Sun, May 04, 2008 - Page 9 News List

Tibetan exile groups face China's might

By Dennis Gray  /  AP , KATHMANDU

Jampa Thupten, a militant lama with a patchwork of scars on his skull to prove it, reaches a monastery inside Tibet where an anguished monk on a cell phone tells him of young men fleeing into the forests to avoid capture and torture by Chinese police.

From his serene, hilltop temple famed for its mischievous monkeys, Thupten then takes a call from a friend in San Francisco who explains tactics used by protesters to harass the Beijing Olympics torch relay.

A veteran of violent demonstrations being staged almost daily in Nepal, the 38-year-old Tibetan exile is also part of a global network which trades information and tricks of the trade as it mobilizes in the wake of anti-Chinese government protests in Tibet.

But despite its high profile, extent and energy, the movement faces seemingly impossible odds - China's sheer muscle, intransigence and geopolitical clout. Seeking an independent or autonomous Tibet, it also lacks unity and vital links into the Himalayan region.

"We are insignificant compared to China's might. We have no means to challenge China's authority except for prayers," says Nyima Gyalpo, an activist in Nepal's exile community.

Thupten's organization, the Nepal Tibetan Volunteer Youth for Free Tibet, is among a myriad formed both by exiles and non-Tibetan supporters on every continent, some of which have been grabbing the spotlight with dramatic disruptions of the 19-city, international leg of the torch relay.

From Amigos del Tibet in Guatemala to Alaska's US Tibet Committee, the groups have mushroomed remarkably, given that they spring from an exile population of some 120,000 and a homeland with 4 million people.

Much of the seemingly disproportionate attention the movement attracts is derived from the Dalai Lama, charismatic leader of the exiles and Nobel Peace prize winner.

"Tibetan chic" also helps. Hollywood and rock stars like Richard Gere, Julia Roberts, George Clooney and Bjork are vocal advocates for the cause.

But ranks of non-Tibetan supporters are also filled by former backpackers who witnessed the plight of Tibetans in their homeland, those attracted to Tibetan Buddhism and some drawn to romantic images of a bygone Shangri-La despoiled by invaders.

Tibetan groups like the India-based Tibetan Youth Congress and the New York-headquartered Students for a Free Tibet command large memberships and are solidly organized. The 20-year-old International Campaign for Tibet has proved an effective lobby in Washington.

Despite this, question marks hang over what thrust the movement can maintain after the flame is doused in Beijing, and how much, if any, pressure it can ultimately exert on China.

"Over the past decades, despite consistent efforts, the Diaspora groups have not succeeded in significantly improving the situation. This suggests that the more important participants in the crisis are Tibetans in Tibet," says Donald Lopez, an expert on Tibet and Buddhism at the University of Michigan.

Neither the demonstrations within nor the embarrassing disruptions of the torch's global progress appear to have shaken Beijing's determination to retain its hold on Tibet.

The "Free Tibet" groups have aroused international public opinion, compelling some leaders to condemn Beijing - but not to boycott the Olympics, never mind seriously endangering their profitable economic ties.

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