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Wednesday, March 10, 1999 Published at 00:45 GMT

Tibetans keep their faith

The Tibetan people have faith in the Dalai Lama's leadership

By BBC News Online's Joanna Ross

On 10 March 1959 the Tibetan people rose up in arms against the communist Chinese occupation of their country.

[ image: The Dalai Lama and his followers set up camp across the border in northern India]
The Dalai Lama and his followers set up camp across the border in northern India
The uprising failed and in the chaos that followed the Tibetan spiritual and temporal leader, the Dalai Lama, fled - to a life of exile in India. He was followed by tens of thousands of his people.

Since 1959 the Chinese have been doing their utmost to crush the Dalai Lama's influence in Tibet, most recently through a policy of promoting atheism. But in the Dalai Lama's home in exile, in the northern Indian town of Dharamsala, the people refuse to give up faith.

Joanna Ross looks at life in exile for the BBC's Assignment programme
As I sat on the roof of the reception centre for new arrivals from Tibet, I had a wonderful view of a perfectly symmetrical mountain covered in snow. It glistened in the winter sunlight, a stunning backdrop to the muddle of buildings clinging to the hillside below.

But for the new arrivals it is a reminder of much bigger mountains - the ones they walked across on the journey from their homeland.

[ image:  ]
The frostbite on their fingers and toes is another reminder, as are their empty pockets - large sums of money having been handed to guides, border police and corrupt officials. Yet the reception centre is full, of young people like Pasang.

Pasang made the journey across the highest mountains in the world because he wants to see the Dalai Lama. He's 17-years old, with scruffy, spiky hair and a boyish face, and he's filled with passion and frustration.

'Faith is in our hearts'

[ image: The Dalai Lama is sure there is change in China]
The Dalai Lama is sure there is change in China
He comes from south-western Tibet where he studied Chinese for six years, so that he might qualify for further education. He says he passed his exams but was refused a place because someone else, who didn't pass, had more money than he did.

The main pastimes for young people in Tibet, he says, are drinking, gambling and prostitution. But, he believes, even if you are the worst of sinners once you see the Dalai Lama you will be cleansed and from then on you will be a kinder person, because the Dalai Lama is the human embodiment of the God of compassion.

[ image:  ]
Pasang wasn't born when the Dalai Lama left Tibet 40 years ago and nowadays possession of the Buddhist leader's photograph is a ticket to a prison sentence. How, I asked Pasang, do you worship someone who is banned? The faith is in our hearts, he said simply.

Under the Chinese policy of patriotic re-education, Tibetan monks and nuns are ordered to denounce the Dalai Lama and pledge their unity to the motherland.

Tenzin Gelek, who crossed the mountains with Pasang, was a monk but when the work-team visited his monastery he refused to follow the order. As we chat in the crowded hall of the reception centre his excitement at the prospect of seeing his leader is tangible.

[ image: Westerners such as Richard Gere, who attended the Dalai Lama's spring blessing, have brought attention to the cause]
Westerners such as Richard Gere, who attended the Dalai Lama's spring blessing, have brought attention to the cause
He, Pasang and the others are to go to the Dalai Lama's bungalow and receive a blessing. Like all the new arrivals before them, they'll line up and wait for their turn when the Dalai Lama lays his hands on their head and puts a ceremonial white silk scarf around their neck.

For many these seemingly simple gestures are worth all the risks on a three week journey over the Himalayan mountains. As some, after receiving their blessing, will then make the journey back to Tibet, the Dalai Lama sometimes gives them a talk.

'The Chinese will never leave'

Lately he's been telling his devotees that it's all right to denounce him if they're asked to by the Chinese, he knows the truth. Tenzin says he would find this very hard to do, but if its the wish of His Holiness, he might.

[ image:  ]
I asked Pasang and Tenzin how optimistic they were about the future of their country. Pasang said confidently: I'm sure that under the leadership of the Dalai Lama we'll get our independence from China. I asked him how, when after 40 years the Dalai Lama was no closer to achieving such a thing than when he left. Pasang seemed to wither before my eyes - I don't think we will become free, he whispered, the Chinese will never leave.

Tenzin butted in - I'm so worried about what'll happen when His Holiness dies, what'll become of us? I'm going to join the army and fight the Chinese - Pasang declared. No said Tenzin violence isn't the answer.

Last year the number of new refugees like Pasang and Tenzin doubled on the year before.

After four decades the faith of the Tibetans hasn't been dimmed, despite the best efforts of the Chinese. I wonder how this battle of the Tibetan hearts and minds will be waged over the next 40 years.

I wonder if the death of the Dalai Lama will give the Chinese the chance to succeed or if the stubborn determination of young people will be passed on to the next generation, just as it has been since 1959

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