‘Free Tibet’ – Where has all the money gone?

For decades, support groups and organisations throughout the West have been raising funds for a ‘Free Tibet’. From government donations to sale of buttons, bumper-stickers, bags and hats through organising concerts, dinners and exhibitions; and through every other imaginable fund-raising device, these organisations continue to raise a vast amount of money for what most western benefactors believe is the goal of a free, independent Tibet.

In his article Selling Tibet to the World printed on 5 June 2008, Michael Backman reported:

‘GUCCI, iPod, Facebook, Tibet – these are among the world’s hot brands, for which brand integrity is everything.

‘Tibet, as a brand, works particularly well. It brings in millions, and Hollywood A-listers queue to endorse it. What’s more, they do it for free. Creative director and brand chief executive, the Dalai Lama, will visit Australia again next week. He will preside over a five-day Tibetan prayer instruction course in Sydney. A company has been set up to handle the visit – Dalai Lama in Australia Limited.

‘Tickets for the event can be bought online even from The Age’s own Box Office website along with tickets for Bjorn Again and The Pink Floyd Experience. But few are as expensive as the Dalai Lama experience, with tickets ranging from $800 for front seats to $450 for seats at the back. Tickets for good seats for the Sunday session alone are $248. Lunch is extra – between $18 and $27 for a pre-ordered lunch box. A clothing range has even been created. There are polo shirts, baseball caps - even men’s muscle tees emblazoned with the endless Buddhist knot. From street chic to urban cool, baby, this monk has funk.

‘Saving Tibet, like Saving Private Ryan, is a good earner. Everyone’s into it, even China. Back in April, a factory in China’s Guangdong province was exposed as one of the manufacturers of the Free Tibet flags so prominent in the anti-Olympic torch protests in Britain, France and the US. The factory workers claimed they had no idea what the colourful flags represented. Blame China’s state-controlled media for that.’354

In addition, every Tibetan, whether male or female, infant, infirm or old, and whether living in the East or West, is expected to pay an ‘independence-tax’ to the Tibetan exile government. A record of these payments is kept in the ‘Green Book’ that every Tibetan is expected to carry. This book is essential for Tibetans in India wanting a permit for travel outside India; and those who do not pay lose benefits and services, and are often ostracised, risking persecution and exile from their own community.355 The Dalai Lama’s government also receives large donations from other sources including national governments, private individuals of many countries, philanthropic institutions, businesses and many other types of organizations (including the Japanese Aum cult, as already documented).

The funds collected from the ‘independence-tax’ and all these other fund-raising activities are not used for the support or relief of the Tibetan community. Most of the funds for the relief of refugees, for the orphaned, for education, for medical care and hospitals, are obtained directly from the Indian government, from the major worldwide relief agencies, western governments and private charitable trusts.356 This funding includes $1.7 million a year from the United States CIA.357

In this regard Grunfeld says:

‘One of the major sources of political power for the Dalai Lama is his ability to control relief funds, educational scholarships, and the hiring of Tibetan teachers and bureaucrats. These powers only continue as long as there are many stateless refugees. Consequently, it is to the benefit of the leadership to keep Tibetans in children’s homes, transit camps and temporary facilities–not unlike the situation among the Palestinian refugees.’358

There has been widespread corruption and mismanagement of relief funds by the Tibetan administration.359 A case in point is the nursery administered by the Dalai Lama’s late sister, Tsering Dolma. Grunfeld notes:

‘ …while the children in her care were frequently on the verge of starvation, she was noted for her formal twelve-course luncheons. Meanwhile, in bitterly cold weather the children were clad in thin, sleeveless cotton frocks—though when VIPs visit the Upper Nursery, every child there is dressed warmly in tweeds, wool, heavy socks, and strong boots.’360

The amount of money raised for the Tibetan causes over the last few decades – which most contributors in the West have been led to believe is for a free Tibet – probably runs into hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars. If these funds are not being used in the support or relief of the exiled Tibetan community, or for a free, independent Tibet (because the Dalai Lama stopped aiming for this as early as the 1980s), then what is this money being collected for? How much money has been collected? And where is all this money being kept? These are questions to which many benefactors, including national governments around the world, should demand answers.

The author, Michael Backman did ask these questions, and reported:

‘Little is known about the government-in-exile’s finances. I did contact its Department of Finance in Dharamsala with a series of questions about how it funds itself and expenditure. I was sent a series of spreadsheets in reply.

‘The government-in-exile claims that its total budget for 2002-03 amounted to the equivalent of US$22.028 million. The budget was spent on various programs such as health, education, religion and culture. The biggest item was for “political-related expenditure” at US$7 million. The next biggest was administration, which runs to US$4.5 million. Around US$1.8 million was allocated to running the government-in-exile’s offices of Tibet overseas.

‘For all that the government-in-exile claims to do, these sums appear too low. Nor is it clear how donations enter its budgeting. These are likely to run to many millions but there is no explicit acknowledgment of them or their sources.’361

After making this report Michael Backman received anonymous death threats.362