Tibetan Americans make their presence in Washington, D.C.
Bhuchung K. Tsering
May 19, 2013
Some people might feel that I am making a mountain of a molehill today, but that is for good reason. The Tibetan American community in the Washington, D.C. area has finally made its presence felt in the Asian American community in this region. On May 18, 2013, the Capital Area Tibetan Association participated in the 8th Annual National Asian Heritage Festival that was held in the heart of Washington, D.C., in close proximity to the United States Congress and the White House.
Since May is designated Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month, the Asia Heritage Foundation (AHF) organizes events during this month to “share, celebrate, and promote the diversity of Asian heritage and culture through the arts, traditions, education, cuisine, and way of life represented in the Washington DC Metropolitan area.”
Even though Washington, D.C. has seen much grander Tibet-related events, whether it is the many days of the Kalachakra teachings by His Holiness the Dalai Lama in 2011, the Congressional Gold Medal event in 2007 or the Smithsonian Folklife Festival devoted to Tibet 2000, yesterday’s event, Feista Asia Street Fair, was in a different framework; it placed the Tibetan community in the Asian American family here.
And, it was certainly a coming out party of sort. The Tibetan troupe was selected the “grand champion” among the participants in the Cultural Parade that marked the formal beginning of the fair. Coincidently, during the line up for the parade, the Tibetan group became placed after the Nepali group and before the Chinese group; symbolizing the geographical locations of the homeland of the three communities. The Nepalese were pleased to see the Tibetans and there were several rounds of discussions in the Nepali language as well as singing of Nepali songs by Tibetans on the sidelines of the events. Among the Chinese participants there were some who joined the Tibetans, including in the traditional circle dance, but there were some who seem somewhat bewildered by the Tibetan presence this time.
The Tibetan adults performed a lively “Gyalshay” dance while the youngsters had an active “Droshey”, a ceremonial drum dance. They both represented the two generations of Tibetan Americans well and were well received by the audience.
In addition to CATA’s presence, there was a Tibetan from Maryland who had a stall, Dorjebajra Tibet Shop. There was a Nepali restaurant from Maryland that had a stall selling momos among others.
As we participated in the parade and mingled with the crowd subsequently, there was a feeling among the Tibetans that we certainly did not lag behind in terms of cultural richness or presence.
A small step by the Tibetan community in the Washington, D.C., but a giant leap for the Tibetan American community here; can I say this?
My Talk in Minnesota on Understanding the Reality in Tibet
March 31, 2013
A shortsighted and meaningless effort by the Chinese Consulate in Chicago to propagandize about Tibet at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis led to an opportunity for me to go there and share my views on Tibet. The Tibetan American Foundation of Minnesota, the Students for a Free Tibet, Tibetan Youth Congress and the Tibetan Women’s Association in Minnesota asked me to come and be a part of the activities to present the Tibetan viewpoint so that we could challenge the Chinese exhibition on Tibet that was being organized in the University.
So, I spoke on March 27, 2013 at the venue of the Tibetan people’s exhibition on Tibet at the University, which was next door to the one organized by the Chinese students and funded by the Chinese consulate (the story of how the Chinese had to cancel/withdraw their activities in the light of this Tibetan onslaught is a different story, some of which have appeared in the local newspaper, Star-Tribune). I titled my talk “Reality in Tibet Today.”
In my talk, I talked about the different aspects of the Tibetan issue, including political, environmental, human rights angle, and how His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan side had responded positively to Deng Xiaoping’s message that “other than the issue of independence everything else can be discussed and resolved.” I said His Holiness had not only presented his Middle Way Approach as a response but that he had also prepared the Tibetan people to accept that this was in the best interest of both the sides. I told of my own experience of interacting with ordinary Chinese and how we Tibetans have been educated by His Holiness to differentiate between Chinese Government and people and how we should be reaching out to the people. I said, however, the Chinese side had not fulfilled their part of the commitment made by Deng Xiaoping about everything else could be discussed and resolved. The Chinese side has also not prepared the Chinese people and instead is projecting the Tibetans as being against the Chinese people.
But this blog is about another talk that the organizers had arranged for me, which was to the Tibetan community. This took place on March 26, 2013. Despite it being a weekday and people had to go to work, there was a reasonable turnout of Tibetans, old and young. Read the rest of this entry »
Here is an analysis that I did on one aspect of the new leadership in Lhasa.
