Here is the first part of an extensive conversation—well, as extensive as it can get in 30-plus minutes—that I had with Sikyong candidate Speaker Penpa Tsering. We met in one of Parkdale’s ubiquitous Tibetan-owned establishments, Shangri-la restaurant, where we discussed his Sikyong 2016 campaign so far, the state of Tibetan democracy, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Lukar Jam, Tibet Support Groups, Donald Trump, and Rob Ford, among others.
A simmering dispute in the Tibetan diaspora came to boil this past week when organizers of the annual Tibetan National Uprising day rally in New York City publicly clashed with demonstrators that carried placards and shouted slogans containing the words “Free Tibet”. The opposing counterparts fell in two camps: those who advocate for Rangzen (Tibetan independence; absolute freedom from China) and those who favour Umay-Lam (Middle-Way Path or genuine autonomy; similar in some respects to Hong Kong’s “One Country, Two System” setup). The Umay-Lam supporters, it seems, wanted nothing to do with “Free Tibet” at this year’s rally.
Even though the point of contention in New York City on March 10, 2015, rested on what was and wasn’t permissible at the event, the discord points to a deeper issue: One that has been debated vociferously many times in India, and is finally wedging itself in the burgeoning Tibetan communities in North America. On the face of it, the question is about determining Tibetan sovereignty and the future of Tibet. What this incident points to though, is the more complicated question of who decides the future of Tibet.
The searing clarion call from Tibet. The ripples of anguish across the communities in exile. The amoral handwave by the Chinese ruling class. The deafening silence from its detractors in the mainland and beyond.
Everything that’s needed to be said has been said, and yet we find ourselves unable to confront the malignancy of the situation. For those of us outside Tibet, we do our part in going to protests. We write impassioned essays. We get arrested. We get into online arguments.
And yet the simple fact of the matter—the skin of the truth—is that we don’t know. We shout a lot, but at the core, within that gauze of work and life and shit, we are at a loss for words. We wonder how the picture of a charred body pricks us, reminds us of our injustice and insecurity, and of our connection to a piece of land many of us have never stepped foot on.
We think we know what drives a young teenage monk to pour fuel on himself and strike a matchstick. We hope we can relate to a mother of three children when she abandons them for the Cause.
What is it that binds us together?
Where is that mischievous, irrepressible smile?
How deep is our well?
My days are ordered with quiet streets and bulbous figures wrapped from head to toe against the November cold. They are insulated within walls and windows, muffling the clinks of streetcars and the wayward songbird. They are filled with breaks of coffee and tea from the computer screen. They are chores pushed back and messages to be returned.
They are not this.
But every week, they become closer. Bit by bit.
There is a protest happening tomorrow, Wednesday, in downtown Toronto. At Richmond St. and Yonge St. In front of Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade. It has to do with the pending sale of Canada’s natural resources to a group of investors in China who have financed the forced resettlement of Tibetan nomads. Tibetans nomads who have now resorted to burning their bodies in order to express their defiance.
It will happen at 10 am in the morning. I know it can be inconvenient, but please try.
We may not know who we are or what we ought to do. But we know this much: our righteous condemnation against a transaction that facilitates the destruction of the Tibetan people, culture and land must be felt and heard.
Especially if it is inconvenient.
No trees and birds; no song for the heavens.
Stubborn lines of lungta stretched by stray squalls—
Wishful prologues; polyester in abeyance.
Folds of red gather around the pyre;
Their intoning chants quite mellifluous.
Burning juniper and black flesh recall
Crushed barley that is spread lightly, superfluous.
Ashen fingers light a hundred eight lamps,
As the tips of hair recoil at heat this close.
Saffron shadows sauntering in the hall
Attempt to console the hums of past, future ghosts.
My head was clear though my heart beat in protest.
Amidst the frenzied screams I was at peace.
Petroleum skin flinched in withdrawal;
Vows in situ, I hope to go back to the trees.
The coldest of winter beset by flames
That melts the edges of uncertainty.
Do you hear these shouts that disturb the Wall?
Don’t make scrolls of martyrs yet; please first hear my plea.
Many Tibetans here in Toronto are becoming increasingly numb to such news from Tibet. It used to be that the initial shock and horror of the news was followed by a call for action: protest, candle-light vigil, prayers, lobbying at the Parliament, etc. Now, many of us talk about the self-immolations over breakfast, we might make a comment or two about the parsimonious coverage from our news outlets, and then we go on with our lives. When previously every new report of self-immolation was a sign of an imminent judgment day for our struggle, now they barely register in our social media updates.
But none of this had any bearing on why I was stuck in this rush-hour gridlock.