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Hacking the Himalayas: Connecting Tibet's Exile Community via the Web

NPR
August 09, 2006
By Xeni Jardin


Both adults and children take computer classes at the technology center of the Tibetan Children's Village in Dharamshala -- Web publishing one of the favorites. Xeni Jardin 2006 August 9, 2006 - When the Dalai Lama fled Chinese rule of Tibet in 1959, he found refuge just across the western border in India. Waves of refugees followed their spiritual leader out of the once-isolated kingdom when India provided them with land.

Today, nearly 50 years after that first exodus, more than 100,000 people of Tibetan heritage live in the area. The Dalai Lama and leaders of the Tibetan government-in-exile now call the northern village of Dharamsala their home.

Even though two full generations of Tibetans have grown up outside their native land, the Tibetan community is still very close-knit, and many still harbor dreams of returning to a country free of Chinese domination -- something unlikely to happen any time soon.

But with the help of some technology experts from the West, the Tibetan community in India hopes to get the word out about their cause via the viral grapevine that is the Internet.

It's an enormous challenge. Electricity, phones and Internet access are expensive and hard to come by. Phone lines can go down for days at a time, leaving the region cut off from the world. But there's an effort under way to change that, and to teach young Tibetan refugees about computers and the Web.

Much of that instruction takes place at the Tibetan Children's Village (TCV) in Dharamsala, one of four facilities where 16,000 boys and girls from the Tibetan refugee community learn about their culture and get trade skills needed for the modern world. Many of these children were smuggled out of Tibet by relatives or guides.

Within the TCV's walls, Western tech experts and Tibetans are teaming up to build a wireless Internet network and teach computer skills -- especially how to build Web pages.

Thubten Dorje, the general secretary of the TCV, believes technology is essential to the survival of the Tibetan people. Tibet's relative lack of technology led to its eventual domination by China, he says, and the next generation must be prepared. "We cannot afford to lag behind," he says.

Tech education may also be a way to end the Tibetan community's dependence on international aid and donations. TCV officials envision a future where Tibetan exiles man up profitable call centers, like the ones in India's booming tech centers further south. Or e-commerce sites, selling traditional art or yak cheese online.

Dharamsala resident Lobsang Wangyal, a self-styled cultural entrepreneur who was born in a refugee camp in India and has lived outside of Tibet all his life, believes leaders of the Tibetan government-in-exile need to move faster -- and technology is the key. Roving editors with laptops and digital cameras could document stories of the Tibetan refugee community, and get that story out to the world faster and more effectively over the Internet.

Tibetan elders are also embracing technology as a way to share cultural knowledge. Sacred texts, once smuggled out of Tibet or hidden from the Chinese, are being preserved digitally. Hundreds of volumes can fit onto a handful of CD-ROMs.

Samdhong Rinpoche is a close associate of the Dalai Lama now serving as the elected prime minister of Tibet's government-in-exile. (Rinpoche is an honorary title that translates as "senior lama.") He believes there's something inherently Tibetan about the Internet. In Buddhist philosophy, he says, everything in the universe links to everything else. Life is a network.

HACKING THE HIMALAYAS - A four-part series explores the how Western "hackers" are building low-cost communications networks to bring phone and Web service to displaced Tibetan refugees -- and how native peoples are trying to hold onto their culture in an interconnected world.




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