Senate debates

Wednesday, 31 October 2012


Dharamsala Visit

7:16 pm

Photo of Larissa WatersLarissa Waters (Queensland, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

Over the parliamentary winter break, I was enormously privileged to visit the town of Dharamsala, high in the Himalayas in India, home away from home for exiled Tibetans, with my colleague Senator Singh as part of an Australia Tibet Council delegation. The experience is one I shall never forget. The fortitude and happiness of these oppressed people who have suffered under Chinese occupation for five decades now was inspirational and yet heartbreaking all at once.

In what was a very busy and informative schedule, we began with a meeting at Gyuto Monastery with his Eminence the Holy Karma-pa, a man of carefully chosen words and great reflection. His advice to two new senators was to be mindful of each task in our daily busy schedules, to leave greed from our hearts, to have compassion and empathy for people, and to enjoy our good hearts and to enjoy ourselves—very sage advice.

We visited the Norbulingka Institute of Preserving Tibetan Arts and Culture, and met the student artists there charged with keeping artistic endeavours and Tibetan culture alive against the threat of assimilation of Tibet and its identity into China. We visited the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives and museum and experienced the colour and wonderful sound of performers from the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts.

We met Mrs Rinchen Khando, Director of the Tibetan Nuns Project at Dolmaling Nunnery, a strong, articulate and politically astute woman, who urged Australia to be braver with China and who saw no conflict between a trading relationship and insistence on human rights. We met with the Voice of Tibet, the Tibetan Radio Channel, and its Editor-in-Chief Mrs Tenzin Peldon, fighting against all constraints to try to get information into and out of Tibet. It was very moving and very sobering to see pictures, at the reception centre for new arrivals, of Tibetans who had fled their homes to escape persecution and had to brave the mountains because of the clampdown at the borders, suffering gangrene and various other maladies.

At the transit school, the school for adults, we met a Tibetan farmer in his 20s who had never been to school before and a 19-year-old girl who was selected for a scholarship back in Tibet but who was then forced to give it up when she was denied a visa by the Chinese. By this stage, desperately missing my three-year-old daughter, I found it delightful to visit the Tibetan Children's Village, the school for younger kids, many of them orphans, who spend their school days, nights and holidays living at the village, under the care of dedicated teachers and carers and the gentle and loving tutelage of the president of the school, the delightful Mr Yeshi. The school has $9 million in running costs annually and 60 per cent of this is met by non-government organisations, 20 per cent by alumni—many of whom are now globally distinguished—and 20 per cent by individuals. It is a truly worthy cause for any potential donor.

We were privileged to meet with the Tibetan parliament in exile including the parliamentary secretariat and the non-elected cabinet members, including the impressive Minister for Department of Information and International Relations; although, sadly, Prime Minister Lobsang Sangay was unavoidably absent, as was His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

But perhaps the most informative and inspirational part of the visit was meeting with representatives of Tibetan NGOs fighting, against all odds, against resource constraints and obvious communication restrictions to bring the plight of their people to the attention of the world. The Tibetan Youth Congress, Tibetan Women's Association, Students for Free Tibet, National Democratic Party for Tibet, Gu Chu Sum and International Tibet Network took the time to meet with us and share their work. While they all were naturally campaigning on human rights and autonomy for Tibet, some of those NGOs were also focused on environmental issues, including the impact of dam building in both India and Tibet, and the effects of climate change—especially given Tibet is the source of water for 44 per cent of the world's population.

They spoke at length about their concern with mining activities including uranium and natural gas mining and the displacement that those activities were causing for traditional nomads, who were being forcibly resettled so that their lands could be used for mining. With no land and with their animals taken away, these locals were not benefiting. While initially the Chinese had promised houses in exchange for mining the nomads' land, promises had morphed into a requirement to pay a percentage back to the government, yet with no royalties and no jobs at the mines and no animals left, this was an impossibility. The nomads were now being beaten, arrested and sometimes killed.

Gu Chu Sum, the NGO, focused on gaining freedom for political prisoners, noted that there are 300 to 400 political prisoners in exile in India, and about 1,000 political prisoners still inside Tibet; although, of course that was a hard number to quantify, given the stifled information flow and the fact that some of them had been killed. They urged Australia to accept more political prisoners and to process them quickly. They asked for multilateral pressure on China from Australia and the US, Britain, France, Germany and Canada. They wanted Australia to make statements which would encourage other countries to follow suit.

We also met with the Director of the Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy, a research organisation which produces two reports every year, and who explained they do get their information from inside Tibet but people have to be incredibly careful. Mobile phones are being tapped, as are fixed lines in Tibetan homes; the internet is obviously censored; and two people had been arrested and received 15 years and life imprisonment respectively for sharing information on human rights abuses. We were told that the Chinese call this 'leaking state secrets', which is apparently a catch-all clause, amongst various other dubious legal charges imposed by the Chinese. Another is 'endangering state security'. Another phrase is 're-education through labour', or RTL, as they abbreviate it, which is hard labour in forced labour camps for three to four years, with the sentence imposed not by a judge but by police and with no appeal. In 2009, the UN said that this 're-education through labour' was against international law, and, while the Chinese accepted the recommendations of that UN report, they have not acted on them.

We were told of one environmental activist who had originally been awarded a prize by the Chinese government but had subsequently been sentenced to six years for 'endangering state security', simply for campaigning on environmental issues. We were told that there were rarely trials—and, if there were, they were done behind closed doors—and that, if you appeal, your sentence would be made worse. As a lawyer privileged to live in a country with the rule of law and with procedural fairness, I was truly shocked by these stories.

I am really proud to be a member of a party that continues to highlight the plight of Tibetans and continues to move motions in this place, whether they are on deteriorating human rights conditions in Tibet or on the suppression of the media in Tibet, particularly regarding the increase in self-immolations, which sadly now number more than 50 and most of those have occurred in the last two years. I am bitterly disappointed that those motions have not yet received support from the old parties, but we Greens do not give up. We are proud to recognise the rights of Tibetan people over their traditional homelands and their rights to self-determination, including cultural and spiritual expression. We, of course, recognise their elected representatives. We condemn the plundering of Tibet's natural resources and the destruction of Tibetan cultures by the Chinese government.

The Greens will continue to call on the government of China to end the repression in Tibet and to heed the call of the Tibetans for restoration of their rights and freedoms.

Obviously, as a Queensland senator, I have taken the opportunity to meet on several occasions with the Tibetan community in Queensland. They are wonderful, gentle folk. It was my pleasure to speak several weekends ago at the Flame of Truth rally, which was a worldwide torch rally instigated by the Central Tibetan Administration, the Tibetan parliament in exile, with the primary purpose of urging the United Nations to urgently take some action on the critical situation inside Tibet. There is a petition, and I urge any listeners to go to Google to find it, then sign it and support it. It asks for the UN to send an international fact-finding delegation into Tibet, which is notoriously difficult to get into. On that note, I pay tribute to former Senator Bob Brown, who was able to get inside Tibet many years ago. I think he remains only one of two parliamentarians who has been able to do so.

It was my absolute pleasure to visit Dharamsala. I thank the Australia Tibet Council for those parliamentary delegations that are open to all members and senators each year. Obviously, many senators and members from all sides of politics have attended in previous years. I assure the continued support of the council of the Greens. We will stand with them in their fight for freedom for their people and their culture.

Senate adjourned at 19 : 26