Tibetans in Exile Say: Time to Go Home

As violent protests wrack Tibet, exiles begin march to their homeland's border.


DHARAMSALA, India, March 15, 2008— -- It is time, Chime Youngdung says, to walk home.

"We are going to our homeland," the Tibetan man proclaimed in the hills outside Dharamsala, India, the spiritual center for Tibetan Buddhism.

His head covered by a hat wet with sweat, his water bottle empty, he leads a group of Tibetan exiles who plan to walk 1,500 miles from northern India all the way to the Tibetan border. "We are here in India, but we are guests in India. And guests should go back one day."

As Youngdung and the 50 or so men behind him, each in saffron robes, continued their six-month journey, Tibetans today continued their unprecedented protest against the Chinese authorities who took over Tibet more than 50 years ago.

For the sixth straight day they massed in multiple cities throughout Tibet, according to their allies in India, and for the sixth straight day received the brunt of the Chinese military crackdown.

They are leading the most significant demonstrations against Chinese rule in two decades. Tibetan exile groups accuse the Chinese government of killing at least 30 people and attacking protestors with bullets and tear gas. The Chinese claim 10 people have been killed.

"It is almost all over Tibet," the Tibetan prime minister in exile, Samdhong Rinpoche, told ABC News from his office in Dharamsala. "The people are trying to voice their dissatisfaction [at] being brutally repressed."

They are, he said, "fighting for freedom. Fighting for human rights. Fighting for Tibet identity."

In the Tibetan capital today, troops and armored vehicles patrolled the streets. China has given the marchers an ultimatum: Stop by Monday night and we'll go easy on you. The alternative was not spelled out.

"China has detained hundreds of Tibetans for peaceful protests this week in Lhasa and we are very concerned about their whereabouts and well-being," Lhadon Tethong, the executive director of Students for a Free Tibet, said in a statement from Dharamsala.

"The situation demands immediate international attention and the Chinese government must be held accountable for its brutal crackdown on Tibetan protesters," Tethong said.

The Tibetan government has been based in this town carved into the side of a hill for nearly 50 years. In 1959 the Dalai Lama launched a failed attempt to throw China out of Tibet and fled to Dharamsala by horseback.

But while he and his government support the independence that the protestors in Tibet are fighting for, today the prime minister distanced the Dalai Lama from their tactics.

"If we are unable to remain non-violent, the strength of our movement will be lost," Rinpoche said.

Protestors in Tibet have set more than 160 fires since Monday, when the demonstrations began on the anniversary of the Dalai Lama's uprising. They have attacked government offices, burned supermarkets, schools, and hospitals, according to the official Chinese media.

"If they become violent then how can we support? We appreciate their intention, their determination. But we cannot appreciate their action," Rinpoche said.

The Tibetan exile groups accuse the military of opening fire on the protestors, and western tourists who have been kicked out of Tibet describe scenes of war.

"I went out to a monastery and I couldn't get in because the police closed it off," a U.S. citizen named Patrick told Associated Press television in Beijing after flying out of Tibet. "I was having a nice day, then I came back and all at once you see black smoke, and police blocking off streets, and people running. It was just chaotic."

The Tibetan government in Dharamsala needs to appear politically neutral, and so cannot afford to be seen to support a violent insurrection against the Chinese government.

China accuses the Dalai Lama of masterminding the demonstrations in order to increase criticism of China before the Summer Olympics. The Dalai Lama has repeatedly said he supports China's right to host the games.

"These protests are a manifestation of the deep-rooted resentment of the Tibetan people under the present governance," the Dalai Lama said in a statement released on Friday. "I therefore appeal to the Chinese leadership to stop using force and address the long-simmering resentment of the Tibetan people through dialogue with the Tibetan people. I also urge my fellow Tibetans not to resort to violence."

Today, one day after the statement was released, Rinpoche clearly tried to distance the Dalai Lama from the demonstrations, even those held in Dharamsala.

"If they are willing to march, then why should they march from here?" the prime minister asked. "They should quietly go to the borders and can slip into Tibet and can do demonstration there. It is a kind of show off, taking a long march."

Youngdung, the leader of the march from Dharamsala to Tibet, says he is far from a show-off.

The cause of Tibetan freedom, he insists, has never been more important, now that China is hosting this year's Olympics.

The celebrations begin in only two weeks, but he hopes to reach the Tibet border by August in time for the Opening Ceremony.

"This is the time to uprise, you know, to raise the issue of Tibet at the international level. The people of the world support us because we have true injustice," he said.

His march was stopped early this week by Indian authorities, who arrested 101 people and threw them in detention centers for two weeks. He expected more arrests today, but they were allowed to march peacefully.

"Tibet was independent, Tibet is independent, and will be independent. So, please to the world -- please support us for this march," Youngdung said.