Bhuchung K. Tsering
March 19, 2013
The appointment of Jampa Phuntsok (Ch: Qiangba Puncog) as a Vice Chair of the National People’s Congress on March 14, 2013, completes an interesting development in the regional representation in the top Tibetan leadership in Lhasa. This new development could be said to have begun when Pema Thinley (Ch: Padma Choling) assumed the Governorship of the Tibet Autonomous Region in 2010; it is now the Chamdowas, the people from Chamdo (Ch: Qamdo) in Eastern Tibet, who hold all the highest Tibetan leadership positions in Lhasa and Beijing.
Earlier this year, we had Pema Thinley becoming the Chairman of the TAR People’s Congress; Phakpalha Gelek Namgyal (Ch: Pagbalha Geleg Namgyai) was reappointed as head of the TAR PPCC; and Lobsang Gyaltsen (Ch: Losang Jamcan) has become the new Governor of the TAR. Except for the top position of the Party Secretary, which continues to be in the hands of a non-Tibetan, these three positions are the highest in the region. All three individuals holding the positions are from present-day Chamdo Prefecture (Technically, Phakpalha was born in Lithang, but he is the recognized lama of Jampaling Monastery in Chamdo and is popularly known as Chamdo Phakpalha. Similarly Lobsang Gyaltsen was born in Dagyab, which is also in present-day Chamdo Prefecture). At the national level, Jampa Phuntsok has become the highest rank Tibetan official now and he is also from Chamdo.
The fact that they are all from Chamdo region could be coincidental, but if we look at popular perception of Tibetan history in modern times we see that there have been periods when elites from a particular area dominated the leadership positions in Lhasa. Read the rest of this entry »
An Outsider’s View of Bhutan’s Democratic Experiment
Bhuchung K. Tsering
March 16, 2013
With the announcement of April 23, 2013 as the date for elections to the National Council, exciting days are ahead for Bhutan as the country gears itself to its second general elections following democratization process of 2008. This time the situation has become more interesting in quite a few ways.
First, and the most important of all, is the birth of several political parties. In addition to the existing ruling Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (DPT) and the lone opposition, People’s Democratic Party (PDP), three more parties have registered themselves with the Election Commission of Bhutan. They are Druk Chirwang Tshogpa (DCT), Bhutan Kuen-Nyam Party (DKP), and Druk Nyamrup Tshogpa (DNT).
The very existence of more than two parties vying for seats means that there will be a vociferous attempt by the candidates to secure the vote. Additionally, the Bhutan Election Commission’s website lists a variety of voter awareness campaigns it has launched in order to evoke more participation from the citizens. These will all result in a more vocal campaign. As it is, even before the dates of the elections were set, and even before some of the parties were formally registered, we could see their active presence in the media. The Chief Election Commissioner of Bhutan, Dasho Kunzang Wangdi, himself is an active Twitter person (
@KunzangW) and uses the medium to generate greater awareness of the electoral process, including in responding to specific queries.
The spurt of political parties is matched by comparatively more assertive Bhutanese public, as reflected in the media. I believe for the first ever elections in 2008, the Bhutanese public gave some grace period to politicians as they were undergoing the experience for the first time. In fact, the authorities had to conduct a mock election in 2007 to sensitize the public and aspiring candidates, and educate them about the new process. Today, the Bhutanese public has become more experienced and more demanding. I have seen quite a few editorials and interviews with spokespersons of the political parties, both in the print media and on BBS, Bhutan’s lone TV channel, and it is clear people want clear answers to frank questions.
In the process, a few challenges to the Bhutanese political system can be observed. Read the rest of this entry »
Mind Your Language, in Tibetan
Bhuchung K. Tsering
March 6, 2013
Oftentimes, we take things for granted without really taking the time to look deeper into them. Take language for instance; in this case the Tibetan language. There are some phrases that we use in our daily conversation without taking second thoughts as we know the approximate meaning. But what is the etymology and how did these phrases evolve? I am sure linguists would have some answer.
གཅིག་མཇུག་གཉིས་མཐུད་ is a simple example. It literally means “the second connected to the end of the first” or “one after another.” But what about ཏན་ཏན་ཏིག་ཏིག་ The meaning here is “to be certain.” ཏན་ཏན་ repeats a homophone of a word that means stable, which has the connotative meaning of certainty. But what is ཏིག་ཏིག་
Then whenever we want to emphasize something to be done we talk of
ཡིན་གཅིག་མིན་གཉིས་ But the literal meaning seems to be “yes, one; no two.” Could this be it or am I missing something?
The third example would be ཁ་ཡོད་ལག་ཡོད། which means something concrete or practical. The literal meaning here is “within the mouth, within the hand.”
The last one that I want to raise here is ཁ་ཙ་དགོས་ཐུག་ which describes a critical or urgent situation. Could the literal meaning really be something like “the mouth’s vein touching the need”?
