[monk1] “I will liberate those not liberated; I will release those not released; I will relieve those unrelieved; and set living beings in Nirvana,” the Dalai Lama once said. A new struggle to make the Dalai Lama’s words reality has emerged for his people in Tibet, even though the Chinese maintain that Tibet has been a part of the People’s Republic of China since the 1950s. The Tibetan people are not alone in that struggle to regain what they believe is a lost identity and religion. Groups around the world are working to help Tibetans shed light on humans rights violations taking place in their mountainous land.
Students for a Free Tibet (SFT) is one of the groups. It was launched by a coalition of Tibetans, students and supporters of the cause in New York. The U.S.-Tibet Committee and the International Campaign for Tibet officially recognized SFT in Aug. 1994. What began as a small conglomeration of chapters at the universities across the nation has evolved into an international movement of both students and non-students in more than 35 countries.
[barnes2] The overwhelming amount of support for Tibetans comes from university students. “It’s something I’ve always been interested in since about eighth or ninth grade,” said Sarah Oliai, international relations sophomore and president of the SFT’s MSU chapter. As a native of western Michigan, Oliai knew of an SFT chapter at Grand Valley State University but was surprised to learn that MSU did not have a chapter. With the help of some friends, she formed an MSU SFT group at the end of the spring 2008 semester.
While MSU’s SFT group is in its infancy, they focus on conflicts in Tibet that have long, complex histories.
Since 1950, the People’s Republic of China has occupied Tibet, which is known to the Chinese as the Tibetan Autonomous Region. The Chinese have been using Tibet for expansion and economic growth, connecting Tibet to Beijing by railroad. SFT, however, argues that China is oppressing Tibetan people by doing so. Tibetans have fled their homes, abandoned their religion and lost what they considered to be a traditional way of life because of the Chinese influence in the country.
This influence from China is not a modern occurrence, however. China and Tibet have been tied to each other throughout their histories, and the Dalai Lama has been both exiled and allowed back into the country at various points. “In the 13th century, both China and Tibet – who was not yet a country – were taken over by the Mongols and ruled as one entity; so China and Tibet were one,” said MSU Chinese history professor Linda Cooke Johnson, referring to dynastic China before the rise of Mao Zedong.
But by the 18th century, the British declared Tibet independent. “(The) intervention (in Tibet) by the British and Russians urged Tibet to be a separate country,” Johnson said. As the debate waged over who controlled Tibet, the world entered the post-World War II era, and the People’s Republic of China rose to power in 1949. “When the People’s Republic came into power, they went back to Tibet to reestablish their ownership of Tibet,” Johnson said.
[sarah] Oliai and other members of SFT believe otherwise. She said that Tibet has always had relations with China, but was never uniquely a part of the Chinese emperor’s reign.
“(China) saw Tibet as a repressive and feudal society, and they wanted to ‘liberate them,'” said Drew Barnes, a sophomore in international relations and treasurer of the MSU SFT. “I think China may have seen the influence of Tibetan Buddhism as a sort of threat as well.”
A year after the People’s Republic rose in China in 1949, the People’s Liberation Army invaded Tibet, overwhelming Tibet’s small army in two days. In Sept. 1951, the PRC’s army marched into Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, and from that point forward rejected any Tibetan attempts at negotiation, viewing their invasion and occupation as a liberation. But the Tibetans weren’t entirely submissive. March 10, 1959 marked the beginning of an uprising that started in the capital of Lhasa with protests, barricades and petitions. By the end of the opposition that lasted over a week, the Dalai Lhama was forced into exile in neighboring India. “The role of the Dalai has been a crucial figure to Tibet and its Buddhism since the beginning of its history,” Johnson said.
One of the biggest goals of the SFT is to restore Tibetan sense of ownership of their country and religion back to the Tibetan people. China’s invasion represented the loss of Tibetan livelihood because the Chinese have since declared that anything relating to the “old Tibet,” including their national flag, is illegal. “The repression of the Tibetan people is widespread and diverse,” said Kristen Coppens, the Grand Valley SFT president. “It is a cultural genocide. The many facets of a culture of people are exactly what the Tibetans are being denied every day,” she said.
