Tibetan Diaspora in Taiwan: Who are They and Why They are Invisible (1)

Written by Dolma Tsering.

Image credit: 國家文化資料庫.

The government’s official website describes Taiwan as a multicultural society. It further stated that in addition to the dominant Han population, Taiwan is home to aboriginals, Malayo-Polynesian and new immigrants that hailed mainly from China and Southeast Asian countries. The Han population constitutes 95 per cent of the total population, followed by new immigrants that constitute 2.6 per cent and the indigenous population with 2.5 per cent. However, what is missing in this description, in particular and generally in the discourse of immigrants and ethnic diversity in Taiwan, is the Tibetan diaspora. Moreover, what is ironic in disregarding this group from national and popular discourses is that, on the one hand, it remained invisible within the discourse. Still, on the other hand, there is Mongol and Tibetan Culture Center (MTCC), which annually spends about at least 400,000 NTD to promote Tibetan and Mongolian culture in Taiwan.

Given the above background, this two-part article examines the Tibetan diaspora in Taiwan, their historical background and current situation, and tries to retrospect on why this particular group remains invisible. Furthermore, discussion about this group also helps us to reflect upon Taiwan’s path towards democratic transition.

Tibetan diaspora in Taiwan (TDT): who are they, and what are their historical and political backgrounds?

In contrast to immigrants from China and Southeast Asia, the Tibetan diaspora in Taiwan had unique historical and political backgrounds. In addition to the economic, religious, and transnational marriage, there is a political reason that is the root cause of the formation of TDT. The historical and political trajectories of the group can be divided into three periods and into three groups. The first period includes the nationalist period (1949-80), the second period comprises the transition period (1980-late 1990) and finally, the third period: the post-democratic reform period (2000-present).

I: The Nationalist Period (1949-1980): Anti-Communist Mission

The Communist Party of China (CCP) overthrew the Kuomintang (KMT) leadership in China and forced its troops, remnant government and supporter to escape Taiwan. The KMT, however, in Taiwan continued to regard itself as the legitimate ruler of China, and it was committed to recovering the mainland from the CCP. Therefore, Taiwan became the KMT (Nationalist) base of operations, from which they hoped to regroup, counterattack the CCP and retake China. During this initial period in Taiwan, the KMT party had two key agendas, one was to defeat the CCP (反共) and restore its leadership in China, and the second was to maintain the status quo of the Republic of China (ROC) as the legitimate government of China. For the first agenda, among the host of activities, the KMT government in 1954 renewed the temporary provision of mobilisation of suppression of communist rebellion (PMSCR) that resulted in martial law’s imposition in Taiwan. PMSCR is an administrative order to mobilise the people and resources to fight against the CCP rebellion. Therefore, it promised to support any revolution to overthrow China’s CCP rebellion.

Regarding the second agenda, the KMT restructured all government and administrative structure of Taiwan into a nationalist model and officially named Taiwan the “Republic of China-Taiwan”. It also reinstated the two key and powerful administrative and political institutions of the ROC that played an instrumental role in shaping the relationship between Taiwan and Tibetans in exile and the formation of the TDT. These two institutions include the National Assembly (國民大會) and the Mongol and Tibet Affairs Commission (MTAC蒙藏委員會). When about one million supporters of the KMT retreated to Taiwan, a group of Tibetan followed Chiang Kai-shek and moved to Taiwan instead of following the Dalai Lama to India. They include Tibetans from eastern Tibet (Kham and Amdo) who had previously worked with the KMT either as the party commissioner or as staff members of MTAC in China. As a result, they were re-recruited as Tibetan representatives at the National Assembly and continued to work at the MTAC in Taiwan. Based on a document submitted by Lobsang Yeshi (羅桑益西), one of the members, there are 19 Tibetans who escaped from Tibet to Taiwan. Among the list, a few prominent figures include Changkya Khutukhtu (章嘉呼圖克圖), Lobsang Yeshi, Cai Ding Zhong (Tsepal Dorjee/ Caibu Daorji), and Yeshi Lhadon and her husband, Kelsang Chomphel. They later played a key role in recruiting Tibetans from India and Nepal to Taiwan for various missions of the KMT and disseminating KMT propaganda within exiled Tibetan community.