I contributed the following to the International Campaign for Tibet’s blog as I feel there is a need for the Vatican to look at the Tibetan issue from a different angle.
Bhuchung K. Tsering
March 1, 2013
On March 1, 2013, Catholics throughout the world started the day with a new experience, one that none of them had experienced in their lifetime; being without their spiritual leader the Pope, not because he had passed away, but because he had undertaken the papal version of the royal abdication. The Tibetan people had somewhat similar yet different kind of experience in 2011. While the Pope resigned from his spiritual duties now, the Dalai Lama had withdrawn himself from his temporal authorities then.
As the process begins for the search and election of a new Pope, among those watching the development closely will be the government of the People’s Republic of China. One of the unresolved religious issue in China today is the status of its estimated 12 million Catholics, which is having political and cultural implications. The Communist Government of China, despite being atheists, has been wanting to control the affairs of the Catholics and in the process giving them the false choice of obeying either the Vatican or Beijing on matters relating to their spiritual affairs. The Chinese Government has come out with different initiatives codifying the Church, creating in the process virtually two Catholic churches in China; the government-approved one and the underground one that has been showing its resilience for the past many years. The issue is further complicated by the fact that the Vatican has diplomatic relations with Taiwan and not with China.
The Vatican’s ties with China will be one of the issues confronting the new Pope, just as it was with previous Popes. In fact, there are reports saying that one of the ardent wishes of Pope John Paul II had been to “set foot on Chinese soil, kiss the ground and personally embrace the Chinese people.” Observers had also expected Pope Benedict XVI to make progress on ties with China. Pope Benedict XVI had even created a special Commission tasked to help the Vatican examine the issue of relationship with China.
Over the years, both the Vatican and China have sent feelers to each other in their effort to test the situation for improvement of their relations. But there have been no concrete outcomes.
As we await the new Holy Father, it might be worthwhile for the Vatican to look at the ongoing challenge the Tibetan Buddhists are facing in their relations with China to get an indication of whether there are any chances for a forward movement.
The Chinese authorities have been implementing a policy on Tibetan Buddhists, very much similar to the one on the Catholics, to either choose their spiritual tradition and leader, the Dalai Lama, or conform with Chinese government-approved procedures. As long as this mindset is not changed there cannot be any progress. Read the rest of this entry »
Yesterday, February 20, 2013, I participated in a discussion on the Talk of the Nation program on America’s National Public Radio (NPR). Below is the transcript of the same as posted on NPR’s website. You can also listen to the audio recording here. I thought Michael Biggs from Oxford succinctly put the development in Tibet in the broader context of self-immolation as a form of protest.
February 20, 2013
More than 100 Tibetans have set themselves on fire since 2009 to protest Chinese rule, according to Tibetan advocacy groups. Self-immolations in Tunisia and Vietnam also gained international attention, but the motives and effectiveness of the practice are widely debated.
Michael Biggs, lecturer in sociology, University of Oxford
Robert Barnett, director of the Modern Tibet Studies Program, Columbia University
Bhuchung Tsering, vice president for special programs, International Campaign for Tibet
NEAL CONAN, HOST:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I’m Neal Conan in Washington. A grim milestone last week in Tibet: Over the past four years, more than 100 people have now set themselves on fire to protest Chinese rule. According to the campaign, International Campaign for Tibet, at least 85 died following their protest.
The practice of political suicide is not new. During the Vietnam War, a horrified world saw pictures of Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc sitting calmly as his body burned in a public square in Saigon. Two years ago, the self-immolation of Tunisian fruit seller Mohamed Bouazizi inspired protests that developed into the Arab Spring.
Thus far, more than 100 such acts appears to have effected little change in China. Later in the program, we’ll talk about the anatomy of a successful movie trailer, but first self-immolation and politics. We begin with Michael Biggs, a sociologist at the University of Oxford. He joins us from BBC Studios there. Welcome to the program.
MICHAEL BIGGS: Hello.
CONAN: And I have to ask you, I know you’ve looked into it – why – and it’s hard to answer this question – why does someone set themselves afire, kill themselves, to effect change and harming only themselves?
BIGGS: Well, I think we can distinguish two different motivations, although they’re often combined in a single action. So one motivation is to show a distant audience, an audience far away that doesn’t understand your situation just how badly your group is or your group of people is suffering.
So in the example from Saigon in 1963 that you mentioned, the aim was very much to speak to an American audience, to show the American public just what was going on in South Vietnam under the government that was sponsored by the United States.
