Tibetans feel economic as well as religious pressure

KATMANDU, Nepal — Tibetans used to flee their homeland because they wanted to escape restrictions on the practice of Tibetan Buddhism.

But the reasons they give nowadays for their flights into exile are broader than before. Some want a Tibetan-language education. Others chafe at China's heavy-handed efforts to turn them from nomads into merchants.

Still others resent the torrent of Han Chinese migrants coming into Tibet, taking the best jobs and widening the gap between poor rural Tibetans and wealthy city dwellers.

To be sure, plenty of Tibetan exiles say they come to Nepal and India to take up religious life, strictly limited in their homeland.

"I wanted to become a nun," said Ngawang Tsundu, a 38-year-old Tibetan at the Kari Nunnery in Thamo, high in the Himalayas near the border with Tibet.

As fellow nuns recited chants and yak butter candles cast a warm glow inside a prayer hall, Tsundu explained that religious doors had closed to her before she left Tibet a decade ago: "We could not practice freely. We could not visit our high lamas. We could not join nunneries without permits, and there were restrictions on the numbers of nuns."

More recently, different pressures have grown on ethnic Tibetans as China attempts to turn them away from traditional nomadic culture, saying it's a poverty trap.

"Authorities have already announced that people have to get rid of all livestock before the Olympics and move to towns," said Tashi Dawa, a 19-year-old from a family of herders in rural southern Qinghai province, a largely Tibetan ethnic area abutting the Tibet Autonomous Region.

Dawa, who fled across the mountains in early February with three companions, said his family had about 700 sheep and 100 yaks. New rules allow them to have only 10 sheep and two to three yaks.

"Authorities say we should move to a town and start doing business," Dawa said, speaking in a simple eatery after his arrival in Katmandu, Nepal's capital. He said his family was resisting. "My parents are pretty bold. . . . We will not sell our livestock."

Tibetan exiles scoff at China's assertions that conditions are improving in Tibet.

"The Chinese are saying that everything is good. It's all lies," said Sonam Bhuti, a Tibetan exile who owns a shop in Namche Bazaar, a village a few days' walk from Mount Everest Base Camp that's popular among tourists and trekkers. "If people are happy there in Tibet, why would they come here?"

Kate Saunders, who works with the International Campaign for Tibet, an advocacy group, said in a telephone interview from London that many young Tibetans felt "a sense of hopelessness, social breakdown and alienation," and that might be pushing them out the door.

In that sense, China's assertion that many Tibetans fleeing into exile are seeking economic advantage may be correct.

"If you would count as an economic refugee someone who has lost their land and livelihood . . . and has no way to make a living because of the influx of Chinese, then yes, some of them could be considered economic migrants," Saunders said.

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