March 10th—a day commemorated by Tibetans all over the world as they remember the infamous Tibetan Uprising of 1959. In this year, following China’s illegal annexation of Tibet and after nearly a decade of living under the repressive Chinese government, thousands of Tibetans revolted in the capital city of Lhasa. They surrounded the Potala Palace where Tibet’s spiritual leader the Dalai Lama resided and gave their lives to ensure his safe exile to India. Tens of thousands of Tibetans died that day when Chinese soldiers opened fire.
Now known as the National Tibetan Uprising Day, this important date marks the 62nd year of Tibetans’ struggle for freedom.
Once nicknamed the “roof of the world” due to the Tibetan plateau being the highest in the world, in 2020 Tibet received the lowest score on the annual Freedom in the World Report by Freedom House, a renowned independent research NGO, making it the “least free country in the world” tied with Syria. Religious freedom, freedom of speech, and freedom of assembly continue to be heavily restricted in Tibet and many political activists face imprisonment on unspecified or unclear charges deemed baseless by UN human rights experts. One such example is Tashi Wangchuk, a peaceful language rights activist charged with “inciting separatism” for his work in advocating for Tibetan language rights, including doing interviews with The New York Times. He was sentenced to five years in prison in May 2018 after being detained in 2016. Tashi’s story is sadly not unique as he stands with countless Tibetan political prisoners who have been jailed for simply exercising their human rights. According to the Congressional Executive Commission on China—an independent agency of the US government monitoring human rights in China— in 2018 there were more than 500 Tibetan political or religious prisoners in detention.
Tibetans routinely face political oppression in the form of intense surveillance through security cameras and constant police checkpoints while peaceful protests are met with severe violence. Cultural suppression in Tibet is clearly shown through the criminalization of Tibet’s national anthem and the country’s flag and the risk of imprisonment and torture for possession of the Dalai Lama’s images and/or his teachings.
Living under immense repression and denied the basic freedoms of asserting their cultural identity, some Tibetans have turned to self-immolation, setting themselves alight as both a form of protest and a desperate cry for freedom. Since 2009, more than 150 Tibetans have self-immolated, among them are monks, nuns, teachers, and students. This wave of self-immolations emerged after the Chinese government cracked down on human rights following a series of Tibetan protests, most of which were peaceful in 2009. The Chinese government has responded to these self-immolations by spiking security forces and imposing strict punishments for family members of the protestors and their related communities.
Tibetans however, remain strong in the face of this adversary. Since March 10th, 1959, Tibetans both in exile and in Tibet have refused to stand down. Decades later, new generations of Tibetans around the world continue their struggle for independence as they take to the streets to demand a free Tibet. Youth-led grassroots movements such as Students for a Free Tibet have emerged with branches around the world and in universities including McGill, championing the Tibetan cause through nonviolent action. Innovative forms of resistance have emerged among Tibetan youth such as the creation of clothing lines like nineteen59 and The Snow Lion Club that aim to educate people about Tibet’s history and culture.
There is a saying within the community: “any Tibetan born after 1959 is born an activist.” The brave youth championing the Free Tibet movement embody that statement in its fullest capacity.
Edited by Olivia Shan
Penni Tenzin is in her second year at McGill University, pursuing a joint honours in International Development and Political Science with a minor in Social Entrepreneurship. This is her first year serving as a staff writer for the Catalyst and she is beyond excited!