March 2008 photo showing recently arrived Tibetan Buddhist nun Tenzin Choedon taking lunch at the Tibetan Reception Centre in Dharamsala. Photo courtesy: AFP
DHARAMSHALA, Sunday 25 July 2010 (AFP) -- The Tibetan community in exile headed by the Dalai Lama is a constant irritant for China, but Beijing has hit upon a way to weaken the movement: starve it of new arrivals.
An almost empty dormitory in the gloomy main reception centre for Tibetan exiles in Dharamshala, the Indian hilltown home to the community, is a graphic illustration of changes that have taken place over the last 18 months.
India has sheltered Tibetans since 1959, when the Dalai Lama fled his homeland in fear for his life after a failed uprising against Chinese rule on the strategic Tibetan plateau.
Since then, thousands of others have made the same treacherous trip to Dharamshala, mostly via Nepal across snow-capped mountains on foot and horseback, swelling the ranks of the population abroad to an estimated 200,000.
But today, fewer and fewer people are getting out.
Tibetan Reception Centre for New Arrivals from Tibet Deputy Director Mingyur Youdon poses in the centre's near empty dormitories in Dharamshala. Photo courtesy: AFP
"Up until March 2008, we used to have about 2,500 to 3,000 people arriving here per year," Mingyur Youdon, the deputy director of the reception centre in McLeod Ganj, the uppermost part of Dharamshala, told AFP.
"Since February 2008, we've received only about 1,000."
Her building is the sorting centre for new arrivals where they are offered beds, food, financial help, information on schooling if necessary, and, most importantly for some, an audience with the Dalai Lama.
The drabness of the building is punctuated with pictures of the smiling 75-year-old spiritual leader, whose residence sits in an isolated spot just outside the town with a panoramic view of the valley below.
A woman wailing with grief in the female dormitory is testament to the emotional hardship of a life in exile.The crackdown
In March 2008, the date when arrivals in Dharamshala began falling, the capital of Tibet was convulsed by a wave of violent protests against Chinese rule that left an unknown number of people dead and injured.
Tibetan Children's Village School Dharamshala Director Phuntsok Namgyal outside the school classrooms in Dharamshala. Photo courtesy: AFP
China says 22 people died in the violence, which spread from Lhasa across Tibet and neighbouring regions with large populations of ethnic Tibetans. The Tibetan government-in-exile says more than 200 died and 1,000 were hurt.
Following the violence, China tightened its already firm grip on the region by sending reinforcements and clamping down on anyone suspected of dissent or fomenting unrest.
Increased border controls are a consequence and Beijing has also leant heavily on Nepal, the tiny republic wedged between Tibet and India, to arrest anyone fleeing the region.
"We are deeply disappointed with the authorities in Kathmandu," spokesman for the Tibetan government in exile, Thubten Samphel, told AFP from his office in one of the many neat buildings used by the administration.
"Our disappointment stems from the realisation that Nepal is so vulnerable to Chinese pressure."
He says monitoring has increased on the Tibet-Nepal border, which is nowadays the only way out for those wanting to flee, and claims that Chinese police routinely enter Nepalese territory to pursue refugees.
"The most important reason for the restrictions is to prevent information going out to the outside world regarding the oppression going on in Tibet," he says.A more pricey escape
In the male dormitory of the reception centre, where only a quarter of the 70 beds are full, a group of monks and other recent escapees mill around, wary to speak to a reporter for fear of reprisals back home.
Those willing to talk explain how the price has tripled to be guided over the border: before March 2008, it cost about 5,000-6,000 yuan (800 dollars), today the increased risk means smugglers demand 15,000 yuan and more.
One 15-year-old monk, who spoke passionately about his desire to return home one day to help his compatriots, had paid 21,000 yuan (3,000 dollars). He arrived two weeks ago and said his trip entailed seven days of walking in the dead of night.
"They have put extra forces in Tibet. Everytime we go outside, the Chinese police are always watching us, especially the monks," he said.
"At present, the situation inside Tibet is very tense. I escaped to India to get a traditional religious education."Pupils in decline
On the other side of McLeod Ganj in a steep valley sits the sprawling Tibetan school, where around 2,000 children of all ages study on a campus where basketball is taught alongside traditional Tibetan opera.
Despite the evidence of American sports here, the curriculum is designed to instill a sense of nationhood in young Tibetans with emphasis placed on their long cultural history and unique language.
The views are breathtaking, with high snow-capped Himalayan peaks behind and miles of rolling hills in front that eventually give way to the vast sun-baked Indian Gangetic plain.
"The number joining us from Tibet has decreased noticeably," school director Phuntsok Namgyal told AFP. "We used to get 700-800 children every year on average and since 2008 the number has reduced considerably."
"It's very obvious that fewer children can make their way to India."
He estimates only 250 children have enrolled in the school in the last 18 months, an ominous sign for a movement determined to protect Tibetan culture and fight for Tibetan independence or autonomy under Chinese rule.
The pioneers who came in 1959 and built are well past retirement age and, like the Dalai Lama, will one day be gone.
"It's a serious concern for all of us," says Namgyal. (By ADAM PLOWRIGHT/AFP)