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GENEVA - In 1963, seven-year-old Tibi Lhundub Tsering was picked up by his foster parents at Zurich Airport, Switzerland. His mother Youden Jampa, working in a road-building camp in India, knew nothing of her son's whereabouts.
This is the beginning of the inconvenient and uncomfortable truth presented in Swiss documentary "Tibi and his mothers" directed by Ueli Meier.
According to the documentary, Tibi was one of the 200 so-called "Tibetan orphans" who were brought to Switzerland in the 1960s from the Nursery for Tibetan Refugee Children in Dharamsala headed by Tsering Dolma, the elder sister of the Dalai Lama. They were moved through a program privately run by Swiss entrepreneur Charles Aeschimann and approved by the Dalai Lama.
Contrary to the expectations of the foster parents in Switzerland, only 19 of these children were orphans, while the vast majority had at least one parent in Tibet, often both, said Meier in the bonus feature of the DVD edition, citing a report by Aeschimann.
In a confidential letter in February 1963, the Swiss Ambassador to India at the time said he discovered many of these "orphans" selected in Dharamsala actually had at least one parent. He warned against the "human and spiritual difficulties" faced by children who became "contractually assigned care items" thanks to the agreement between Aeschimann and the Dalai Lama.
Meier said during his research on the documentary, many documents showed that Aeschimann and the Dalai Lama had divergent interests in their arrangement. While Aeschimann wanted a child refuge, the Dalai Lama appeared to intend to turn the children into an elite for the "Tibetan government-in-exile".
According to letters between the two, the Dalai Lama never mentioned the psychological well-being of the children after being separated from their parents and only had limited discussion with Aeschimann about them, the director said in an interview with Swiss German-language daily Neue Zuricher Zeitung, which ran a series of reports in September questioning the "Tibetan orphans" program.
As for Tibi, protagonist of the documentary, the tender care and devotion of his foster parents cannot replace the love of his birth mother. He went off the rails and almost lost himself after he visited his birth parents for the first time years later and realised his mother will never be able to understand him.
The film accompanied Tibi on his journey to visit his birth mother in India and his foster mother in Gruningen, Switzerland. "While observing the now quiet everyday life of the two old women, distant memories emerge silently and sometimes painfully to the surface," says the introduction of the film.
The director said he learned many tragic stories of the former foster children during his research.
A study published in 1982 by the University of Zurich found that among the Tibetans who grew up in Switzerland, suicides were only reported in the group of "Aeschimann Children," Meier pointed out in the interview with the Swiss newspaper.
Meier said he sent an interview request to the Dalai Lama's bureau in Geneva, but was met with silence.
On Tuesday, the Chinese government condemned the Dalai Lama and his clique for abusing children's rights by orchestrating the 1960s campaign to send Tibetan "orphans" to Switzerland.
At a regular news briefing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said, "The Dalai Lama's deeds have trampled on the children's individual rights and publicly violated common ethics and morality. All humane, justice-loving people should condemn such acts."