Written by Dolma Tsering.
Image credit: Dalailama.com.
II: Transition period (1980-late 1990): New Sets of Tibetans Immigrants in Taiwan
Regardless of criticism against the MTAC recruitment of Tibetans and evolving changes in the political situation in Taiwan, the MTAC continued the programme to recruit Tibetans from India and Nepal to Taiwan. Therefore, the second phase of Tibetan migration to Taiwan occurred during the democratic transition period in Taiwan. By the mid-1980s, it was clear that KMT was losing its ground both in Taiwan and internationally. The growing democratic reform movement (黨外/Dangwai) against the KMT and the international diplomatic isolation of the ROC (Taiwan) compelled Taiwan to move away from the KMT’s pre-dominant nationalistic ideology of unifying Taiwan with China and adopt policies that favour the protecting economic interest and national security of Taiwan. In response to the above transformations, in the 1990s, the government under President Lee Tung-hui revoked several old laws and adopted new laws that significantly impacted Tibetans who migrated to Taiwan for the MTAC programme. For instance, in 1991, it terminated the provision of mobilisation to suppress communist rebellion (PMSCR). Subsequently, President Lee announced that Taiwan no longer seeks to attack or unify China. The termination of PMSCR indicated that Taiwan no longer needs Tibetans for its anti-communist mission and to assert the ROC’s sovereignty over Tibet.
Furthermore, in 1991, the government revised the “short-term, long-term residence and household registration for Chinese nationalities“, which stipulated that only those with household registration could enter Taiwan and obtain an identity card. These changes terminated overseas Chinese opportunities to acquire household registration rights in Taiwan through the overseas Chinese system, directly impacting Tibetan migrants to Taiwan. He also terminated the National Assembly, and member elected in 1947 was forced to resign, including Tibetan representatives.
The MTAC in 1983 recruited another group of Tibetan from India and Nepal for a vocational training programme called “rehabilitation of Tibetan refugees in India and Nepal”. Unlike those recruited during the nationalist period, the MTAC issued new regulations for this group due to the abovementioned transformations. Among the list of regulations, the three key points which were a major departure from the previous position were; a) each person is limited to participating in one course and is not allowed to bring their family members, b) the application of the selected candidate for the training shall be forwarded to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to issue a stay visa. (Earlier, it was handled by MTAC and issued by the ministry of interior), and the final point stated that the trainees must return to India or Nepal within one week after completing the training and internship. They cannot apply for long-term residence under any name in China (Taiwan). The fact that all applications were handled by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs instead of the Ministry of the Interior means Tibetans are no longer treated as overseas Chinese or of its habitants but as ‘foreigners” or refugees. In other words, from this group, the government stopped treating Tibetans as one of the ethnic groups of the ROC. The government also stopped giving resident permits and citizenship rights to exiled Tibetans.
The vocational training ran from 1983 to 1994 and recruited more than 507 Tibetans from India and Nepal, the largest numbers. However, after the MTAC ceased the programme in 1994, many Tibetans intentionally or unintentionally illegally overstayed in Taiwan because of passport issues. Those who overstayed failed to obtain the resident permit, especially those who entered after 1992, and the Tibetans protested against the MTAC’s unfair treatment towards Tibetans. In addition, many Tibetans accused the MTAC of fake promises of citizenship during the recruitment process. In 2004, 141 of them received resident permits after the Dalai Lama appealed to President Chen Shui-bian and also because of protests and agitation launched by the Human rights association in Taiwan and the Tibetans themselves. However, the issue exposed MTAC’s inefficiency in handling Tibet and exiled Tibetans in Taiwan, further fuelling criticism against MTAC. Next to vocational training is the scholarship for Tibetan students to study at the university in Taiwan and for the Chinese language programme. From 1990-2000 about 110 students came to Taiwan for the university and the Chinese language programme.
In short, about 700 Tibetan students entered Taiwan during the transition period for the vocational training programme, Chinese language, and higher education. However, even though there is a lack of political motivation in the movement of these students to Taiwan, because of the hostile political relationship between the Taiwanese and Tibetan government in exile and the change of political situation in Taiwan, they suffered from a lack of support and solidarity from both the host country and the from the exiled Tibetan community. As a result, Tibetans who entered during this period remained the most disadvantaged group; they were treated as “neither Compatriot nor refugee”.
III: Post-Democratic reform period (since 2000)
The third wave of Tibetan migration to Taiwan occurred in the post-democratic reform period. Following a major political transition and the change of guard in Taiwan, both the TGiE and the government under President Lee Tung-hui reached a reconciliation in the relationship that attributed to the Dalai Lama’s three visits to Taiwan in 1997, 2001 and 2009 and the establishment of the TGiE representative office called the Office of the Religious Foundation of the Dalai Lama (ORFDL). The Dalai Lama’s visit to Taiwan increased Taiwanese interest in Tibetan Buddhism and exiled Tibetan. Dharamsala, the head-quarter of the Tibetan exiled government and residence of the Dalai Lama, witnessed increased visitors from Taiwan. The enhancement in people-to-people interaction expanded the cases of transnational marriage between the Taiwanese and exiled Tibetan. Previously it was limited to transnational marriages between the KMT officers (Taiwanese-Chinese) in Nepal and Tibetan spouses during the nationalist period.
