One of our goals at Free Tibet is to spread the word about Tibet – the country, its occupation and what we can do to push back. This autumn we pushed ourselves to the limit to do exactly that, with an ambitious series of public events. Just over a week after we pulled off a second successful Tibetfest, we hit the road, or more accurately the rails, on a tour that took us all over the UK, from Aberdeen in the north all the way down to Brighton.
Planning the event
One of the trickiest decisions when trying to spread the word about Tibet is where to start. As an organisation dedicated to ending the occupation and defending the human rights of the Tibetan people, it might seem obvious to talk about what we see in our day-to-day work – testimonies of arrests, torture and the daily hardships that Tibetans face. Extensive public opinion polling last year taught us that if people learn about the occupation and the abuses, even in one or two news stories, they care and they want to do something. Our job is to reach these new people, to show them Tibet’s beauty and what is at stake if the occupation goes unchallenged.
However, a presentation on human rights abuse can make for a bleak and difficult event for anyone to sit through on an autumn evening. It would also neglect the other side of Tibet – its unique culture. Many people are drawn to Tibet through Tibetan Buddhism, the beauty of its landscape, its complex but intriguing language or the distinctive artwork. This is a side of Tibet that we also endeavour to show the world, even as we expose human rights abuses and challenge the Chinese government.
In order to make this topic more accessible and poignant, we also gave our events a large focus on poetry from inside Tibet. Living under such an oppressive occupation means that freedom of expression is severely stifled, but through poems (often smuggled out of Tibet) we can get a real glimpse of what is really like for those living under these conditions. A selection of these poems were read out at the start of each event, which set the tone for the evening.
Another aspect of Tibet that we wanted to capture was to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the 2008 Tibetan Uprising. The wave of protests that swept across Tibet that year and China’s brutal response remains one of the most important chapters in modern Tibetan history. The events of 2008 explain why China felt forced to turn Tibet into one of the most militarised and closed places in the world; how Tibetans channelled decades of discontent into a protest movement that took Beijing, and the world, by surprise; and how the legacy of the uprising has shaped life in Tibet today and continues to drive courageous and creative acts of resistance.
Weaving these strands into an accessible event that would appeal to new people as well as to our longstanding supporters would be a challenge. Fortunately, we have carried out enough events, be they in church halls or festival tents, to have a sense of what works. We could also count on the help of two exceptional individuals to help us bring Tibet’s history and culture to life.
Our special guests
Wangden Kyab, the Research Manager from our partner organisation Tibet Watch, escaped from Tibet in 1998 and since then has distinguished himself as a journalist and a researcher. A reluctant public speaker, Wangden prefers to let his work do the talking. The information he sends from his office in Dharamsala, northern India, to our office in London forms the basis for our news stories, press releases and public reports. We decided it was high time that Wangden shared his encyclopaedic knowledge of Tibet with the UK public and so we flew him out of India and out of his comfort zone so that he could be one of our speakers.
On the flight with him was activist and writer Tenzin Tsundue. A magnetic public speaker, Tenzin can switch from tales of his childhood as a refugee in northern India to evocative descriptions of the rain in Dharamsala. Or he might bring up the various different prisons where the police have found space for him over the years - the price he has been forced to pay for his activism.
On the road
Our first event took place in Bristol. The city’s Tibetan community and a group of dedicated local Tibet supporters made us feel very welcome and 30-40 people turned up that evening at the city’s well-loved Hamilton House. After a generous introduction from representatives of the community, we began with the programme that we would use for each of our events.
We opened with poems from Burning the Sun’s Braids, a compilation of poetry from Tibetans inside Tibet which has been put together and translated by Buchung D Sonam. The poems describe the daily lives of Tibetans under occupation and their yearning for freedom, captured through quintessentially Tibetan metaphors such as Tibet’s hardy and indomitable yaks.
This was followed by a presentation of the three most significant periods of protest in Tibet’s history, before Wangden and John, our Campaigns Manager, sat down for a dialogue about the events of 2008, in which Wangden explained the circumstances that led to the uprising and its legacy ten years later. The final section of the event was given over to Tenzin Tsundue, who read from his book of poems, Kora, and drew connections between Tibetan culture and Tibetan resistance. The audience loved it and there was no shortage of questions or comments or people wanting to hear more.
Each event had a slightly different character. In Aberdeen we were joined by Tibet Support Group Grampian and also Dr Martin Mills, a senior lecturer from Aberdeen University who was able to help us secure a university venue and also entice along a few students. In Edinburgh we were hosted by the lovely Reka, who runs the Himalaya shop and café. Beautifully decorated with prayer flags and plenty of Tibetan art, the café was a very cosy setting for our event. We even had live music from one of the local Tibetans who came along.
For our Brighton event we partnered with Tibet Society and were joined by their Chair, Norman Baker, who gave a short presentation. We then had a couple of days in London and an event for the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, part of the School of Advanced Study at the University of London. The event was filmed and, thanks to the Institute, is now available as a public podcast.
We also recorded some material specifically for use as a teaching resource and secured a speaking slot at a conference on Indigenous Peoples’ and Minority Rights to Culture and Language hosted by the University of London’s Human Rights Consortium.
Then we were back on the road and back up north to York. Once there, longstanding Tibet supporter Rowena Field and Professor Paul Gready helped us lay on a fantastic event at the University of York. We had a good number of students, most of whom were new to Tibet, and a great turnout from the York Tibet Support Group. A tour of the old city and York’s unique snickelways was a great way to end the day.
Our final stop was Manchester, which is the hub for the Tibetan Community UK (North) Association and all the Tibetans who live in neighbouring towns and cities. Once the event was complete, our evening and the tour was rounded off with dinner at the Tibetan Kitchen. We were joined by members of the Community and a few new supporters who had been inspired by the event. In many ways the perfect end to our fortnight of outreach.