Excerpts from the Director Tamio Ota’s interview with Mila Rangzen at Hilton, NY November 10, 2017
DTO: Please introduce yourself (name, age, job, birthplace, etc..) and related personal experience–when did your parents flee Tibet? When and how did you come to the U.S. and serve in U.S. army? Do you return to India often?
MR: Hi, this is Mila Rangzen. I changed my name from –Dhondup Choephel- to this one in January 2004 when I got naturalized and became US/American citizen. I discarded my old name-which Jepa Rinpoche gave me- because my military buddies found it hard to pronounce. It is not so uncommon for immigrants to change their name at the time of naturalization and citizenship. Tibetans usually seek names for their child from a high lama or tulku or Rinpoche because they believe their child will live longer and healthier. I do not buy this, so I named myself.
I am 49. I was born in Kathmandu, Nepal on August 12, 1969. After a couple of years, with my parents, I moved to Himachal Pradesh. My parents like thousands of other Tibetan refugees worked as road builders, breaking rocks with hammer or dynamite. A few years later we moved down to Karnataka where I have lived on and off for well over 40 years.
My parents didn’t have to flee Tibet in 1959, not that there was no danger to them but because they were already on the Nepal border when PLA bombarded Lhasa. My father along with some of his village buddies from Jepa district in U-Tsang was on a business trip near the Nepalese border when they came to know that China bombed the Lhasa populace and the subsequent escape of the Dalai Lama to India. He then decided not to go back to Tibet, leaving his wife and son behind.
My mother was from Chung Riwoche, a district in U-Tsang. She was on a pilgrimage with her parents, son, and daughter in Nepal and when news reached her that her husband, a sergeant, was summoned along with many other regional Tibetan military leaders by China to Lhasa and was eventually tortured to death during a struggle session, she gave up going back to Tibet.
I came to the US with a diversity visa from Nepal in 2001. I landed in New York City with only $200 in my wallet. Fortunately, met a village buddy and he let me move in his two-bedroom apartment–in Brooklyn– which he shared with five other Tibetan immigrants! I slept in the living room alone and with no privacy. Three months later a knife fight erupted in the apartment between two roommates and with two of my buddies I moved to Queens. Much better now. The place felt much safer streetwise. Less jobless folks, fewer bums, less private shelters and fewer blacks and street crimes.
Well, after hopping from odd jobs to odd jobs for about six months in New York things weren’t getting better regarding money so I decided to join the US Navy. What pushed me to join the navy, among other reasons, was the promise of quick citizenship. I needed that so I could travel to India quickly so that I could say goodbye to geographical separation from my family. Also farewell to statelessness!
I was 32 when I joined the navy. It wasn’t easy. We were about a hundred recruits in our barracks out of which only five of us were 30 plus and the rest were between 17 to 23. Those young folks hated old guys like us because we couldn’t run as fast as they could. It was like going back to teenage life! A complete restructuring of you begins there to meet the military standards. Military bearing, acute attention to details and 110% effort! No civilian excuses! I completed the four-year active duty and four-year inactive duty contract in 2009. I did take part in Global War on Terror PART I and PART II. I do not want to go into the military details.
I am the first immigrant in my family and life in New York was not as easy as it sounded when I was in India and Nepal. Money doesn’t grow on trees, and I don’t have an uncle here who has a forest! Sticking to one job is not smart. I do have an academic education, but that is not much in demand here because almost everybody has an academic scholarship. What the job market demands are a professional education in medicine, business, science, math, computers, etc. and I don’t have that. Also, it is not always what you know, but who you know that can land you in a cushy job.
So to increase the sources of income, I do numerous jobs. All independently though. I hate to work under others. Whether underpaid or overpaid I refuse to do dirty, dangerous jobs. For instance, the position of steamfitters is between $50 to $110 per hour which is a lot of money for a poor immigrant, but I refuse to do it because it is dirty, dangerous to health and limbs. Money is not everything, health is. Physically as well as mentally. The rest follows.
