My Turn/Dolma: Giving a voice to the voiceless in the Tibetan struggle for freedom

Writing of the Tibetan struggle for freedom

  • Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama talks to a group of Thai Buddhist monks in Dharmsala, India, Saturday, May 21, 2016. The Thai monks, who follow a form of Buddhism different from the Tibetan tradition, prayed together with the Tibetan leader for the first time. A group of Thai monks started their foot march to the Indian district of Ladakh to promote world peace. (AP Photo/ Ashwini Bhatia) Ashwini Bhatia—AP

Published: 6/10/2016 6:33:13 PM

My name is Tsultrim Dolma and I was born in east Tibet after the Chinese occupation. When I was a teenager, I protested in Lhasa, the capital city, and was put in prison. After my release, I escaped by walking to India. I was able to come to the U.S. in 1992, and I became a citizen in 2000. I am very enthusiastic about living in the U.S., but I am very concerned about recent events in Tibet.

Inside Tibet there has been a new wave of arrests and more people are sacrificing themselves in protest by setting themselves on fire. Since 2000, over 140 people have committed ceremonial suicide. We have two new martyrs almost every month. They are taking this action to protest so many Tibetans going to prison. A lot of people die shortly after being released and most never really recover.

If you are connected to a rebellious family, you must denounce them. A young man I know had to strip himself to his underwear, wear photos of Chinese leaders on his chest, and go around his village denouncing his parents. He was restricted to his house for a time and then to staying in the village. He finally managed to escape. That route through the mountains is difficult. When I fled, I wanted to take my aunt with me but she was too frail to survive that ordeal. Even young people die trying to pass into India. You have to go over mountains, through deserts, around lakes, and make your way through woods without trails. Many die in the attempt, which is worst in winter.

When I was a teenager and protesting, we believed that the outside world, particularly the United States, would hear us and help. Now people feel as if they can’t breathe because the U.S. doesn’t really care. Tibetans believe the U.S. acts too slowly, if at all, on the Chinese abuse of human rights in Tibet. Tibetans feel abandoned. We feel surrounded by darkness.

We used to depend on letters and documents from Tibetan monks to determine how many people were being sent to prison. Today, we have smart phones. We can actually see people burning themselves. We can see people being arrested. We have an Internet connection called WeChat. Individuals and organizations send pictures and make statements. This allows us to see photos and videos, and to speak with one another.

If Tibetans are caught with a picture of the Dalai Lama on their smartphone, they go to prison. If anyone speaks openly about traditional culture, they go to prison. Just talking about creating a school that would use the Tibetan language and pass on our national history gets you life in prison.

Many high lamas have been involved in protests. One of the most famous is Tenzin Delek Rinpoche. The monks associated with him were executed. World public opinion saved his life, but he died in prison last year.

Tibetans would like the U.S. to persuade China to allow those who have left to make brief visits back to see our parents and relatives before they die. Ideally, we would like to see the Dalai Lama, now in his 80s, allowed to return home safely.

Tibetans pine to see the Dalai Lama. I remember how thrilled I was when I saw people here in the U.S. who could show the Dalai Lama’s photo without being arrested by the Chinese. The Dalai Lama has already declared he is a spiritual leader only, with no desire to be a political leader in Tibet. Politics in the Tibetan Diaspora is now secular. Recently, Lobsang Sangay was elected by the people as prime minister of the Tibetan government-in-exiles to speak for opponents of the Chinese Occupation.

I was not able to return home to see my parents before they died. I probably can never go back. At one time when I visited Nepal after coming to the U.S., I was told the Chinese had offered a bounty for someone to bring me back. I don’t know if that was true or not. But I spoke about the Chinese before a U.S. congressional committee, so I don’t think they would welcome me.

The people in Tibet say that we in the U.S. have a free voice and must use it to tell of their oppression. That is why I am writing. I am free, and I know their feeling that they desperately need someone to help. If people want to learn more they can start by visiting: — the website of the Central Tibetan Administration (government-in-exile).

Tsultrim Dolma, who lives in Amherst, is a student at the Literary Project. She created this oral history with Dan Georgakas through the English as a Second Language center at Jones Library in Amherst.

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