Supporters of Tibet marched across the country and in cities around the world Friday to mark the 58th anniversary of a Tibetan rebellion against Chinese occupying forces.
From Tokyo to Toronto, London to New York City, thousands hit the streets in more than 100 rallies to remember the day Tibetans surrounded the summer palace of their spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, amid fears that Chinese troops planned to kidnap him.
March 10, 1959, later became known as Tibetan National Uprising Day. Seven days later, the Dalai Lama escaped Lhasa and made passage to India where he has lived in exile ever since.
Generally speaking, March 10th is a day to really sort of rile people up every year," Sonamtso, the U.S.A. grassroots coordinator for Students for a Free Tibet, told NBC News. "But I think something that stood out this year was an emphasis of unity both within different types of Tibetan communities, but also with our allies."
Among those allies, she said, are supporters of a free Tibet, including some members of Congress, as well as residents of Taiwan and Hong Kong, both of which have found themselves at odds with China.
Relations have long been strained between Tibet and China, which invaded Tibet in 1950. Tibetans have claimed persistent political and religious persecution at the hands of the Chinese government, a charge Beijing has denied. China has called its takeover of Tibet a "peaceful liberation."
At the New York City rally, several thousand demonstrators marched from Cadman Plaza in Brooklyn over the Brooklyn Bridge to the United Nations, where speakers addressed the crowd, according to Sonamtso, who asked that her last name not be published because she still has family in Tibet.
Waving Tibetan flags and carrying handmade signs calling for a free Tibet, marchers flanked by New York City police officers navigated busy city sidewalks as they made their way to the Chinese consulate on Twelfth Avenue on the West Side of Manhattan.
Outside, more speakers addressed the crowd, Sonamtso said. One of the themes this year, she said, was to call for free media in Tibet, an autonomous region of China. Freedom House, a nonprofit, labeled Tibet "not free" as of 2017.
"The common sentiment was how important it is for Tibetans and our supporters to continue staying resilient and for us to continue resisting," Sonamtso said.
The march in New York was supposed to end with a candlelight vigil in Jackson Heights, Queens, home to a large Tibetan community, but it was cancelled because of inclement weather.
That, however, did not squelch the message of participants.
"We as people who live in the quote free world, it's our responsibility to stand up for our brothers and sisters and amplify their voices from inside of Tibet," Sonamtso said.
Tibetans in Bengaluru have been observing the day since the 70s, say Dhondhup, the director of Tibetan Youth Hostel in Karnataka. On March 9, they conducted their annual candlelight vigil and on March 10 organised a walk from Banappa Park to Freedom Park for the 58th Tibet Uprising anniversary.
In the morning hours, at the youth hostel, Students of Free Tibet Association painted their faces with Tibet’s national flag and slogans. Bike rallies were organised in the wee hours and about 15 Tibetans walked from Kormangala to Bannappa Park. In the evening, they had a photoshoot of the marchers on Brigade Road.
March 10, in 1959, is when Tibetans in Lhasa protested against China’s occupation of the country. A fight broke out between the Chinese military and Tibetans who were guarding Dalai Lama Tenzin Gyatso in his summer palace, as rumours were about that China was planning to kidnap Dalai Lama. Tibetans were outnumbered, the Norbulinka Palace was reduced to dust and Dalai Lama went into exile.
According to Radio Lhasa’s broadcast on October 1, 1960, about 87,000 Tibetans were killed in the uprising but Tibetans claim it was much more than that. The Tibetans say that about 98 per cent of monastries have been destroyed in Tibet under the Chinese rule. The recent military drill conducted by Chinese in Tibet’s capital of Lhasa on March 5 was talked about on the occasion.
The day pays tribute to the ‘matyrs’ who sacrificed their lives for the cause of Free Tibet. So far more than 150 Tibetans have immolated selves for the cause Tibet’s independence.
“This is a sad day,” says Dhondup, “but we celebrate freedom of speech here in India.” The uprising is also viewed as an incident that united Tibetans from three distinct provinces. About 1,000 Tibetans turned up for the two-day event organised by Chief Representative Office CTA, Regional Tibetan Youth Congress of Bengaluru and Mundgod, Students for a Free Tibet and South Zone Tibetan Youth Congress and South Zone Tibetan Women’s Association.
Tibetans from Mungod, Byalakuppe and rest of the South India’s Tibetan Settlement came to the city to join the procession.
At a demonstration in front of the Chinese Embassy in New Delhi, police arrested 150 Tibetan youth activists marking the 58th anniversary of China’s presence in Tibet, March 10, 2017. (T. Wangyal/VOA)
As Tibetans around the world marked the 58th anniversary of Tibetan Uprising Day, Chinese officials in Beijing vowed to "resolutely strike" against the "Dalai Lama clique's separatist activities."
Che Dalha, the newly appointed chairman of the Tibetan Autonomous Region, said Beijing would take "a clear-cut stand against separatism."
China views the Dalai Lama, Tibet's Buddhist spiritual leader, as a dangerous separatist. The Nobel Peace laureate denies espousing violence and says he only wants genuine autonomy for Tibet.
Che's remarks, reported by Reuters, came as Tibetans in Dharamsala, the Indian city that is home to the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan administration-in-exile, held its annual commemoration of the Tibetan people's protest against Chinese occupation of Tibet that took place in Lhasa in 1959. Beijing refers to the action as a "peaceful liberation."
"Despite the repression and crackdown, Tibetans in Tibet have been at the forefront of the Tibetan freedom struggle," said Lobsang Sangay, political leader of the Tibetan administration-in-exile. "Even today as we speak, there is a major military presence in Lhasa ... making it reminiscent of a war zone."
Surveillance, displays of force
International human rights groups and exiles routinely condemn what they call China's oppressive rule in Tibetan areas. They say pervasive surveillance and displays of military force are being used to intimidate and quell dissent.
Since 2009, protests have included 145 Tibetans in Tibetan areas self-immolating, calling for "Freedom for Tibet" and "Return of His Holiness the Dalai Lama to Tibet."
Elsewhere on Friday, from Sydney to San Francisco to Tokyo, Tibetans and supporters marked the anniversary of what is known as the March 10th Uprising.
Indian police arrested 150 Tibetan activists affiliated with the Tibetan Youth Congress as they protested at the Chinese Embassy in New Delhi.
In Minneapolis, the City Council was expected to vote Friday on a resolution in support of Tibetan self-determination, according to the Minneapolis Star Tribune. In a letter Wednesday, the Chinese consul general in Chicago expressed "deep concerns" about the council's plans to declare March 10 as Tibet Day.
Some cities, including Richmond, in the San Francisco Bay Area, flew the Tibetan national flag, which is banned in Tibet, to mark the event.
The anniversary commemorations coincided with China's annual National People's Conference in Beijing.
On Tuesday, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang met with official delegates from the Tibetan Autonomous Region in Beijing, according to state-run China Tibet Online News. He said Tibet must implement President Xi Jinping's 2012 comment, which has since been a major political slogan in Tibet: "To govern the nation, we must protect the borders, and to protect the borders, we must first stabilize Tibet."