The recently elected prime minister, or Kalon Tripa, of Tibet’s government-in-exile admits it is “really tragic and painful” that 30 ethnic Tibetans have set themselves on fire since early 2011 to protest the ongoing Chinese occupation in Tibet.
“Each time things happen, it is very disturbing, at a human level,” Lobsang Sangay told the Georgia Straight by phone from his office in Dharamsala, India. “You see photographs. You see some clips. It affects you very deeply, and then you start thinking, ‘How can a human being give up one’s precious life?’ ”
Sangay said that prior to the sharp increase in self-immolations starting in 2011—initially concentrated in the northeast ethnic Tibetan county of Ngaba—there were only two known such cases, one in Delhi in 1998 and another inside Tibet in 2009. The recent Ngaba cases are in response to increased police crackdowns in Tibet and so-called patriotic re-education programs many Tibetans are forced to undergo, often asked to denounce their leader, the exiled 14th Dalai Lama.
“You think it’s an isolated case [at that time], but in 2011 there were 11 cases,” Sangay said. “In 2012, it’s just been three months, and we already have 18 or 19 cases. So, you know, it’s tragic; it’s really sad at a human level. Then the Chinese government, the hardliners, refuse to acknowledge that there is even a problem. The international community, many countries, have issued statements expressing concerns.”
The 44-year-old Harvard-educated Sangay said that those wishing to help his people have a means to do so.
“What we really would like to see is the United Nations and different countries lead a delegation and visit Tibetan areas,” Sangay said. “Obviously, you have to first seek permission from Chinese authorities, but even to request that kind of a visit will send a message to the Tibetan people that there is hope and the international community do care, and also to the Chinese government that this kind of action—such repressive policies—will not be tolerated or should not happen at least. So those kinds of [international] actions are very much welcome.”
Immigration Minister Jason Kenney has already expedited the resettlement of 1,000 Tibetans from India’s isolated Arunachal Pradesh state over the next five years. The minister did not respond by deadline to messages left by the Straight.
“Canada, actually, especially Prime Minister [Stephen] Harper, has been quite outspoken on the issue of Tibetans and met with his holiness Dalai Lama a couple of times,” Sangay said. “Hopefully, it will be a delegation from Canada and the U.S. and other places to visit Tibetan areas and to assist the situation, so that we can address this issue peacefully through dialogue. That is what we believe.”
Mati Bernabei, president of the Canada Tibet Committee’s Vancouver chapter, told the Straight: “I agree completely. I think that right now it has to happen. The requests need to happen from every country, globally. China has closed doors, and its continuation of this closed-door policy, it’s not acceptable in contemporary times if they want to be a respected player on the global stage.”
The Straight left messages with Vancouver’s Chinese Consulate without reply by deadline.
Bernabei said she happened to be in New York during the recent spring break and paid her respects to protesters on the 29th day of their hunger strike for Tibet outside the United Nations headquarters, a day before they called it off.
“And they stopped their hunger strike because someone from the UN came out and said, essentially, that they would try [and plead with Chinese officials],” Bernabei recalled. “The fact is that even the people in the highest positions at the UN appear to feel stymied because China has veto power over everything. The requests need to be made and they need to happen relentlessly, and China has to permit observers, have to permit a fact-finding mission to go in. If they hope for genuine respect and genuine collaboration with other countries rather than relationships based on fear, manipulation, and bullying…then they must open up their doors.”
Bernabei added: “And Canada has to press harder.”
Tsering Shakya, a Lhasa-born Tibetan scholar and Canada research chair in religion and contemporary society in Asia at UBC, was less optimistic about the idea.
“The main thing here is the United Nations can’t do anything because China is one of the five permanent security-council members and China has veto rights on everything,” Shakya told the Straight by phone. “United Nations right now can’t do anything on Syria because China and Russia are blocking everything. So, on the issue of Tibet, I don’t think any nation will be willing to pick a fight with China.”
Speaking generally, Sangay said he “absolutely” believes the Dalai Lama could return to Tibet during his lifetime.
“We are all human beings, you know?” he said. “One has to remain hopeful. If you lose hope, that’s the end of life in itself. Once you remain hopeful, well, look around the world, actually. The Berlin Wall, the Soviet Union, Nelson Mandela, and, recently, the Arab Spring. There are many reasons to be optimistic.”