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Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade References Committee
Issues facing diaspora communities in Australia

DHONGDUE, Mrs Kyinzom, Member representing Australasia, Tibetan Parliament-in-Exile

Y TIPNAK, Mr Kalsang, President, Australian Tibetan Community Association

Evidence was taken via teleconference—


CHAIR: Welcome. Thank you very much for your time, and thank you for your written submission, which, for committee members, is submission No. 75. Information on parliamentary privilege and the protection of witnesses and evidence has been provided to you. Is there anything you would like to add to the capacity in which you appear today?

Mr Y Tipnak : I am also the president of the ACT Tibetan Community.

CHAIR: I now invite you to make a brief opening statement, and then the committee will proceed to questions.

Mrs Dhongdue : Sure. First of all I want to thank the members of the committee for inviting us to testify on behalf of the Tibetan community. I have had the great pleasure of meeting all of you at various times, so I am very aware that you are very aware of the situation in Tibet.

For the record I want to say that over the last 70 years the Chinese government has carried out an increasingly aggressive campaign to eradicate Tibetan culture, religion and way of life in order to fully cement its control over Tibet. These repressive policies have extended beyond Tibet's borders. Over the past few years, we have seen that the Chinese government is also exporting the censorship and the dictatorship far beyond Tibet's borders. It has reached Australia, and different parts of the world. As China becomes a global power, the threat that it is posing to human rights and freedom goes far beyond Tibet. China's surveillance and influence operations are undermining the freedoms, the liberty and the security of people living in Australia, and that includes members of the Tibet community who are Australian citizens now.

As you know, Australia is home to over 2,500 Tibetans, most of whom are former political prisoners and their families from Tibet. They had experienced life in Tibet under the Chinese government, experienced the torture that they have suffered, endured, inside the Chinese prisons. I think I can sum up the situation that is facing Australia's Tibetan community with this quote from a Tibetan man—I'm not going to quote his name—which I think gives a good summary of what the Tibetan community in Australia is facing. He said: 'I have left Tibet, but I continue to live in fear. If I speak out for my people inside Tibet, I'm afraid of the consequences on my family. If I do not speak out, I feel guilty of not using my democratic rights in a free country.' That is how Tibetans in Australia feel.

China is using a wide range of very sophisticated tools, strategies and tactics to silence not just the Tibetan community in Australia but really our corporations, Australian citizens, individuals and even the government. As the Chinese influence in Australia has increased over the last 10 years, we have also seen the Australian government increasingly being quiet on the Tibet issue. The last time we heard the Australian government speaking up about or raising the Tibet issue was more than 10 years ago, back in 2008. That is a long time ago, and since then the situation inside Tibet has continued to worsen. Tibet, for the last five years, has been ranked the second-least-free country in the world, next only to Syria. But we are not seeing this in the news, we are not seeing it being raised in the parliament, we are not seeing our government talking about the Tibet issue, which we believe is a direct result of China's influence on operations in Australia.

One of the ways Tibetans are impacted is in how they're being forced to remain silent. The Chinese government has recognised the power of access to families, to markets and to funding, in terms of the Tibetans in Australia. We have families back in Tibet, but the Tibetans here are forced to stay silent, because they want to visit Tibet. This is a huge issue that our community members are facing. In the interests of time, I don't want to continue any further but will hand over to my colleague Kalsang.

CHAIR: Thank you.

Mr Y Tipnak : I would like to talk for about two minutes about a local issue that the Tibetan community face. Among the problems that the Tibetan community face in Australia, there are a couple of common issues. One of these, especially for older Tibetans, is that they have incorrect dates of birth in their documents. These date-of-birth records do not accurately reflect their true age. In some cases, the dates suggest that they are 10 years younger than they actually are. They didn't realise how important it is to have their correct date of birth until they were here in Australia. It's depressing for them to learn that they are not going to get the age pension when they are supposed to, because of their date-of-birth problem. They are concerned that they will not be able to work that long and most of them, unfortunately, haven't got enough super saved to support them until the day they will get the pension. We would like to request the Australian government to consider their special circumstances and give them the opportunity to correct their date-of-birth record.

Another issue that I would like to highlight is that Tibet is not included as a country of origin or a country of birth in many online application systems. This is particularly a problem when Tibetans are applying for citizenship and permanent residency in the spouse visa application through the online immigration system. When it comes to those personal details sections, we couldn't find Tibet as a country of birth in the drop-down list. There are no other choices, like 'other', where you can manually put a place. In these circumstances, Tibetans have no choice except to choose either India or China as their country of birth, which, in many cases, do not reflect their records in the official documents. And it may not be consistent, because they may have lodged a hard copy of the application previously with country of birth as Tibet. So I will take this opportunity to request to the committee to consider reviewing the online application forms and include Tibet as a country of birth or at least have 'other' as a choice. Thank you.

