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“Tibetan people trust the truth. We want peaceful talking, not guns”

Interview with Mansher Lokdun. This Story belongs to the Tibetan Writers Abroad Centre.

By Ginevra Avalle

Oxford, 26th September 2018

Mansher Lokdun is the Vice President of Tibet PEN and Co-ordinator of the Writers in Prison Committee. He is the Principal of the Norbulingka Institute in Dharamsala.

G.A. What is your role in PEN?

M.L I am the Vice President of Tibet PEN. We are based in Dharamshala, in India. Our PEN Centre was established in 1999, nearly 20 years ago. We’ve done a lot of important things for our language, our literature, our students, and teachers in exile. We have staff and office in Dharamsala. We wanted to document our memory, our news, our photographs… I am going to read a piece about our Centre in exile and the challenges in these 20 years.

“Thank you for this wonderful opportunity to share my thoughts about the Tibetan writers in exile. I will talk briefly about the challenges of the Tibetan languages, writers, and culture in exile. I am a Tibetan refugee. Tibetan PEN is also based in exile, in Dharamsala, India. This year, it will be 60 years since our great leader, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, came into exile.

Problems faced by Tibetan refugees escaping Tibet:

To tell of my own personal experience, I came from Tibet across the chilly, snowy mountains and powerful rivers, walking barefoot for 42 days and nights. There were many times when we had to pass very close to Chinese military camps, which was very frightening and we often lost our way at night. With every step we took, we were getting further and further away from our beloved parents and family members at home. There was a very anxious, sad feeling among us, as if we were permanently separating ourselves from them in this life. Fortunately, we all escaped the bullets of Chinese army.

However, there was one more bullet we still had to dodge: from the guns of the Nepalese army at the border with Nepal. We faced a serious threat from the Nepalese army, which suddenly started shooting continuously at us from all directions. At first, they fired over our heads and then on the ground near our feet. Then, they started firing straight at us. That time, three of my colleagues were badly injured and one was killed in the firing. In general, Nepal and Tibet have historically shared a good relationship and Nepal has provided asylum to Tibetans. But sometimes, under Chinese pressure, Nepal is forced to take this kind of action against us.

The journey taken by exiled Tibetan writers is one of the longest and most difficult journeys ever taken in the history of humanity.

Challenges in preserving Tibetan language and culture:

Our refugee population is quite small, and as we have been displaced, we do not have access to good facilities. This fact is common to all refugee communities around the world. But besides that, there are two big challenges that Tibetan refugees need to deal with.

The first challenge is the extensive destruction of Tibetan language and culture by the Chinese government. When it comes to the Tibetan language in Tibet:

  • All subjects in primary and secondary schools in Tibetan areas must be taught in Chinese.
  • In Tibetan schools, the Tibetan language can only be taught as a language subject.
  • After reaching the age of three, Tibetan children must learn Chinese before they learn their mother tongue.
  • In all Tibetan nurseries, teachers and staff must speak in Chinese, and speaking in Tibetan is prohibited.
  • Tibetan and Chinese nurseries are combined; there aren’t separate ones for Tibetan and Chinese people.
  • Tibetan students must learn the Tibetan language in Chinese.
  • As a result, Tibetans currently have no place in which to preserve our language and culture, other than exile.

The second challenge is that it has also become very difficult for us to explain to the outside world about the real problems surrounding freedom of expression and Tibetan writers, language and culture in Tibet. This is mainly because of the influence of the Chinese government’s false propaganda, and its growing economic and political power in the world. Now, wherever there is a Tibetan refugee and Tibetan culture, there is always enormous pressure from the Chinese government.

What I want to stress here is that, no matter how hard it may be, just as there is asylum for humans and animals, there should also be a safe environment or shelter for exiled languages and cultures in order to preserve them.

The problems faced by Tibetan writers in exile:

It is very rare for anyone from the latest generation of Tibetans to emerge as a professional writer in the Tibetan language. As writing in exile cannot offer a stable livelihood, Tibetan writers also need to work and in other professions and organisations. They cannot survive just by being a professional Tibetan writer.

The platform for Tibetan writing in exile is very limited, and there is no established outlet, such as a journal, in which to publish writing in the Tibetan language. And writing produced in exile cannot be published in the journals that already exist in Tibet due to restrictions by the Chinese government.

The number of Tibetan readers is limited. For a writer, not having readers is a big problem. The population of Tibetans living in exile is very small. In addition to that, there are heavy restrictions on publishing the works of exiled Tibetan writers in Tibet, and the websites that can be accessed by the outside world are restricted there. So it is incredibly difficult for exiled Tibetan writers to make their voices heard inside the country.

In short, life in exile is dangerous both in terms of progression and survival. Tibetan writers who write in their mother tongue feel particularly lonely and ostracised. It could be said that, even after escaping into exile, we are still unable to escape the Chinese government’s influence and restrictions.

With that, I would like to conclude by requesting that, in future, in addition to helping writers in prison, PEN International give more attention and support to writers in exile.”

G.A. How do the writers in Tibet get in touch with you?

M.L. Sometimes they contact me leaving the Chinese main cities, mainly through others who can then contact us. They cannot do it directly. They can also send books that cannot be published in Tibet so that we publish them in exile in India. We then translate them into English and Chinese, so that we reach out to readers in Taiwan or Hong Kong. We also edit reports on imprisoned writers and publish updates.

G.A. You publish books sent through friends and acquaintances. What happens when the Chinese government finds out they’ve been published?

