US Congress Mulls Tibetan Exile Visas

US lawmakers debating a landmark immigration bill have agreed to provide 5,000 US visas for displaced Tibetans in Nepal and India over the next three years in an effort to support the refugee community and as a response to China's suppression of the Tibetan people.

The move is partly because of increasing pressure on the part of Beijing in the Himalayan kingdom of Nepal over Tibetan exiles. Nepal abides by a ‘one-China policy' and does not tolerate anti-China separatist activities on its soil. Nepal's 20,000 Tibetan refugees face constant crackdowns over their political movements and even on their open religious celebrations.

The omnibus immigration bill has a long way to go, having only passed the Senate Judiciary Committee. It must reconcile with a House of Representatives version in the face of recalcitrant Republicans who, even though they have softened to immigration after their debacle with Latin voters in the 2012 election, are still hostile to reform. The last bipartisan immigration reform bill failed in 2007. No immigration bill has passed the Congress for 13 years, and the Tibetan rider is a small part of this one that could easily get lost in the process.

More than 9,000 exiled Tibetans already live in the United States and participate constantly in anti-China protests on any major Tibetan events. As they spread, the Tibetans believe their voices will not be heard from the de facto exile capital Dharamsala in northern India, but also from countries that support their non-violent struggle and have a vested interested in defusing the Communist regime's growing global influence.

US support for exiled Tibetans could come as an unpleasant surprise to the new Chinese leader, President Xi Jinping, who will meet US President Barack Obama during a June 7-8 summit in Rancho Mirage, California. Xi became China's paramount leader in in March. The Chinese leadership has not been hesitant about bringing pressure on other countries, particularly India, over Tibetan activities on their soil.

Since 2009, at least 110 Tibetans have burned themselves to death in Tibet and other countries in protest against Chinese rule over the kingdom and to call for the return of their spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, from exile. Protests in exile Tibetan communities have attracted extensive media coverage, compelling world governments to break their silence over the issue. The White House has regularly addressed concerns on the religious suppression and the grim situation inside Tibet.

Citing the increasing oppression, California Sen. Dianne Feinstein said the immigration measure, approved by voice vote, would ease conditions for displaced Tibetans living in India and Nepal, Agence France-Presse reported. "In Nepal, the government has been essentially following Chinese mandates to make it very difficult for the Tibetan refugee community," she said. Even though the actual provision must get through both the Senate and the House of Representatives, exiled Tibetans have hailed it as indicating the US's backing both socially and politically and directing a strong message on human rights in the region, defying China's dominance in South Asia.

"Even though it is at an initial stage it is a symbolic political gesture considering the fact that Chinese oppression against Tibetans is rising," said Ugyan Choedup, an exiled Tibetan and Deputy Program Director at Students for a Free Tibet-India. "If the finally reconciled version goes through both houses of Congress it will definitely provide a safe haven for many recently arrived Tibetans living in Nepal and India, who due to the governments' revised policies are unable to get legally registered and thus are compelled to live in perpetual fear of extradition with no legal protection against any abuses."

Situation of Tibetan exiles

Thousands of Tibetans went into exile in 1959 after a failed uprising against Chinese rule which drove the Dalai Lama to seek refuge in India. Today, some 130,000 Tibetans and their offspring remain in exile, constituting sizeable populations in India, Nepal and Bhutan, although after half a century they face alienation and social insecurity.

Beijing considers the 77-year-old Nobel Peace Laureate a traitor who wants to split the Himalayan region from the rest of China. The Dalai Lama, on the other hand, has denied the allegations, saying he is only seeking greater autonomy for Tibet to protect its unique Buddhist culture.

Thankful for the US support, the Sikyong, or Tibetan prime minister in exile Lobsang Sangay, said in a statement from Dharamsala, "I want to thank Senator Feinstein for introducing the amendment, Chairman Leahy and Senator Schumer for cosponsoring, and honorable members of the US Senate Judiciary Committee for approving the amendment."

"This provision will provide a great boost to Tibetans and contribute to burden sharing of Tibetans in India and Nepal. The passage of this provision provides timely moral support to Tibetans as they struggle against a new wave of repressive Chinese policies, and represents a tangible continuation of the long-standing and bipartisan support of the United States for Tibet."

Exiles believe that playing a role in the US political sphere as Tibetan Americans can have a positive outcome by directing the focus on the core of the Tibet issue.

Tenzin Nyinjey, an exiled Tibetan researcher and translator working at the Tibetan Center for Human Rights and Democracy in Dharamsala notes that Tibet is a moral issue acknowledged by the US government, public leaders and the public especially as Tibetans struggle for their freedom.

"Now the struggle will be a long and drawn out one. What the Tibetans need to do is while immigrating to the West and rebuilding their lives and culture, they must stick to their goal of regaining Tibetan freedom, which is: one day returning to their native land," he added.

Beijing's strategy

Economic muscle has been the strength of China's dominance in the region. Beijing is using massive aid and investment in Nepal to make sure the country prevents anti-Chinese activity and the Himalayan kingdom is acting as a new Chinese colony. Even though the constant flow of Tibetans fleeing into exile has been reduced to a trickle, Nepal remains a refuge for those entering to India or elsewhere.

During Chinese Premier Li Keqiang's recent India visit last week, both India and China agreed on various trade-related opportunities. Li raised the issue of Tibet, pushing India to suppress the free Tibet movement and stop anti-Chinese activities on its soil. Tibetan protesters were barred from protesting in India's capital New Delhi during the Chinese premier's visit while those who managed to protest were detained by Indian police.

China has closed its doors for talks with the Dalai Lama's envoys since the 10th round of talks failed in January 2010 and most Tibetans have become impatient and ambivalent for a possible solution with the Chinese government.

Analysts believe the issue of Tibet has weakened over time and that a Tibetan lobby in the US won't worry Beijing too much. Contrary to what exiles think, analysts believe the spread of the community has undercut its role.

Associate professor Elliot Sperling, an expert on the history of Tibet and Tibetan-Chinese relations at Indiana University, says the situation is now at a point at which the current Tibetan leader can state clearly that his goal is not to change the system of Communist Party rule in Tibet, not to bring about democratization in Tibet, and not to oppose China's military positions on the Indian border; it is simply to get Communist Party posts for Tibetans.

"Under these circumstances, Tibetan protests against China have long since become divorced from the goals that motivated past generations, and a sort of alienation has set in which has made getting to the West (by whatever means) a goal, in and of itself, for many Tibetans. It takes little imagination to understand the potential for abuses in the distribution of visas that can occur with the new distribution of 5000 visas."

(Saransh Sehgal can be reached at saranshsehgal@gmail.com.)