Interview with Allan Fotheringham, General Secretary for the House of Tibet
by Rebecca Vats Jonsson, Gy1
In late January 2017, after school, I met with Allan Fotheringham, who is General Secretary for the House of Tibet in Enskede in the outskirts of Stockholm. The House of Tibet is the home for the Swedish Tibetan Society for School and Culture, a politically and religiously independent organization formed in 1988, that has built schools and is also engaged in environmental issues and the culture of Tibet. The cultural exchange between Sweden and Tibet has continued since its inception.
In this interview I got to ask Allan about Tibetan society and what is really happening there, and also about him and his journey to work with this society. This is like meeting a whole other world where everyone strives for happiness and peace, by not focusing on external considerations, but by looking inside themselves.
This organization helps children to a better life, and offers them a way to find peace and the right to free speech by offering them education –– not weapons, but education to bring the Tibetans human rights and freedom.
And I am very happy and honoured for getting to interview Allan, and I really think it’s is important for people to know what really is happening in Tibet. We don’t need hatred or violence, but rather knowledge and understanding. It is important that we remember Tibet as a country that does not stand for war but rather peace, a country which stands for free speech and tolerance, and the patience to stand up to people who think violence, hatred and weapons will get them what they want.
Vats Jonsson: What do you mainly work with in this association?
Fotheringham: This society works mainly with education and the environment, and most of our activities have been inside of Tibet, so we have mainly been working in Tibet but also in the Himalayan area and also exchanges of that kind of culture here in Sweden.
Vats Jonsson: What kind of results and opportunities are there for the children because of your work?
Fotheringham: The children in Tibet that we have been supporting — first we built the schools, then we supported them and sponsored the children and we could say that for perhaps a hundred thousand children, they have actually got a basic education. They are all children living in the poor countryside or in the nomadic area, and they would never get an opportunity to study otherwise. So in one way they have got basic education, which will help them in their lives and many of them have gone on to higher studies in universities and this will make sure that they have a future, they get a good job, and many of them also decided to take jobs where they in turn help other poor children.
Vats Jonsson: What language do they learn at school, Chinese ore Tibetan?
Fotheringham: When you go to primary school the basic things you learn are mathematics, Tibetan and Chinese. And then the further you study, some of the books are maybe in Tibetan, but many of them are in Chinese. One important thing is that in our schools the actual medium of teaching has been Tibetan. So in the cities they may be mixed schools or many Chinese, the medium will be Chinese and the teacher will talk Chinese. So in our schools they have been teaching them in Tibetan, except for when they are teaching Chinese.
Vats Jonsson: How do you keep the Tibetan culture alive, for example in the schools?
Fotheringham: In some of the schools, they have physical training. They do exercises and so on, so we have tried to support as much as we can in the schools, to get the teachers and the Tibetans living in the countryside, they will know that the old culture, the folk dances and the songs, so we have tried to support this so they can pass this on to the children. The other way is that in the countryside, very often older people have religious traditions at home which they pass on to their children naturally.
Vats Jonsson: Do you think that you still would have helped Tibet with the school and so on, even if the Chinese communists hadn’t occupied Tibet?
Fotheringham: It’s difficult to say but I think in one way that our chairman, Sonam, would have gone home. He would have tried to do something for the Tibetans, because he himself reveres education and he knows how important it is.
Vats Jonsson: What does education do for the well-being of the Tibetans, the people and their status?
Fotheringham: When we came to Tibet in 1988, people looked very depressed, also they felt that they were minority, they had no self-esteem or sense of worth. But when we showed that we would build schools and help them, after a few years even the grownups could see that they felt very proud and happier. And then the children themselves when they get an education and feel that they can do things, and in particular when they have grown up, then they with the higher education, then they can really get good jobs and good opportunities that help them and the whole area.
Vats Jonsson: What other projects are you working with in addition to school projects?
Fotheringham: We work with three things: the Tibetan culture, the education and the environment. So mainly we work with the education but also the culture, which we have tried to preserve there. We have a handicraft school, where we have been teaching and preserving. We have all these songs and dances all these kind of things preserving old forms of music and traditions there. Then also the environment, we are trying to do something, and in 2006 a delegation went to Tibet, and we met the environmental departments there and we had professors with us and we tried to have discussion so they would preserve the nature. We have had projects concerning the environment at schools, how they can take care of basic environment, keep it clean, keep cleanliness at home, so all these kind of things are very important. So all this was in Tibet, but we have also had different projects in India and Nepal among the Tibetan communities there.