And so the idea is to speak to, to address and to get the attention of a very distant audience. That’s the first sort of motivation. The second motivation is to strengthen the resolve of your fellow people. So now you’re directing your action, or your action is mainly intended for your local audience. But you’re wanting to say, you know, we need to show greater resolve, and I’m willing to kill myself, and so I hope that my fellows will be willing to perhaps take part in the street demonstrations or to do some other more modest action for our collective cause.
CONAN: I read in a piece you wrote for Foreign Policy titled “Ultimate Sacrifice” that in fact this act has caused the definition of the word immolation to change.
BIGGS: Yes, I mean classically immolation means sacrifice. I mean, the etymology is sacrifice. And yet since the 1960s it’s now come more and more to be used to mean death by fire or a fiery death.
CONAN: And fire, why – this – is the act augmented by choosing such a painful death?
BIGGS: Yes, I think it’s obviously – partly we can find earlier examples of suicide protests, earlier in the 20th century. So for example in Japan, Japanese people protesting against the exclusion of Japanese from the United States in 1924, they committed suicide by disemboweling themselves, the sort of traditional Japanese seppuku. So we find suicide protests earlier, and it’s really this action in 1963 that attaches suicide protest with fire and that now most cases, the vast majority of cases of suicide protest are carried out by fire.
It’s partly because of this terrible – the fact that it’s a very painful death. It’s also a very visually – you can capture this on film and you can show a picture of this in a way you can’t show a picture of someone being disemboweled. So it’s a very kind of tele-visual protest.
And also, it also has a kind of cultural resonance in some cultures in the way that fire is purifying. So for us, I think, in the Christian tradition or the Western tradition, fire is often kind of horrifying. But of course in Buddhist or Hindu traditions fire has much more a positive resonance of something that’s purifying and holy.
CONAN: You wrote in that piece that the monk in Saigon in 1963, that changed things. Among those horrified by it was President Kennedy.
BIGGS: Yes, exactly, yes. He realized that the effect on American public opinion, also global public opinion – remember, of course, the United States was in a Cold War, and this was terribly bad publicity for the Western side. If you say, you know, that here’s our great democracy in South Vietnam, and yet a Buddhist monk is willing to set himself on fire to protest against religious persecution, then that’s very, very bad for – it was used by the communists as propaganda, and of course it was very bad for the West.
So the feeling was we have to make sure this regime changes.
CONAN: And it did, in an American-sponsored coup just a couple months later.
BIGGS: Yes, exactly, yes. So that’s a very clear connection between the action, these actions – and of course there were lots of other protests going on as well, street demonstrations and so on, by monks, and that very clearly and quickly led to the overthrow of the government.
CONAN: Yet we have in the case of Tibet over 100 now, and as mentioned, very little change.
BIGGS: Yes, I think that the situations are very, very different because of course the – well, the Tibetan cause already has considerable amount of sympathy among the Western public. But of course there’s nothing that Western governments can do or want to do in forcing China. China is a major power, and you cannot boss China around like the United States bossed South Vietnam around.
CONAN: And also those images, they do get out to the West, but they are not seen in China.
BIGGS: Yes, exactly, and so China can censor at least the majority of the Han – the local majority population, the Han Chinese, from seeing these. And even if they did see them, I’m not entirely sure that – I mean Chinese nationalism is very strong, and so I’m not sure that they would garner such great sympathy. But that’s of course speculative.
But it’s not – you know, it’s certainly not the case that the Tibetans have been trying to speak directly to the Chinese public, or the majority Chinese public.
CONAN: Joining us now to talk about Tibet is Robert Barnett, director of the Modern Tibet Studies Program at Columbia University, author of a number of books, including “Lhasa: Streets with Memories.” Thanks very much for being with us today.
ROBERT BARNETT: My pleasure.
CONAN: And what’s the cause of this recent wave, the past four years of these horrible protests?
BARNETT: Well there’s of course a long history of 60 years of rather troubled rule by China in Tibet in which the Chinese have been really rather aggressive in trying to persuade Tibetans that they are Chinese and a part of China. It hasn’t really worked. But the thing that seems to spark this in an area which had been relatively calm for some 30 years was a decision in about 1998 to ban the photographs of the Dalai Lama and quietly to ban worship of him.
This had already been done in western Tibet a few years earlier, but from ’98 they began to push this idea, this policy across the eastern areas which had been much more relaxed after the death of Mao and where people had been allowed to practice religion, at least to a considerable extent.
So a very big change there in religious policy, particularly about the Dalai Lama and a number of other issues: nomads being made to settle; language, Tibetan language being gradually withdrawn from schools; very strong controls on information and travel; these kinds of issues as well. But I think the religious question is primary.
CONAN: Those of us in the West might see this as a sign of despair. Do you find that to be accurate?