The variety of stuff that I do also excite me, and time flies. I work independently as a translator, document preparer for Tibetans with issues related to asylum, immigration, medical, and legal.
I am also an entrepreneur in documentary filmmaking and marketing —my new passion. I am excited, and I am learning the rope and getting better at it every day. I am also a conservationist blogger, also a journalist running a digital newspaper called The Tibet Star. I am also writing digital books for the commercial purpose. I am also a rap lyricist, rap composer, and a rapper. I have an incredible macho voice—a voice that is neither too deep nor too soft– that fits rap songs. Several professors call my voice radio voice! It is in a film mode. When you rap, you do so most from your chest, not from your throat or head and that’s where my voice works well. It is, of course, all done on a small scale. Nothing big.
In this age of social media and Trump as the president of one of the most educated countries in the world, anything goes! It’s a free world! The downside is quality goes down the drain, but the upside for us small people is both substance and success are redefined! No matter what stupid shit you do, as long as you have followers and you start minting money, you are a successful person!
Almost every year I travel to India because I enjoy seeing my family, the nature, and wildlife and the fresh air and the laidback country life in the Kollegal Tibetan settlement. I love strolling down the memory lane.
OTA: Where did you live in India? What’s the life like there as an exile Tibetan? What’s the main challenge you were facing being stateless in India? (schooling in India, and job in India)
MR: I lived in Kollegal Tibetan settlement since 1976. Life there was slow and quiet. As a kid, I liked it because nature around excited me to no end. But as I was venturing into my teenage it didn’t excite me that much. It seemed there was no opportunity for growth and progress. Country life!
From June to August every year we had to go through the nasty windy season. We call it ghost wind. It’s a gale! Greenery gets replaced by the brownish environment. The sky appeared dusty and dark grey. Your rooms get visited by one-inch thick sands all over the floors. Big trees would fall, and roofs get wiped out. It was a gloomy sight. The sound of the wind was eerie. The settlement looked its worst. In frustration and anger, I would call it “dead land, dead people, and corpses everywhere.”
Surviving on a small corn farm and cattle rearing which was hardly profitable but we did it anyway because there was not much else to do. My parents also did sweater business in the dirty streets of Assam. Only much later they were able to have proper stores. The profit wasn’t significant. It was just enough to get us by.
As a stateless Tibetan, if you had money, you could join any school in India. To get admitted you have to pay a hefty donation. But you wouldn’t get government job even if you were qualified. You could not own land and start a corporation. Things seem to be changing now for the Tibetan “refugees” at least on paper. The greatest challenge I faced was this sense of homelessness and refugee and the object of pity. It makes you feel you are a second-class race because you don’t have a country to call your own and the insecurity thereof was overwhelming. Also the fact you don’t have the right to determine the life of your country and people is heart-wrenching. China is responsible for all of this.
DTO: We read your article “Is Dharamshala Safe for Tibetans?” written in 2014. Could you please tell us when and for how many years you lived in Dharamshala? You describe Dharamshala as “small and dirty,” do you still think so? Could you please give us some reasons for your personal experience and local news?
MR: I was in Dharamsala as a kid, I don’t remember much though. I was there for a couple of months in 1988. Then from 1996 to 1998, I worked there as a teacher at Tibetan Transit School for the adult newcomers or sajor as they are known. In 2006 I was there again for about a month. When I say Dharamsala, I was mainly referring to Mcleod Ganj which has 2 one hundred meter long streets with no concept of a sidewalk. Dirt everywhere and the water pipeline was often reported to be contaminated. Things may have changed a bit now. Haven’t been there for over ten years now.
DTO: In the same article, you said the precious relationship between Tibetan refugees and Indian hosts was threatened. Why did you think so? Normally, what will happen and who is in charge to take care if there is a conflict occurring between a Tibetan and an Indian? And what’s the challenge in reality?