Vats Jonsson: What was the goal when you started the Society and what is the goal now? What has changed?
Fotheringham: I think at that time when we visited Tibet, we saw that in the cities it had been developed a little bit, but the countryside was terrible, so then we decided that we would try and make a difference there. We started in Sonams village, we built a school and we built these 108 schools all over Tibet, and after we had done that we saw that some of the children needed sponsorship, and then afterwards we saw that they could actually get good enough marks to be able to go to higher studies, and eventually they were going to mainland China to study, and so on. So what has happened is slowly as it would be in normal development in a country, the Chinese government has slowly also started to build schools in the countryside where it is needed, so we didn’t need to focus so much there, we focused more on the children. Slowly the government started taking care of the children, but not for a university studies, so slowly we shifted perspective there. And now as of the end of last year, the majority of these children, a few thousand of them have been to university, a few hundred thousand have went to primary school. At the moment we are focusing on students that go to university but for some reason just can’t get help from the government, so we will support them through our fond, and also help the handicraft factory and school to develop. So that is our main things at present. It feels that we have done quite a lot out there, also since the government takes over, they make it more and more complicated for organizations to come in, they feel that they will rather do everything themselves and not be dependent on any kind of foreign aid or foreign organizations.
Vats Jonsson: What has changed in Tibet after the Chinese communist party took over everything, what kind of impact has there been to the people?
Fotheringham: I think that in the beginning, as far as I could understand, it was a very drastic change. Not only in Tibet but also whole of China. Then after, I think you can read and hear a lot about this, but the mainland Chinese culture and Tibetan culture completely different. Also there was this cultural revolution witch was in the 60`s in mainland China. If you ask now, the government will say that it wasn´t such a god idea, and in Tibet it was terrible. So I think that at that time the Tibetan culture and the Tibetan way of living was turned upside down. It was very poor and when we went there in the 80´s, things were just side of opening up a little bit but you could see that people were quite desperate. They felt that somehow they had become a minority in their own country. I think since then slowly the government has developed a country in enormously, building roads, schools and hospitals. But still somehow there is a culture crush between Tibetans and the Chinese, they are very very different. The Tibetan people are very very patient, and they can understand that the Chinese people also want happiness, as the Tibetans want happiness. But the government policy is nowadays that you can have education, you can have money, and you can have things. But you have no freedom of speech, which is of course very very important for the individual. Another difficulty is that the people, if you look anywhere in Tibet and check who is in charge in different sectors and whatever it is, the person at the top will always be a Chinese, it won´t be a Tibetan. So there is some fear among the government that Tibet is still problematic and there might be some problem, so they have to enforce the laws much more than they would in the mainland China. So I think on a level of a material comfort, I think Tibet is developing. But more and more Chinese are moving in and with no freedom of speech is very difficult.
Vats Jonsson: Why do you think the Tibetan question isn’t as well known as the problems in, for example Africa ore in Nepal?
Fotheringham: I think, when you meet older people, like me, even older in their 70´s or something, they remember the occupation and the annexing of Tibet very well, and they know the whole background and they have seen it since then. I think unfortunately that there was a time when this might have come up in the United Nations, but they didn’t bring it up properly. And slowly people have accepted that Tibet is part of China. When that happens, slowly but surely it is said if you keep going on and on with something like this, unfortunately people will think that it is like that. And new generations don’t really know or remember, so I think that is one reason. So the younger generation don’t hear so much about it. Another reason why we don’t hear about it is because certain communists countries often they have somehow isolated themselves from the rest of the world, then it becomes obvious that they are different. But the Chinese People Republic of Chinas way of working with communism is that they also have an open market, where you can invest and make money, and economically I think that the world has become somehow dependent, interdependent with each other. So now it is a question of money, and lastly this means that if you are doing business with such a government, if you say something and complain, then they maybe say, well if you keep on, we won’t be doing business with you. So I think in the question of Tibet you will see that if people would to bring this up, then they will say that this is their internal affairs and people have nothing to do with it. And if you keep doing it, slowly people will forget our ways of thinking change, so that is also why you have Dalai Lama and the exile government. This is complicated for the Chinese government, because it shows that somehow they haven’t sorted this out.
