On Wednesday 27 September it was 30 years to the day since the first of the Lhasa protests of the late 80s. That date is significant because it kick-started an 18-month period of protest which culminated in the imposition of martial law but also led to the creation of Free Tibet and many other Tibet Support Groups around the world.
Those protests put Tibet in the headlines for the first time since 1959. China’s brutal crackdown provoked a response from governments, institutions, media and individuals around the world. In the years that followed there were various documentaries about Tibet, often narrated by A-list celebrities. I remember watching them and it’s entirely possible that I wouldn’t be sitting here today writing this blog if it hadn’t been for those protests and the impact which they had internationally.
On 27 September this year, Tibet Watch released a report: 30 Years of Resistance – The legacy of the 1987 Lhasa protests. It covers the full period of protest from September 1987 to March 1989. It outlines key events, presents previously unpublished photos, profiles some of the protesters and comments on the wider context as well as the lasting legacy of those protests.
On 1 October, the anniversary of the second protest of 1987, I arrived in Delhi on my way to Dharamsala. When I got there, I discovered that the 30th anniversary had taken a slightly dramatic turn. Gu Chu Sum, the Tibetan association for former political prisoners, were holding a commemorative event at Martyrs’ Pillar, a monument to the Tibetan freedom struggle in the grounds of Tsuglagkhang, the Dalai Lama’s temple. The event was disrupted by a Chinese tourist who attempted to cut down some of the information boards with a large pair of scissors, assaulted a reporter and then assaulted Namgyal Dolkar, president of Gu Chu Sum and also a member of the Tibetan Parliament. Fortunately, nobody was physically injured but some of the reporter’s equipment was broken and lots of people were very shaken.
Tibet Watch had planned to hold a similar event the following weekend and the team immediately started wondering whether our event would also be attacked. As it turned out, the only disruption came from someone in fancy dress and we managed to speak to quite a few locals and tourists throughout the day.
The following afternoon we held a press conference to formally launch the report. We were joined by Ngawang Woeber, a monk who was involved in the protests and is also one of the founders of Gu Chu Sum, and by Christa Meindersma, a Dutch national who was in Lhasa at the time and ended up being shot during one of the protests. They both shared their testimony in very moving speeches.
I’ve been joined on this trip by Josey, who is the Fundraising Manager for Free Tibet and Tibet Watch. In addition to spending time with the Tibet Watch team, I’ve also been introducing him to some of Free Tibet’s merchandise suppliers. In Delhi we met the team from FTCI (Federation of Tibetan Cooperatives in India) and got the chance to see one of their tailors in action, making bags and prayer flags. In Dharamsala, we’ve visited Dolls4Tibet, Lha Tibet Fair Trade and TCV Handicrafts.
There is a lot going on in Dharamsala at the moment and lots of people are here for various events and meetings. It’s been quite intense but it’s given me the chance to catch up with friends and colleagues from other organisations. I was also able to attend a book launch. Burning the Sun’s Braids is a collection of new poetry from Tibet, translated by Buchung D Sonam. These poems, published in both English and Tibetan, provide an insight into the thoughts and feelings of ordinary Tibetans living under occupation.
“Isn’t this the time
To exercize your fundamental rights
To assert control over your own life
[…] Now is the time for each of us
To do anything anytime anywhere”
Extract from: Raise the warrior’s sword, my fellow Tibetans, by Theurang (also known as Tashi Rabten)
While I’m in India the Free Tibet team in London are busy working on London Tibetfest 2017. I’ll be back just in time to help with the final preparations. The festival is one of the ways we are marking our 30th anniversary and its purpose is to introduce a new audience to the many different faces of Tibet. However, there will be plenty for Tibetans and existing Tibet supporters to experience too. We’ll have art, music, dancing, talks, campaign exhibitions, handicrafts, meditation, yoga and much more.
The stars of the show will be the monks from Gaden Ngari Khangtsen Monastery (pictured above) who will be creating a sand mandala over the course of the weekend as well as performing the Black Hat Dance and leading other activities.
Tickets are just £10 for the whole weekend and are available in our online shop. Don’t miss out!
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.