The facets Coppens refers to are the inability to have free speech, freedom to assemble, freedom of press or freedom of religion. “[Tibetans] cannot display any symbols or speak of the Dalai Lama,” said Ngawang Dolker, the Midwest Coordinator for SFT and a member of the chapter at the University of Minnesota. “[Tibetans] can get an education, but they will the get the Chinese version of Tibetan history. However, the people not near the cities – like Lhasa – have less of a chance of getting educated,” she said.
Johnson, on the other hand, said that the Chinese occupation is a good thing for Tibet. “The Dalai Lama wants to put Tibet back into the 13th century. [Tibet] now has railroad transportation, airports, roads and schools – where previously the only schools were in monasteries,” she said. “The Chinese have improved Tibet’s economy and agriculture, and brought in doctors and nurses that were not previously available.” China’s presence protects Tibet from the invasion of some South Asian countries interested in country because of its resources like uranium, Johnson said.
The main goal of SFT chapters working outside of Tibet is to raise awareness about the situation. They use grassroots education, campaigns and nonviolent protests, among other tools to spread the word. “(SFT) has raised a lot of money, especially for schools that teach about traditional Tibet,” said Courtney Swisher, a junior in international relations and vice president of the MSU SFT. [spin]
At the national level, SFT holds conferences and sponsors an “action camp” designed to empower and train young adults to become leaders. “You learn how to prepare for protesting in a way that will not get you hurt or arrested when you go to apply it,” said Dolker of the action camp. According to their site (www.studentsforafreetibet.org) [HYPERLINK HERE], the camp also trains participants in the history and philosophy of applied nonviolence, grassroots organizing, campaign strategy, nonviolent direct action and fundraising. It also teaches participants how to organize successful campaigns, themed generally by human rights, politics or economics.
Meanwhile, individual chapters contribute to the cause in their own ways. Coppens said the Grand Valley chapter has done fundraising for a Tibetan nun project and a Tibetan healing project. They also marched against the 2008 summer Olympics in downtown Grand Rapids and held candlelight vigils to honor traditional Tibet.
Since the MSU group is still young, it is focusing its energy on making an impact at MSU first. “Once we can get more people involved, we will look into doing more,” Barnes said. The group would like show the Martin Scorsese documentary Kundun about the struggle in Tibet at Wells Hall over the course of a couple weekends and paint The Rock on Farm Lane later in the year.
But the groups still have long and difficult work ahead. “We’re dealing with the Chinese government here, and that in itself is an overwhelmingly daunting task,” Coppens said. “I personally don’t think the U.S. government is willing to jeopardize [our] relationship [with China] by sticking our noses in the situation, and China has made it clear that they believe it’s not the West’s business to do so.”
Still, SFT has been able to free political prisoners, nuns and even American students filming documentaries who were jailed by the Chinese government. SFT was also a part of the movement against a proposed loan sponsored by The World Bank that would have placed even more Chinese settlers into Tibetan territory and forced ethnic Tibetans out. This was an important victory for SFT, because there are more Chinese than ethnic Tibetans in Lhasa, Oliai said.
In 2004, SFT’s 10-year anniversary, the organization vowed to put itself out of business before another decade passed. March 10, 2009 marks the 50th year since Tibet’s failed uprising against Chinese rule, and SFT is planning protests and campaigns to bring attention to those who are unaware of the Tibetan’s struggle. “All it would (eventually) take is a change of Chinese policies,” Oliai said.
The issue isn’t cut and dry, as seen by the protesting around the world on the cusp of the Chinese Olympics. Many hoped the Olympics would force China, and the world, to finally reckon with the Tibet issue, but after the initial fierce protesting, you have to dig deep to find any mention of Tibet in the news. But for groups like SFT, the struggle is far from over.
MSU SFT meets the second and fourth Wednesday of the month in North Case Hall’s second floor lounge at 7:30 pm.