Tsundue advocates for Tibetan freedom at the UMass Campus Center
On Thursday, Oct. 2, Tibetan freedom activist and internationally-acclaimed writer and poet Tenzin Tsundue came to the University of Massachusetts Campus Center Auditorium to speak on the progress of the Tibetan freedom movement, and his own personal struggle to see his homeland liberated.
Tsundue, who is currently on a lecture circuit to several universities in America, had his speech sponsored by the UMass Students for Free Tibet and hosted by Thondup Tsering, Residence Director for Washington Hall and a Tibetan refugee himself.
Tsundue gave details about his life as an activist in the Tibetan exile community, which has operated since the Chinese occupied Tibet in 1949.
“It’s a very complicated issue there,” said Tsundue. “China needs the natural resources [copper and large permafrost fields] found in Tibet, and Tibet is geographically placed strategically for its military.”
But Tsundue says the problem between Tibet and China goes farther back than the 1949 occupation.
“[China claims] that Tibet has been part of China for the last 400 years,” he says. “In 1911 when Chinese nationals overthrew the Manchu dynasty, which had representatives in areas like Tibet, they now gained control over these areas.” But at approximately the same time, His Holiness the Dalai Lama declared Tibetan independence.
Tsundue’s struggle began in India, where he was born to parents who were Tibetan exiles, forced to flee their home in the 1950s.
“It was through my parents and growing up in Tibetan schools that I learned about Tibet,” said Tsundue, “and from many Tibetans who escaped from Tibet and the persecution by Chinese people. This inspired me to go to Tibet and see the situation for myself and if possible join the resistance movement.” However, he was arrested by Chinese border police and sent to jail for three months. Throughout his lecture, Tsundue jokingly recommended that anyone who wants to become an activist for a cause they believe in, go to jail for their cause because he learned many important lessons from that experience.
“There was a point in time where there was a direct threat on the life of His Holiness, the Dalai Lama,” said Tsundue, “so he escaped into India to avoid confrontation between the Tibetan people and the Chinese military. He was followed by other Tibetans who continue to leave Tibet. As of now there are 120,000 Tibetans living in India and about thirty to forty thousand Tibetans elsewhere worldwide which make up the Tibetan exile community. It is our final dream to return home when His Holiness does and Tibet is free.”
Tsundue’s lecture focused specifically on the year 2008, which is seen to be a turning point in the country’s freedom movement.
“We were thinking what we were going to do in 2008 when China was going to play politics with the Beijing Olympics,” said Tsundue. “They would show that China was united, but we wanted to show them that this was propaganda and that China was suppressing freedom in occupied countries like Tibet and Mongolia. It was very important that when international attention was on China, we should speak the truth.”
Tsundue and his fellow freedom activists organized a massive return march to Tibet, during which they faced much violence from China. Three hundred and sixty people walked for four months, sunrise to sunset, from India to Tibet, telling their story along the way. As they marched, people in Tibet began to protest and sacrifice their own lives to show that they would not rest until freedom was restored.
Tsundue has also organized several of his own one man protests throughout his activist career, including one at Oberoi Hotel in India.
“We went to protest the Chinese Prime Minister who was visiting Bombay,” said Tsundue, “but when we asked for permission [from the Indian government] we were told we could, but we had to be about two kilometers away. I thought I would do something a little more interesting. I leapt to the scaffolding on the hotel and slowly climbed. I strapped myself to the scaffolding, hung a ‘Free Tibet’ banner, and waved a Tibetan Flag while screaming ‘Free Tibet and China! Get out!’” His protest was broadcast live on national television by the media who were there to see the prime minister.
Through protests such as these, Tsundue feels he is able to capture world attention in ways that are dramatic, brave, and strategic, but not violent. It is, he says, more effective than sitting two kilometers away on a street corner holding a sign. Tsundue has been wearing a red band around his head for the past six years which he says is the mark of his pledge that he would work for freedom of his country and never take it off until Tibet is free. He has also written several books, the most recent titled “Semshook,” which is a collection of essays about the freedom struggle in Tibet.
Benjamin Axelson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.