Speaking to our director about his escape from Tibet, an ex-employee of Tibet Watch stated that he had only seen his own flag once in his whole life prior to crossing the border into Dharamsala, India. Tibetans are prevented from flying their national flag in their own country. Many face brutal imprisonment for owning, waving or flying the flag. It is censored from any media in China. Because of this, the flag has become a symbol of protest and unity for Tibetans.
As the fundraiser at Free Tibet, a lot of my time is spent reviewing and sourcing new products for the Free Tibet shop. The shop not only acts as a mechanism for raising funds to support our campaigning work, but also as a vehicle for promoting Tibetan culture. It is a sad fact that the majority of Tibetan expression can only take place outside of Tibet, but as China’s suffocation of Tibetan freedoms tightens every day, it’s up to us as supporters to champion it wherever we can. Our shop aims to do just this.
Like the Tibetan flag, many of our products act as a symbol of protest, and like the flag, owning them in Tibet would mean certain arrest and imprisonment.
For example, our bookmarks and wall hangings feature famous quotes by the Dalai Lama. Thardhod Gyaltsen, one of the monks who featured in our Robed Resisters campaign, was sentenced to 18 years after he was believed to have been in possession of banned images and teachings of the Dalai Lama.
Similarly, you may have seen Rangzen bands featured in some of our publications. They are a creation of the Gu Chu Sum Movement Association of Tibet. This is an organisation formed by the former political prisoners of Tibet. Rangzen means ‘freedom’ in Tibetan, and these bracelets are hand made by Gu Chu Sum members. They were originally made by political prisoners in Drapchu and Sangyib prisons from the threads of their prison uniforms as a symbol of resistance, until prison authorities cracked down on it. The weave design is believed to protect the wearer.
Our Tibetan Football Jackets, designed by Sonam Anjatsang, are also highly symbolic. The colours reflect those of the banned Tibetan Flag, messages of peace and compassion are written in Buddhist script, and the number 59 is a reminder of the year of the Tibetan Uprising.
Symbols like a flag, a piece of clothing, a piece of jewellery, may seem small, but they can also be highly impactful. Visual symbols that have become synonymous with a movement; the rainbow and the LGBTQ movement, the black beret in a number of revolutionary movements, ‘pussy hats’ in the recent Women’s March against Trump, even the universal peace sign, are all globally recognised symbols that have endured over time.
150,000 Tibetans now live in exile, with the largest community based across the border in Dharamsala. Many of our suppliers are based here also, and being able to support several fantastic Tibetan suppliers that work with Tibetan refugees is another great benefit of our shop. For example, The Federation of Tibetan Cooperatives in India (FTCI) works with and supports 15 Tibetan cooperatives (made up of over 24,000 Tibetan refugees) across India to build sustainable Tibetan settlements. These cooperatives work across different areas such as agriculture, farming, cultural preservation, and employment generation.
Lha Tibet Fair Trade raises vital funds for the Lha Charitable Trust, a Tibetan social work organisation providing crucial resources for Tibetan refugees. The trust works to improve the standard of living and provide educational opportunities for local Tibetan and Indian communities. It is committed to raising awareness of the unique Tibetan culture.
Dolls4Tibet, also based in Dharamsala, offer flexible training and employment opportunities for disadvantaged Tibetan and Indian women in their local community. They create beautiful, handmade dolls wearing traditional Tibetan dress.
Today, China strictly controls and has destroyed many Tibetan traditions whilst also relocating nomads and forcing the demise of many traditional Tibetan lifestyles. Furthermore, historical places and local customs have been reduced to trivial entertainment for tourists, under the guise of promoting Tibetan culture.
It is in this way that our shop not only raises funds to support our vital campaigns, but also acts as a flouting of Chinese restriction, openly championing and encouraging Tibetan culture whilst also supporting the exiled Tibetan community. Owning and wearing these items are a way to stand up for Tibet every day, and we hope to make sure our shop always represents and celebrates Tibet’s rich culture. Why don’t you take a look?
Helen joined Free Tibet as a Fundraiser in January 2017 after working for NGO's tackling issues such as homelessness, youth violence, and emergency medical crisis abroad. She had been a supporter of the Tibetan cause for a long time and first met Free Tibet at Glastonbury in 2015 after listening to the Dalai Lama speak. In her spare time she enjoys writing, cooking and meditating.