By Colette Davidson
“They are killing Tibetans like dogs.”
Photo by Jigme Ugen, RTYC-MN
A young teen holds a handmade banner in large block letters as others surround her with equally powerful signs reading, “Tibet Belongs to Tibetans,” “China=Terrorist” and “Stop Murdering Innocent Tibetans.” Nearly 200 Tibetans and supporters have taken off work and skipped school to be here, blocking the front steps of the State Capitol building in St. Paul in protest.
Samten Chodon, a nurse at HCMC, has come with family and friends draped in “Save Tibet” banners, flags and hats to show her support for the Tibetan community not just in Minnesota, but worldwide. She is here to demonstrate against the recent discrimination and injustice towards Tibetans, and also to share with others what the situation is in Tibet.
“My main aim today is to bring awareness, especially in Minnesota, about what’s happening in Tibet. [People trying to escape] happens throughout the years because Tibetans don’t have freedom. They can’t speak freely about what’s going on. There, you get killed if you talk about things.”
The large group of protesters at the Capitol has not formed spontaneously. Last week, an amateur video by a Romanian climber was released, showing innocent Tibetans being shot and killed by Chinese border patrol while attempting to cross a Himalayan mountain pass between Tibet and Nepal. A 17 year-old Buddhist nun as well as a 13 year-old boy were seen shot and killed, as part of a group of dozens of Tibetans, including ten young children, trying to escape Chinese persecution. Of that group, 20-30 people were taken into detention while the whereabouts of at least ten remain unknown.
The video, taken from about a half-mile away, shows the Tibetans walking peacefully in a line until one person drops to the ground, followed by a second. The rest of the group flees in an attempt to save themselves, while the Chinese guards come by, check the dying Tibetans for information, and then leave their bodies in the snow. Later, China’s Xinhua News Agency flipped the story, reporting that the Tibetans attacked the guards, forcing them to defend themselves.
The demonstration in St. Paul, organized by the Regional Tibetan Youth Congress (RTYC) of Minnesota and in alliance with the Tibetan American Foundation of Minnesota (TAFM), began with a traditional prayer by three Buddhist monks from Gyuto monastery, followed by an introduction by RTYC President, Penpa Kura-anje. He explained the need for continued protest of the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing and described in detail the events of the recent shootings. Although the story of the Tibetan refugees was caught on tape, “most tales of escaping Tibetans remain untold.” He called on the crowd to “Free Tibet” and appealed to the crowd to keep on fighting.
“The Chinese won’t eliminate Tibet from the map of the world.”
Next, the president of TAFM, Tsewang Ngodup led the group in a moment of silence for those killed in the shootings, bringing many to tears. He spoke about the need for action and the apathy of the government in the Tibet situation. In Kofi Annan’s recent visit to China, says Ngodup, “he didn’t say a word about the Panchen Lama” or the human rights abuses against the Tibetan community.
“It seems that only terrorism gets attention. I have not seen a line about this video [of the Tibetans being killed] in any of the newspapers or on any TV stations.”
Ngodup went on to stress the importance of lobbying to Minnesota senators and representatives in order to put pressure on President Bush and Condoleezza Rice to take more effective measures towards justice, peace and equality with regards to China. “China can push over anybody with their economic might,” Ngodup says, and they have been well known to do so.
Jigme Ugen, General Secretary of RTYC, came to the podium next to explain how the day of lobbying was going to proceed. By handing out memos and talking to representatives and senators, he hoped to spread the message about the atrocious nature of the killings in the mountains and the resulting effect on the Tibetan community worldwide.
The memo urged legislators to call on the Chinese to immediately halt the persistent violence against the Tibetan people, to lodge an official objection to China regarding its violations of international human rights standards and to release the detained Tibetans. Ugen also encouraged everyone to fax the memo to their legislator in order to strengthen its backing by the local Tibetan community.
As leaders were chosen, the crowd formed smaller groups, which then proceeded to all areas of the Capitol to ask for signatures. In a community that worries about losing its youngsters to American pop culture, there was a great showing of Tibetan teens and young children at today’s demonstration, culminating in what became the first mass lobbying effort by any Tibetan group in the U.S. to date.
“The Tibetan community wants a dialogue with local politicians. We are trying to build awareness,” said Ugen.
For most of the Tibetans present, it was their first time inside the Capitol. As groups went door to door with the memo, many Tibetans hung back, listening in on tour groups and looking at paintings on the walls. For Ugen, this is a good thing. Part of his aim for today’s event was to get more Tibetans involved in Minnesota politics.
“We were thinking about going to Chicago to talk to the Chinese embassy, but then we realized that we have so many people here in the Twin Cities.”
Non-Tibetans also made a modest showing at the demonstration, joining in by carrying Tibetan flags and lobbying with the groups. Lisa Tsering, who was lobbying for the first time, was stirred to join in the protest because, for her, it was personal.
“I’m here to support my husband [who is Tibetan]. This [injustice against Tibetans] has been going on too long and I want to bring attention to it.”
After all the forms are signed, RTYC plans on visiting members of MN Congress, and sending the letters to President Bush, as well as to Martin Belinga-Eboutou, Chairman of the Third Committee of the U.N. General Assembly, Louise Arbour, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights and Zhou Yongkang, China’s Minister of Public Security in Beijing. Ugen will also send email updates to demonstrators as to which Minnesota legislators took action.
The day ended with people dispersing in all directions, satisfied with a job well done. Although many of the supporters will not immediately feel what they did today at the Capitol, the Tibetan community at large certainly will. Because of the brutal nature of the climber’s video, Ugen says, many Tibetan leaders, including the Tibetan Government in Exile in Dharamsala, India have been somewhat frozen in shock and don’t know quite how to respond. Fortunately, protesters in North America and abroad have mobilized significantly in demonstrations like the one in St. Paul. Others will surely follow.
Jigme Ugen is hoping that the recent killings will be the necessary spark in getting the international community involved in addressing the situation in Tibet. Despite the U.S.’s strengthened friendship with China over North Korea’s nuclear program, he anticipates that the Tibet issue will no longer be pushed under the carpet.
“Everyone is finding out what happened,” he says, “it’s about time.”