Silence is our greatest enemy. Action is our greatest ally.
The Tibetan Youth Leadership Program (TYLP) of 2013 organized by the International Campaign for Tibet (ICT) ended with remarks from an inspiring activist named Grace Springs. Every Friday for 10 years she stood as lone protestor in front of the Chinese Embassy in Washington, D.C. with her Tibetan flag. Her reasons were simple yet profound. She believed silence spoke volumes. She told us that she believed even a simple act of speaking out against the Chinese government was crucial in order to actively remind the American people about the Tibetan issue. Also it was important in order to keep the issue alive and enduring. Her thoughtful words and simple yet inspiring action touched and moved all of us. That was a great way to conclude our leadership program as we received khatas (traditional greeting scarves), from her with our certificates.
The program informally began four days earlier on Monday June 3rd at Aroma, an Indian restaurant. There all of us, the participants, got acquainted with each other by trying to break the awkwardness gradually through small talks. It’s funny in matter of couple days we will be teasing each other and laughing together. All of us were young Tibetans, bright and dedicated, who cared deeply about Tibet and were eager to learn and find ways to contribute within the Tibetan communities both in Tibet and exile, as well as in the United States, in any way that we could. These common qualities, interests and sincere dedications that brought us together in WashingtonD.C. further accelerated our bonds of friendship.
The first day began with formal introductions and a surprise guest: Richard Gere, an avid supporter of the Tibetan freedom movement who is ICT’s Chairman, joined us via Skype. It was a really cool experience and was a great way to kick off the TYLP program. He engaged each one of us individually, wanting to know where we were from and what our interests were. He said he was really impressed by us. However, compliments coming from a person of his stature for us were hard to comprehend but we thanked him for his kind words and his unwavering support for the Tibetan cause.
The day’s formal discussions began with talks from Kasur Lodi Gyari on the future of Tibet and it eventually became a discussion about the Sino-Tibetan dialogue. It was a particular interest of me to ask and seek inside knowledge about Sino-Tibetan dialogue process. His insights and thoughts about his experience within the dialogue process were fascinating. He believed His Holiness Dalai Lama’s Middle Way approach was a unique policy that sought to unite all Tibetans in Tibet under one administration or subject to one unified policy under the PRC without challenging PRC’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. Afterwards, Kasur Tenzin N. Tethong spoke about modern Tibetan politics in exile and touched briefly on the lengthy Tibetan history.
Our first day concluded with two speakers who spoke from Chinese perspectives on human right issues in China, the Chinese government’s attitude, and its policies on the Tibetan issue. The first speaker emphasized that things were changing in China. She stressed that Chinese citizens are more vocal and emboldened as they became more aware of their basic rights guaranteed by the constitution. She also mentioned the important role that the social media played in these “rightful resistance” against local corruption and environmental issues.
I initially thought the second speaker presented the Sino-Tibetan issue in a very comprehensive manner. She asserted that the Chinese government believed that infrastructure spending and other economic growth policies were not helping legitimate their rule in Tibetan region and certainly the alternate option of increasing security personnel was not helping but worsening the problem. She further asserted that the Chinese government viewed the Tibet issue as a normal issue that every other country faces. She also made the point that the Chinese government believed that the Middle Way Policy was asking too much and they were too suspicious that it will be a stepping-stone to pursue independence in the future. So she concluded by saying that the PRC’s view was to wait it out and maintain status quo with more troop presence and increased government spending in order to maintain stability and hope to gain legitimacy.
Then I slowly realized and my friends did too, the present policies of the Chinese government seemed so myopic and lacked the pragmatic outlook that had helped China prosper and allowed the CCP to become a resilient authoritarian regime. Personally, I was startled at first because I was unable to respond and challenge the Chinese policies. It required not only myself but also other participants to think harder and deeper on countering the policies. This talk forced each of us to carefully dissect each policy by pointing out its discrepancies and that in turn helped us counter argue the policies by showing it was counterproductive and absurd. This experience was an eye opening experience for me. It had left a permanent imprint in my mind. It encouraged me to think deeper and differently about Chinese policies in Tibet in order to thoughtfully and analytically be able to challenge their misguided policies. Lastly, I realized that I needed to hone my dialectical skills.
Second day began with the tour of the Radio Free Asia Tibetan language service and on the last day we visited the Voice of American Tibetan language service. It was important to realize and to know that many Tibetans depend on these new sources in order to be continuously engaged and be informed on Tibetan issues and current events. Especially those Tibetans in Tibet, I learned that these sources were a vital source of non-propaganda information and news that many depend on.
