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Self-immolations in Tibet must resonate in America

Tibetans around the world are in mourning for the more than 25 Tibetans who have immolated themselves over the past year in protest against China's oppression. These self-immolations are also desperate cries for support from the international community. Americans can help.

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In an ironic twist, the Chinese authorities paid Tibetans to celebrate Tibetan New Year this year; the regime is determined to show the world that Tibetans are free, when the reality is the opposite.

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Tibetans do not even have the freedom to leave Tibet; the authorities capture and detain Tibetans who try to escape. In 2006, Western mountaineers watched in horror – and captured on video – as Chinese border security forces fired on a group of Tibetans, killing a 17-year-old nun who was trying to escape. Those who are not caught also face huge risks.

My husband was carried across steep Himalayan passes when he was seven years old. His mother died across the border in Nepal after giving birth to a baby girl; the baby died shortly afterward. Our close friend’s sisters paid smugglers to help three of their children escape. The two older boys made it, but the littlest one – just 10 years old – died en route. Heartbreaking as these stories are, they are by no means unique.

Last month, the Obama administration rolled out the red carpet for Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping. This may be understandable given US interests in a strong US-China relationship. But this month, with the March 10 anniversary of the 1959 Tibetan uprising and flight of the Dalai Lama, we must remember that Tibetans are giving their lives to protest the desperate conditions in Tibet under Chinese rule.

What can we in the United States do to help?

First, Tibetans need help preserving their language and culture in exile. Many diaspora groups have found ways to pass their language and traditions on to their children; we can share strategies and lend assistance as Tibetans work to do the same.

Second, there is an urgent need for dialogue between Tibetan and Chinese people living in the United States. Tibetans are careful to distinguish between the Chinese government and Chinese people. However, there is a gulf in understanding between the two communities here that must be bridged, and only dialogue can achieve that.

Third, there is a need for US diplomatic initiatives that focus less on pressuring and shaming China into submission and more on helping China recognize that the current situation is not sustainable. Ultimately, the US must help China find a face-saving way to shift policies in Tibet, including serious negotiations with the Tibetan Government in Exile.

Finally, Americans must offer encouragement and hope. However powerful China may be – and however desperate the situation in Tibet is – global forces are pushing toward democracy.

Andrea Strimling Yodsampa is a postdoctoral research fellow with the International Security Program at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.


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