Asia-Pacific

Sixty years on from historic uprising, Tibetan spirit of resistance is 'as strong as ever'

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Tibetan communities and their supporters have banded together across Australia to protest China’s treatment of ethnic minorities.

It has been six decades since China first occupied the Himalayan plateau of Tibet.

Born in India to Tibetan refugee parents, Kyinzom Dhongdue is the first member of Tibet’s Parliament-in-exile, representing the Tibetan community in Australia.

“My parents were part of the first wave of refugees who followed the Dalai Lama into exile after the uprising in 1959,” Ms Dhongdue told SBS.

“Like many Tibetan families my grandfather was imprisoned. He died in prison after 25 years, simply because he was a respected member of the community and was part of the Tibetan government following the Dalai Lama.”

In 1959, thousands of Tibetans took to the streets, protesting Chinese rule. The demonstrations would later become known as the Lhasa Uprising.

March 10 marked the start of a dramatic change in the lives of Tibetan people - the then 23-year-old Dalai Lama secretly fled into exile in India.

The Dalai Lama's first press conference in India, in Mussoorie in 1959.
The Dalai Lama's first press conference in India, in Mussoorie in 1959.
AP.

Sixty years later, in cities around Australia, hundreds of Tibetans and Tibet supporters marched to show their solidarity against China’s occupation.

Marching from Martin Place to the Chinese embassy in Sydney, demonstrators told SBS News China’s crackdown against Tibetan culture continues.

“China wants the Tibetan people to owe their allegiances to the Chinese Communist Party, and not the Dalai Lama,” Ms Dhongdue said.

In 2011, the Dalai Lama transferred his political power to a democratically elected leader of the Tibetan government-in-exile.

Ms Dhongdue believes this move was significant for the Tibetan resistance.

“It was to make sure that when the Dalai Lama dies, the Tibet issue doesn’t die too,” Ms Dhongdue said.

“The Dalai Lama was a visionary and social reformer from a young age. He knows for the Tibet struggle to continue, it cannot rely on just one person.”

 

Kyinzom Dhongdue, Executive Officer of the Australian Tibet Council and member of Tibet's Parliament in Exile.
Kyinzom Dhongdue, Executive Officer of the Australian Tibet Council and member of Tibet's Parliament in Exile.
SBS

The Chinese government has always maintained that Tibet is part of China, but the Tibetan government-in-exile says China has unlawfully occupied their land.

“China’s grand plan in Tibet is to ultimately make Tibet a part of China in all possible senses,” Ms Dhongdue said.

According to Ms Dhongdue, China’s political oppression in Tibet has thrust Tibetans into a constant state of anxiety.

“Tibetan people do not have the political rights to control our own destiny; to speak our mind."

But Ms Dhongdue says the spirit of the Uprising resistance movement has been passed from one generation to the next.

“Sixty years ago, on this day the uprising in capital Lhasa was crushed by the Chinese,” Ms Dhongdue said.

“But what China didn’t manage to crush, was the Tibetan spirit. Sixty years on, the Tibetan resistance is as strong as ever.”

Amid a throng of Tibetan flags, Tibetan humanitarian refugee Shonpa Yeshi wears the flag around his neck with pride.

Shonpa Yeshi, a Tibetan humanitarian refugee in Sydney.
Shonpa Yeshi, a Tibetan humanitarian refugee in Sydney.
SBS

Having fled Tibet at the age of 10, Mr Yeshi pursued a better life.

 “At the time, I was young but I did realise that we were being treated like second class citizens in my own hometown,” Mr Yeshi told SBS.

“In order to get a better education for myself and my sisters, my mother decided to take us to India.”

Mr Yeshi was separated from his mother for 6 years before being reunited in Australia.

“I am safe from the Chinese persecution that is happening inside Tibet, to all the Tibetan people,” Mr Yeshi said.

“But even though I am here, I don’t want to sit and wait for something to happen to solve the Tibetan issue.

Tsundu Oser, Head of the Tibetan Youth Council, has a similar story – he escaped across the Himalayan Mountains, into India.

Tsundu Oser at the Sydney rally for Tibet's Uprising Day.
Tsundu Oser at the Sydney rally for Tibet's Uprising Day.
SBS

“There are no human rights in Tibet, no freedom to speak out,” Mr Oser told SBS.

“Tibet is very controlled ... These days, they [China] are destroying all of the Tibetan monasteries.”

John Powers, Deakin University Professor of Asian Studies and Buddhism, said this 60th anniversary of Uprising Day is particularly important for the Tibetan community.

“The biggest thing that is concerning Tibetans is the increasing age of the Dalai Lama, and the idea that he is probably not going to be around for too much longer,” Professor Powers told SBS.

“China will choose a Dalai Lama … and the Tibetan exiles will also choose a Dalai Lama. This is going to further split opinion about Tibet.”

But Professor Powers acknowledges that the anniversary also comes at a challenging time for many of China’s other ethnic minorities.

As the United Nations estimates about 1 million Uighurs – a Turkic ethnic minority – are trapped in internment camps in the country’s north-west, Professor Powers draws a comparison to Tibet.

The architect of the Xinjiang camps – Communist Party official Chen Quanguo – was formerly the top official in Tibet, where he also rolled out policies focused on assimilation. 

Protesters march toward Parliament House in Canberra.
Protesters march toward Parliament House in Canberra.
SBS

“A lot of the things he started in Tibet are now being expanded in Xinjiang with the Uighurs, so this is really shedding some light on what the treatment of minorities is like in China,” Professor Powers said.

Ms Dhongdue believes the shared struggle can be a unifying force for persecuted minorities.

“It really benefits all of us to come together and be in solidarity with one another because ultimately we face the same opponent,” says Ms Dhongdue.

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