Happy New Year, everyone. I’m sure that, like me, many of you are hoping that 2017 will be a kinder and more positive year than 2016.
Some people will remember 2016 as the year we lost the likes of David Bowie, Alan Rickman, Prince, Muhammad Ali, Leonard Cohen, George Michael, Carrie Fisher and so many more. Some will remember the seismic political changes and the deep divisions they revealed within and between communities. Some will remember the escalation of the war in Syria and the refugee crisis; the terror attacks in various cities around the world; the number of unarmed black civilians shot by police in the USA; the rise in hate crimes; the sense of disenfranchisement expressed in referendums and the concern that we are now living in a post-truth, post-human-rights world.
I know a lot of people were very glad to see the end of 2016 but there were some good things that happened too. Rio might have been a controversial location for the Olympics but there were some incredible sporting achievements. Records were set and broken, new stars emerged, some established stars became legends, the Brazilian football team regained the love of their country by winning gold and there was an Olympics refugee team for the first time ever. Meanwhile, Usain Bolt sprinted into the history books with a big grin on his face as he completed the triple treble - an achievement I doubt I’ll ever see matched, never mind beaten.
On a more serious note, there was a lot of solidarity shown during 2016. For all of the negative things that happened, there was a response. People came out on the streets in tens of thousands to support refugees, the Black Lives Matter movement gained momentum and solidarity for the water protectors at Standing Rock Indian Reservation seemed to extend right around the world. The strength of it was quite inspiring.
In a Tibetan context, there were three self-immolation protests inside Tibet during 2016 and one carried out by a young Tibetan boy in Dehradun, India. Personally, I found Tashi Rabten’s protest, which took place in December, really hard to deal with. I’m not sure why. Perhaps it was because I’d allowed myself to start believing that this particular form of protest had ended and we wouldn’t see any more lives lost in this way.
But 2016 in Tibet will, no doubt, be remembered as the year China attacked Larung Gar Buddhist Academy - one of the world’s largest centres of Tibetan Buddhism and often described as one of the most beautiful. One observer described the demolitions which started in July as “destroying heaven”. Speaking to a journalist from the Times, I described it as a “man-made humanitarian disaster”. Thousands of people have been forced to watch their homes destroyed - no more able to stop the bulldozers than they would be to stop an earthquake.
But we had our own worldwide wave of solidarity for Larung Gar. The international day of action which took place on 19 October involved events in five continents. The campaign for Larung Gar came out of the international conference for Tibet Support Groups which was held in September. I’ve previously blogged about the wonderful sense of energy at that conference and we succeeded in carrying some of that energy with us into the campaign. It was some of the strongest and most effective collaborative work between Tibet groups that we’ve seen in quite a while. And it means that we are in a very strong position to tackle the challenges of the coming year.
In December we were able to secure a resolution from the European Parliament condemning the demolitions at Larung Gar. We previously managed to get it on the agenda for the UK-China Human Rights Dialogue and we’ve definitely got plans for even more campaigning during 2017.
When the Sikyong was in London last year he told us that the CTA had designated 2017 as “the year of protest” and that seems to suit the global mood. These are uncertain times. Nobody, including the UK government, really knows what a post-Brexit UK will look like. And nobody really knows what a Trump presidency will mean for the USA or, indeed, the rest of the world. But there is widespread concern that many hard-won human rights and freedoms are currently facing a very real threat. What does that mean? It means we have to be ready to fight for what we believe in.
Tibet supporters are a diverse group. I know we all have different political affiliations, different religious views, different opinions on all sorts of things, probably. But we all believe in a free Tibet. 2017 is definitely the year to recommit to that belief and get ready to fight to protect it. We need people on the streets at protests and rallies. We need pressure on governments – through letters, meetings, petitions, lobbying. We need Tibet supporters helping to build more support by talking to friends, colleagues and neighbours about Tibet.
Just before Christmas I read an article written by George Takei addressing the mood in parts of the USA in the aftermath of the election. Yes, he’s an actor who is probably most famous for playing the character Sulu in the original Star Trek series. However, he is also a gay Asian-American who grew up in a World War II internment camp and has spent decades advocating for civil and human rights. I’d like to share the final words of his article:
“We truly have grown stronger together, and with each new assault upon our dignity and humanity, we will grow stronger still. So welcome to the resistance. It’s where the next heroes of our movement will emerge. Be ready. Be vigilant. Be strong.”
Eleanor is Director of Free Tibet and also of our research partner Tibet Watch. She joined the movement professionally in April 2013, having previously been Director of Casework for legal charity Amicus, where her work focused on the death penalty in the US. With a law degree and an MA in human rights, Eleanor has worked for many other campaigns and projects, including One For Ten, PeaceBrigades International, the Burma Human Rights Documentation Unit and the British Institute of International & Comparative Law. She has been a supporter of Free Tibet since her student days and has supported the Tibetan cause for over 20 years. Read updates from her on Twitter and each month on our blog.