During this period, Tibetans entered Taiwan for three main reasons: better economic opportunities, religion, and transnational marriage. Based on my interviews and some reports, about 100 plus Tibetans entered Taiwan during the third period. For example, Dec Wang, who is married to a Tibetan and runs a small takeaway restaurant selling Tibetan foods, informed me that, before 2011, there were about 13 families, and the number doubled from 2011-2016. Therefore, there should be around 25-30 such families in Taiwan. Another study mentioned that in 2008, about 134 Tibetans entered Taiwan for better social and economic endeavours. Another important group is the Tibetan Buddhist community in Taiwan, but most are floating populations.
Similar to the previous period, Tibetans entering Taiwan in the post-democratic reform period faced the same difficulties in applying for asylum and obtaining a residence permit, including those entering via marriage case. However, the case here is different because, unlike the previous group, most Tibetans, especially transnational marriage cases, entered bypassing the MTAC and through an Identity certificate, a travel document issued by the Indian government and accepted by the Taiwan government. This means they entered legally, unlike the previous two periods, who entered via fake Nepalese and Indian passports. Moreover, after six years of protests and agitation by Taiwanese spouses, the government, in 2016, changed the Law concerning Tibetan spouses. As a result, they are now eligible for a Taiwan resident permit that helps them to seek a Taiwan identity card after five years of obtaining the residence permit. Similarly, for those who entered for economic endeavour after many months of protest and hunger strikes, the government in 2008 amended article 16 of the entry and exit regulation that helped 130 Tibetans to obtain a residence permit in 2009, and many were from this group.
If one roughly calculates, more than one thousand Tibetans migrated to Taiwan from Tibet, India, and Nepal in the last seven decades. This does not include the second and third generations born and raised in Taiwan.
The current situation: invisible and isolated
Data submitted by the Mongol and Tibetan Culture Center mentioned that as of August 2022, there are 649 Tibetans in Taiwan, 559 of them are citizens of Taiwan, and the rest obtained residence permits. If one includes monks, then should be nearly 1000 Tibetans in Taiwan. Many of those recruited by the MTAC during the first two periods moved to the US and Canada.
There is also a Tibetan Welfare Association in Taiwan (TWAT), the only Tibetan association that plays a central role in establishing an ethnic network and solidarity among TDT. It was founded in 2004 after the Dalai Lama’s second visit to Taiwan. Tibetan diaspora in Taiwan is the most tragic Tibetan diaspora group; their political affiliation with the KMT lacked support and solidarity from the Tibetan community, the exiled government, and the host country. For instance, Tibetans, especially those who entered Taiwan through the MTAC or Chiang Kai-Shek government, faced severe criticism from exiled Tibetan community, including calling them “traitors”, which forced them to remain isolated and invisible from the Tibetan exiled community. It also caused a rift among Tibetans in Taiwan. Tibetans entered during the transition period and not only received backlash from the Tibetan community for joining the MTAC programme, but Taiwan also stopped giving them resident permits and citizenship rights. Lack of right to residence also compels them to remain invisible. Even though the political relationship between Taiwan and the Tibetan government in exile has improved due to complex political baggage, those who entered Taiwan during the first two periods remain isolated from other Tibetans in Taiwan. Most of the second and third generations of these two periods assimilated with the Taiwanese, and their Tibetan identity is only recognisable through their distinct name and colour. The member of TWAT is mainly from the third period and a few from the second period.
As far as the host country is concerned, on the one hand, there is a lack of recognition in including TDT as one of the ethnic groups in Taiwan both from the government and in the public discourse; however, on the other hand, it continues to foster Tibetan culture and religion through MTCC. Moreover, Taiwan has yet to amend the 1937 ROC constitutional regulation titled “Act Governing the Appointment of Personnel from the Mongolia and Tibet Regions“. The regulation called for the appointment of Tibetans from the Tibet region, not Tibetans in Taiwan. Taiwan’s dilemma related to TDT reflects the structural challenges of its democratic system that continues to maintain many of the ROC’s political and administrative structures. Some scholars I interviewed argued that constitutional reform related to Tibet and Tibetans would significantly impact the current status quo of Taiwan and its relationship with China. Therefore, because of this complex nexus, Taiwan has failed to reform many of the early nationalist models, and the dilemma related to Tibet is one of them. Proper recognition of the group as one of the ethnic minority groups included in the constitution, irrespective of their small number and political history, would further strengthen Taiwan’s democratic transformation process and achievements.
Dolma Tsering is a Postdoctoral fellow at the Research Center for Humanities and Social Sciences of National Cheng Kung University.