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Tibetan activist Tenzin Tsundue speaks in Minnesota
Tsundue, whom some consider the second most influential Tibetan after the Dalai Lama, first gained international recognition in 2002 when he climbed the scaffolding to the 14th floor of the Oberoi Hotel in India to drop a Tibetan national flag and a large banner reading “Free Tibet” down the outside of the hotel during a visit by Chinese Prime Minister Zhu Rongji. Long before his famous protest, however, he was hard at work as a Tibetan freedom fighter.
After graduating from Madras University, Tsundue decided to realize his dream of seeing his homeland. He set off on a journey back into Tibet, a feat most Tibetans would never dare to try for fear of imprisonment. Arrested by the Chinese border police, he was thrown into prison for three months before being pushed back into India.
In 1999, Tsundue joined Friends of Tibet, an organization based in India with six international chapters, that focuses on gaining support for an independent Tibet. Tsundue has since become the General Secretary of the organization. Also a recognized poet and short-story writer, Tsundue has been featured in numerous publications, such as International PEN, The Times of India, Hindustan Times and Tibetan Bulletin. He has also published two books of poems and essays, Kora and, most recently, Semshook.
Tsundue spoke in St. Paul as part of a whirlwind tour of the U.S, which includes Portland, San Francisco and New York in his first-ever trip to the United States. His appearance in Minnesota is particularly important because of the fact that Minnesota boasts the second-largest Tibetan population in the country, about 1,500 people. Although not all Tibetans support Tsundue’s approach to a free Tibet, TAFM was packed with Tibetans young and old to listen to what they could do to free Tibet.
In contrast, the Dalai Lama has advocated the Middle-Way Approach since the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1959, which would allow Tibetans autonomy within China and the right to preserve their culture, religion and national identity) The Dalai Lama has been working with the Chinese government for years using this approach, but China remains apprehensive of the Dalai Lama’s true motives, accounting for the lack of any concrete agreement between the two nations.
Speaking after his presentation, which was given in Tibetan, Tsundue reiterates the role each Tibetan must take to preserve their culture and country. “The movement will only be possible if a lot of individuals are making the individual effort. It needs to be a collective effort,” he says, while riding to Edison High School, where he is the special guest for the Tibetan Cultural School’s evening song and dance program.
Part of the struggle for Tibetans these days, says Tsundue, is reconciling their modern, busy lives outside of Tibet with their duty as Tibetans to consistently fight for their country’s freedom. "People have to fight their own complacency,” he says. Tsundue also urges Tibetans to educate themselves, to read and to learn about what is going on in other countries so that when they decide to take action, they will be prepared.
Tsundue’s daily life is completely devoted to his cause. While writing takes his time here and there, his work with Friends of Tibet and his numerous speaking engagements around the world keep him extremely busy. “I have committed my life [to freeing Tibet]. My work is day to day. I’m always thinking with every possible effort about what I can do,” says Tsundue, “Until Tibet is free, I will continue my work.”
Until Tibet is free, Tsundue will also continue to wear his trademark red bandana. The red color signifies his passion for the cause. “There’s nothing more a person can do than commit his life,” he says.
While an individual’s role in freeing Tibet is a vital one, big businesses could be the key component in making significant gains in the Tibetan struggle internationally, says Tsundue. Tsundue names the U.S., Australia and England as international corporate powerhouses whose ties to China have made it difficult for Tibetans to make any headway in their fight for independence.
In fact, the U.S. Commercial Service, part of the U.S. Department of Commerce, has an entire section of its website devoted to making it easier for U.S. companies to enter the China market through developing partnerships. The U.S.-China International Partner Network was set up in 2005 to foster new business relationships between the two countries. When the wealthiest nations of the world are working “hand-in-hand” with China, says Tsundue, it is hard for those governments to hold China accountable for its mass human rights violations against the Tibetans.
Currently, Tibetan culture is slowly being eliminated by the Chinese government. According to Human Rights Watch, Tibetans are unable to practice their religion, culture or language and are instead pushed towards building a “new ethnic culture,” more in line with the Chinese government’s expectations. Those who openly support the Dalai Lama or mention “freeing Tibet” are tortured, imprisoned or killed. Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and other human rights organizations around the world have openly condemned China’s human rights record and have urged the U.N. to take action.
Tsundue adds that precious natural resources are being stripped from Tibet as China experiences an economic boom. “China is utilizing huge natural resources [in Tibet]…China is consuming everything,” he says. The Tibet government-in-exile notes that China has used Tibet as a nuclear waste dumping ground, deforested the large tree reserves in the area and done extensive mining, all of which has caused soil erosion and flooding.
Tibet has a complex ecosystem, which includes 100,000 rare plants, 25.2 million hectares of forest coverage, and 126 minerals that account for a significant amount of the world’s reserves of gold and iron. The largest body of fresh water in China, the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, is located in Tibet, as are many of Asia’s principal rivers, which sustain the lives of 47 percent of the world’s population.
Tsundue insists that there is a link between Tibet and global warming. Many of Tibet’s natural resources could reverse carbon dioxide emissions and affect climate change, thusthe ramifications of Tibet’s current environmental crisis could be felt around the world. “It is not just the Tibetan people’s righ,” he says,”it is the concern of the world.”
As for the next big opportunity for Tibetans to highlight their struggle to the international community, Tsundue remains mysterious, but alludes to the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, China. “Tibetans will definitely do their own thing,” he says. The Games, he says, are only a money-making venture for wealthy nations, such as the U.S. “America will send the biggest contingent to the Olympic Games next year. This will promote the peaceful rise of China.”
While Tsundue plans to appeal to Tibetans in other communities in the U.S. and around the world for weeks and months to come, he also hopes that the international community will show interest in his fight for a free Tibet. “Our main work is to garner support. The international community must help,” he says, “why not?”
In the end, Tsundue puts the onus on Tibetans, which is why he directed his speech in St. Paul to a one hundred percent Tibetan crowd, speaking in Tibetan. “For Tibetans, it’s a double responsibility [to work for a free Tibet],” he says, “It’s morally wrong to turn the other way.”
Colette Davidson is a free-lance writer in Minneapolis and the associate editor of Uptown Neighborhood News.
©2007 Colette Davidson