Te Nam: “If they don't trust their history, the Tibetan people will wither like a rootless tree. »

- through Fabrice Groult

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His parents having fled Tibet following the Chinese invasion, Te Nam grew up in India before joining the Tibetan government in exile in Dharamsala in 1999. Since 2006, he lives in France, where he continues to fight for the independence of his country. Every year, on March 10, with other Tibetans, he demonstrates to commemorate the Lhasa uprising of 1959. President of the Students for a Free Tibet association for several years, he is committed to transmitting the language, culture and Tibetan Buddhist philosophy to younger generations. And keep hope for the future.

Originally from Kham, in the south-east of Tibet, your parents fled their country at the end of the 1960s. For what reasons? 

As early as the 1950s, my father, a member of the Tibetan resistance, smuggled arms from India to fight the Chinese. In 1959, despite ten years of negotiations between the Tibetan government and China, no solution having been found, on March 10, thousands of Tibetans converged on Lhasa to protest against the occupation and protect the Dalai Lama. This uprising, repressed in blood, led the Dalai Lama to leave the country. Many Tibetans followed him, including my parents who crossed the Himalayas on foot to the Indian province of Sikkim, where they stayed for a few years. In 1974, the Indian government offered land to Tibetans in southern India. I was born in a refugee camp in Karnataka in 1974 or 1975 – the year of the Wooden Tiger according to the Tibetan calendar.

How did your career lead you to France?

After finishing my studies, funded by the Tibetan government in exile, I felt indebted. So I joined Dharamsala in 1999, where I worked for a few months as a volunteer, before passing the competition allowing me to join the government. I worked for six months in the Interior Department, which manages the refugee situation in India. Then I moved to the Department of Information and International Relations, for six years. This publishes newspapers and books on the situation of Tibetans in exile. Still in Dharamsala, I met a Frenchwoman, with whom I have a child today. I came with her to France in 2006. Translator and interpreter, I quickly became involved in the Students for a Free Tibet association, which seeks to raise awareness of the situation in Tibet and to create links with the third generation of Tibetans who grow here.

Your association commemorates March 10, 1959 every year. What does this date represent for Tibetans?

It is one of the most important anniversary dates for Tibetans in exile. In Paris, we organize at least one demonstration that day, with people of all ages, all professions. It is a duty of memory. Tibetans often say that “trees have roots and people have history”. If they don't trust their story, the Tibetan people will wither like a rootless tree.

Do you recognize the Tibetan government in exile as your legitimate representative?

This is our representative and, moreover, the continuation of the government installed in Tibet before the Chinese occupation. But, while the government is now demanding autonomy for Tibet, our association is asking for independence. What is happening today in Hong Kong or among the Uyghurs – with more than a million people locked up in the camps – does not give me confidence in the Chinese Communist Party. For the latter, Tibetan culture, language, religion and philosophy represent a challenge to their domination. However, we agree with the government's position on the means to achieve our objective, namely the non-violent way.

“The Dalai Lama will always remain a spiritual leader for Tibetans. It is the base that brings us together, that gives us hope. »

Does your desire for independence concern the historic provinces of Tibet or does it go beyond?

For us, as for the Tibetan government in exile, the claims concern the three historical regions, namely Central Tibet (Ü-Tsang), which corresponds to the current autonomous region, Amdo and Kham. The Tibetan parliament in exile has 43 elected deputies: ten deputies for central Tibet, ten for Kham, ten for Amdo, two representatives for each of the four schools of Vajrayana Buddhism and two for the Bön tradition. To these must be added two representatives for Tibetans in Europe and one for North America. We sometimes hear about alleged claims for a greater Tibet, which would spill over into other Chinese and Indian provinces. But this cartography is not reality, it was created in the past by British settlers and is taken over today by the Chinese government to disqualify us.

Do you recognize the Dalai Lama as a spiritual leader, a political leader?

I was born in India, in what I call “the generation of the Dalai Lama”. He was the only leader I had known until 2011 when the constitution was changed at his request. The Dalai Lama having then renounced any political role, I now use my rights to elect my own leader (the current government has been led by Prime Minister Lobsang Sangay since 2011, editor's note). But the Dalai Lama will always remain a spiritual leader for Tibetans. It is the base that brings us together, that gives us hope. And it goes far beyond the person of the XIVth Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso. This is due to the institution and goes back at least to the Ve Dalaï-Lama (1617-1682).

Today, faced with the rise of China, many Tibetan associations have set aside the political struggle to refocus on issues of the environment, human and women's rights, the defense of Culture. What do you think ?

One fight does not exclude the other. Culture, language and environment are crucial issues. Without it, we will be swept away. But our association wishes to be clear on the final objective of our struggle, namely independence. Today, we have the image, conveyed by propaganda, of a very powerful China. But I think it's more fragile than you think. Everything is controlled by Xi Jinping. The day he has a health problem, divisions are likely to burst into the open. Several reports have shown how the few thousand Tibetans and the few hundred Uyghurs in France are watched. For me, it shows that China is afraid.

How did you adapt to life in France?

I didn't speak the language, I didn't know the culture, but my French partner helped me. For most Tibetans, it's more complicated… Not knowing how to read the Latin alphabet, they can't decipher addresses. To get around by metro, they can be identified by the colors of the lines and the number of stations… When I arrived, there were 300 Tibetans in the Paris region. Often, on weekends, we met at Parc Montsouris for dance lessons and traditional songs. At the pagoda in the Bois de Vincennes and at the Buddhist center of Levallois, prayer sessions were organized. The Dalai Lama's visits in 2008, 2011 and then 2016 also helped us not to feel too distant. Finally, the French are in solidarity with our cause. And I notice that, ultimately, the French and the Tibetans are no different: we like to eat meat and cheese, just like drinking wine!

Do you still practice Vajrayana Buddhism?

At home, I have a small altar with a tanka and a picture of the Dalai Lama. In the morning, I take some time to burn incense and say a few prayers. If my parents are from the tradition Gelugpa, my practice is however more open. I try to do what the Dalai Lama recommends: to become a committed XNUMXst century Buddhist. It is about keeping Vajrayana Buddhism in rituals and trying to understand the comments of the great masters. Because, sometimes, we tend to be in the rites without really grasping the philosophy. Everything must be done to keep the richness of our culture.

photo of author

Fabrice Groult

Fabrice Groult is an adventurer, photographer and Buddhist who has traveled the world since a young age. After studying Buddhism in India, he embarked on an eighteen-month journey through Asia that took him to the Himalayas, where he discovered his passion for photography. Since then, he has traveled the world capturing images of Buddhist beauty and wisdom. He was a guide for ten years, and is now a journalist with Buddhist News.

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