MR: The social relationship, deep down, has never been that great and that’s because anytime there is a conflict between a Gaddi and a Tibetan, the Gaddi community is quick to turn it into communal issues rather than call cops and leave it as individual problems. Gaddis vs. Tibetans. Look what happened in 1994. Read “Dharamshala revisited: Shangrila or Sarajevo? “ by K. Dhondup. Then in 1999 in Manali, over a hundred Tibetan stores were looted and burnt down. Then twice in 2007. Read “Making sense out of the senseless” by Topden Tsering. And then murder in 2015. These are just a few examples.
In such a situation, Tibetan welfare office with Gaddi-Tibetan Conflict Resolution Committee, steps in to resolve the conflict. But by the time this office comes to the scene, the damage is already done. Gaddis came here some 300 years ago from elsewhere. They are so much attached to their village that it is a matter of courage for a Gaddi to leave for a distant city in search of greener pasture hence their economic condition remains stagnant. They keep singing “Mera Gaon, Mera Desh” that is my village is my nation. If a Gaddi family had a dozen sheep 50 years ago that family by now should have 1000 sheep and that is not the case. They sell their property to the businessmen from the plains and after they blow up the money just made they go back to square one and some end up as servants in Tibetan families. This situation triggers baser human elements like jealousy, anger, and hatred in them toward us. We are the scapegoats. I see no cure for this. They look for every little opportunity to mob us, and we on our part as guests use diplomacy. And you know diplomacy is not real, it is fake. So under the façade of ethnic harmony sits a volcano of hate and jealousy.
Tibetans are by no means wealthy but they are hardworking and adventurous in business, and some progress is made every year. They do not even hesitate to trek continents and cross oceans to chase greener pasture which occasionally turns out as fake plastic grass! Their nomadic DNA is running deep in their blood. Tibetan women don’t confine themselves to homes. They travel if necessary to war-torn zones such as in Kashmir and with her child on her back, another child in her lap, she sells her merchandise in the dusty streets with no sense of social embarrassment but taking it as a matter of factly.
DTO: The local Gaddis seem very violent in your article, which is different from what we experienced personally. However, we also experienced the double-faces of the local Indian officer in Leh. Could you please tell us some stories about this issue from an exile Tibetan’s perspective?
MR: You are a tourist and tourists are a source of income for the locals, and why would they let go off a rock on their feet? I got assaulted a couple of times and verbally abused many times for no reason other than being a Tibetan. This was between 1996 to 1998. I have seen other Tibetans abused too. Violence doesn’t always have to be physical. Hate is violence also. It boils up your blood, and that is not a pleasant experience.
Let’s say you go bankrupt and become homeless today and you and your wife come to me to stay in my house, and I welcome you because we are buddies. Then a year later I got titillated by the sight of your wife’s thunder thighs, and I grabbed it without her consent. What would you do now? Would you keep quiet because I sheltered you or would you fight back because what I did is wrong?
As far Ladak and Leh are concerned, my direct experience there is nill because I have been there. But from friends there I learned that they were jealous of Tibetans too. They would call us “khyampo” meaning wanderer, gypsies and homeless. They would always on occasions ask Tibetans to play a soccer match with them. Tibetans don’t play a soccer match with them anymore because Ladakis use this game as an opportunity to beat up Tibetans and degrade us. I believe Ladakis are going through identity crisis. They were Tibetans once. If you check their DNA, they are more Tibetan than Indian, ethnically, culturally and linguistically. But politically they are Indians now for seven decades.
DTO: You claimed in this article “the stateless Tibetans in India are at risk and need to get citizenship.” What are the main risks you refer to? Why do you think acquiring citizenship can protect exile Tibetans from these risks?
MR: In politics, no permanent friendship or enmity exist, but lasting interest does. India once came under pressure from China and began rounding up Tibetans in northern India pre-1959 to be shipped to Tibet under Chinese control. But when Dalai Lama escaped to India, India let go of this policy. The Dalai Lama acts as a shield for Tibetans without citizenship for so long. But nobody lives forever. Once the Dalai Lama is gone, and Tibetans don’t have Indian citizenship the likelihood of getting deported to Chinese hands is high. We cannot trust politicians.
