Straight Talk: Carole McGranahan

This University of Colorado professor has fought alongside Tibetans for their political rights since 1990. Now she’s speaking out even louder to bring their voices to this ongoing fight. 

As an undergrad at Colgate University in 1989, Carole McGranahan studied abroad in Nepal and lived in a village close to the Tibetan border. While there, she met Tibetans from a nearby refugee camp who would come to the village to see the novelty of American students. She learned how they’d fled Tibet after the Chinese occupied their country in 1959. Inspired to help, she dedicated her life to teaching the world about the plight of the Tibetans. Now 48, the professor of anthropology with a specialty in Tibet and the Himalayas at the University of Colorado continues to teach and write books like Arrested Histories (Duke University Press, 2010), which tells the stories of the Tibetan Chushi Gangdrug resistance army. McGranahan recently met us for chai at the Dushanbe Teahouse in Boulder to talk about her work.

How did you study what was happening in Tibet with so little information available here in the U.S.? 

In grad school at the University of Michigan, I earned a PhD in history and anthropology. For three years, I’d do an academic year in Ann Arbor and then travel to Nepal, India, London, Beijing or Tibet for research. After that, I spent three years living in the Tibetan community in Kathmandu, and traveling all over South Asia to interview over 100 veterans of the Chushi Gangdrug Army, formed by Tibetan citizens after the Chinese invaded Tibet.

In Arrested Histories, you reveal that the Chushi Gangdrug actually has ties to Colorado. 

They do! From 1958 through 1964, the CIA trained Tibetan resistance fighters at Camp Hale. On Route 24, west of Leadville, you can see the U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Division WWII training facilities from the road. Several valleys back from the road, the Tibetans trained in complete secrecy. Astonishingly, it was not public knowledge until 2010. Before that, the historical plaques at Camp Hale skipped right over the period as if nothing had happened.

I’m fascinated by the work you do testifying on behalf of Tibetans and Nepalis.

I testify as an expert witness when someone applies for political asylum. You can’t prepare for how sad this work is, but there’s a real need for it. A local attorney called me in 2004 asking if I’d provide expert witness in a case. This was for a person who had to flee from Nepal following unthinkable political persecution by Maoist soldiers during the civil war. If this person returned to Nepal, they would’ve been killed by the Maoists. The case was a success—a huge relief. Since then, I’ve provided about 150 expert testimonies for both Nepalis and Tibetans. When someone applies for political asylum, they must show they’ve been persecuted for their political beliefs. I explain political conditions in the applicant’s country for judges who deal with cases from around the world.

Is life better now for those who’ve managed to get out of Tibet?

Yes and no. Life inside Tibet under Chinese rule can be a matter of life and death. One clear sign of this is that since 2009 over 150 Tibetans inside Tibet have self-immolated to protest Chinese oppression. Life as a refugee can be difficult, and Tibetans have now been refugees for almost six decades. Neither India nor Nepal has signed onto any of the UN conventions on refugees, and so multiple generations of Tibetan refugees have lived in both countries without any rights or a legal path to citizenship. This is really unusual in the world. Under the Dalai Lama’s leadership, Tibetans created their own exile government which has been key to both keeping the community together and maintaining awareness about the Tibetan struggle outside of Tibet. All of the resistance veterans with whom I worked had the hope, if not the conviction, that Tibet will once again be a sovereign country.

And what’s something good that we should know about Tibetan culture? 

There are so many things: Tibetan religious rituals for starting the day; incense made from juniper boughs; ideas about the impermanence of life and interdependence of all things; powerful contemporary art; kora (circumambulation), or walking prayer, as everyday practice; and momos, the world’s most delicious dumplings, made from either yak meat or potatos and served with homemade hot sauce. Yum.

What can we do to help these people who lost their country and are still fighting to get it back?

Educate yourself. Share what you learn with your community. Investigate how you can support Tibetan activist groups such as Students for a Free Tibet. Contact your elected representatives to discuss Tibet and China. Think about what you have to offer based on your strengths and skills. Heed anthropologist Margaret Mead’s famous words: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed it’s the only thing that ever has.” Tibetan resistance veterans shared the stories in Arrested Histories with me in the hope that others around the world would read them, so please do. Hear them, learn about what happened, act for change.

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