Recent reports of violence and protests in China have roused Montreal’s small Tibetan community.
While the Chinese Government claims only 19 people have died in clashes with Chinese police, the Tibetan government-in-exile puts the number at 99, and other groups purport it to be even greater.
Tenzin Yangdon, a Montreal-born Tibetan, said that focusing on the number of dead misses the greater political and social movement.
“China is focusing on the numbers and distracting from the real situation in Tibet,” said Yangdon. “Revolution has to come from within, and it has started.”
On Saturday, Yangdon participated in a vigil at Place des Arts with the approximately 100 Tibetans in the greater Montreal area, as well as other supporters. Many of these Tibetans have had trouble reaching friends and family in Tibet; Yangdon, for example, has repeatedly tried to phone her family, but the number goes directly to a Chinese operator.
China has rigidly controlled Tibet since invading the region in 1949. There is no access to postsecondary education in the Tibetan language, and it has been reported that up to 6,000 monasteries have been destroyed since the beginning of the occupation.
The Dalai Lama, the spiritual and political leader-in-exile, has preached and practised a strict doctrine of non-violence since leaving Tibet in 1959, creating positive media exposure.
Lara Braitstein, a professor of the Tibetan language and Mahayana Buddhism at McGill, stressed the need to examine the situation from two perspectives.
“The Dalai Lama is of course very important for Tibetans inside Tibet, but perhaps in more of a symbolic way,” Braitstein said. “It is hard to have someone speaking for you who has been out of the country for 50 years.
“We have access to the voices of the diasporic community, but not as much to those within Tibet. They are very distinct voices,” she added.
With the upcoming Olympics in Beijing, a movement to boycott some or all of the games has received varying interest.
Dermod Travis, executive director of the Canada Tibet Committee (CTC), emphasized the importance of contacting Canadian Members of Parliament. The CTC sent a letter to Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Parliamentary House leaders that Canadian politicians attending the Olympics would be “inappropriate.”
The majority of international Tibetan groups want to send a clear international message without punishing the athletes.
“Boycotting the Olympics isn’t the main goal,” Yangdon agrees. “We want more concrete talks between the Dalai Lama and the Chinese government.”
A Chinese student studying the Tibetan language at McGill who wished to remain anonymous said the games are shedding light on Tibet, yet the Chinese Government is not acting appropriately.
“The Olympics are too politicized. The issues have always been there and the games are pushing the government to deal with the problems,” she said.
“Still, the Chinese government is playing down the reality. The news reports talk about terrorists and extremists, but fail to mention the monks and citizens. They are taking an angle to make themselves look good.”
As the riots have taken the stage in Western media, international organizations are working to put international pressure on the Chinese President Hu Jintao. In seven days, avaaz.org gathered over 1,000,000 signatures for a petition calling for restraint in the Chinese response.