Tenzin Tsundue with Renato Palmi of the Tibet Society
Poet-activist, Tenzin Tsundue, is a determined young Tibetan born in exile, who, after graduating from Madras, South India, braved snowstorms and treacherous mountains, broke all rules and restrictions, and crossed the Himalayas to enter his homeland, Tibet. He was hosted for a week in Durban during October by the Centre for Creative Arts at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, to perform at the Poetry Africa Festival - which focused on guest-poets from countries without a strong voice in global affairs, and countries where outspoken voices, such as Tenzin’s, are not heard in their own lands. The Tibet Society of South Africa was privileged to have Tenzin address its members and friends just prior to his departure for India
As this week in Durban draws to a close, I have a kind of inner itch, a restlessness, and yet a dreamlike state. It’s the first time I’ve ever been out of India (except for my trip to Tibet), and it’s the first time I’ve ever been introduced to others as “Tenzin Tsundue from Tibet”. This is a hugely moving honour for me, and because of my invitation to the Poetry Africa Festival, I was given a free visa in two days by the Indian customs officials – this is unheard of!
I’m not what one would call a “conference person” – I tend to shout in protest about things, get into scuffles and get arrested for activism. But I have not been doing that here – I’ve been performing my art, discovering new people, new ideas, new sights, new realities.
Today I’d like to convey to you a message on behalf of Tibetan youth:
TIBET WILL NOT DIE. WE WILL NOT LET IT DIE. We are working now with all our resources, language, education, everything we have, so that even if His Holiness the Dalai Lama dies, Tibet will not die with him. Tibet will go on. The dream of a free Tibet will live on. The Tibetan youth are charged with a huge surge of energy. We constitute an anthropological case study, a generation of youth born in exile, the majority of whom have never seen Tibet, but are incredibly passionate about it. We will struggle, suffer and die for a free Tibet.
How can one understand this unconditional love for a place we have never known? During my visit to South Africa, I have been provided with a number of different cultural spaces to share my poetry – schools, galleries, Westville prison … when I was talking with the prisoners there, I had to tell them that I don’t do King Fu karate, even though I look like a figure from your cinematic imagination of an Asian martial artist! I am Tibetan, I am Buddhist, and I follow the teachings of the Dalai Lama. All I am fighting for is dignity, for me and my people, and the identity of being Tibetan – I will forfeit everything for this simple desire.
Tibetan youngsters always call unreservedly for Tibetan independence, not for “autonomy within Tibet”. We want to live as neighbours with the Chinese, not as subservient to their hegemonic structures. We want a relationship of trust with them, and we have a vision of how everything should be: living together in the borderless region of the Himalayas, where everyone visits each other and shares among and respects each other.
The contemporary Tibetan nation is unrecognisable from that which existed before the Chinese invasion of Tibet: 100 000 Tibetans live in exile in India, and within the exiled community, our society has been reformed as a democracy, with elected leaders who have not been appointed by the Dalai Lama, as had been the former tradition. There are 46 members of parliament (the Kashag) headed by an elected Prime Minister, who will lead the Tibetan government-in-exile into the future within a secular framework. Civil society is well-developed in exile, yet despite its ongoing efforts, there is not a single world government that openly and formally supports a free Tibet.
During the 46 years of our struggle for independence and identity, we have:
Demystified the outworn notion of Tibet as “Shangri-la”
Gathered massive informal support across the world
Ensured that when His Holiness speaks to world audiences, many listen; and when the Chinese premier speaks on international platforms, there are frequent protests, even from citizens of other countries
Promoted the understanding that violence and taking up arms is an old way of working towards independence
Drawn from Buddhist teachings to give us strength: exercising patience, compassion, turning away from vengeance and bitterness. We only want to regard and speak with Chinese people as human beings who have been brainwashed with many misconstrued ideas.
In 1997, when I was 22, I went to Tibet without permission. Since then, all my conceptions of Tibet have changed, because everything I saw was Chinese in character or under Chinese control. All the signs, the shops, the walkways, the daily life activities, are communicated in Chinese. I was arrested for being a foreigner, and imprisoned for three months, where I was beaten frequently by Tibet’s “uninvited guests”. The prison guards would throw Chinese newspapers into our cells, and we were commanded to “study” them; these newspapers were full of propaganda about the PRC’s role in the growth of agriculture in Tibet, with photos of happy monks praying, and with all the articles proclaiming the Tibetans’ “love for the nation” – the Chinese nation! I thought: “What ‘news’ is this? Whose nation?” The content reported on floods, hurricanes and global drama, all to create a nationalist mindset, urging us to “sacrifice” for the nation. Ordinary people were championed for working hard (“losing limbs”) while still “loving the nation”.
