tenzin tsundue

tibetan freedom fighter

tibetan activist and writer tenzin tsundue speaks with i.t.a. about his writing, the recent spate of self-immolations and tibetan independence.

tenzin tsundue, welcome to powder. we’re honoured to have such an esteemed writer and freedom fighter like yourself to speak with.

Thank you. It's an honour to me personally. Thank you for bringing our voice to a new and wider audience.

in ninety seven you entered tibet and were imprisoned by the authorities. what were your impressions of tibet? how did you come to be detained and what was your experience in detention?

Tibet of my imagination was shattered when I found myself in the sprawling city of Lhasa where there was an overwhelming presence of Chinese in the city. I was being paraded as a prisoner, and made to stand in front of the iconic capital building the 7th Century, Potala Palace, and shot on police camera for their records. Shops, offices and buildings were mostly Chinese, even in smaller towns like Shigatse and Lhatse were like that. Its only in the nomadic regions of Ngari in western Tibet that there were Tibetan villages unmarked by Chinese population influx.

My plan to live in Tibet and join the freedom movement there failed. I got arrested after walking into Tibet for five days, and was thrown into prison on the suspicion that I was sent by India on a spy mission. After keeping me for 12 days in prison in Ngari town, the most western town in Tibet bordering India, I was shifted in a police car to Lhasa for further interrogation. Tibetan jail mates feared the worst for me and advised me to keep single narrative of my story and insist on it no matter what. Having not told anyone in India about my secret mission and now being jailed in the city suburbs I completely hapless and vulnerable. Not able to prove any of their suspicion the Chinese authorities threw me out of Tibet after keeping me for three months. I was 22, and that was my crash course in life which made me into the fighter I am today.

what was life like for you growing up in exile in india?

Until recently when I started to travel abroad on speaking tours, the only life I knew was the refugee life we lived in India. Therefore, I never looked at it as 'life in India'. That's the only world we lived in. But from childhood, from stories and songs of my grandparents, games we played in childhood and the language we spoke I quietly raised another world, the dream of a homeland we have never seen, but eventually returning to. We knew so much about Tibet that we could make a world out of it, a parallel world. Today, we live in India, but our heart goes there. We are neither here, nor there.

your first book was a collection of poems, crossing the border. you won the first picador-outlook award for non-fiction in two thousand and one and since then you have published two other works, kora and semshook. what compelled you to start writing? what do you seek to achieve with your writing?

My first education in life was that I didn't belong to the country I was born in; and it was shattering. I pledged to become a freedom fighter when I was in fifth standard. I was so inspired by the power of reasoning as opposed to physical bull fights when our tibetan teachers told us about writing and the work of journalism. I wanted to grow up fast and help the Dalai Lama educate the world about Tibet by writing. But I quickly realized that the politics of the world depended on the national and business interest and no one was ready to be educated.

Today, I write to argue our case and document the movement for history. I write for Indian newspapers and magazines and later I compile them together and publish a thin book and sell it. Tsengol- stories and poems of resistance is my fourth book launched in 2012. My writing, though only a small portion is my livelihood. What the poet has written is published and distributed by the activism. I make a small income, but my needs aren't big also. The poet feeds the hungry activist.

But, my poetry doesn't argue, it just is. Poetry comes on its own terms and dictates upon me, and being the activist sometimes, engaged in meetings, sloganeering and training or matters of jails and court, I do notice certain inspirations go away seeing me shut.

your poems convey an underlying loss yet hold a deep sense of hope. do you believe that art can make a difference at the political level?

Art, I believe is a constant search for truth; it's language, form and shape help human beings inquire, reflect and express the deepest, the mundane and the most subtle human concerns. Therefore, politicians fear art, they often ban art, because art can not only change people's way of thinking it can even become a cause of revolution. Some of the most targeted and arrested Tibetans in Tibet are Tibetan poets, writers, singers, comedians and intellectuals.

after sixty three years of chinese occupation of the tibetan plateau, what is the situation in tibet today?

The six million Tibetan population is submerged in the Chinese population influx of about 12 million. The wealth of natural resources like gold, copper and lithium in the 2.5 million square kilometre land of Tibet, the size of Western Europe is today China’s "treasure house". The recent news of a gold mine collapse in Tibet is one among hundreds of such rich mines. Tibet is the source of some of the most important rivers in Asia that feed more than one and a half billion in Asia. China is now connecting Tibet with its main land with seven railway networks and hundreds of national and state highways. This for China is development, and for the Tibetans even Tibetan textbooks are being replaced by Chinese. Tibetan monasteries and cultures are exorticised as exhibition pieces. There are more tourists in Tibetan monasteries than pilgrims. Tibetan nomads and farmers are losing land to land-sharks who make huge promises and try to settle them down in matchbox houses. There is every danger that if this situation is not saved Tibetans may end up like the native people of America, Canada, New Zealand and Australia.

how would you compare the situation in xinjiang province with that of tibet?

What is called Xinjiang meaning "new frontier" in Chinese colonial terminology is East Turkestan as Tibet is called Xizang meaning "western treasure house". The problem started from 1911, the year China liberated itself from many long years of imperial colonization by the Manchus. In an attempt to claim "inheritance of power" the new Republic of China tried to claim authority over the former colonies of Manchuria like the large swathes of Mongolia or those who with a nominal claim, but the new republic didn’t have the power to make such large orthodoxical claims.

