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Fighting From Afar

Off Campus | April 8, 2013

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Tsepa Poy glanced at the crowd of people surrounding him. He was at the center of attention, a clear leader despite his relatively young age. “We are here to protest China’s occupation of Tibet,” he announced through his loudspeaker to the public on a Sunday afternoon. Some onlookers stood by, curious at the mass of several hundred Tibetans who had descended upon Fanueil Hall that day.

It was March 10, a date that stands out significantly for Tibetan communities around the world. On this date in 1959, a Tibetan revolt had occurred against the Chinese government in Lhasa, eventually leading to His Holiness the Dalai Lama, the revered spiritual leader of Tibet, to flee to India, where he now lives in the mountain town of Dharamsala. Every year, the global Tibetan community gathers in pockets to protest the Chinese presence in Tibet with demonstrations, songs, and speeches. Earlier that morning, activists from the Boston area community had gathered at Government Center, where young leaders performed traditional song and dance before reading out letters of support from various US congressmen. The passion was palpable; members of the local community came out dressed in their traditional attire, a long dress known as the chuba, determined to showcase their national and cultural pride. Some hung placards around their necks, each with a black-and-white photograph of a Tibetan who self-immolated. According to The International Campaign for Tibet, the number has risen to 111 since 2009, with the most recent occurring just a few days ago.

In the middle of the protest, the Bee Gees’ “Staying Alive” suddenly blared through the square, causing the crowd, for the first time that day, to falter in their chants. A street performer had turned up the volume in response to the demonstration. It was an uncomfortable situation—the Tibetan crowd was unsure about how to react to the abrupt mockery. In a few minutes, reactions turned into anger, as a small group, some still with placards hung around their necks, walked briskly to the performer for a confrontation. Poy, the activist leader in his late twenties, continued to encourage the crowd, trying his hardest to not get distracted by the potential conflict that was brewing at one end of the square. Eventually, with the help of police officers stationed around the area, the conflict was mediated, with the performer agreeing to turn off his music for the protest. A Tibetan lady shook hands with him, thanking him for his understanding, before returning to the demonstration.

The entire encounter lasted only a few minutes, but the performer’s interruption was perhaps reflective of the international community’s response in general. Despite persistent movements like Students for a Free Tibet and the International Campaign for Tibet, and the dramatic surge in self-immolations, all the odds are still stacked against the Tibetans. The Chinese government has refused to budge, in spite of His Holiness’ request for autonomy rather than full independence. Instead, recent years have seen government policy growing stricter, with greater encouragement for mass Han Chinese immigration into Tibet in an effort to unite the area as part of China. Access into the region is similarly strictly monitored; tourists are currently only allowed on group tours booked through approved agencies. Most recently, Human Rights Watch reported the Chinese government’s plans to introduce a new surveillance policy known as grid management, which will see the construction of over 600 police-posts enabled with high-tech equipment to monitor daily life, as well as the building of volunteer security groups known as “Red Armband Patrols”.

For many of the crowd members that afternoon, the immediate call seemed to be for freedom and human rights, rather than any specific government policy. As the crowd moved towards Park Street in a procession, it was evident that this sentiment was shared among Tibetans of different backgrounds, from young children to the elderly. One of the most prominent youth present that day was Tenzin Chokki, a fresh-faced senior at Somerville High School. “We’re fighting for basic human rights,” she said at an interview in the apartment she shared with her family in Somerville’s Union Square. “In Tibet if you hold up a picture of the Dalai Lama or the Tibetan flag, you’ll be arrested for it,” she said, citing examples of harsh Chinese security implemented on daily Tibetan life.

Chokki was born and raised in Dharamsala, India, and came to Boston as a refugee with her family in 2009. Upper Dharamsala is the site of the Tibetan government in exile, and naturally where a large population of Tibetans resides. Despite having never seen Tibet herself, Chokki retains a strong connection to the country and its people. She attends the community’s weekly Sunday school in Central Square, where she learns the Tibetan language and takes part in music and dance lessons. The school, which rents out several rooms in the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) building, provides a gathering place for the Tibetan community to engage in, a much welcomed resource for the small but tight-knit refugee population. Boston’s Tibetan population currently numbers at around five to six hundred.

Despite the odds, hope for a free Tibet seems unceasing among the Tibetan community. Every Wednesday evening, a small group gathers at Harvard Square to hold a vigil. One of the most regular attendees is an elderly man, known to the local Tibetan community as “Vigil Pala,” “pala” meaning “father” in Tibetan. He says that he is there every week, rain or shine. “My life is for Tibet until the day I die,” he said. “I will be here every week until Tibet is free.”

All photos featured in this article were taken by the author.