But once you become Indian citizens the Indian constitution will protect you from being deported to Tibet under Chinese occupation. Being deported could mean arrest, imprisonment, interrogation, beatings, torture and possibly execution.
DTO: In this article, you also said “Dalai Lama has told some Indian officials he is for it” Did he say it in public? The Indian’s Citizenship Act has been there for decades, why your fellow exiles Tibetans turn it into hot pitch in recent year?
MR: The Dalai Lama hasn’t made it public but what I know from my sources is he did express concerns to some top Indian officials as to what would happen to the exile Tibetans once he is gone and there the idea of seeking and granting Indian citizenship popped up and HH said that is good. I know from a reliable source who has contacts with Indian bigshots. Every wall has ears and eyes.
The Indian citizenship act may have been there for three decades, but the Tibetan public was not aware of it. And also the Dalai Lama wasn’t that old, and he promised to live up to the age of 113. But some five years ago the Dalai Lama was upset that as he said some Tibetans don’t trust him or his Middle Way Approach and he said he might not live long enough. This incident created some sense of urgency and anxiety in the community.
Then in 2011 current MP Namgyal Dolkar fought for Indian citizenship in Delhi high court and she won. This victory opened the eyes of the Tibetan public. We have not come to India to be Indian citizens but given the fact that our leadership abandoned independence struggle, we the people in the streets with hot blood pumping into our system have to find a way out. Taking Indian citizenship doesn’t mean you have lost the legitimacy to pursue your cause. Look what the Jews who were citizens of European countries did for the homeland Israel and won it. Where does it state in United Nations charter that once you adopt a country, then you automatically lose the right to fight for the home country?
Also, you must realize that over 40% of the exile Tibetan population now live in the west with citizenship and the security that comes with it. Current CTA president Lobsang Sangay is an American citizen too. When the topmost leader took to American citizenship, why can’t the ordinary Tibetans in India seek Indian citizenship? If you want to lead your people, you got to do so by example. No hypocrisy is entertained.
As much as the Dalai Lama acts modest in his contribution; as much as he is flawed in his approach to the Tibet question; and as much as we criticize him or his policy democratically; one thing is sure that no Tibetan cares more deeply about the Tibetan people than he does. That, however, doesn’t mean we should zip our mouth shut when we have a different perspective than he has on issues that concern all of us Tibetans.
DTO: In your article in this year “Is Indian citizenship for Tibetans a threat to the Tibetan cause?”, You said CTA is “dead set against Tibetans becoming Tibetan-Indians.” Why do you think so? We heard of many stories about how Indian government makes it difficult for exile Tibetans to apply for citizenship. While you said that it is actually manipulated by CTA. In your previous article, you asked CTA to do more to help exile Tibetan to get Indian citizenship. Is there a time point for you or what happened in the last years to make you realize it?
MR: The Indian government is not really against granting Indian citizenship to Tibetans for several reasons:-
1. India does not support Tibetan independence
2. Tibetan population in India is a drop in the Indian ocean
3. Tibetans are peaceful and hardworking people
4. We share the same cultural heritage.
- The Indian constitution created by Indians provides us the right to be Indians if we meet the criteria.
All it takes is the Dalai Lama to ask, and we have it instantly.
But the Indian bureaucracy can give you a hard time. India is corrupt from head to toe, from the President to the shopkeeper, from the Prime Minister to the sweeper. If you threw some dollars on the desk, they would get your job done with a big happy smile on their face! Who doesn’t love money? Besides, India is poor. The bureaucrats are underpaid.
Don’t get me wrong. I am grateful to the government and people of India for granting us Tibetans a place to live and not only that I have tremendous respect for the sharp Indian brain in math, science, medicine, and computer. 40% of the NASA scientists are Indians. A good percentage of CEOs in the west are Indians. But when the environment of accountability is missing, and the rule of law is weak, they get corrupted easily.