M.L. It is dangerous for writers in Tibet, but they need to publish and share with the outside world. They will get punished and probably sent to prison. But they don’t care. They need to speak the truth of what is happening in Tibet.

G.A. Do you feel pressure from China?

M.L. Yes, both in India and other countries. Tibetan writers are different than the Syrian or Korean refugees. Syria and Korea are not so powerful, but China has too much power outside its borders. We still fear. One of my colleges was killed in Delhi by Tibetans, but we think that the Chinese were behind. It’s the only reason why we can think a Tibetan writer would be killed in Delhi. In India they have many Chinese spies that follow the Tibetans and the writers and who worked against the government. They target them and always know what they are doing. For us it’s normal that there are Chinese spies where there are Tibetan writers. We can’t prove it, but we can feel it. We have nearly 50 or 60 members in our PEN Centre. They are in India and in other countries. We can’t travel to Nepal because of the Chinese pressure: they wouldn’t accept our documents.

When we came to exile, we had no passport, no citizenship. But the India and Indian government have helped us a lot. They said we are not refugees, but guests. They have been very nice and kind with us, they try to help us. Historically, Tibet and India have had a good relationship. Our language came from the Indian Sanskrit language. And there have been translations from Sanskrit to Tibetan language from the 7thcentury to the 13thcentury: literature, astronomy, medicine, pottery, arts, philosophy, logic, etc. The Dalai Lama says that India is our great teacher in history and that we are its students.

G.A. Have you met the Dalai Lama?

M.L. Yes, I have. The Dalai Lama came to India , it was a big historical moment, in 1959. Tibetan refugees have been coming to India following His Holiness. There are around 80 thousand Tibetan exiled people (mostly in India, but also in Nepal and Bhutan).

G.A. What is your PEN Centre’s most important activity?

M.L. The Tibetan Writers in Exile take responsibility for promoting our language and literature, because in Tibet they don’t have the right to do it. There are Chinese Writers in exile, but they don’t have to fight for their language because this is not a problem in China. For us, preserving the language is very important.

G.A. How do you keep your language alive and evolving when you lose the connection with the land? What are the tools?

M.L. It is something difficult to do in another land, but we have more freedom in these new countries than in ours. Also, our refugee population is small, but at least we have people to speak to in our own language so that they can preserve our language identity. We who are in exile are aware of our weakness, and we know that exile is our last chance. We are publishing, editing journals and newsletters, and we have TV news channels. We receive help for example from the Norwegian government. We have different tools: newsletters, journals, texts, editions of old and new books, we also have monasteries in exile, and four colleges. We are like a small country in small communities in exile. We have worked very hard to get these things done.

G.A. How was Tibet before the Chinese invasion?

M.L. Before the invasion, the Tibetan region was peaceful. Life was easy and enjoyable in freedom. In our history, our ancestors have always practiced Buddhism. They practiced non-violence, pro-peace ideas. They never thought of nationality, or nationalism.

G.A. When did you escape?

M.L. I escaped in October 1998. My mother and siblings still live in Eastern Tibet. My father passed away two years ago. He tried to come to India three times, but he didn’t have a passport. I couldn’t see him after I escaped. Most of the Tibetan people live like that; once we escape, we cannot reach the homeland again. It took me 42 days to get to India. We walked only during the night. I am not exactly sure how many we were, maybe 44. Some of us were very young and others very old. I was the only one escaping from my family. I didn’t tell them I was leaving because they wouldn’t have let me. Also, I didn’t know that refuge was so difficult and dangerous. If I had known I wouldn’t be able to see my parents again maybe I wouldn’t have done it. But you don’t know until you do it. I am happy with the Tibetans and with His Holiness in exile.

G.A. How do you feel about the future?

M.L. The present situation in Tibet is too difficult, but I think it’s going to change, because time and generations bring change. I think that new Chinese generations will get a better education. The young ones will have more chances to understand. This is the main reason for us to stay positive. Another reason is that the Dalai Lama has stayed very calm, very wise, as a peaceful man. We trust him and believe in him. The Communist government did very bad, but we always tried to have peaceful talks. In the new generations, there will be new opportunities, new energy. We have known that for 30 years. The Tibetan people trust the truth. We want peaceful talking, not guns. At some point they will be too tired to keep the pressure and the fight. The Chinese government will very slowly understand what we think and what we are hoping.

G.A. Do you work with other PEN Centres?

M.L. In China, there is a problem of brainwashing, the government is very powerful, and the Centres are scared of going to prison if they get in contact with us. We are always being followed, they take our picture, ask where our family is in Tibet, our relatives’ names, in order to threaten us. But I am in contact with Tienchi, from the ICPC PEN. We have a good relationship and we take pictures together for the imprisoned writers; we join forces for freedom and human rights. We don’t work with Taipei PEN, although we have collaborated with the German PEN a bit. Our imprisoned writer Shokjang’s book was published in English and in German. They organised an exhibition about it and they are supporting us. We have also worked with a member from the Netherlands PEN, Rudolf Geel. Apart from that, we only work with PEN International; we are not working with other international organisations. We are normally focused on imprisoned Tibetan writers and the situation of Tibetan language in Tibet, or how to help the writers, teachers and the students in Tibet and make their voice heard. We are also working on how to make our language survive in exile. The digital archive can help with these tasks. Most of our PEN members are teachers; I am one as well, in the Academy of Tibetan Culture.