Local Tibetans and supporters marched from Ballard to downtown Seattle on Wednesday to mark Losar, the start of the Tibetan new year. But instead of celebrating, the marchers carried cardboard coffins draped in Tibetan flags, to symbolize the estimated 25 monks and nuns who have self-immolated in the past year in protest of Chinese rule of the Himalayan country.
Three monks have self-immolated since last Friday alone. Tsultrim Dorjee knows two of the monks who died from his old monastery. In 1991 he escaped Tibet, journeying with three others over the mountains into neighboring India.
“There is no freedom of language and religion in Tibet,” Dorjee said as we walked across the Ballard Bridge, a procession of elders, men, women and children carrying Tibetan flags behind us.
“We wrote on a piece of paper, long live the Dalai Lama and free Tibet,” Dorjee says, explaining the small protest action that sparked his flight from the country. “The Chinese government was looking for us.”
Dorjee was 16-years-old. “Our monasteries are like jails. All around them are military and police,” he said. “A group of us – four monks together – we left in the middle of the night.” After an American citizen sponsored a fellow Tibetan exile, he found his way to Seattle in 2006.
The march was quiet and somber as it wound its way through Belltown on the sidewalk. Cloth flags flapped in the wind and caught on trees. People raised their fists and murmured in excitement when the odd car honked in support.
But when the several dozen protesters came to Pike Place Market, which was crowded with people enjoying the sunny afternoon, a Tibetan woman wearing traditional dress grabbed the bullhorn. “Hu Jintao is a murderer! Hu Jintao is a liar! Stop the killing in Tibet!” she shouted, almost screamed, growing hoarser by the second before arriving at Westlake Mall.
Many marchers said they hope to one day visit Tibet and declined to speak with me, fearful that the Chinese government will mark them down on a no-entry list.
Sam, who just moved from Connecticut to Seattle, asked that I only use his last name. He spent a semester abroad living among Tibetan exiles in Nepal and India. “The things going on in Tibet are atrocious and need to be fixed, but I don’t exactly know how to go about doing that, of course. This [march] is what I know I can do right now,” he said.
“We are going to forego the celebration part [of Losar] to show our solidarity with our brothers and sisters in Tibet,” Janpa Jorkhang, a stock broker who is President of the Tibetan Association of Washington, told the crowd.
In front of him lay two mock coffins and sixteen laminated photos of the monks and nuns, their faces bordered by flames, propped against steps. He said taking one’s life is the ultimate self-sacrifice in Tibetan Buddhism, because it means there is no chance of reincarnation.
“You may ask why,” Jorkhang said, referring to the self-immolations. “Simply to let the whole world know that there are no human rights in Tibet.”
Jorkhang questioned why uprisings in the Middle East receive attention but Tibetans engaged in nonviolent resistance to Chinese rule do not. “Is it because we don’t have oil?”
He called on Americans to support an independent United Nations fact-finding mission to the area and boycott China.
It’s easy to imagine how Tibetans, in their remote and frigid mountain country, could feel alone struggling against a behemoth neighbor country like China. 9 million ethnic Han Chinese have emigrated into Tibet since China invaded in 1949. Tibetans are now a minority in their own country.
The Chinese government disappeared the Panchen Lama, Tibetan Buddhism’s second-highest-ranking monk, and is expected to try to appoint its own successor to the Dalai Lama when he resigns or passes away. When the Dalai Lama visited the University of Washington four years ago, Chinese students staged a protest against him.
But Spring Cheng, a Chinese woman who left her job in the pharmaceutical industry to study traditional Chinese medicine, got up on stage at Wednesday’s march and told the Tibetans not to lose hope. “I’ve traveled to Tibet and I’ve seen with my own eyes the friendly relationship and support between ordinary Chinese people and Tibetans,” she said. After the anti-Dalai Lama protests, she organized dialogue sessions between local Tibetans and Chinese students.
“You are not forgotten or left alone, or struggling by yourself in this misery,” Cheng said, reminding the crowd of the millions of mainland Chinese living under repressive conditions. “Basically, the struggle Tibetans are going through right now is the universal struggle of people all over the world.”
Over the last year, we’ve seen governments around the world toppled by civil resistance campaigns, and protests have spurred democratic reforms in some of the most unlikely places.
But, after more than fifty years, will this be Tibet’s chance to throw off the shackles of authoritarian rule as well?