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Student Profile

Promoting Peace Through Human Development in Exiled Tibet

by Blaine J. Johnson

As the U.S.-led war on terrorism gains momentum, three BYU students quietly work on the flank to counter terrorism in a very unique way. For the past two years Jason Monson, David Farmer, and I, Blaine Johnson, have been developing what is referred to as “substantive responses” to conditions that give rise to terrorism. Late last year, we established the Paramita Group, a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting peace and human development in potentially-violent communities.

All three of Paramita Group’s founders have participated in an International Study Program (ISP) Field Study during their time at BYU. In fact, that is how we met. Between the three of us, we have been to Asia six times in just four years. Co-founder David Farmer noted, “ISP has provided us with experiences that are unavailable to students at most universities. Without having seen the reality of life outside America, it would have been very easy for us to not concern ourselves too deeply with the suffering of others. Now we feel it our responsibility to do something.”

The Foundation is Set

In 1998, I spent four months with two other BYU students at the Grameen Bank in Dhaka, the capital city of Bangladesh. While there, I researched how Islamic values and Bangladeshi culture interact with the increasingly-pervasive Western economic system. In particular, I researched how trust, kinship, and morals positively influence the microfinance process.

Shortly thereafter, I joined up with the India Field Study program. During my first week in India, I traveled to Dharamsala, home of the Tibetan Government-in-Exile.

Kundun or Seven Years in Tibet are two movies that chronicle the 1950s Chinese army invasion of Tibet, which resulted in it being annexed as a Chinese province. The resultant political oppression of the Tibetan people pushed waves of asylum seekers into the Himalayan Mountains and into south Asia, where they now live as refugees. Very few of us, myself included, understand what I learned from visitng the settlements. I was disturbed to learn that Tibetans are still being tortured in China, that monks are still being killed for practicing their religion, and that nuns are still being raped. I was shocked to hear that over one million Tibetans, one-fifth of the entire population, have been killed since the Chinese seized control of Tibet. As distressing as it was to learn about the atrocities that the Tibetan people continue to suffer, perhaps the most difficult to understand was that nobody has had the courage to come to the assistance of the Tibetan people. I wanted to do something, but I had no skills, no schooling, and, most importantly, no money to return.

After returning home from India, I began working with ISP as the India Field Study facilitator. As such, I returned to India three more times. This gave me the chance to continue my research into the relationship between culture and development. In particular, I studied the relationship between Buddhism and human development. In the field, I realized that the world was unfolding at a rate much faster than academia’s ability to devise solutions. The classroom was lagging behind the real world. Through ISP, I arranged internships with various organizations in Asia. I worked with several NGOs in India, including the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh.

In early 2001, I returned to Dharamsala with the field study group for one month, during which I completed an internship with the Tibetan Government-in-Exile. I worked with staff members in the Department of Home to draft a simple, savings-led microfinance model that responded to Buddhist philosophical assumptions as opposed to Western assumptions and Buddhist socio-economic objectives as opposed to capitalist objectives. As we worked on the model, I recognized that microfinance might serve as the perfect foundation for human development in Tibetan refugee settlements.

One simple lesson came from Development as Freedom, written by Amartya Sen, a Nobel prize-winning economist. Sen argues that proper development must promote capabilities of the people to choose and live the kind of lives that they value. From a Latter-day Saint perspective, that made so much sense, and I saw that Sen’s theories, once integrated into development strategies, would work beautifully in Tibetan settlements.

Creating the Model

I believe that there are a number of communities throughout the world that, despite terrible oppression and suffering, have not taken up terrorism. What we see in many places around the world are people who have every reason to use force to defend their families and their freedoms, but yet they refuse to do it. We want to round up support and amplify their voices before they become so desperate that they have to resort to terrorism to get attention. We believe that a “war on terrorism” will be ultimately ineffective so long as we don’t learn to respond to those who refuse to use violence as a political tool.

While conducting an interview for one of my courses, I spoke with a Tibetan scholar who was living in exile in India. Together we ran down a list of well publicized militant movements that have successfully advanced their causes in the past half century: Bangladesh, East Timor, PLO, Aceh, and Sri Lanka. But, try as we might, we could not think of any nonviolent political movements outside the United States that had been equally successful. At that point, I realized that, in a sense, we were all responsible for the rise in terrorism. Because we have not given enough support to nonviolent movements, we have made terrorism the only valid option for the oppressed. Soon after that experience, I looked for different ways to support nonviolent struggles for freedom.

I began to entertain the idea of starting a nonprofit organization dedicated to training refugees as community social workers who would work within the settlements creating savings groups, teaching literacy classes, providing basic health care services, and promoting human development in general. With the help of Monson and Farmer, the Paramita Group began to take shape and Tibet was the perfect place to start. Since Tibet’s forceful annexation, exiled-Tibetan leadership under the Dalai Lama has remained firmly committed to nonviolence.

Johnson with Tibetan children.

