In the summer of 1999, I made the decision to help two Westerners who were researching a Chinese resettlement project in Tibet. From that very moment, I foresaw I would end up as a political prisoner one day.
One of those Westerners was the Australian researcher and environmentalist Gabriel Lafitte. I had originally met him by chance a year earlier at an American teacher’s house in Ziling (Ch: Xining). We discussed many of the issues facing Tibet. He showed great interest and I felt able to share my thoughts openly with him. Eventually I became his guide and, together, we travelled to different places in Amdo, Tibet.
In the summer of 1999, we met for a second time. An American guy was with him this time and they were travelling around Tibet investigating the effects of Chinese resettlement projects. They needed someone trustworthy to help them carry out the research. When I realised Chinese resettlement projects would be detrimental to Tibetans, I was determined to help them in whatever way I could. At that time I was one of few Tibetans who were able to speak English and Chinese as well as Tibetan and was also ready to take the risk of helping foreigners working for Tibet.
From that very moment, I foresaw I would end up as a political prisoner one day.
In August 1999 I was arrested alongside Gabriel and his American colleague. We were detained separately and interrogated for days. Fortunately, there were already protests against the World Bank providing loans for Chinese resettlement projects in Tibet – the same projects we had been researching. China started to feel the international pressure and, eventually, we were released. However, I remained under surveillance for months. Secret police took away my personal files, including my college education record and teaching qualifications. The files were never returned to me.
On another occasion in 2004 I was beaten by a group of police without any reason. I sensed my life would not be secure if I continued to live in Tibet.
I first tried to leave Tibet in 2000. I was making arrangements for travelling to the Tibet-Nepal border when I heard that border security had been tightened after His Holiness Gyalwa Karmapa escaped that way earlier in the year. So I decided to wait.
I was arrested for a second time in 2001 by the State Security Bureau. On another occasion in 2004 I was beaten by a group of police without any reason. I sensed my life would not be secure if I continued to live in Tibet.
In 2004 I finally managed to get travel papers and was able to make my way to the border safely. When I arrived in Dram, the border town, State Security agents searched through my belongings thoroughly. Then they searched them again. They took my passport away and kept it overnight. The next day, around 11am, my passport was returned and I was able to continue my journey. Once I had passed the border and reached Nepal, I felt more secure and also knew that I was moving closer to His Holiness the Dalai Lama. I spent the next eight years as a refugee in India.
In May 2014 I moved to Australia. I was granted a place on an immigration programme which the Australian government offers to Tibetan political prisoners and their families. The programme has been running since the late 1990s but the number of places has risen in recent years.
I arrived in Australia with my family. We were welcomed at the airport by staff from Redback – a company which manages the arrival process for people on the immigration programme. A woman helped us through the custom checks. Then we were taken to a temporary house which had been arranged for us. We stayed there about two months. Everything was organised very well for us. I felt we were respected and given the rights and freedoms that Tibetans in Tibet are denied under Chinese rule.
Life is different here in Australia. I appreciate the democracy and freedom. But there is still something missing. I feel distanced from Tibetan society and culture.
In Dharamsala I could enjoy a stronger sense of Tibetan culture than I can here. For instance, I could go and listen to teachings by HH the Dalai Lama in person. I could go to the Tibetan Library and read Tibetan books. It was easier to see good friends. I could visit Tibetan temples regularly. Also, life had a much slower pace.
One of the reasons I choose to move to Australia is because I would like to see my parents and relatives in Tibet one day. I would like my son to meet his grandparents and cousins. But it wasn’t safe for me to return as a refugee from India. If I had stayed in India then the only way to get into Tibet would be to apply for travel documents issued by the Chinese embassy. It’s not secure at all. I could be arrested again. It will only be possible for me to visit Tibet if I can travel on the passport of a country which is able to ensure my security.
Everything was organised very well for us. I felt we were respected and given the rights and freedoms that Tibetans in Tibet are denied under Chinese rule.
In the meantime, life is enjoyable here in Australia. Our living conditions are much better than in Dharamsala and we have more opportunities to learn new skills and develop. Overall, life is better.
We are able to keep Tibetan culture alive at home. I teach Tibetan to my son and our family only speaks Tibetan at home. I always encourage my children to keep learning Tibetan - not because their parents are Tibetan, just for themselves. One day they will appreciate the benefit of speaking Tibetan - an ancient language rich in spiritual values.
One day, if Tibet becomes free, then I would like to return home permanently with my family. But for now, my family’s future is here in Australia. I am tired of leading an unstable life. After years of living as refugees in India, it’s time for my children to enjoy some stability and to have a place where they fit in. I feel that this is a nation which vales a multicultural society. We can settle down and embrace life in Australia.
About the author: Tsering Dorje was born in Tibet and worked there as a teacher until he went into exile. He worked with our research partner Tibet Watch for many years as a Senior Researcher until he left for Australia. He currently lives in Melbourne.