for a while. Man’s own existence can’t be explained by money only. People in China want a deeper anchor. Buddhism is one solution. China should consider this cultural heritage as a Chinese treasure.

Do you think the current financial crisis can bring about these changes?

Any spiritual tradition is a big help at time of crisis. If there is any hope for Tibet, it is in using the spiritual resources of Tibet to bring peace, like it was done during the times of the Mongols or the Manchus. Today, Communist China speaks of “One Sun in the Sky Only”. This type of intolerance is bad for China.

Do you think that you will remain a refugee the rest of your life?

Hope is always there, but it is hope based on reasonable expectations. The future will certainly be brighter. Hope is the best friend of the Tibetans.

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