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Tibetan activist:

"We have to be Tibetan from the inside"

By Petra Wijnsema

Sonam Dorjee (28) knows very well what an Indian prison looks like from the inside. Having participated in protest marches in India, he's been imprisoned three times. In March 2005 for infiltrating the Chinese Embassy in Delhi, in November 2006 because he came too close to the car of the visiting Chinese President Hu Jintao and in October 2007 for storming the Chinese Embassy in Delhi. Although his life hasn't been in danger he was scared the last time he was in prison. Because he had committed the same 'offence' several times, he had to share his cell with criminals. "All day I had to clean the toilets with a brick; I was exhausted. I didn't get food during daytime and I didn't have a bed. It was scary. I never want to go there again." But he will continue participating in protests. "I know I risk my life. You never know what happens if you protest in front of the Chinese Embassy, but I feel I have to do it."

The fact that his father was shot through his thumb when fleeing from Tibet has definitely contributed to Dorjee becoming an activist. Apart from being a project officer for Tong-Len - an organization that is doing aid projects for Indian refugees in the Kangra Valley - he's been volunteering for the Tibetan Youth Congress (TYC) for the past six years, a worldwide organization of 30,000 Tibetans united in their common struggle for the restoration of complete independence for the whole of Tibet. Currently he is an executive member of the regional TYC in Dharamsala. What will the strategy of TYC be after the Olympic Games? "We're always active; the Olympics are only a very small issue in the Tibetan fight for freedom. To achieve that, TYC doesn't pick up arms: "Gandhi led India to independence through nonviolent protests. But we want more aggressive nonviolent protests." He mentions hunger strikes and protests in front of embassies and UN buildings as tools. "We should also tell every Tibetan to use Indian products. It is difficult to boycott Chinese products, because every country has an economic love affair with this superpower. But Tibetans can buy Indian products to express their gratitude for what India has done for us."

Asked what TYC has achieved through protests he says: "Tibetans in Tibet were inspired to take part in the March 10 protests by young and educated people that had returned to Tibet." He has also found that his actions have inspired other young Tibetans himself. "I went to South India for a teaching and a young Tibetan approached me. He hugged me. He had seen me on television after the protest in front of the Chinese Embassy in 2005. He said that what I had done had really made a difference for people in Tibet."

To his taste, the Tibetan youth is not combative enough. "Many Tibetans talk about independence and freedom. But having a flag and wearing Tibetan clothes doesn't mean you're Tibetan. We have to be Tibetan from the inside. Tibetans that are brought up here lack interest in Tibetan culture, the Tibetan language and Buddhism. In Dharamsala there are many doctors, journalists and engineers that are activists, but they have to use their intellectual skills to contribute to solving the Tibetan issue." He says TYC helped him to become a 'real' Tibetan. "I only understood that I had to take up my responsibility after I talked to political prisoners. They told me about the killings and tortures in prisons. They have gone through a lot of pain and I could feel that pain. We lack the expression of that emotion."

Dorjee says his greatest honour would be to go to Tibet, to die in his own country. Asked how realistic that is he says that he sometimes feels unhappy about the behaviour of Tibetans outside Tibet. "They have become rich and are happy here. Since the eighties Tibetans rather seem to go to other countries such as the United States than to Tibet. And there are many mixed marriages." When it comes to preserving culture, he thinks the Tibetans can learn a lot from the Jewish community, for example from their education techniques. Dorjee tries to contribute to preserving Tibetan culture not only by being politically active with the Tibetan Youth Congress, but also by being active in cultural organizations like the Ngari Chithun Association and the Tibetan Youth Movement.

He is blank when it comes to drawing a future scenario for Tibet. "In the worst case scenario the Tibetans may resort to violence." He doesn't really have a best case scenario. Could the use of violence turn out in a positive way? "Maybe." He stresses that the international community should understand that the Tibetan issue has to be solved. "The international community should accept that violence may start again if they don't put pressure on China to reach a solution. The Tibetans listen to the Dalai Lama, but what happens when the Dalai Lama is gone? Look at history, China started attacking Tibet when the Dalai Lama became leader but was too young to take on that responsibility. I'm scared of what will happen when the Dalai Lama is gone."

This article was published in the August 2008 issue of Contact Magazine, a Dharamsala community publication.

Check out the following link for pictures of Dharamsala:

Impressions of life in the Tibetan community in exile, Dharamsala, Northern India (Dutch)