Saturday, 12 December 2009

The Tibetan Youth Leadership Programme 2005: My Experience

I first saw the advert for the Tibetan Youth Leadership Programme (TYLP) to be held in Amsterdam, Holland from 8-13 December 2005 in the ICT’s website. It was the fifth time (second in Europe) that ICT was conducting a programme focused on Tibetan youth with a primary objective of nurturing perspective leaders for future Tibet, the first of its kind in Europe was held in Belgium two years ago.

The agenda of the programme, at the very first glance, appealed to me. The line-up of the speakers was impressive and included among others Lodi Gyari Rinpoche, Bhuchung Tsering, Kate Saunders and various other experts in the field of international law, media, contemporary Tibetan culture and so forth.
The TYLP was going to be a congregation of young Tibetans from various parts of the EU. It is regrettable that we in the West sometimes get so preoccupied with our studies and work that we rarely get opportunities to engage in constructive debates. The TYLP, I reckon, offered the much needed platform for such interactions. It was going to bring together Tibetans of my contemporary from all over Europe and in doing so, was providing an excellent avenue for exchange of
views and deliberation on issues concerning Tibet.

This was what excited me the most.

And then there was my own selfish craving to visit Amsterdam and experience its cosmopolitan culture about which I had read aplenty. The schedule of the programme roughly coincided with my winter vacation (although I had to skip a few classes) and the programme in itself came as a welcome diversion from the monotonous academic work I had been engaged in since the beginning of my sophomore year in September. So, without a second thought, I straightaway applied for the programme and was elated beyond bounds when few days later it was brought to my notice that I had been selected for the same.

Once in Amsterdam, I got acquainted with the other participants in no time. Apart from me, there were eleven other young Tibetans from Belgium, Spain, Italy, Sweden and Hungary- all equally passionate and zealous about the country of our origin and determined to make the most of this 6-day tutorial.
Given the fact that ICT’s intention was to cover as many relevant issues as possible in the stipulated six days , the programme proved to be very rigorous and comprehensive with back-to-back interactive sessions and discussions presided over by the experts on specific themes. There were thorough discussions on topics such as Tibetan Democracy, the situation inside Tibet, the UN and Tibet, international law and the status of Tibet and so on. The sessions, on the whole, weren’t as cumbersome as one might imagine, there were always time to grab a cup of tea or coffee to reinvigorate ourselves and have a laugh or two in between. We were tutored on some very complex aspects of Tibetan movement in arguably the best learning environment ever. Our candidness to speak our minds and the propensity of the speakers to come up with stimulating answers to hitherto unaddressed queries made the sessions more than mere political discourses.

We looked upon almost everything Tibetan under the sun. The People’s Republic of China’s ambitious Western Development Programme, Gulmud-Lhasa Railway and its environmental impact on the fragile Tibetan plateau, the 2008 Beijing Olympics, cultural assimilation resulting out of population transfer, torture and religious repression in Tibet- all these issues were addressed throughout this all-inclusive programme.

The TYLP was not only down to lectures and talks, it also included some useful practical workshops. We worked in groups during these workshops on pragmatic aspects of Tibetan movement such as planning and organising Tibet-related campaigns of various nature, and interacting with the media and looking for possible outlets to raise Tibetan issues in the press.

One exercise of particular interest was drawing parallels between our concept of ‘genuine autonomy’ and the Chinese definition of ‘regional ethnic autonomy’ as incorporated in their constitution. There were few commonalities between these two supposedly contradictory views in terms of economic and cultural development, environmental protection, religious freedom and preservation of spoken and written languages of the ‘minorities’. But then again there is no secret about the fact that the lofty words in the Chinese constitution are invariably pliable and open to manipulation by the party. Nevertheless, there seems to be room for intelligently manoeuvring the constitutional clauses by the Tibetans in Tibet for the larger good, condition being that they possess the required legal expertise.