The invasion and occupation of Tibet and East Turkestan happened in 1949 after Mao Zedong consolidated power in China and founded the People's Republic of China, by then power had already been established in Inner Mongolia and Manchuria. Today China not only physically occupies these regions but China has also owned the histories of these occupied people and countries and internationally got all countries to sign the "One China policy".

there’s been a spate of tibetan self-immolations over the last couple of years; more than one hundred since two thousand and nine and twenty five in november, twenty twelve alone. what has prompted these actions and what are the implications of them?

After the second Tibetan National Uprising which witnessed Tibetans from all across the Tibetan Plateau rise up in protest in the year of Beijing 2008 Olympics, the Chinese government has stationed so much military, police and intelligence that towns and cities have turned into police states. In-the-street protestors are shot dead, bodies cleaned up as if nothing happened. The protest is hardly registered and everything is finished within minutes.

The physical act of self-immolation is to my understanding a tactic to buy more time as you shock the onlookers with the torched body. In both the acts of protest the protestor gives his or her life, but in the latter it becomes both an act of protest and defiance; where you have not only publicly registered your protest, you take your own life and finish the act yourself leaving behind only your ashes.

The Tibetan self-immolators instead of harming the Chinese they offer their body and life almost as an act of offering, but in a clear act of resistance. The impact it leaves in the minds of every living Tibetan is such that the struggle has no apparent immediate resolution, it feeds on their life sacrifice and can help sustain the struggle for at least two generations.

All Tibetan self-immolators left messages in either written text or audio-video recordings or even in their slogans which have in their apparent act of protest expressed that they do not want live under the brutal occupation of China and therefore demand the return of His Holiness the Dalai Lama to Tibet and freedom for Tibet.

And since people around the world benefit from the Chinese brutal occupation of Tibet by trading with China, the self-immolations speak as much as to the Chinese as to the people around the world.

since the dalai lama’s retirement from political leadership in two thousand and eleven dr. lobsang sangay has become the leader of the tibetan government in exile. does his position on what should happen politically to tibet differ from the dalai lama’s? and what is your position on how to proceed with the future of tibet?

Our experiment with democracy is now 54 years old and we have successfully come about a structure and a system that suits Tibetan people and its culture. And after His Holiness's renunciation of political power Dr Lobsang Sangay is our hope.

The previous Prime Minister's central dialogue policy was too narrow a definition of Nonviolence; I am happy the new PM is trying a variety of nonviolent methods. Although the policy of the exile Government is the "Middle Way Approach" seeking an autonomous arrangement with the People's Republic of China, I am not only against this I look at it as wishful thinking. Freedom can neither be begged nor given; it must be taken by one's own worth of sacrifice and intelligence. I believe that only an independent Tibet can truly guarantee the survival of the Tibetan people and the nation.

i must say that we at powder deeply respect the activist statements you have made.

in two thousand and two, you scaled the scaffolding of the oberoi hotel in mumbai where the chinese premier zhu wrongji was staying and unravelled a banner stating free tibet: china get out. while in two thousand and five when the chinese premier wen jiabao was visiting bangalore you revealed a banner stating free tibet from the balcony of a two hundred foot high tower. were these actions difficult to carry out? what did they achieve? will you carry out other actions in the future?

When brutes walk about pretending to be gentlemen its cowardly not to expose their brutality. In both the cases, the media talked about Tibet more than China, and people learned about the Chinese occupation of Tibet. The bully was so embarrassed that next time round when the president of China was coming to India at China's request I was held up like a dog in the small hill station in Dharamsala, north India watched over by 24 Indian policemen for 20 days. Media doubled up the story and made fun of China's paranoia because of a short spindly Tibetan.

you’re the general secretary of the friends of tibet. what does your organisation do and what does it seek to achieve?

Friends of Tibet, India is a wide network of Indian supporters campaigning for Tibet among Indians. The volunteers organize discussions, film screenings, talks and exhibitions to highlight the issue of Tibet among Indians and educate Indians of India's national interest in the Independence of Tibet and the inherent danger from the 4075 kilometres of Himalayan borders because of China's continued occupation of Tibet. I am now a volunteer campaigner.

what do you envisage as happening in the coming years for tibet?

Because of the ongoing global trade with China, everybody is benefiting from the repression of Tibet; the gold, copper and lithium drained from Tibet go into making 'made in China' products cheaply. Oil and natural gas from East Turkestan and Southern Mongolia help run the industries of the world in China. So, for some time, we have to be patient. But the western world has already realized that the profitable cheap MIC production has no future and therefore they are making plans to shift out to India, Bangladesh and Burma. There is hope for us; we are a very proud and courageous people, we will resist until we prevail.

and on a lighter note, how did you feel about being voted as one of india’s fifty most stylish people by elle magazine?

It was funny.

tenzin tsundue thank you for sharing your words with powder; it’s been a pleasure. we give a deep shout out of freedom for tibet in solidarity with you. tashi delek.

People in Tibet are shut from the rest of the world as China has banned all international travellers into the land of snow. Public mobility is limited and surveillance set up everywhere to watch people's movement. All this to keep them silent while the Chinese government drains natural resources from Tibet and throws Tibetan nomads and farmers out of their ancestral land. Tibetans are resisting lest they end up like the natives of the Americas and Australia.

follow facebook.com/tsundue