Vats Jonsson: What does the Dalai Lama do to help and to make Tibet free again, and why are the Chinese government so afraid of him, that they are not even allowing people in Tibet to have a picture of him?
Fotheringham: The Dalai Lama, as you know had to leave Tibet in 1959 when the occupations started, and he now lives in exile with thousands of Tibetans in northern India. So what he does now days, I mean where ever he goes, he is, the head of Tibetan Buddhism somehow he is a figurehead for the whole of Tibet. He is like a father figure for Tibet, and so Tibetans look up to him and wherever he goes he is very respected in the whole world — he received the Nobel peace prize. Nowadays they have an exile government in Dharamsala and the Dalai Lama resigned as head of the exile government and now they have their own prime minister. So mostly he travels around where he is invited to talk about different human values, spiritual or human I think you could say, about compassion and love and so on, and he is very respected within these areas. But if someone asks him about what he thinks about the question of Tibet, then the feels as an Tibetan he has to say something, so often he will say that they should down and discuss as there are many things in Tibet that may have been developed, but there is a lot of problems, and no freedom of speech. So going to your question about why don’t they just sit down with this gentleman and talk — or why they, you could say, are afraid or worried. The reason is, you could say, that the Tibetans are very very peaceful people if you look at Tibet itself. If you look at other countries where there is a conflict or occupation, it can become very violent. But the Dalai Lama has many actions said that this won’t help, so the Tibetans in Tibet are very peaceful and also he has said that they should remain peaceful. Chinese people want happiness, Tibetans want happiness, he doesn’t want an independent country, they can live together but there must be, he feels, more freedom of speech and so on. The thing is that if The Dalai Lama where to say to the Tibetans to do something, probably 99% of them would do it. If you want to call it the respect they have for him or if maybe you would think that it is blind faith, but for shore they will do it, and in one way the government maybe should be thankful that he tells everybody to remain peaceful, if he were to say that everybody should cause problem, then they would risk their lives because of problem, and I think that certain signs along the way when the Dalai Lama has mentioned something and these news goes to Tibet, they see that it is a very powerful message, so I think that this is quiet worrying how one individual can have this kind of impact.
Vats Jonsson: What can ordinary people, or private persons do to help Tibet to achieve its goals?
Fotheringham: I think one has to keep the question alive, so I mean the question here is it is not a question about right or wrong, but it is just that as you mentioned, now younger generation people if you ask them about Tibet, they will not know so much about it. And one doesn’t have to be political but even here, now you are doing an interview, if you put this somewhere, then this information, then people wonder, and they think oh Tibet what is that, what is it all about and so on, so I think in whatever way we can trough or whatever media we can and with kindness and consideration for all than we if I would say, keep Tibet alive, just the name and what is means and everything.
Vats Jonsson: What is your thoughts about the non-violence, and what kind of impact it has on people and the Chinese government? Do you think non-violence is much powerful than violence? Do you think that non-violence has led to changes in the country as if they would have used violence?
Fotheringham: I don’t know if it’s true or not, but sometimes they check how situations are in different countries. And they check if everything is going well or how human rights issues is going on and so on, and I know that a lot of these reports concerning Tibet say that it’s not good there concerning Tibetans human rights. The Chinese government will from their sides say that they are working on it and this is internal matters, so you have nothing to say about these things. But I think that in whatever conflicts you have, whatever countries, lack of education is a problem. So I think that in our time one of the most important things is education. Because you can control people to do things, just to except things, or to fight against other people — if they are uneducated enough, if people can think for themselves, and then they can discuss and eventually they begin to see that there is something that is not quite right and slowly they will request change or they will be in the government, if they have education. But without it then you won’t get anywhere. So either if Tibet was to be free or was to be something else or whatever, if you don’t have education you don’t have nowhere to start. So I think that nowadays there are many people who try to request the Peoples Republic of China’s government to talk about this issue, and more and more people, and also at the same time some say that it’s not proper to a press in this way. So I think this is the way to go, and if you see something that is not done right in certain countries, it’s important for the free world to mention this, but also within a country itself it’s important that the more educated one is, the more one travels — you young people using computers and so on — and this is also something if I might say in China itself — the young people who travel, they begin to wonder about their background and their culture and so on and they begin to see things differently.