CTA said time and again that it would render help to those Tibetans who want to apply for Indian citizenship, and at the time there were about 13 applicants, and some even withdrew. But now from what I hear there are hundreds if not thousands of applicants and CTA is in a fix. So recently CTA has ordered its regional offices not to issue supporting letters to those Tibetans seeking Indian citizenship.
It is harder for CTA to control Tibetans once they become Indians. As the decades have gone by, I realize that this CTA will never retake the path of independence and that it is hell-bent on making Tibetans citizens of China. Pushing Chinese agenda on us is a classic case of Stockholm syndrome. You are going to embrace the Chinese who is responsible for the loss of your country and the degradation of your people. This is madness. Tibetan struggle if it can be called one is a massive deception. I for one have decided to be Indian than Chinese.
DTO: We learn from your article that “Tibetan-Indians will lose access to all the CTA benefits, including the right to live in Tibetan settlements and political positions.” Does that really happen? Could you please give us some examples? (We only know that you have to hand out your IC and RC once you got Indian citizenship.) And why do you think he/she should keep the privilege for exiles after he/she is not stateless anymore?
MR: From what I hear, both the central government of India and the state governments have sent circulars to the Tibetan settlements that those Tibetans who acquired Indian citizenship must leave the settlements immediately or legal action will be taken against them. This is the preemptive strike I am talking about. They know most Tibetans have no homes other than the houses in the settlements. You have already endured one homelessness and just when you become Indians to escape that homelessness you are homeless again for the second time. Tibetans are still very poor. You can go to the settlements and see for yourself.
Because they are humans and because they are poor they should be granted the ownership of the property on which they live. This is nothing new. Indian government provides this kind of help to Indians whose homes have been washed away by a flood. We deserve this support too.
DTO: It’s well-known that exiles Tibetans are holding different passports of different countries. CTA and some NGOs even help people to go to western countries.Why do you think CTA doesn’t want its people to become Indian citizen? Why don’t you agree with them?
MR: CTA immigrated 2000 Tibetans to Swiss in the 1970s, 1000 to the US in the 1990s and recently 1000 to Canada, and 500 to Australia since 1990s. CTA also was going to immigrate 5000 Tibetans from Nepal to the US 10 years ago, but somehow this didn’t materialize. Regardless, you see CTA has no problem sending Tibetans to these nations with primarily light skin people. But CTA has issues with Tibetans becoming Indians and that I think is because Indians are dark skin people. If you live as Indian citizens for generations to come, race mixing is inevitable.
A decade ago a Tibetan woman was paraded naked with a big wooden dig on her neck in the streets of Majnu-ka-Tilla just because she slept with an Indian man. Who did this? The Regional Tibetan Women Association did it. This similar attitude from CTA does reek racism towards the Indians. And this is wrong and unacceptable.
By the way, according to DNA report, 6% of Tibetan DNA is Indian on average. In my case, I am 3% Indian, 30% Chinese and 50% Mongol, etc. There is no such thing as pure race in the whole world. We are all genetically mixed through trade, migration and war and mass rape by the victor for millennia. CTA should embrace broadmindedness.
DTO: Why do you think “it is CTA’s policy to keep us poor and dependent on the CTA”? All the governments around the world want to make their people rich so that they can have more tax. Hence then, what benefit CTA can have to make its people poor?
MR: The poorer we get, the more dependent we become on CTA and the more dependent we become on CTA, the more control CTA would have on us. There are over 50,000 Tibetans in the west, but only about 50% of them pay the annual $100 tax or contribution to the CTA and CTA can do nothing about it because they have no control over Tibetan-Swiss, Tibetan-Australian, Tibetan-Americans ETC. If you don’t go to morning prayer in school, you could be fined or even caned. If you don’t go to eight-hour prayer occasionally conducted by the settlement officer, you could be fined as much as rs500 per day. You will also be fined if you don’t show up at meetings or community work. Last April Gyalyum Chemo Gold Cup was held in Kollegal settlement. The Chief Representative in Bangalore ordered the Tibetans to go and attend the speech delivered by the Home Minister Sonam Topgyal. Everything is forced on the people to fit their worldview. People should be given the freedom to come or not. This is a form of control that CTA will lose the day we become Indians. What are you going to do to a Tibetan-Indian well protected by rights in the constitution of India? Nothing.