CHAIR: Thank you, both, for your testimony this morning. Just to let you know, on the joint standing committee, Kevin Andrews—who's a lower house MP—and I did write to the Chinese foreign ministry to ask if a delegation of Australian parliamentarians were able to visit Tibet. We didn't receive a reply. That letter was in 2018, I think. I know that particularly Senator Rice on this committee is also very interested in Tibet. In terms of travel, I think the last parliamentary delegation to go to Tibet was one led by Nancy Pelosi quite a long time ago now. Is that right?

Mrs Dhongdue : Yes. That's right. It was I think three or four years ago. I am aware of the efforts made by yourself and your parliamentary colleagues in terms of getting access to Tibet and the difficulty that you are having in being able to travel to Tibet. That is the problem. China has managed to shut Tibet off from the rest of the world. We believe that, by denying access, they are able to hide, basically, what is being done to the Tibetan people, which is why the Tibetan community in Australia and the Australia Tibet Council have, for the last few years, been asking the Australian parliament to work on something called the reciprocal access to Tibet legislation—legislation that has been successfully passed in the US Congress in late 2018. What it means is that, just as Chinese citizens, journalists and officials can freely travel to Australia, that same level of access should be granted to Australian citizens, diplomats, parliamentarians and journalists. That is because reciprocity is such a fundamental principle in a diplomatic relationship between two countries. We really hope that parliamentarians like yourself can work on something like that. Also, as part of that, if that access is not granted to Australians, then Chinese officials who have oversight over the Tibet policy should also be banned from entering Australia, because, as you know, Australia is a safe haven. It's an attractive destination for the corrupt Chinese officials: for their retirement, to send their children to universities. It is not fair at all for them to be able to travel here, invest their money and spend their retirement years in a peaceful, happy country but that that same access is not granted to Australian citizens, including members of the Tibetan community who have families back in Tibet. The Chinese government and the embassy here has a blatantly racist approach when it comes to granting visas to Tibetans—Tibetans who are Australian citizens. An average Australian citizen can—I'm talking about pre-COVID times—go to the embassy and apply. They don't even have to go to the embassy; they can do it online. Within a few days, you can get a response—most likely, a positive response. In the case of Tibetan Australians, it is a very lengthy process and a very stressful process. You actually have to sign a very contentious document not only stating that you are not going to create any trouble, which means you are not going to organise any political activities once you are in Tibet, but you also have to make the admission that you have made a mistake by leaving Tibet in the first place. It is really problematic. It also means that you have to ensure that your family members are safe. Basically not only is your freedom denied but you are also responsible for the safety and security of your family back in Tibet.

CHAIR: Adrian Zenz, a German anthropologist you might know, recently released a report on forced labour camps in Tibet. Do you have any personal knowledge? What does that do to the Tibetan diaspora here, if they have family still in Tibet, in terms of participating fully as Australian citizens? Some might be permanent residents but, in the main, what does it do to the Tibetan community here?

Mrs Dhongdue : I am aware of the work done by you and your colleagues in the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China and I want to take this opportunity to thank you for that and for working on this important report. This is not entirely new, the fact that Tibetans have forcibly been removed from their ancestral land and forced to undertake a whole new vocation and way of life. It has been happening in Tibet for the last few decades. What is new is the scale in which it was undertaken in the past seven years. This is a part of China's attempt to completely eradicate Tibetan traditional way of life and identity. It just shows that it has reached a whole new level. It means a lot to the Tibetans here as well because, as you know, Tibetans mostly come from either a nomadic background or we are farmers. So to be denied your traditional way of life, your livelihood, which is a big part of your cultural identity, and being forced to go to these military style training camps and then go and work in factories is deeply insulting and detrimental to our culture and to our way of life.

CHAIR: In your recent submission, you talk about how Tibetan language does not receive NAATI accreditation—the interpreters and translators accreditation. You talk about the Tibetan language and teaching it to young people. I have been lucky enough to see the Tibetan school in Dharamsala. As Mr Tipnak raised before, these are quite process driven questions. For example, Tibetan is not a language that receives NAATI accreditation. When you apply for certain forms, you have to put 'China' or 'India' as your country of origin et cetera. What does it do to the Tibetan diaspora community here not to have these procedural anomalies fixed? I imagine they would be quite easy to fix. What does that do to the diaspora here?

Mr Y Tipnak : Just let me answer that briefly. It terms of language, it is true that Tibetan language is not NAATI accredited. That doesn't really recognise Tibetan interpreters as qualified interpreters, so they may not have the opportunity to progress, to get the training that other certified interpreters have. That also means that for Tibetan interpreters there's not much further opportunity to work or to improve their language skills in order to interpret. There are things that the Australian government can do to improve opportunities to learn Tibetan language in Australia. When we apply for a language grant, there are a lot of criteria. You have to have a course that enrols about 35 people, or you have to have 35 hours per week, to qualify for those sorts of grants. Tibetans have a small, small community and we don't have those sorts of facilities or resources. We cannot hold a Tibetan class for 35 hours a week. That's a crucial part of the criteria to get the grant. I think that's an issue that probably needs to be considered.

