By Lobsang Sangay
During the height of the recent protests in Tibet, a 49-year-old Tibetan American living in Massachusetts called his mother in Tibet.
"How are you?" he asked,
She said, "Not good."
"Two of your siblings have been taken to the hospital."
"Was this because of an old disease or a new disease?"
"An old disease," the mother said, But the doctor said the prognosis is not good."
Then she said, "Son, don't call me for a while." And she hung up.
The mother was communicating that two of his siblings had been taken to prison. The son was asking whether it was for protests they were involved in recently or a long time ago. The mother said they were taken because of the old protests; they had not participated in the recent ones. The Chinese police had told the mother that her children will be detained for sometime. And, sadly, the mother warned her son that she would be endangered by his future calls.
This case is not unusual. Amnesty International reports that more than 1,000 Tibetans have disappeared and more than 200 deaths have been reported by the Tibetan Solidarity Committee.
The Chinese media allege that Tibetan protesters living in exile have no connection with or understanding of Tibet. Curiously, a few specialists on Tibet offer this line as well. Their depictions are misleading. The exodus of Tibetans to India that began in 1959 has never stopped. Every month, hundreds make the hazardous trek across the Himalayan Mountains. Those who avoid being shot by Chinese border guards end up in India.
The new influx of refugees from Tibet makes up a sizable portion of a Tibetan diaspora spread over 29 countries. Most notably, in India there are about 23,000 nuns and monks and 12,000 students in the Tibetan Children's Village (including many children of Tibetan Communist Party cadres) who have made this treacherous personal journey.
Recent refugees are important leaders of the exile movement. A native-born Tibetan is one of the three top secretaries to the Dalai Lama. Others include the secretary-general of the Tibetan Youth Congress, the editors of the two largest weekly Tibetan newspapers and many Chinese University graduates who are now on the staff of the Tibetan services of Radio Free Asia and Voice of America.
When the uprising in Tibet unfolded, recent refugees led the demonstrations in Dharamsala, in India, the seat of the Tibetan government-in-exile. Many school children and monks stopped studying to protest. The participants were emotional; some fainted, others were hospitalized. The uprising took a heavy toll on them because they were worried about their families back home being arbitrarily arrested and detained.
This familial bond exists across geographical lines and was present in every protest outside Tibet and China, from candlelight vigils in Boston and Dharamsala to the Olympics torch protests in Delhi, London, Paris, San Francisco and Seoul. Clearly, recent arrivals strengthen the ranks of the protesters.
The united cry of Tibetans during the recent uprising in Tibet - "Long Live the Dalai Lama" and "Tibet Belongs to Tibetans" - is echoed around the world not because exiled Tibetans are uninformed agents of Western governments but because Tibetans have inextricable connections with Tibetans inside Tibet.
Hopefully, the recently restarted dialogue between Chinese and Tibetan representatives will make it possible for that Massachusetts Tibetan to call his mother without fear. Unlike the past six meetings, hopefully this time the desperate cries and prayers of Tibetans for the Dalai Lama to return to Tibet will be realized.
Until then, at least the Chinese media and some Tibet experts should not disdain exiled Tibetans by saying they know nothing about Tibet. A very real connection exists.
Lobsang Sangay is a research associate at the East Asian Legal Studies Program at Harvard Law School.