Vats Jonsson: Because when Gandhi got India free from United Kingdom, and he also used the motto of non-violence. Because when I think about non-violence, I think that a person that is educated and has more knowledge and uses words as its actions, comes much longer then a person who doesn’t have any education or knowledge and instead uses violence as their weapon. Violence creates violence and peace creates peace.
Fotheringham: So I think the little I know about in Gandhis case is that as you say there is non-violence but sometimes non-violence people think then you just do nothing, so I think in Gandhis case he showed non-violence in action. On occasion this has been brought up that exile Tibetans where going to walk towards the Tibetan border. Also some people say, why don’t the Tibetans in Tibet do something like Gandhi? But, some countries and sometimes in history I think are different. There is a huge military inside of Tibet, and it might be the case if you don’t do this properly, then a lot of people will get killed. I think of course there were some people in Gandhis time that were killed, but I think here we are talking about something different. Now I don’t want to be nasty but you can see what happened at Tiananmen Square (up to 1000 students killed). There were also some Tibetans I heard who wanted to walk from India towards the border, but I think the Indian police requested that they would go back because it’s very provocative and I think as far as I have heard what the Dalai Lama think is it’s not right way to go about it, because many many people might get killed.
Vats Jonsson: I know that this organization not just work with Tibet but also in Sweden with Buddhism. Tibet main religion is Buddhism, do you think this has to do with how the people in Tibet choose their actions?
Fotheringham: I think if you look at Tibet now they weren’t maybe as educated in ‘outer’ things as we are. So they were maybe some more primitive in older days, but their religion was very widespread as you said. Buddhism is very peaceful, patience, accepting that all human beings no matter what race they are, or what religion they follow, they want happiness. So this is also as you said that there is no real conflict in Tibet, in that way we could due to religion and so on. So if you look at Tibet, there are many during the occupation and culture revolution and many monasteries were destroyed, many buildings were destroyed. But slowly the religion has reinstated and somehow it never disappeared, everybody — as I mentioned before about our schools in the countryside — all the mothers and grandmothers fathers, and grandfathers, this whole generation they have this in their blood, and in one way, for some time the PRC I think they thought maybe its best if we tried to get rid of this, it is a bit of a hustle but they couldn’t. So now in one way they, sort of, tried to support it but at the same time control the whole thing, so that they are in control of it. And in our case when it’s about the school project, and so on, sometimes people said, well, at your schools, did they get religious education? But actually you are not allowed to teach this, but it is not necessary because they get it at home and it is always some temple or monastery doing this. So this is also something which is very important, even China was a Buddhist country before, and it’s now coming back again among the young people, in the new generation, because they feel lack of something inside.
Vats Jonsson: What should the people, especially the children, do you think, learn from the children who goes in the schools in Tibet?
Fotheringham: In one of our old brochures, it said that sometimes kids here in Sweden feel, ‘do I have to go to school?’ and then it said that Tashi wished that he had a school to go to, and I think that is it. Sometimes we begin to take education for granted and also the teachers we take for granted, everything we sort of take it for granted. When you see in Tibet, they were so happy, you know, that this possibility came, so I think that’s something we can learn that it is something very important and it is very precious. And I think a lot of people here in Sweden, they have also been sponsoring, helping the children, sometimes even schools and children here would help and so on. So I think that’s one thing we can see that children in other countries as you see in news, you see that sometimes they’ll think, ‘if I had the chance to go to school’. You know some kids even have to work to help their families manage and their parents think, ‘if we could send our children to school, then it would be different’.
Vats Jonsson: Yes, because I have read some letters in the Society’s journal, from the children in Tibet and they seem so happy and grateful, for having the opportunity to go to a school.
Fotheringham: Yes really fantastic and we have met some of them, of course the young kids and so on, but these ones who can go to the university, they are so thankful. Some of them are orphans so we in the school society have been like their parents. Often they will also, if I might just say, what happens is also not only they think, ok know I can make my life good, they think like my goodness you know, such a difference now from before, and this motivates them to actually — if you are going to be a teacher — to go to the countryside and teach, which is quite tuff. But they have lived like that so they are in one way quite used to it, but they will go back and they want to teach the kids there, you know, which I think is very beautiful, they don’t just think of themselves, to make money and other things, but they really appreciate the change and the education so then they will go.
Vats Jonsson: When did you start to get engaged in this work, how did you get in touch with this organization and Soenam and so on?
