In early April, seven protesters scaled the Golden Gate Bridge to unfurl a banner emblazoned with the words, “Free Tibet.” As the banner flew, protesters in the streets of San Francisco forced organizers to change the route of the Olympic torch, slipping it through the back door of a warehouse, a far cry from the glorious procession they had envisioned.
Some weeks later, a quieter protest took place, at a meeting of shareholders of the Coca-Cola Company in Delaware. A group of young Tibetans came to the meeting to plead with one of the main corporate sponsors of the relay to pressure China over their treatment of Tibet. As their pleas were ignored, one of them, Lhobsang Choephel, stood up and yelled: “You’re counting money, we’re counting bodies!”
Less than a month earlier, his 15-year-old cousin had been shot dead in Eastern Tibet.
These are the people behind the newest wave of the Tibet Freedom Movement, which has gained increased international attention because of the upcoming Beijing Summer Olympics. “Free Tibet” has been a bumper-sticker cause for decades, becoming almost as clichéd as patchouli and tie-dye, but this Olympics has changed things. On March 10, the forty-ninth anniversary of the first Tibetan uprising against Chinese rule, the Tibetan capital of Lhasa erupted in the largest protests seen in decades. Grainy cell-phone photos and rare tourist videos emerged from Tibet, chronicling the brutality of the Chinese authorities.
The March 10 protests galvanized the Tibetan community in exile around the world. A new surge in grassroots organizing has capitalized on China’s Olympic torch parade to draw international attention to the Tibetan cause. Almost all of this organization has been youth-fueled. Groups like Students for a Free Tibet (SFT) and the Tibetan Youth Congress are expanding rapidly, opening chapters around the world and planning some ingenious acts of protest. They are led by young Tibetans, many of whom have never even seen their native country, but who are highly educated, articulate and imbued with a strong sense of democracy and a knowledge of movements that have preceded them. They are also unafraid to take a more radical stance than their parents, demanding independence from China, a position that hasn’t been embraced historically within the movement.
The Dalai Lama and institutions such as the International Campaign for Tibet (ICT) have long pursued what is known as the “Middle Way,” pressing for autonomy, rather than independence. But while young Tibetans continue to revere the Dalai Lama, and remain committed to his doctrine of nonviolence, they are less hesitant to express political dissent than older generations.
“For us young people it doesn’t mean disrespect,” said Lhadon Tethong, Executive Director of SFT, the group behind the Golden Gate Bridge action. “But our approach is not to meet China halfway, to wait for them to come around and change their minds. We want them to know that Tibet demands a solution whether they like it or not.”
SFT and other grassroots movements have been organizing for years, Tethong says, but this time technology has allowed them to take center stage in a movement that used to be defined by celebrities like Richard Gere, the Beastie Boys and Björk. Now, savvy young organizers are making use of viral technology–text messaging, blogs, YouTube videos and social networking sites–to unite a dispersed international community and make a loud cry for change.
“Ten years ago, it was a very Western thing, the Free Tibet movement,” said Kalaya’an Mendoza, Grassroots Director for SFT, who was drawn to the Tibetan cause because he saw parallels to colonial oppression in his native Philippines. “Now we’re seeing an actual people’s uprising, a taking to the streets. And all the organizing is being done by young people.”
The March 10 protests inside Tibet were the spark that set off protests at Chinese embassies around the world: candlelight vigils and rallies. But the Olympic Torch Relay has been something groups outside Tibet have been preparing. Mendoza and Tethong both emphasize that SFT is not against the Olympics, but they are against its use as a political tool to promote a false image of Chinese control over Tibet. A particularly sensitive point of contention is the Olympic Committee’s plan to carry the Olympic torch through Tibet. Since the torch was first lit in Greece on March 24, it has been followed by protestors not only for Tibetan freedom but also those hoping to pressure China over complicity in the situations in Darfur and Burma.
The San Francisco protests were a testament to the Tibetan groups’ organizing power: SFT, working alongside the local chapters of Tibetan Youth Congress, brought thousands of people to the city, arranging housing and transportation. As the relay organizers changed the route to evade the protests, organizers sent text message updates with new plans. Similar actions have occurred in London and Paris. The aggressive, often confrontational nature of the protests may contrast with the style of older organizations, but even they have been impressed by the energy young leaders have generated. John Ackerly, President of ICT, said, “It’s really inspiring how they’ve been able to mobilize so many people. Youth leaders have been given a platform and a voice to show their creativity, and they’re going full force right now.”
Perhaps one of the most valuable services that these groups have been able to perform is the dissemination of information from inside Tibet. News from inside has become incredibly difficult to obtain, and what does leak out is increasingly bleak, according to organizers. Through limited channels, however, groups have managed to get firsthand accounts of Chinese government brutality as well as the rare photo documentation. Thupten Chakrishar, a young Tibetan documentary filmmaker, has worked with SFT and others to make both web and feature-length documentaries, as well as advocacy films. He says he thinks that the distribution of images has vastly helped to embolden worldwide activism.
But despite the success of their movement, in terms of international attention gained and mounting pressure on Olympic sponsors and the Chinese government, activists remain somber, fully aware that they know only a fraction of what’s currently happening in Tibet.
“We’re all tormented. The movement on the outside is going so well, but on the inside, we know it’s literally torture,” Tethong said. “But it’s what we owe people inside, not to be scared away, not to be stopped.”