DTO: Generally speaking, do you think the living condition of exiles Tibetans in India is getting better or worse?
MR: Living conditions have improved on the whole. For example, until the 90s hardly any family had a bathroom in my settlement of 3000 or so people. To relieve ourselves we would go to the outskirts of the village or the field or the stream or the forest this is not only annoying but unhealthy. Now every family has a bathroom. Also 40 years ago there were just two Tibetans who had bicycles. Now almost every family has bicycles, motorcycles, and cars too. Unlike before many Tibetans now live in real brick houses with a concrete roof. The credit primarily goes to their relatives in the west who send them the dough. Also when we were young, we would often wear pants with patches to cover the torn part, but now days hardly any Tibetan wears such clothes. Many wear clothes and shoes with brand names. Hardly anyone goes hungry now. Those days five times chicken dish and four times momo dish per year was a big deal. Nowadays every other day momos and chicken dish, no big deal. Most Tibetan children today can see colleges.
DTO: You see any hope for Tibet?
MR: Inspirationrational speeches can be beautiful, but it has to have its basis in reality. And the fact today is Tibet is dead, the Tibetan struggle is unconscious, the Tibetan cause is gone because the leadership on Tibetan independence struggle is dead for three decades officially and fallen since 1974 unofficially. Would you call the desire to be the part of the country that is responsible for the loss of your country a cause? Would you call the wish to make Tibetans a part of the Chinese who invaded, occupied and degraded us a struggle?
We have about thirty years within which if we don’t regain independence we will be joining the ranks of functionally dead people like the aboriginals of Australia and native Americans. Five hundred years ago the population of native Americans was between 80 to 100 million. Today the community is three million and many of whom are biracial now.
Regardless of the outcome we should retake the path of independence and stick to it until the last Tibetan drops dead for some reasons:-
This is not being emotional.
- Tibetan had a history of independence much longer than majority of the countries in the United Nations today
- Majority of the Tibetans want nothing less than independence. Not one self-immolator screamed genuine autonomy. Well over 150 Tibetans self-immolated for independence for the past eight years.
- Over a million Tibetans died as a direct result of Chinese invasion and occupation
- Thousands of monasteries were destroyed because we lost independence
- We tried autonomy or Middle Way Approach in 1951 with 17 point agreement and what we got? Guns, artillery, and bombs and homelessness.
- The current Middle Way Approach is pushed since 1974 and what have we achieved other than some minor concessions? Ten round of talks talking about the negotiations? That’s it?
- If everything is impermanent from a Buddhist perspective, then doesn’t this impermanence apply to statelessness we go through?
- The Chinese have deceived us many times, why is our leadership not getting it
- Independence or autonomy, no nation will fight for us.
- However powerful China might be, however, zero help we receive from the US and the west, however resourceless we are, we should still stick to independence. In sticking to it, there is a glimmer of hope that your autonomy could be achieved. In politics, you demand a mountain so that you may get a molehill, but if you request a molehill, you will end up with a handful of dust. Bite that dust!
- Greater the objective is, greater the sacrifice will be! Greater the sacrifice, greater the determination will be. But on the other hand, lesser the aim being, lesser the sacrifice will be. And lesser the sacrifice is then more than likely we shall be induced to give it up. Bite that does now!
- Struggle for independence is a struggle for truth and justice. It is not a business deal that you can abandon when you suffer loss after loss.
- Isn’t it better to fight for independence, bleak as it may be than to give it up and eat a life of Chinese deceptions?
Two things I wish our leadership could tell our children are;-
- We fought through the Chinese deceptions at every curve, and we fought to the end.
- We may not have regained independence, but we have no regrets whatsoever because we did our best not just in thoughts and prayers but concrete actions. Now it’s your turn to grab the legacy—the sword of independence struggle! Till the sun shines once again on the roof of the world!