Activists mark 55 years since Tibetan uprising in San Francisco

Opponents of the Chinese occupation of Tibet gather at San Francisco City Hall. (Scott Morris)
March 10, 2014 3:39:38 PM PDT
Opponents of the Chinese occupation of Tibet gathered on the steps of San Francisco City Hall Monday to mark the 55th anniversary of the 1959 Tibetan uprising and subsequent exile of the Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama.

Today's anniversary comes on the heels of the Dalai Lama's visit to the Bay Area last month during which he made stops in Santa Clara, Berkeley, San Francisco and Richmond.

Richmond Mayor Gayle McLaughlin spoke during Monday's San Francisco event and said she had the opportunity to meet the Dalai Lama when he visited the new Tibetan Community Center in Richmond.

The opposition to the Chinese occupation of Tibet is "a struggle I know has been long and hard and I stand in solidarity with all of you," McLaughlin told the crowd of hundreds. "It was a special honor to host the Dalai Lama as he came to bless the Tibetan Community Center."

The Dalai Lama has lived in exile from his native Tibet since the 1959 uprising. Giovanni Vassallo, president of Bay Area Friends of Tibet, gave a fiery account of the events that led to the spiritual leader's exile.

March 10 is "the day we lost our peaceful Tibetan nation," Vassallo said.

In 1959, Vassallo recounted, amid a deteriorating relationship with the People's Republic of China, the Dalai Lama was given an invitation to attend a theatrical performance with a Chinese general, but without his traditional armed escort or ceremony.

Fearing that he may be abducted or "disappeared," Vassallo said, thousands of Tibetans surrounded the Dalai Lama's palace to try and protect him.

As the conflict escalated with Tibetan citizens attempting to fight off the Chinese army, the army fired mortar shells at the Dalai Lama's palace, and he slipped out disguised as a soldier, Vassallo said.

Recently, Tibetans have resorted to self-immolation to protest the continuing occupation of Tibet, and the steps of City Hall today were lined with photos of the 127 Tibetans who have killed themselves in protest since 2009, including two in February.

"Today is the day to honor Tibet and the sacrifices of our forbearers," Vassallo said.

Today's events in San Francisco drew the support of Bay Area lawmakers including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco, U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Oakland, and Rep. Jackie Speier, D-San Mateo, who each sent representatives to read statements on behalf of the legislators.

"The current situation on the ground in Tibet continues to worsen as the Chinese military presence grows and more Tibetans subject themselves to self-immolations," Pelosi said. "It is long past time for the Chinese government to address the legitimate grievances of the Tibetan people and cease its repression."

A large crowd on the sidewalk listened to the speakers intently, spilling out into the street. Each wearing gold headbands, they carried signs with messages like "Self-immolations: China is responsible" and "Tibetans burning alive for freedom."

"Time after time Beijing has rebuffed the overtures of our leaders," Tibetan Association of Northern California President Kunjo Tashi said. "Too many of our brothers and sisters have sacrificed our lives."

Tashi sees hope in the use of social media to document the Chinese occupation and spread the Tibetan people's message to the world.

Today's events were scheduled to continue with a march to the Chinese Consulate in San Francisco where more speakers were scheduled, and later to the Embarcadero for a candlelight vigil. Another event was scheduled in Berkeley.


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