The Tibetan situation reminds me of the account of the Anti-Nephi-Lehies in the Book of Mormon who took a vow of nonviolence. In Tibet, there are six million people that have thrown down their weapons on the insistence that violence is ungodly. Since fleeing Tibet, Tibetan refugees have protested and rallied for autonomy, but their protests have been largely ignored. In the Book of Mormon the Nephites supported the Anti-Nephi-Lehies in their vow, but nobody has come forward in the case of Tibet. Not even America has been very anxious to assist the Tibetans. If we want to fight terrorism we must begin to support and help those groups that don’t use it. Monson, co-founder and student in the MPA program, is also committed to supporting nonviolent political movements as a means to curb the rise of terrorism. “Because we’ve ignored them, many Tibetans are growing impatient with nonviolence and are pushing for the government to use more forceful techniques.” Monson pointed out that a recent study shows that over 60 percent of Tibetan youth favor the use of violence to regain Tibetan sovereignty. “In this instance we have given the Tibetans no choice but to create a stir in the world through violent protest. I hope before that happens we can create some options.”

Becoming Agents for Change

To be of assistance to the Tibetans and other nonviolent movements has been my goal since that first trip to a Tibetan settlement four years ago. Farmer, Monson, and I hope that we can find support in Utah Valley and the Latter-day Saint community at large for our project. “Whenever I sit and talk with a Tibetan refugee, I can’t help but think that they are now going through what my ancestors did 150 years ago. Because Tibetans are not permitted to freely practice their religion in China, thousands of them are forced to walk hundreds and hundreds of miles through dangerous mountain passes to find a place where they can worship God freely. Thousands have died making the journey. Sometimes I feel useless sitting in church talking about the hardships the Mormon pioneers faced, when I know that at the same time thousands of people are going through the same thing today. Given my heritage, I feel a special obligation to prevent such suffering.


Despite our ambitions, we three students understand the challenges we face in realizing our goals. When I tell people what it is that we do, I get a lot of mixed reactions. Most people are very supportive, but I think many people who hear about our ideas think we are too idealistic or perhaps even a little naïve. You know, they are probably right. But given the present state of the economy, our chances of promoting peace in Tibet are much greater than finding a job in Utah. And maybe peace isn’t as unrealistic as it seems. Things are coming together well for us.

Since the formation of the Paramita Group, I moved to Bangkok to pursue a master’s degree in Buddhist studies. The school I attend is full of Buddhist monks and provides me with a wonderful opportunity to explore the compatibility of religion and human development. Many of the monks that I attend class with are part of a social movement within Thailand called “Engaged Buddhism.” Over the last few decades, many Buddhists in Thailand have become proactive in their communities. They are actively engaged in rural development projects, volunteerism, AIDS prevention programs, and education. I have found it quite fascinating to see how religion can serve as a catalyst for good in a community.

The engaged Buddhist monks that we work with aren’t your stereotypical monks who sit in the monastery meditating on emptiness all day. They are students of economics, agriculture, poverty alleviation, and conflict resolution. They are learning how they can go out into the world and help eliminate the suffering of the poor and the sick. Because they are monks, the community provides for their material needs, leaving them free to focus on social and spiritual development of the community. This makes them the perfect social workers.

Our vision for the Paramita Group is to recreate that same sort of fervor within the Tibetan settlements among the monastic and lay populations. To do this, we are presently working with a number of Buddhist monks to develop training manuals that can be used to train volunteer-Tibetan social workers in various development strategies such as microfinance and literacy. Monks and community leaders from all over Asia come to a training camp outside Bangkok to learn what they can do in their communities to promote human development and alleviate human suffering. The Paramita Group will work with this training camp to put together a number of training manuals that we can use to train Tibetan monks how to manage savings groups, organize literacy classes, and provide simple health care to their constituents.

The first manual will be a simple crash course in microfinance—based on a model devised and used by a Buddhist monk on the Thai border with Cambodia. For almost ten years he has been supervising 110 savings groups in villages serviced by his monastery. Participants in his program are not only encouraged to save money, but they are also encouraged to invest it wisely and to use it to help others in need. In other words, it is a microfinance program that encourages not only economic growth and self-reliance, but it also promotes trust and compassion for others, or social and spiritual capital.

Although we are in a very formative stage, we are being coached through the process of nonprofit management by a number of people and organizations. In particular, the Tibetan Government-in-Exile granted permission for us to work under their auspices to run a pilot project in a refugee settlement in India. When our manuals are completed, we will use them in the field.

“We don’t have the resources yet to do all the things we have permission to do, but we are beginning to transfer our ideas into action,” said Farmer. “We actually have a number of projects that we believe will be very useful in the settlements. For example, we have begun working with Mel Bartholomew, author of Square Foot Gardening, America’s best-selling gardening book, to create a manual that will train Tibetan social workers and monks how to produce vegetable crops more efficiently. By using Bartholomew’s method, the Tibetans will be able to grow more of the herbs that are required to produce the traditional medicines that have long been used in Tibetan communities.”

Monson added that “special attention” is given to make sure that Tibetan culture and wisdom is preserved in the application of these projects. “We want to be sure that the Tibetans don’t lose their unique identity as they develop,” he said. Monson suggested that this was in keeping with the Dalai Lama’s request that all projects providing assistance to the Tibetan people be sensitive to the fragile nature of Tibetan culture. “The Tibetans have a completely different set of motives; they value their religion and culture more than they value commodities and wealth. Since the assumptions and objectives of Western development models are directly opposed to the aspirations of the Tibetan people, imbalanced economic growth will only serve to break down Tibetan identity.”

As these tense times of war in Iraq continue, we remain resolved. I believe that if we can give real support to nonviolent movements today, and if we can promote human development in under-served areas today, we can prevent the same thing from happening elsewhere.