CHAIR: I agree. Thank you so much. I'll go to Senator Rice.

Senator RICE: Thank you very much, both of you, for your evidence today. It's disturbing, as it always is, but it's so important for it to be on the record for our inquiry today. What I want to ask more about is the quote about leaving Tibet but continuing to live in fear. Is there any extra information about what pressure and intimidation, through agents of the Chinese government, members of the Tibetan community here in Australia feel when they speak out, and evidence about the pressure on family members who are still in Tibet?

Mrs Dhongdue : Thank you for asking that question. I realise I didn't really elaborate much in my opening remarks. Yes, this is perhaps one of the biggest concerns we have among our community members. As you know, after we find safety and freedom in this country we also aspire to using these democratic rights and freedoms to advocate for people inside Tibet, but that is being denied to us, whether it is through direct intimidation or perceived fear because that has happened to many members of the Tibetan community.

For instance, as you know, many members of the Tibetan community every year come to Canberra to lobby and brief members of parliament, like yourselves, on the annual Tibet Lobby Day. The Chinese government keeps an eye on the tourist activities of the Tibetan community in Australia, and a few years ago one of our lobby day participants got a call from the Chinese embassy in Canberra saying: 'I can see that you are coming to Canberra to lobby, so be careful. Are you sure that you want to do this? I know you have family in Tibet.' So basically they were intimidating the person to withdraw from the lobby day project. And that has been recognised. When people want to travel to Tibet to visit their families, as I said earlier, when a Tibetan applies for a visa it is a very lengthy, stressful process. It can take up to a year to get a visa, and by that time your parents or your relatives may have died—because many people want to go to Tibet when their relatives are very sick or dying, and many of them have elderly parents.

So many Tibetans have not been able to visit Tibet even when their parents are dying, because the Chinese government, through the embassy in Canberra, would say, 'Look, you have participated in these events.' Those events can be totally harmless, like attending a teaching of His Holiness the Dalai Lama when he was visiting here. The Chinese government keeps an eye on all the activities that are happening in Australia, and when you go to the embassy they'll take out all the photos of your activities. Even someone who was teaching at the Tibetan language school—which is just a weekend language school run by volunteers who are members of the Sydney Tibetan community—went to the embassy to apply for a visa, and after that lengthy interrogation they said: 'Look, you are anti-China. You are pro-Tibet. You've been working as a Tibetan language teacher.' So even working as a language teacher is considered something that the Chinese government doesn't like. So these are the pressures that people face here in Australia, and it is really alarming, and these are Australian citizens. It's something that the Australian government should really look into.

Senator RICE: Yes, it's so disturbing and so worrying. You say that the Australian government should really look into it. What more would you like to see the Australian government do in terms of communicating with China, applying pressure to the Chinese government and indicating that these actions, and this intimidation of Australian citizens in particular, is unacceptable?

Mrs Dhongdue : Exactly. Last night's news about the person arrested under the foreign interference law is a welcome step. The Australian government needs to take concrete action to send a strong and clear message to the Chinese government that their behaviour—what they're doing inside Tibet and what they're doing on Australian soil—is totally unacceptable and that the Australian government is prepared to take action to counter that.

In terms of concrete actions on Tibet, the first thing, I think, is the issue of access—as I said, this reciprocity. Just as Chinese are able to come here, Australians should be able to travel to Tibet. If the Australian parliament can work on something like that, that would be a really welcome step.

Senator RICE: Do you think that there is more that the Australian government could be doing multilaterally, working with other countries on Tibet and in general about human rights in China? What are your suggestions for what the government could be doing?

Mrs Dhongdue : Definitely. The other key ask that we have is to urge the Australian government to initiate, coordinate or participate in multilateral actions, whether at the UN or with like-minded countries, to come together and send a clear message to China that the world is watching China and that the international community is no longer going to tolerate what China is doing inside Tibet. For China to be accepted as a respected member of the international community, they have to follow the international norms and rules. If China is not willing to do that, I think China should be held to account.

Senator RICE: Thank you.

CHAIR: Senator Antic, do you have any questions?

Senator ANTIC: No, thanks.

CHAIR: Thank you to the Australia Tibet Council and the Australian Tibetan Community Association. Thank you both for your written submission and for your time today and your testimony before the committee. We really appreciate it. I don't think you took any questions on notice, but, if you have, the secretariat will be in contact and answers would be due back on 27 November.