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More Tibetans flee homeland

The Karmapa Lama fled China last week because he wants to pursue

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The 14-year-old Karmapa Lama survived a formidable obstacle course last week to arrive in India, like tens of thousands of his compatriots before him.

Yet the trek - scaling the planet's highest mountain passes, forging near-freezing waterways, and trekking along the precipices of deep, barren gorges - is unlikely to deter more Tibetans from making the treacherous trip to the center of the Tibetan diaspora.

"Winter is the worst time to try to leave Tibet," says Tashi Wangdi, minister for religion and culture in the Tibetan government-in-exile headed by the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala, India. Mr. Wangdi met the Karmapa last week. But "more and more Tibetans are fleeing their homeland to escape the reality of Chinese-occupied Tibet."

The Karmapa Lama, the highest ranking religious leader to leave Tibet since the Dalai Lama, heads one of Tibetan Buddhism's four major schools. His defection "will certainly embarrass the Chinese government because it shows that all its propaganda cannot whitewash the appalling controls on religion and culture in Tibet," says Mr. Wangdi.

The Chinese government's attempt to wipe out Tibetan nationalism by clamping down on Buddhist temples apparently triggered the Karmapa Lama's defection last week. He risked the Himalayan odyssey "in search of religious freedom and education," says Rinchen Khando Choegyal, minister of education in the Dalai Lama's government. China's official reaction to the Karmapa's journey was that he was expected to return.

Mary Beth Markey, a rights monitor at the Washington-based International Campaign for Tibet, says the Tibetan diaspora, which stretches from Nepal to India to Switzerland to the US, now numbers more than 100,000 refugees, and is growing.

Each year, about 3,000 to 4,000 Tibetans are processed through a refugee camp on the outskirts of Nepal's capital, and about half are monks or nuns, says camp director Jigme La.

"Some who flee here have been tortured and imprisoned, while others have been barred from entering any monasteries in Tibet," Mr. La says.

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