Solidarity with exiles in sixth annual event
By 10 a.m. Saturday — National Uprising Day for Tibet — the bright sun glared off the white pyramid marking the center of a third flag next to the state and U.S. flags in Berkeley’s Civic Center Park.
The pyramid represents Tibet, commonly known as the land surrounded by snowy mountains, according to the official exile Tibetan government web site. But the snowy mountains seemed far away, as the flag flew over the green grass.
But Tibetans living in the Bay Area believe that Berkeley’s willingness to raise the flag plays an important part in fostering the Tibetan resistance to what they term Chinese domination.
"It helps Tibetans in Tibet," said Ugyen Tsering, vice president of the Tibetan Association of Northern California. "It encourages them to know their brothers in other countries are also fighting."
The Chinese entered Tibet, which the United States recognizes as an occupied country, in 1949. Ten years later, on March 10, the Tibetans staged a massive protest against the Chinese.
That was 42 years ago. The Chinese still occupy Tibet and the fifty Tibetans who sang the national anthem to commemorate Saturday’s National Uprising Day in a semi-circle around the flag did so thousands of miles away from home.
International solidarity and support can also produce tangible results, Tsering said, noting that some Tibetan political prisoners who had been sentenced to death by the Chinese government have had their sentences commuted because of such demonstrations.
This is the sixth year that the City Council has elected to raise
the Tibetan flag in solidarity with the Tibetan movement for self-determination.
One of hundreds of cities worldwide to raise the Tibetan flag, Berkeley is purportedly the only U.S. city to take that step.
"It’s a positive affirmation of the Tibetan Community in exile and the Tibetan government in exile," said Tsering.
City Councilmember Kriss Worthington attributes the support in part to the "small but significant" Tibetan community in both Berkeley and Northern California. Tsering estimated that the Berkeley Tibetan community comprises about 200 people and about 500 to 600 Tibetans reside in Northern California.
But the flag raising has much to do with the character of the city as well.
"We believe that Berkeley has always stood behind the people who were oppressed," said Dhonyo Tenzin, former president of the regional Tibetan Association. "We went to City Hall and put our case before them and they were happy to do that for Tibet."
University of California at Davis student Jamyang Wangden was born in India, where she grew up in a Tibetan exile community. Now her family is one of the many Tibetan families living in Berkeley. As a friend wrote "Free Tibet" in black marker on her white T-shirt, Wangden discussed the personal importance of raising the flag.
“Being raised in a Tibetan village, I never heard somebody say ‘I don’t know about Tibet being independent,’” said Wangden. She first heard those words when she moved to the United States from India. The sentiment "hurts me," she said, "and when I first came it made me cry."
But Wangden firmly believes in Tibetan Independence and said that she learned to deal with people’s questioning Tibetan’s right to statehood.
The Berkeley flag raising does not go unnoticed by the Chinese government. Worthington said that the Chinese Consulate sends a letter to the Council each year urging them not to continue the practice of raising the flag. "They used to aggressively pursue us," said Worthington. "They would tell us that we didn’t know what’s going on in Tibet."
No one from the Chinese Consulate was available to confirm China’s stance on the Berkeley flag raising.
Amongst city councilmembers, Worthington says that the Tibetan flag raising is not a contentious issue. "We could just do it in perpetuity," he said, "But having this on the agenda once a year reminds people at City Council meetings that this is going on."
After the Berkeley ceremony, the group moved to San Francisco to protest outside the Chinese Consulate. Wangden and two friends, all members of the student group Students for a Free Tibet, planned a dramatic re-enactment of China’s occupation of Tibet that ends with the international community freeing Tibet. The presentation involves tearing up a Chinese flag.
Not all Tibetans feel as comfortable protesting publicly as Wangden. Many people who still have family in Tibet don’t want to publicly stand against the Chinese government for fear that the government will take reprisal against their families, according to the president of the Regional Youth Congress, who gave only Kunga as his name.
Wangden herself said she used to worry that her activities would prevent her from visiting Tibet, a trip that she desperately wants to make.
But now, she said, “I don’t care anymore.”