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The triumphs and tragedies of the women of Tibet

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Deborah Cowan
WVoN co-editor

For the last 50 years or so, the Chinese occupation and rule of Tibet has rarely been out of the news.

Historically dense and fuelled by propaganda, the ongoing situation is undoubtedly controversial, if sometimes complex.

Stories of political unrest, violent clashes and human rights abuses continue to emerge year on year.

Many Tibetans have been imprisoned, tortured or killed for their political beliefs and actions, and many of them have been women.

In fact, during the long years of Chinese occupation, women have played a significant and sustained role in the political activities of their country.

One of the most important dates in the history of Tibetan women will be celebrated next week as they mark the 53rd anniversary of the National Tibetan Women’s Uprising.

On March 12, 1959, two days after the full scale Tibetan rebellion broke out, the women of Lhasa organized a peaceful demonstration over a controversial Chinese occupation that would last for weeks.

Organized by the Lhasa Patriotic Women’s Front, they gathered in their thousands outside the home of the Dalai Lama – the Potala Palace – in Lhasa.

Although the protest was peaceful, the women would face severe consequences for their actions.

Many were imprisoned, including Pamo Kusang, who led the demonstrations. Some were tortured, died in prison, or were executed.

It was a historical turning point in many ways – the Dalai Lama was eventually to flee Tibet to establish himself in exile in India, and the Tibetan Women’s Association (TWA) was established.

One of their primary aims was “to join hands with the women of the world to promote peace and justice for all.”

Even when they were exiled to India, from where they still operate, the TWA continued to draw increasing support from women all over the world.

So while the Chinese authorities and Tibetan dissenters continued to clash, the women provided a strong but peaceful voice in the ongoing struggle against oppression.

Their protests were smaller than those of their fellow countrymen, but they were powerful in their symbolism and concentrated on the message of non-violence.

In more recent times, however, the women of Tibet have been taking far more desperate measures in their struggle to have the plight of Tibet recognized.

Radio Free Asia reported that this week, in two separate incidents, Tsering Kyi, a 19 year old student, and Rinchen, a widowed mother of four, set fire to themselves in protest over Chinese oppression. (see WVoN story)

In total, five women have taken these extreme steps in the last five months.

If the drastic actions of these women are shocking, then the reaction of the Chinese authorities is perhaps equal cause for concern.

According to The Guardian, when Tsering Kyi set fire to herself on Saturday at a vegetable market in Maqu in the Gansu province, Chinese market vendors threw stones at her burning body.

The next day Rinchen self-immolated in front of the besieged Kirti Monastery in eastern Tibet.  The Chinese authorities labeled the Tibetan self-immolators as terrorists.

It would seem that the practice is becoming more widespread among women, as the TWA say that these were the first laywomen in Tibet’s history to self immolate.

Only nuns or former nuns had previously set fire to themselves. Historically the protests have been centered around religious freedom and the return and reinstatement of the Dalai Lama.

It’s probably little co-incidence that these events took place just before the annual session of the National People’s Congress (NPC) parliamentary meeting in Beijing, which began on Monday.

And it will be worrying for Tibetans – and China’s other neighbours – that during the first day of the conference, Premier Wen Jiabao said the main task of the country’s growing military was “to win local wars.”

Whether or not Premier Wen was referring directly – or indirectly – to Tibet, it remains clear that the Chinese are unmoved by the desperate actions of these women.

Stephanie Brigden, the Director of London-based Free Tibet said the self-immolations by desperate women are “an extremely worrying and absolutely unprecedented trend that we hope will end.”

The TWA, which campaigns to raise awareness of gender specific human rights violations in Tibet, acknowledged the gravity of the deaths, but also paid tribute to the part women have continued to play in the resistance to Chinese rule, peaceful or otherwise.

Their website carried this message:

“TWA sends a message to Tibetans and supporters to commemorate the upcoming 53rd anniversary of the National Tibetan Women’s Uprising on the 12th March and partake in TWA global actions on the day, honoring female martyrdom and lending a voice to the growing female resistance in Tibet against Chinese oppression.

“TWA believes that the steadfast, undeterred presence of Tibetan women and their resilience in the face of oppression encourages this self-sustaining struggle to rise against injustices and a repressive regime.”

It’s nearly 53 years since the peaceful protests of the women in Lhasa made history.  What a tragedy that the protests of recent days have given rise to such different headlines.

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