For up to eight months of the year, Ladakh's desolate location in the Himalayas, and the extreme weather conditions there, make Sonamling virtually inaccessible. But despite their partial isolation the Tibetan refugees in Sonamling are actually at the forefront of democracy in the Tibetan exile community.
Paving the Way for a New Democracy
As the youngest to hold the office of Chief Representative (CR) in a Tibetan settlement, Sonamling's 41-year-old Dhondup Tashi is also the first CR to be elected by popular vote.
The Tibet Post International recently met him in his office, a ten minute drive from the Buddhist capital Leh, from where he directs the approximately 7300 individuals who make up the Tibetan refugee population in Ladakh.
A lecturer by profession, Dhondup Tashi has put his career on hold for three years to serve the Office of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. He credits the schools of the Tibetan Children's Village (TCV) for the unique age-shift amongst community leaders in the area; "because of the local TCV, 90 % of the youth are educated here, unlike other Tibetan settlements."
The 21 camp leaders under his jurisdiction are mostly youth, he said and added, "a good number of the youth here are contributing members of society. There are so many of them who are willing and able to take the chair."
He is now two years into his three year tenure, but when he is done he would prefer to see someone young take over again. "New and young minds have fresh ideas", he said as he underlined the importance of people electing their own leaders and understanding democratic principles.
Among his constituency are 9 Changthang-camps inhabited by ca. 3000 "nomads and cowboys". They primarily herd livestock in desolate areas of the Ladakhi mountain range and were some of the hardest voters to reach during the recent election for the Tibetan Parliament in Exile, with ballot boxes being transported to polling booths on mule-backs, in temperatures dropping to -30 and below.
It is therefore with considerable pride that he has witnessed a growing democratic awareness among the area's Tibetans; "even the uneducated people in the rural areas take interest in the election process."
In the slightly lower lying areas near the Ladakhi village of Choglamsar (3500 meters above sea level), most of Sonamling's inhabitants make their living as manual labourers while some have petty businesses and a few are farming alfalfa to use for animal fodder. But with as many as 2500 students attending TCV schools, the settlement's youngest generations are becoming more capable and confident in handling community affairs.
One of the young camp leaders is Tashi Tsering, 28, who is born in Sonamling. He went to the local TCV school and after class 10 studied "outside", as he puts it. Tashi holds diplomas in Business Management and Human Resource Management and he is, in fact, the youngest camp-leader in all of Sonamling.
But he is not alone in his age-group to take responsibility. "The problems I am facing are due to my lack of experience and also my committee members being rather young", he said during a recent football match at the Sonamling TCV sportsground.
The inexperience of young age, however, seem to be Tashi's biggest concern and he has never had to measure out any disciplinary action, which is one of his heavier responsibilities as elected leader of Camp 10.
"I listen to their grievances and see what I can do to solve the problems within my community first, but of course if that doesn't work we take the issue to the CRO. So far I haven't had any problems like that", Tashi Tsering said.
The tenure as Camp Leader only lasts one year but Tashi is willing to give it another go when his term is up; "if they want me to, I will", he said as his teammates called on him to join the semi-finale match.
The tournament was being held in honour of the Tibetan martyr Thupten Ngodup who self-immolated in Delhi 10 years ago, protesting the Chinese occupation of Tibet. Tashi's team, Friends United, deemed the favourite to win, was founded by himself. "We are all a circle of friends anyway and so I thought, why not play some football too?", he said.
Home Is Where the Heart Is
Tashi's "Camp 10" is one of the smallest in the area with 57 families, or about 350-400 people, and he seem to know every single one of them. "Honestly speaking; I grew up here, I played here, I studied here and my family is here. It makes me feel very proud to be working for them."
Because of the remoteness of Sonamling, Tashi explained, "there are less opportunities here compared to for example Delhi, and actually here in Ladakh, Tibetans live in some very remote places so most of us stay with our families", he said.
Yet for all of Tashi Tsering's engagement in his community and the fact that he is born and raised in the settlement, he is ready as ever to relocate to Tibet, "if Tibet is free one day then of course we will move back" he said and added, "but just because we are so close, it doesn't necessarily mean we will be the first refugees to go in, that is up to the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) in Dharamshala."
Where and how Tibetan refugees would move back into a free Tibet might be for the CTA to decide, but perhaps Tashi Tsering and the other young leaders of Sonamling will be the first generation to lead the communities there, just as they are already spearheading the Sonamling settlement, only hours away from their native land.