Back in India, in Mumbai, I see Chinese youngsters, the children of officers from the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) who are based in Tibet and China; these are the new “elite” of China, but they do not represent the millions of Chinese, Tibetans and Islamic ethnic minorities who live under the boot of the People’s Republic of China. I am thrilled to see the rebellious groundswell in both China and among exiled Tibetans, the cartoonists, artists and writers who do the real work of social change for the nation. This is real love in action. These young people travel throughout the region, gathering information, impressions and insights for their creative work. Through them, freedom will come, for the Chinese too.
We must remember that when traditional culture dies, all that’s left is Western market consumerism, with its drug abuse, gang fights, AIDS, and dropping out of life. China itself is killing its own culture, and their peoples’ spirit dies with it. What future life is being offered to their young? At least in India, Tibetans can maintain their culture; even if we don’t have our own land, we have our sense of self. One can’t belong to one’s weapons. These won’t allow one to create bonds with life and humanity.
These elite Chinese have lots of flashy possessions, but they are looking for something more, something deeper, and there are many youth and students who want to learn Buddhist teachings – ironically, because they’ve been inspired by Hollywood icons like Richard Gere – so they go to Tibet, because there’s no Buddhist theology or clergy in China. They come from Taiwan, Beijing, Hong Kong, and they live in meditation houses in a valley, sometimes 20 000 of them in a community to receive teachings from the Rinpoche. This has resulted in the elevation of Buddhist practice and the teacher himself, and attracted a lot of financial support, which has enraged the Chinese authorities. They imprisoned the Rinpoche, but another, Tulku Tenzin Deleg, took up his position. He too has been charged by the PRC with “terrorism”, and sentenced to death, but because of global campaigns to preserve his rights, (such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch), he has not been executed, although he is still in prison.
What do you see as being the next steps towards achieving independence? What do we need to do as Tibet supporters?
Unfortunately, there is no stepped route to independence. The movement for and towards freedom is an unfolding process, which involves keeping track of the internal and external changes, within and around both Tibet and China, and responding to these changes. Above all, a consistent effort is needed – never give up!
The most critical threat to Tibetans in Tibet right now is China’s construction of two major railroads through Tibet. These are designed to bring in thousands of Han Chinese to settle in Tibet, which will totally swamp the indigenous Tibetan nation. Population transfer is the primary strategy for smothering the Tibetan voice, our very breath. The Chinese have a term for Tibet: “western treasure-house” – they regard its natural and human resources as their utilities to plunder and exhaust as they choose.
Our struggle is unique because of our ideology of non-violence; peace and compassion are part of our collective psyche, so we cannot wage our contest in any other way; but we acknowledge that it’s not enough to guarantee winning. The world is watching us with a cynical eye – especially since 9/11, violence and retribution is a given. What will His Holiness do? What will the Tibetans do?
Well, we hold that ours is a human and humane solution, and that non-violence must be upheld to show the world how to regain confidence in peace. Many of our youth are deeply frustrated with this, but we have to understand that bursting into anger, like a cracker, and dying in violence is, in fact, all too easy. The hardest path is to keep going with non-violence, enduring the daily deprivation, the inner pain, but continuing to speak out – yes, that is suffering. But if we don’t, the world will fill up with anger, blood, and crashing buildings. I would slit my own throat right now if I thought it would bring Tibet to independence – I am ready and willing to do that. But I know that only hard work and faith – of the greatest, deepest kind – will achieve that goal, for Tibet and for the world.
Peace will be reached through achievement in adversity, despite the suffering. That’s how we will reach truth. We have to keep wishing for the sanity and health of the world. And while the world is watching us, some enjoying the “game” we’re playing, and some numbed to the magnitude of the world’s inhumanity, I know there are many youth who are working for peace in their own countries. That’s how world peace gets created. Even the smallest contribution or effort in your own corner of the planet will help. For example, I’d love to help Burma in its own struggle for independence and human rights – we Tibetans have a deep love for Aung San Su Kyi, but although I pray for their liberation, I feel I can only fight for my primary responsibility, which is Tibet.
