By Dr. Lobsang Sangay
Harvard Square: At 6pm on March 17th, 2010, Tsering Dongshi, also known as “Vigil Pala” with a feather jacket and hat emblazoned with a bold FREE TIBET unfurls his Tibetan National flag, lifts it high and quietly begins to recite a Mani mantra. For the last two years, incredibly he has never failed to be the first person to arrive at the Tibetan vigil, and the last to leave. Students, tourists, regular bystanders with creative hairdos and tattooed bodies, homeless people waiting for their evening meals, musicians singing their last song for the day, all nod convivially in his direction. It is Wednesday and the evening belongs to Tibetans at the heart of Harvard Square, a popular tourist place known for its proximity to Harvard University.
An old Toyota pick-up makes a quick stop and parks illegally nearby. Ngawang Jorden, still in his day job outfit having come straight from work, opens the back door and throws out banners, posters and deftly assembles the sound system. The recitations echo through the square as a group of 10-20 Tibetans and Americans (on special occasions up to 100 are present) follow Vigil Pala through Mani, Benza Guru recitation, three recitations of the Doma prayer, melodious Tsemey Yonten, and conclude with a loud Gyalu and louder Longsho. The vigil continues with readings of painful stories of those executed in Tibet, a short speech by Dhondup, Tsepak or Jampa (young co-founders of the vigil) and concludes with a few minutes of slogans startling passersby at the busy intersection.
The above scene, repeated every Wednesday since March 10th 2008, is the longest running Tibetan vigil in the world (Ama Grace or Rangzen Amala in Washington DC and a Tibetan in Europe held solo protests for few years). This effort is no small feat for Tibetans in Boston. There is no Chinese Consulate or Embassy to congregate around, and Boston winters with a foot or two of snow (Jan-March) can be cruel even for the hardiest people. But for Tibetans in Boston, the inconvenience is a small price they are determined to pay and show their humility and solidarity for their fellow Tibetans inside Tibet.
Tibetans brave snowy winter at Harvard Square in Boston/ File picture
This dynamic and continuing protest, fully supported by the public and the Tibetan Association of Boston, parallels the “Lhakar” movement in Tibet, where Tibetans celebrate everything Tibetan: dress, language, food and religious tradition (“White Wednesday,” referencing to the day when His Holiness was born). Unbeknownst to each other, this tango of non-violent resistance in Tibet and the vigil in Boston send an exciting message of unity and perseverance.
Interestingly, this year March 10th and 17th (the night His Holiness fled Lhasa) fell on Wednesday as well, perhaps an unmistakable call from our deities to get our act together. Movements often start small with a catalyst and gain wings to cumulatively turn into a powerful force. It was Otpor, a student organization in Serbia, few women picketing in front of the White House, the beating of utensils in Chile, turning lights off and on in Mexico, and the mother tongue movement in Bangladesh that served as catalyst which resulted in their freedoms. The Lhakar movement and the Boston vigil should inspire Tibetans everywhere to observe Wednesday as a Tibetan day.
Such action like vigils may seem small but they are necessary to empower and invigorate our efforts towards making change. Small actions are our chance to replace cynicism with optimism, inaction with solidarity so that Tibetans from Singapore to Switzerland to San Francisco can share a positive, creative and productive ACTION. Action not based on prejudice but on pride, not on dare devil destruction but demonstration of defiant dignity, and not with introvert victim mindset but as extrovert defenders of justice.
Vigil Pala, a blithe-spirited man - known to electrify the dance floor with his 60's disco moves and mesmerize audiences with his not so melodious voice - states matter of factly: “Look how hard our beloved leader His Holiness is working and how harshly Chinese government is treating Tibetans in Tibet. We need to support our leader and our people. We came to the US, not simply to earn dollars but to fight for our sacred cause. Given my limited capacity, this vigil is what I can do and pledge to participate till Tibet becomes free or I die.”
Ngawang Jorden from Mon Tawang, and a co-founder of the vigil, nods approvingly. His perpetual smile hides his stubbornness and his quiet demeanor masks his passion: the latter expressed in the vivid posters, colorful banners, postcard paintings and the beautiful traditional gate he created during His Holiness's visit to Boston in May 2009. Jorden shaved his head along with 108 others to mourn for those who were in prison, and died in Tibet in an event organized by the Tibetan Association of Boston in response to the call by the Solidarity Committee in Dharamsala, in April 2008.
Jorden felt one protest a year was insufficient and explains: “The Chinese government does not mistreat Tibetan prisoners once a year but throughout the year, and for the last fifty years. The 2008 uprisings made it clear that Tibetans in Tibet are willing to sacrifice their lives for our freedom and the question we asked was, will we stand with them? We decided to hold this vigil to send a message to Tibet that we will consistently give voice to their sufferings and not let the world forget them.”
Such perseverance is paying dividends with the vigil area informally earning a distinct landmark status. Often a young girl/boy is heard talking on their cell phone, perhaps to their evening dates, stating they are waiting next to the “Tibetan vigil.” Hundreds and thousands of people have witnessed the vigil. Chinese students, scholars, tourists and locals from China-town regularly pass through; some walk pretending not to see the vigil; some whisper with uncomfortable glances around them; some make u-turns to take pictures and even ask questions and engage in energetic debates, while some youths occasionally shout “One China,” once they are at a comfortable distance. This scene is repeated throughout the year, except on bitter winter snowstorms when people are too weary to lift their eyes towards the protestors, making Tibetans feel chilled to the bone, physically and politically.
When the first batch of Tibetans were re-settled in North America in the early 1990's there was some fear of the American melting pot swallowing the movement, in particular, the young. The enduring vigil, launched by young Bostonian Tibetans, many of whom were toddlers when they first arrived, indicates their emotional bond to their countrymen remains as strong as that of the older generation. Having interacted with students, youth and professionals in many countries I truly believe and remain perennially optimistic that our younger generation will provide dynamic leadership to survive, strengthen, and sustain our movement for another fifty years, if need be.
Let me conclude with a reminder that a Wednesday just passed by on March 17th, how many Wednesdays do you want to pass by before you take action for your countrymen? Isn't it time to join the Lhakar Movement? If you are a student, hit the books on Tibet's past, present and future, become an informed and successful professional to serve the movement more effectively. In the spirit of Lhakar Movement, lets all pledge to set aside one day a week (Wednesday) where we truly both feel and act Tibetan.
If we act collectively, organically and creatively; if we take one step at a time; one event at a time; if we plan strategically and execute with discipline, it is conceivable we will come to a fantastically powerful idea that will unite us and fulfill our shared dream to free Tibet. Then the day will come, when Tibetans inside and outside Tibet, will witness the unfurling of our national flag, not just at Harvard Square with Vigil Pala, but on the rooftop of the Potala Palace.Dr. Lobsang Sangay is a Senior Fellow at Harvard Law School. The views expressed in this piece are that of the author and the publication of the piece on this website does not necessarily reflect their endorsement by the website.