Fotheringham: Soenam has a long background with different things, but before he started this School Society, that was when he went back to Tibet in 1988, he had been at a Buddhist Centre in Mälarhöjden and translated and assisted a Lama who was there. So I met him there in 1978 and he was helping me very much, we are good friends and in 1988 when he went to Tibet I was with him and the delegation that went there. Then he started the organization so I was living in the countryside a few years but in 1992, then I started helping. And I’ve tried to help since then, so I knew Soenam from earlier.
Vats Jonsson: What have you learned from this journey, and working with this organization? And how did you get the name Lama Loudru?
Fotheringham: So I think it has been wonderful to see that so many people wanted to help, and also that very difficulties to start this kind of a project in Tibet, so it has been fantastic, the chairman and the founder of this organisation is very inspiring for everybody, it’s very very hard work and he managed very selflessly not for name or fame or money and put a lot of effort and with the help of all the members and our volunteers and everyone through all this years is fantastic. You see, and you are helping and Stig (Rebeccas father) is helping and everybody. All these things come together, so it makes me very happy. I think I’ve learned a lot about Tibet, got to travel many times there, met so many nice people. I myself is not very educated, so the name Lama Loudru, Loudru is a Buddhist name and Lama is, as I said, I met Soenam because I was interested in Buddhism — I studied and did some meditation for some years and then I got this title or this name lama which means teacher. So nowadays I am the general sectary here, Allan Fotheringham, sometimes I am Lama Loudru, and Lama this means also if people have some questions or something about mediation then I’m supposed to be able to answer, so I do that sometimes. So it felt very meaningful, and I think somehow there was this connection to help Tibetans through Soenam and through the connections, otherwise there is so many countries so many people who would need help — on occasion we try to help, but as our main focus is Himalaya, then if we had endless resources and we would try to help everywhere because human beings are human beings. But one thing I would like to say personally I think is that the Tibetan people for years and generations and generations, they maybe you could say fortunately or unfortunately they didn’t put enormous effort into education and developing what we would say modern science and the outer material things, which we did. And they thought that this in itself will not really bring happiness, some happiness come from within, some kind of balance. So what they did was they exaggerated time and energy, checking inner happiness. They sort of neglected comfort and outer things, yes, so we here in the west we put in the outer, and in the end some of us we noticed this isn’t enough, you have to have something inner. But for myself outward life have become quite comfortable, and I have become reasonably educated. So since the Buddhist tradition which we have, this was kept alive in Tibet, because they didn’t put all that time and energy in to material things. So sometimes I feel that when the Tibetans came from Tibet and we were, or myself were in need of something, and sometimes it feels reasonable that I got this from them because they have kept it nicely. But when they kept it they neglected material things, so maybe that’s why it turned out that I feel that I should somehow help Tibet. I have some kind of connection, and I got something from there, it’s only reasonable that I try to put something back. But even when I put something back, it feels that I get something… so maybe that’s why Tibet and not some other countries. Otherwise everybody, there is so much many people, so it’s, I feel very rich with all of this.
Vats Jonsson: So what are the future plans for the organization now?
Fotheringham: As of now we will continue in Tibet, we still have some university students we need to help and the handicraft to develop it and also Tibetans living in Himalayan regions who are from the Himalaya who has similar culture, we will continue with projects and mostly within education, culture and the environment. We have some projects there also we will have more time to focus more here in Sweden, since a lot of the energy that was needed in Tibet, this is now much simpler, so that means that we will have more time more energy that we can also make the School Society and it’s house available and see if some of the ideas coming from Tibetan Buddhism and culture, if they can be of help. Maybe you have seen that there are discussions going on with modern science and therapists and psychologists who are more and more interested in techniques and ways of finding some kind of inner happiness. So also this year our theme for our films which we have the film evenings here, will be about this philosophical aspect and mindfulness and meditation and so on from this perspective.
Vats Jonsson: Is there anything you would like to add?
Fotheringham: I would like to say thank you that you come and talk a little bit around this, I think it is a small organization, but huge job when you really look all the volunteers and people, including yourself, so many years and if you check all the magazines and all the things, so many things have been done to help people. Also we have this wonderful house and now there will be lot more activities here so in many aspects I think it has been very helpful I think it is very nice, I would like to thank everybody who helps also, so often people say Sonem have built all these schools, and he will say, no we all built, everything is important, all these different aspects, then all this coming together has made it possible, so thank you to everybody