Later in the afternoon, we had a very lively workshop on ‘Media and Message development’ with Mr. Amos Gelb. He was a very knowledgeable and animated instructor. He empowered us to think differently about the media and become journalists ourselves using what we’ve got — a prime example, our Smartphones. He encouraged us to use them to create content ourselves, for example by capturing pictures or videos. Then utilize social media as a platform to disseminate information. I still remember his mantra about what a journalist truly does, they “gather and sort information, then present them”. He encouraged us to be in the engagement business with reliable information and not waste our time presenting an objective picture of the issue as a normal journalist would.
The second day ended with group dinner that started around five in the afternoon and the dinner conversations lasted till past ten o’clock in the night. The topic of discussion was about various ways to engage in contemporary Tibet. How we can help Tibetans in Tibet? We learned we could achieve that goal through empowering individual Tibetans and local Tibetan communities through education and supporting local economies. We talked about how to shift and shape the discourse about Tibetan issue within Tibet and China as a social justice issue. There were many other things that were discussed ranging from Tibetan identity issue to being pro-active by engaging Tibetans in Tibet.
The third day consisted a lot of walking and taxi rides around WashingtonD.C. Our first goal was to visit Senators’ and Congressmen’s offices on Capitol Hill. The day before we were on Capitol Hill for the hearing by the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission on human rights in Tibet. It was a remarkable experience and astonishing to find out there were people like Congressmen Frank Wolf and Jim McGovern. They seemed truly passionate about human rights issues and were pretty vocal about their concerns, and urged the State Department to put more effort into urging President Obama to discuss human right issues with the Chinese government.
That was the day before but the next day; we were on Capitol Hill to lobby our Congressmen, Congresswomen and Senators to support the Immigration bill. It included an amendment called the Feinstein amendment to permit five thousand Tibetans from India and Nepal to immigrate to U.S. with no cost to the U.S. government. We met some of the Members of Congress from the region where the TYLP participants came: Senator Merkley of Oregon, Congresswomen Velazquez of New York, and Congressmen Jim Himes of Connecticut. I was fortunate enough to meet with Senator Baldwin and Congressman Pocan from my state of Wisconsin.
The day concluded with information session with Elyse Anderson, legislative aide for Congressmen Frank Wolf and later Gretchen Blum, foreign policy aide for Senator Mark Kirk. They shared their experience working in on Capitol Hill. They gave us helpful tips and guidance on how to land internships and pursue a career in the public service field. In the evening, we had a group dinner with the former TYLP members; it was encouraging and inspiring to hear their stories and what they are able to accomplish. We had a lively discussion on all sorts of subjects with them. I was particular interested conversing with Tsering Lhadon who was currently working as a policy analyst in WashingtonD.C. She was very helpful. Overall, that day’s afternoon session was eye opening for me to see what was possible, what opportunities were available and gave me a better understanding of how to go about pursuing a career in public service in Washington, D.C.
On the final day, there was sense of relief in the air after many busy days but also a sense of gloom since now we soon had to part ways. We began the final day with a trip to Voice of America. There Tencho Gyatso la lak, Tenzin Janchup and I participated in the Tibetan service’s live Kunleng discussion program. We shared our thoughts and experience about TYLP 2013. That experience was exhilarating, awesome and memorable.
I could say the same about the leadership program as well. I learned a great deal, things that you won’t normally get a chance to learn by getting a chance to directly engage face to face with people in various leadership positions in Washington, D.C. We met incredible people like Frank Jannuzi, who is the head of the Amnesty International USA and Charlotte Oldham-Moore, who is the senior advisor to US Special Coordinator for Tibetan Issues at the State Department. It was a tremendous experience and every day we learned something new and everyday there was something to take away from the discussions, meetings and other activities.
The final day concluded with a dinner hosted by the Capital Area Tibetan Association. Where we finally had a chance to be a mentor ourselves and play a leadership role by advising young Tibetan-American high school students. We had a wonderful chance to share our experiences, accomplishments and hardships before and during our undergraduate collegiate career. We tried our best to give them confidence, a sense of direction and stressed the importance of education not just to benefit oneself and to benefit one’s own family but also so that we can all better contribute ourselves to help the wider Tibetan community both in exile and in Tibet.