Sontsa: Tibetan youth power

The old amala rephrased her question: “I mean are you Amdo, or Khampa or Toepa?” Lobsang gave the same defiant answer again. In a brash tone he said “Tibet”. One amala mumbled condescendingly, “obviously the boy doesn’t know his parentage, his native land.”

This incident happened at a restaurant in McLeod Ganj, where my friend Lobsang, a school drop-out, works as a waiter. He was trying to be polite to this gang of old amalas while serving them tea, when he was asked: “What is your native land?”

Most Tibetan youngsters would perhaps give the same answer as Lobsang did. Some are oblivious to their parental roots. Many know, but do not like to identify themselves with any of the clans. Tibetan youngsters don’t want to carry the extra baggage of their regional and sectarian identities, which, more than anything else, has become a divisive tool to many of the petty politicians in the community.

Tibetan youngsters are choosing to steer clear from such typecasting. This is the new generation emerging with its own sense of identity. They have seen such categorization resulting in communal fundamentalism.

The challenge is to know one’s own parental and cultural roots, and yet not fall into the trap of clannish groupism, which has stifled Tibetan parliamentarian politics. This is the fine balance I believe our youngsters must maintain to take the community forward into positive development. Through this we will achieve that wonderful democratic vision that exiles are struggling for.

Right from the beginning of our exile life, His Holiness the Dalai Lama placed great importance on the healthy growth of the Tibetan children. Tibet’s youth who are receiving both traditional and modern education will greatly influence future Tibet. Today, there are over one hundred Tibetan schools in exile.

The children of exile are the hope for free Tibet. His Holiness has a special word for this, “Sontsa”. Sontsa is not the unborn seed, it’s not the assumed potential; it is the sapling, it is already fertile and growing, and yet it is young. There is promise of a bright future in Sontsa. As a kid growing up in school, the Elders gave us the most wonderful dream — a dream called “Free Tibet”, a country of our own, the country our elders lost to the Chinese and we have to quickly grow up and reclaim. There was so much patriotism in our education, whether it was about the national flag, our leader His Holiness, or study of Tibetan history and politics.

Today we are grown up and ready to fight for that dream, but the rules have changed. There is no longer that freedom to fight for. The goal post has moved, and we are left with no role to play. Now we can’t even do a protest rally; elders charge us of disloyalty with the Exile Government’s request to keep calm.

There is no glory in battling for a compromise, nor does the compromise look hopeful. Anyway, even if it was granted, would the youngsters keep silent and be satisfied with that autonomy?

Quite often I get to work with Tibetan college students in cities all over India. Tibetan students in these cities have been forming student associations through which they collectively campaign for Tibet. These are being run from the funds they begged from Tibetan camps during their summer and winter vacations. These associations double up as welfare organizations taking care of students in times of emergencies like sickness or accidents.

Last year I was in Mangalore, the seaside city in south India. About 300 Tibetan youngsters study there. During the four-day Tibet festival, a curious Indian student asked one Tibetan youth, both about the same age: “How does Tibet look like?”

The Tibetan student stopped in the middle of his speech and began thinking. He was perhaps recollecting images of Tibet he had seen in films and photographs. Most Tibetans born and brought up in exile have never seen Tibet, even the hundreds who escaped at a young age haven’t seen much of their homeland other than the village they fled.

Their Tibet is created by their imagination, their education, stories they heard from elders and tourists and what they inherited in their blood. There is no citizenship to claim; the Dalai Lama is their passport. They are born refugee.

Yes, like the younger generation of any community we too have our own share of problems with language, traditional customs, and yes, we have loads of attitude. And yet deep down there we are Tibetan. Every mention of Tibet and the Dalai Lama in a newspaper, TV, radio pulls the strings in us. It’s something very personal. Tibetans strayed to foreign countries with or without papers tell me of this heartstring. It’s just magical. This, I believe, is Tibetanness, and I know this is there in all Tibetans.

At the end of the day, we also want a home to return to, a small place to call our own, somewhere where we belong. It’s too difficult imagining there will be a free Tibet and postponing our dream called “Home” — and yet the struggle must go on.

Often I am asked, how should the Tibetans channel their emotional power into real works to free Tibet. Today, with the youngsters receiving a world-class education, equipped with global language and technology skills, we can put up a strong fight. Today’s youngsters are not bound by customary loyalties. They are patriotic, but educated and informed.

If only we can do away with the inhibition where — in the name of faith — we place the whole job of freeing Tibet on the shoulders of one man: His Holiness the Dalai lama. We are the kind to share responsibility while simultaneously receiving guidance from the Buddha.

We do have a younger group who have excelled in their field of social service, leadership, art and literature, and have set examples. Norsang runs the most popular Tibetan website,, single-handedly. Lobsang Tsering runs Kunphen; his drugs de-addiction centre in Dharamsala has helped more than 120 patients. Rapsel has been campaigning for vegetarianism; traveling Tibetan camps across India. Techung and Tsering Gyurme in music, Tenzin Dorjee in photography, Karma Sichoe in thangka painting, Lhadon Tethong in youth leadership, she’s also the president of world-wide Students for a Free Tibet, and not-so-young Dolma Gyari and Karma Yeshi in the Tibetan parliament.

I salute these and many others who work silently with commitment and years of dedicated work for Tibet. This article pays tribute to that power of youth, to this new generation of Tibetans in exile which is now slowly coming of age, and making “Sontsa” — the dream of His Holiness — come true, a promise of new Tibet.

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