BARNETT: It’s hard to say. I mean I think that we have to listen carefully to what Michael said about this being a way to try to reach the ears of important people. Of course Westerners and exiles tend to see it as trying to reach the ears of the international community, but I think as Michael explained it’s really about trying to get the Chinese leadership to pay attention to what’s happening in their far-flung western areas.
And this may be a way to also – I don’t know if it’s to rally the community, I don’t think that’s an intention of these immolators, but it’s a way to express a real commitment to their cultural and religious ideals. It’s probably not thought through as a deliberate strategy. It just makes huge sense within the terms of traditional Buddhism, the idea of self-sacrifice for a noble cause, that’s very strong in Buddhism, and the idea that there is something here that’s been threatened: the culture, the language, the religion, and the nation, really, by current Chinese policy.
But it’s not a clear political movement or a specific strategy.
CONAN: We mentioned there had been little change. There’s been little reform. There has been a change, and that has been, of late, a crackdown by the Chinese government.
BARNETT: Yes, it’s very interesting. In the first like year and a half or so of these terrible self-immolations in Tibet, the Chinese officials were very uncertain about how to proceed. But the realized very quickly they shouldn’t criticize monks, and instead they started to say that the monks, most of the first year, the first 40 cases or so were monks or nuns or former monks.
And they didn’t criticize them, but they criticized the people around them, who they accused of helping them. And they regarded the immolators as, quote, innocents. But recently, in the last two and a half months, they’ve very radically changed this approach and begun to arrest almost anybody they can find in some areas who they can accuse of inciting immolations.
It seems to be anybody who expresses the idea that an immolation is justified in Buddhism or is noble. These people seem to be arrested in some areas. It’s not the same in every area, but it’s – they’re offering large amounts of money for information about immolators. One person has already received a suspended death sentence for supposedly inciting immolation.
It looks to me that he just expressed support for the notion and said the people who’d done it were heroic. So we’ve moved into a very aggressive phase here, trying to contain this wave.
CONAN: Michael Biggs, let me ask you. As Robert Barnett just mentioned, the first 40 or so were monks or nuns or ex-monks. Now it has begun to widen. There are people from all walks of life who’ve now become immolators in Tibet. What’s the significance of that?
BIGGS: Well, I suppose it shows the incredibly, the incredibly positive resonance that these actions have with the general public, with the general Tibetan people. And we find a similar pattern in South Vietnam, where first of all it was monks, and then ordinary lay people began to copy the action as well. So I think it shows just how not popular but how much symbolic resonance this action has with the ordinary people, who see this as a, you know, exemplary action by monks; a few brave people who are not monks will try to imitate and strengthen the cause by following in the same, in their footsteps.
CONAN: We’re talking about self-immolation. Our guests: Robert Barnett, he is the director of the Modern Tibet Studies Program at Columbia University; Michael Biggs is also with us, you just heard him, a sociologist who studies social movements and collective protests at the University of Oxford. Stay with us. When we come back, we’ll get to the Tibetan perspective. I’m Neal Conan. It’s the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I’m Neal Conan. When Thich Quang Duc self-immolated in Vietnam in 1963, journalist David Halberstam was there. In his book “The Making of a Quagmire,” he remembered that day. Please note the description is graphic.
Flames were coming from a human being. His body was slowly withering and shriveling up, his head blackening and charring. In the air was the smell of burning flesh. Human beings burn surprisingly quickly, Halberstam wrote. Behind me I could hear the sobbing of the Vietnamese who were now gathering. I was too shocked to cry, too confused to take notes or ask questions, too bewildered even to think.
Today we’re talking about recent self-immolations, more than 100 in Tibet in the last four years now. Michael Biggs of the University of Oxford and Robert Barnett of the Modern Tibet Studies Program at Columbia University are our guests. Joining us now is Bhuchung Tsering, vice president for special programs at the International Campaign for Tibet. He’s been kind enough to join us here in Studio 3A. Welcome to the program.
BHUCHUNG TSERING: My pleasure.
CONAN: And I – what’s been the response to these immolations among Tibetans?
TSERING: I think there are two broad responses, and we’re talking about Tibetans in the free world, not inside Tibet. First is the strong emotional connection that people have sort of got upon learning from these reports, these emotional connections both of sorrow that yet another Tibetan has died, just like in the case of yesterday, and at the same time admiring their courage of willingness to do the utmost for the sake of their people. So that’s one aspect of it.
The other aspect is to say what is there that we can do outside that really you cannot at all match what the people inside Tibet have done but that can really help change the situation for the people inside Tibet to no longer have to do those things. Read the rest of this entry »