The Chinese always put out the message that Tibet has always been a part of China, at least since 1300. How does the youth movement respond to this messaging?
Here’s a way to counter that: the Great Wall of China was built by the Chinese to defend the country from invaders; so how come the Wall is now so deep inside modern-day China? If it was originally designed as a protective border, then that indicates where China’s borders were when it was built. How would Chinese leaders of today explain this anomaly in terms of the contemporary map of China? How would they explain it to tourists?
Through the 7th to the 9th centuries, Tibetans were the most feared warriors, and they ruled the whole of Asia – but we don’t try to reclaim this territorial history or power, because since then we have adopted Buddhism. China creates this myth of “Greater China” but it’s really very new – formed since 1949! We too can use history to turn China’s own argument against itself, and it would expose China’s lies. But we choose not to use this as a focus for advocacy, because the Chinese have huge mass media resources, so it wouldn’t work; our voice is too small to drown out their false history. They put out videos, DVDs, glossy full-colour flyers, with totally concocted Sino-Tibetan history. I have a copy of the Chinese government-sponsored film which has falsified the story of the Briton, Younghusband, to relay that he was killed in Lhasa by the Chinese with the Tibetans fighting alongside them “for the motherland”! There’s also a story of political romanticism, of a beautiful Chinese woman who wins the heart of a fierce but ignorant Tibetan hero and “tames” him; this film is sold in Tibet to “re-educate” the Tibetans.
The PRC is now insisting on a condition for negotiations with the Tibet movement: that the Dalai Lama should endorse Taiwan as a part of China, and that it should be “re-absorbed” into “the motherland”. But both the Tibetans and the Taiwanese see themselves as discrete nations, facing a common threat in/as China. The Tibetans and the Taiwanese also share their belief in Buddhism, and His Holiness’s followers are free to practise Buddhism in Taiwan – which they are denied in China.
Could autonomy not be regarded as a step towards independence?
That might be possible in other cases, but it’s highly unlikely that China will ever allow that first step to be taken for Tibet, because the return of the Dalai Lama to Tibet would inspire and unite the Tibetans so powerfully, that there’d be a revolution, and China can’t have that happen. His Holiness has frequently begged for autonomy – but they will not budge, even though he was criticised for doing so by many of our youth for this compromise. In any case, the Chinese would still control the economy and foreign relations, so it’s doubtful that any real progress could be achieved through that.
What are the chances of the fall of the Communist Party in China enabling Tibet to claim its independence without opposition?
After my release from prison in Tibet in 1997, I was in a restaurant and met a senior officer of US (?) Intelligence, who saw the future as being one of Chinese hegemony over the West, mainly through other countries taking economic advantage of the common people in China as cheap labour. This has come to pass, but under scrutiny, it’s a contrived, structured hegemony – the US and Africa could stop it at any time, so that deep inside this set-up, there’s no substance, no strength.
By comparison, in every village in India, there is access to education and awareness of principles of governance – so it’s rich and strong on the ground. China’s power over the West and other continents is really just like a balloon, full of air, and that’s why they’re so defensive over it. They are haunted by their past colonisation and division by others occupiers, that’s why they are so fixated on nationalist inclusion through symbols and signs – they want spaceships to conquer the galaxy and global sports awards for China, to reinforce this image of dominance and cohesion. There’s no independent media for that same reason – Google and Yahoo and the BBC are all filtered and sifted to cut out anything that might subvert this concept of domination. They can’t allow themselves to just be themselves. I can’t predict the fall of Communism in China, but there are millions inside and outside it who hope for change and who work with Chinese democracy-seekers, because that certainly will change things in Tibet.
All I can ask of you here today is that you be active – it means so much to those enduring oppression inside Tibet; when I was in prison, I would sing songs to my cellmates telling them about the worldwide support for a free Tibet, and it was hard for them to believe, but it gave them immense strength and comfort.
So please, in any capacity, in any way, build this support. Write about Tibet, call into radio talk-shows, talk to your friends, arrange film festivals so that larger audiences can know the truth. Work with the Tibet Society of South Africa, which I thank for their ongoing encouragement. Thank you for hosting me, and for being here.