In March 1959, there was a pan-Tibetan national uprising against Communist China’s military intervention in Tibet. The uprising and various small and big attacks launched by the Tibetan resistance force (Chushi Gangdrug: Four Rivers Six Ranges (FRSR)/四水六崗) caught international attention, including the CIA of the USA. Moreover, given that the KMT promised to support any anti-communist movement against the CCP, Chiang Kai-shek soon issued a statement and declared support for the anti-communist movement but not Tibet’s independent movement. The statement was also used to reaffirm the ROC’s sovereignty claims over Tibet. The Dalai Lama recalled this offer as a strange offer. Chiang Kai-shek needed to launch the support because the KMT was suffering from credibility after being defeated in the civil war and also to boost the morality of the supporter. Subsequently, it launched a programme called “Support the Tibetan Resistance movement against the CCP” (支援西藏同胞反共抗暴運動) and started mobilising resources and the general public to extend support for the Tibetan resistance movement. On September 1959, Taiwan received the first batch of exiled Tibetan from India representing the Chushi Gangdrug, and the group consisted of eight Tibetans from Kham-Lithang. The eight members include Ngawang Tenzin Mingyur Rinpoche /阿旺旦曾), Chama Ngawang Samphe (嘉瑪桑佩) and his wife Dolkar and three daughters, and  Mingyur Rinpoche’s assistant Thinley Phuntsok and Asha.

The main objective of inviting them was to show the KMT’s involvement in the Tibetan resistance movement and to use them to persuade other Tibetan resistance forces to join the KMT’s anti-communist mission.

In 1961, the KMT initiated a war plan called project national glory or project Guoguang (國光計劃) to attack the CCP and retake the mainland. As part of the project, it launched a secret operation to recruit Tibetan from India under the programme called Frontier Cadre Training Class (邊疆幹部訓練班). A total of 32 Tibetan were recruited from India and Nepal for military and intelligence training. Tsepak Dorje and Kelsang Chompehel played a central role in recruiting Tibetan forces for the operation; both adopted the native-affiliation approach to select the required people. After many failures and a lack of US support, the KMT government abandoned the secret operation in 1970, and trainees were allowed to join various government units. Some married Taiwanese citizens, some married Tibetans, and many remained single and returned to Tibet after the restriction of movement between Taiwan and China was removed in 1987.  Among 32 trainees, only ten remained in Taiwan; their children and grandchildren maintained a weak connection with the Tibetan community in Taiwan. Their distinctiveness of Tibetan identity is only recognisable through their Tibetan name and brown facial complexion.

Another major project during the nationalist period was the Taipei Tibetan children’s home (西藏兒童之家). By the end of the 1960s, it was becoming more visible that the KMT’s ambition to defeat the CCP was not feasible. The KMT’s legitimacy suffered the worst when, in 1972, the United Nations expelled the ROC and replaced the People’s Republic of China as the legitimate representation of China. Furthermore, after two decades, President Nixon’s visit to China changed the KMT relationship with the United States. The United States prioritises China over Taiwan. These developments were followed by the ROC facing diplomatic isolation and de-recognition from major allies throughout 1970. Even though KMT had essentially terminated the initial plan to retaliate against China (Project National Glory and PMSCR) amid all these developments, it continued to espouse the notion of the ROC (Taiwan) as the legitimate ruler of China. As a result, the MTAC launched an ambitious “Cultivating next generation Tibetan ethnic cadres” programme. The programme aimed to recruit Tibetan children who would be trained and later work for the ROC once it regained authority in China. The programme ran from 1971-1990 and was implemented in two phases: 1971-78 and 1980-1990. 117 Tibetan children aged between 4 and 10 years old were recruited for this programme. However, the programme was discontinued due to the poor academic performance of students; students also suffered discrimination and bullying at the school.

During the nationalist period, about 180 Tibetans migrated to Taiwan, driven by the civil wars in China and the KMT’s anti-communist mission. Tibetans were recruited through the overseas Chinese system. As a result, they automatically obtain the citizenship rights of the ROC-Taiwan. These projects were implemented without support from the Tibetan government in exile (TGiE); as a result, the TGiE criticised KMT for using these Tibetans for political manipulations and muddling in the Tibetan resistance movement and exile polity. It also criticised Tibetans who joined the KMT programme despite opposition by the TGiE. These activities by the MTAC of Taiwan resulted in a hostile relationship between Taiwan and TGiE and created chaos within the Tibetan community in exile.

Dolma Tsering is a Postdoctoral fellow at the Research Center for Humanities and Social Sciences of National Cheng Kung University.

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