Keeping in mind the recent crackdown on religion and intensification of ‘patriotic re-education’ in Drepung monastery, religious repression was one of the issues which featured very often in our exchanges. To broaden our perspective in this regard, Gyaltsen Dolkar and Namdrol Lhamo, two nuns who formed the group of political prisoners called Garu 14 (which included Ngawang Sangdrol) gave their testimonies and spilled the beans about the appalling condition of monastic training in the tightly monitored monasteries in Tibet. Between two of them they had spend almost 25 years in prison during which they were tortured, starved and their patience and tolerance tested to their extreme limits. Listening to their stories was profoundly saddening yet motivating in their own ways.

Two documentaries delving further on the issue was also screened. One of them was the ICT’s production- ‘Devotion & Defiance’ and the other was ‘What Remains of Us’ produced by Francois Prevost and Yves Bisaillon. The later was intensely powerful. While it was being shown, the lumps in our throats were eternally expanding and our eyes were more than just moist.

However, the situation inside Tibet did not appear all grey and gloomy as we in exile might think. Yangdon Dhondup, a research associate at the University of Lausanne and at the Oriental Institute, University of Oxford gave a succinct picture of the upsurge of Tibetan Literature, birth of Tibetan modern art and revolution in the Tibetan musical arena inside Tibet as demonstrated by the works of Dhundup Gyal, Gonkar Gyaltso, Yadong and others. Sander Tidemann, director of the Bridge Fund talked about his NGO’s commitment to work for the improvement of healthcare facilities, building educational infrastructures, creating avenues for business development and cultural preservation inside Tibet. Andrew Fischer from the London School of Economics based his session on the economic trends and transformations in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) with respect to other Chinese provinces, whereby emphasizing that there were potent signs of economic development in TAR although most of the capital poured in were for consolidating state institutions and mostly government subsidized.
A session was also devoted to traditional Tibetan songs and music. Since music features only second to religion in a Tibetan’s daily life, any gathering of Tibetans without its mention is highly improbable. This is where Loten Namling, a popular Tibetan musician from Switzerland filled the vacuum at the TYLP. Loten La, with his routines of ‘nangma-toeshes’, provided a welcome hiatus from the hardcore topics on the floor and helped foster an air of merriment. His measured concoctions of humour and pristine songs were cherished by one and all.

The TYLP was not only about the Tibetan perspective of the vexed Tibet issue, the Chinese perception also featured prominently. Dr Tak Wing Ngo, a Sinologist from Leiden University, the Netherlands shared his insights on the political developments in modern China. He argued that China is being run by a party mechanism consisting of approximately sixty million members contrary to the popular belief of a single person being at the helm. These party officials, according to him, are reluctant to introduce any kind of political reforms and thereby jeopardise the status quo. Therefore, the likelihood of political change taking place from the top are negligible as any liberal party official holding high office is unfailingly purged or deposed if one shows inclination for political reforms.

Most of us had heard Tibetan and Western experts speak on China but it was the first time that we were listening to the comments of a genuinely Chinese scholar on the political trends in China. His articulate views devoid of any bias were thought-provoking and exceptionally riveting.

But the highlight of the programme was the address by Lodi Gyari Rinpoche, the special envoy to His Holiness the Dalai Lama on Sino-Tibetan dialogue process on the final day. He emphasized on impartial study of history by the younger generation of Tibetans in order to have a sound and rational idea of the pre-1950 Tibet. History, he said, is witness to many instances when we have been deceived by China, so the need of the hour is to be very cautious in our dealings with them so that we don’t fall into their trap. He also stressed on the need for bringing about more sophistication in our activism. He embellished his views as a diplomat with his own personal outlook making his hour-long talk highly inspiring.

To be honest the Tibetan Youth Leadership Programme (TYLP) opened up a whole new dimension of Tibet issue before us and made us realise the significance of understanding China in order to better comprehend our struggle. It made us realise the futility of plain nationalism without proper expertise to put forward a convincing case before the international community. It imparted essential campaign and media related skills which we could put into pragmatic use in our respective domains. It was, in a nutshell, a very beneficial learning experience which conjured up the spirit of activism lying dormant within us.

I personally feel a far-reaching transformation within me. The 6-day programme, to an extent, swept away the mist of ignorance and bewilderment surrounding me about many of the Tibet-related issues. With the things I have learnt during the leadership training, the world now seems my oyster.

From Amsterdam I returned a changed man!

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