Members of Vermont’s Tibetan community gather in the State House to commemorate a Resolution signed by Gov. Peter Shumlin proclaiming March 10 as Tibet Day in honor of the 57th anniversary of National Tibet Uprising Day.

The Movement for an Independent Tibet: A Story of Social Change in Vermont

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Thursday May 12, 2016

For Tibetan communities around the world, March 10 has held historical significance for almost 60 years. This March marked the 57th anniversary of the National Tibet Uprising Day, a day when Tibetans rose up against the Chinese invasion and occupation of Tibet, which first took place in 1950. The uprising was unsuccessful.

That doesn’t mean Tibetans have stopped fighting for the independence of their homeland—not in the slightest. In fact, Tibetans celebrated a recent success this year when Gov. Peter Shumlin put pen to paper to officially proclaim March 10 as Tibet Day in Vermont. With the help of Rep. Maida Townsend, the State of Vermont House Chamber passed House Resolution 14 relating to the cultural, religious, and political status of Tibet and Tibetans.

Copies of the resolution were sent to the Office of Tibet in Washington D.C., to the International Campaign for Tibet, to President Obama, to the Embassy of the People’s Republic of China in Washington D.C., and to the Vermont Congressional Delegation.

“These are strong and inspiring people, both as individuals and as a community,” Townsend said. “We are so lucky to have them as our neighbors. Their trust, their faith that I would not let them down, touched me deeply.”

It all started when Dakpa Tangtsang, president of the Tibet Association of Vermont, approached Townsend regarding the need for a resolution. Townsend met with the rest of the Tibet Association of Vermont members in Tangtsang’s South Burlington home and helped draft the resolution. Members also met with Lisa Kunin, the executive assistant to Gov. Shumlin, regarding the proclamation of Tibet Day. When the day came, Gov. Shumlin greeted around 50 Tibetans—representing the majority of Tibetans in Vermont—in his ceremonial office.

“For us, it’s significant because many people in Vermont are not aware of what’s really happening in Tibet. This resolution has brought a lot of publicity,” explained Tenzin Ihakhang, secretary of the Tibet Association of Vermont. “It has meant a lot to us because we felt that we were able to create an event as a Tibetan culture in Vermont through this resolution.”

Passing the resolution on the same day as National Tibet Uprising Day was an added accomplishment, Tangsang said.

South Burlington is home to a majority of the Tibetan families in Vermont; to date, there are 21 families in South Burlington, 11 families in neighboring Burlington, and others scattered throughout the state. Tibetans—26 families—first started arriving in Vermont in 1993. These Tibetans were labeled as “displaced persons,” which meant they received no financial support from the United States government. Thus, the Tibetan Resettlement Project was born, a private nonprofit which worked to help them adjust to American culture and provide necessary resources for jobs, education, food, and other needs.

The Tibetan community has grown since then, and many come together through the Tibet Association of Vermont, which was formed in 1993. The organization holds various events throughout the year for its community members. The organization also holds its annual Tibetan Festival to educate the community at-large about Tibetan culture and the conflict Tibetans face.

Tibet is a region on the Tibetan Plateau in Asia near India, Nepal and Bangladesh. It is home to Mount Everest, the highest elevation in the world. It is also the spiritual home to Tibet’s religious figure, the Dalai Lama, a Buddhist monk who is referred to as His Holiness. Tenzin Gyatso is the 14th Dalai Lama who, along with many of his followers, was exiled to India succeeding the uprising of 1959. To this day, he continues to strive for Tibet’s independence in a peaceful manner.

Both Tangtsang and Ihakhang lived in India for some time before coming to the United States. Ihakhang lived in India for over 30 years until Section 134 of the Immigration of 1990 provided 1,000 immigrant visas to Tibetans living in India and Nepal. He moved to Vermont in 1993.

Tangtsang’s situation was different. He lived in India before being granted political asylum to the United States in 1999, and he then applied for a work permit. When he arrived in the United States, Tangtsang lived in actor and social activist Richard Gere’s New York home for five months; Gere has long been active and vocal about the human rights of the Tibetan people. Tangtsang also lived in Indiana for a time, and he continued applying for a work permit every year until he was granted permanent residency. He moved to Vermont in 2001 and became a citizen in 2009. Now, he’s raising a family; he and his wife have a six-year-old daughter. He still has family in Tibet, a sister in India, and brother in Australia. He communicates with them regularly. However, he grew silent during his work to get the resolution passed.

Tangtsang could not share these recent accomplishments with his family in Tibet, or anything regarding the Tibetan uprising movement for that matter. All calls and texts are monitored by the Chinese government. Even certain words like “freedom” or “Dalai Lama” result in families in Tibet being questioned.

“My mom left a message for my sister on the phone asking ‘what happened? For one month, two months, he hasn’t talked to me. Is he ok?’” Tangtsang recalled.

He informed his siblings of the resolution process, and he asked them to tell the rest of the family in Tibet that he was simply having a busy few months. Nothing more.

Ihakhang explained more of what has been happening around this movement. There have been cases of self-immolation, which is an offering of oneself as a sacrifice, especially by burning. This year, on February 29, just before National Tibet Uprising Day, a 16-year-old boy in India set himself on fire, and later died.

“He said, ‘I want to die for an independent Tibet.’ This child lived in a free country—in India,” Ihakhang said. “It was a very powerful message.”

They provided another example. If a man with a family commits self-immolation in Tibet, the police will approach the wife and ask her to tell the media he did it due to domestic violence and not as a political statement. If she does not comply, she and her family will be punished, Ihakhang said.

Even so, punishment may be imminent when one commits self-immolation, especially when the reason is known. The entire family, whether they were aware of the event or not, is taken to prison. The Other Paper inquired how long they face incarceration.

“There is no ‘how long’ in Tibet,’ Ihakhang answered quietly.

What Is Next?

The movement continues. Ihakhang explained that the Tibetan Association of Vermont, and Tibetan associations across the globe, take direction from the Central Tibetan Association in India.

“We implement all the directions that come from them,” he said—hence the resolution and proclamation.

The Tibet Association of Vermont is also working toward a permanent community center. The organization rents space but would like a place to call its own. There is a working committee in place to work out the details—possible spaces, funding sources, phasing details, etc. They will share the research with the rest of the Tibetan community for feedback. They hope it will also serve as a historical center where people can learn about the history of Tibetan culture in Vermont.

Then, of course, there is March 10. Whether it is a social awareness march or a presentation from a special speaker, the push to make Tibet a democratic state separate from China will persist. In peaceful observance of the event, one may also come to expect there to be a Tibetan prayer session with a candle vigil.

The light of hope, as Tibetans will tell you, has never gone out.

This year’s 14th annual Tibetan Festival is September 17 at North End Studios at 294 N. Winooski Ave. in Burlington, Vt.            

SOURCE: Miranda Jonswold, Correspondent