Tibetan Uprising Day

Posted on March 10, 2011

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March 10 is a historical day for Tibetans: In 1959, Tibetans in the capital city of Lhasa surrounded Potala Palace to protect the Dalai Lama and fight back against the People’s Republic of China. Today March 10 is observed as “Tibetan Uprising Day” to commemorate the continuing struggle of Tibetans to free their country from Chinese occupation.

Boudha stupa on a normal, quiet morning. (Photo by Nina Wegner)

Our home in Kathmandu sits in a predominantly Tibetan neighborhood. It’s a quiet, clean little enclave (well, for Kathmandu) called Boudha, and it’s home to the biggest stupa (a type of holy Buddhist structure) in the world. On a normal day, the streets of Boudha are bustling with school kids in uniform, homemakers doing their grocery shopping, and Tibetan youngsters riding by on motorcycles. But today, the streets were eerily quiet. Many Tibetan-owned shops were closed and there were noticeably fewer people on the street. Our neighborhood was preparing to demonstrate for Uprising Day.

Today, riot police lined the stupa.

By the stupa, Nepali police in riot gear lined the streets to subdue any unruly protesters. After the particularly violent Uprising Day of 2008, authorities in Nepal have come down harder on Tibetan demonstrations. I went to the stupa to observe what might happen. At first, things felt calm and solemn. In the mid-morning, there was a ceremony at a monastery close to the stupa, where hundreds of people (not just Tibetans, but tourists and Nepalis as well) gathered to sing Tibetan national songs, pray, or show solidarity with the Tibetan cause. People waved Tibetan flags and I felt passion and nationalism in the air, but I didn’t sense danger. I went home while Taylor stayed at the monastery to photograph.

A peaceful ceremony at a monastery gave way to unrest later in the day.

People starting to get worked up after the ceremony.

Then, at around noon, Taylor sent me a text message that said “Lots of fighting over here.” I called him a few minutes later to see if I should come check it out, and he said yes, things seemed to be calming down and there was no immediate danger. I felt something like this was important to witness, so I headed back down to the stupa. On the way, I heard some lusty cries coming from an alley and other voices joining in. I glanced down the alley as I hurried by and saw riot police closing in on a crowd of people.

At the stupa, I saw where all the people in our neighborhood had gone. At the main entrance to Boudha is a massive gate, and people were congregated there amidst defensive formations of riot police. Some police held shields, some held bamboo batons, others held rifles. Unlike the mood at the monastery earlier that morning, the air felt tense. Intermittent shouts cut the air, and the police were on edge. After circling the stupa once and finding Taylor, I decided to climb onto the stupa for a safe vantage point. From  the top, I got a view of people milling around, waiting for the right moment to voice their grievances. I was surprised to see many foreigners standing with Tibetans, and also Nepal’s human rights observers, identifiable by their light blue vests, who were there to monitor the police’s treatment of protesters.

The more vociferous protesters were hit by batons. If they didn't quiet down, they were dragged away and arrested.

For better or worse, I did not witness any out-and-out fighting between the protesters and police, but Taylor was there for the intense moments and got some good photos. He witnessed protesters getting arrested for what seemed to be nothing more than vociferous chanting, women wailing and pleading with police, and angry Chinese striking back, in one instance by ripping a Tibetan flag out of a protester’s hands. Hearing about these things and seeing the photos made me sad. It was proof that for Tibetans in Nepal, there really is no freedom of assembly. Because Nepal depends so completely on Chinese financial support, the government has agreed to a stringent “no anti-China activities” policy, which directly affects Tibetans’ rights to freedom of expression.

Women were just as active and vocal as the men.

A woman tries to stop police from taking her friend away. The policeman on the right raises his baton at Taylor to get him out of the way.

Two men get into a fracas while the police try to control the crowd.

A Nepali English-language newspaper, Republica, reported that 15 protesters were injured and 4 were arrested at the Boudha demonstration today. Another demonstration was rumored to occur at the Chinese Consulate, but I don’t know if it actually happened.

After I got shooed off of the stupa by a Nepali man waving a baton, I decided I had seen enough. Although I support the Tibetan cause, I felt there was nothing I could do for the protesters. I had shown up in a spirit of both curiosity and solidarity, but I doubted any positive change would be effected that day.

So the moral of the story? I don’t know that there is one, except that people need to know there are communities around the world who live through injustices like this—and even worse—every day. I also fervently hope that Tibet and China can come to some kind of accord soon. Uprising Day is important to the Tibetan people now, but I think many would prefer to see a time when such a day is no longer necessary.

Postscript: I just read in the New York Times that the Dalai Lama stepped down from his role as political leader of Tibet tonight. Later this month, Tibetans will vote for the new prime minister of the Government in Exile.

Photos by Taylor Weidman.

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