Sympathy as a politically conscious act

Over the last four mornings, we’ve met with four amazing women from four different oganizations:

What incredible work they are all doing!

The Tibetan Center for Human Rights & Democracy was the first NGO started by Tibetans in exile, and it remains fully staffed by Tibetans. We talked about a lot of things like hope in the face of massive oppression and surveillance. Tsomo said that she’s had people come into her office saying that Tibet is a lost cause, saying something like, “It’s unrealistic to on with this fight.” And to be sure, it does feel overwhelming. But Tsomo’s response was clear: “It is the Tibetans who will decide if this is a lost cause! Unless we give up, there is still hope. When it seems most hopeless, that is the time when you must harness all of the hope, all of the inner determination.” She pointed to the Chinese campaign of increased surveillance which was supposed to last for two years, but has since continued, making it a permanent policy. As the Chinese have stated, the campaign was so successful that they will continue it. But as Tsomo sees it, the campaign was so unsuccessful that they have to do more of it.

We spoke about collective punishment whereby if a monk self-immolates, his entire monastery is penalized, even though collective punishment is not legal under international law. We also spoke about the concept of the criminalization of sympathy. For example, if a Tibetan self-immolates, and friends want to give their condolences to the family, they may be imprisoned for two years: the criminalization of sympathy. To say, “I’m sorry for your loss,” is a crime. So many people I know don’t consider themselves to be political, and that’s fine. But what happens when the very act of sympathy becomes political? What happens when you are not allowed to tell your neighbor that you are sorry for the loss of her son?

“Tibet itself is turning into a giant open prison,” Tsomo told us. “The job is to act as the thought police. They are policing your thoughts.” Indeed, even speaking in Tibetan is an act of resistance and is not allowed. There are Political Thought classes in every school.

Tsomo said that in the past, the Tibetan Center for Human Rights & Democracy would often seek support and alliances from other governments. But now, the UN won’t even offer a letter of support, much less actual support. They’re beginning to shift their thinking and seek support from corporations that are benefiting from Tibetan resources such as big mining companies, companies bottling the water, banks that finance everything, etc, etc. The idea is that if a company benefits from Tibetan resources, they do so while supporting the genocide of Tibetans and Tibetan culture as well as the destruction of its environment.

The next morning we met with Rinzin from Students for a Free Tibet, which is an energetic organization that has 650 chapters in 35 different countries. Two years ago, this was where I did my volunteering here. The organization focuses on three main things: bringing awareness to the environment, social justice, and individual political prisoners. There are currently 2000 documented political prisoners in Tibet (plus countless who are undocumented). Recently they were bringing awareness to a a man who was imprisoned for 28 years for collecting folk songs in order to help preserve Tibetan folk culture. I can’t imagine a musical archivist being imprisoned for 28 years. One man was arrested for texting his friend that there was an increase of soldiers in his village and it made him scared. A text = imprisonment for splittism, promoting a split in national identity.

Parallel to how Tsomo talked about raising awareness in terms of industry and business, Rinzin went on to say, “China is not running an empire. It’s running an industry.” When thought of from this perspective, one main goal is to raise the cost of occupation so much that China gives up because it is simply too expensive to occupy Tibet. For example, when a protest happens in Tibet, China has to pay for increased army, increased arrests and detention, surveillance. All of this is expensive. I found this to be an interesting way of thinking about protests. That they’re not just about visual & social awareness, but it can be a way to raise the expense of occupation.

They’ve also targeted big businesses, and blocked a massive transaction of funding from the World Bank with a campaign that said that the World Bank approves of genocide in Tibet. Of course, no person or company wants to be associated with approving genocide, so they stopped. It was too expensive of a risk.

Rinzin also spoke about hope, saying, “To be very honest, the only thing we have is hope. Time and patience and hope is the most integral part.”

Yesterday we met with Kaysang, who is a founding member of the Tibetan Feminist Collective. They advocate for women’s issues and have programs on menstrual health and gender-based violence. For example, there is a great lack of data and knowledge about domestic violence issues. So to say that this is a problem, or this is not a problem, is impossible. Such a statement is based solely on one’s experience, as opposed to on any research or gathered data. But Kaysang reminded us that Tibetans also face normal every-day problems. To think of all Tibetans as only compassionate and peaceful is dehumanizing and restricting. Like all of us, everyone experiences a spectrum of emotions and can be angry or depressed, as well as compassionate and peaceful.

Kaysang is also a poet who read to us from her book broken portraits. She began by first saying that “to have control over your present and future, you need to start with telling your story.” As with literature all over the world, publishing is often dominated by men, so to hear her work was especially meaningful and specific to both her life as a Tibetan living in exile as well as a woman Tibetan — the two cannot be separated.

This morning we met with Tenzin Tsomo from the Active Nonviolence Education Center. They run workshops and trainings on nonviolence and nonviolent communication strategies. She talked about how when we are angry or want to act out violently, what needs to be asked is the question “What needs are not being met?” For example, when you go home from a frustrating day at work and you are angry, the root need not being met may be related to the work day. Tsomo posed the question to us, “If you don’t want someone to shout at you, what happens if you empathize with them?”

“When I was born, I was born with the responsibility of being Tibetan,” Tsomo told us. “I am so blessed and fortunate to be born as a Tibetan… I was born with two responsibilities: As a human being, to create no harm for others. And as a Tibetan, to do something for my people. Tibetans in Tibet are still waiting for the Dalai Lama to return, and we must do something.”

I’m sitting in a cafe overlooking the Kangra Valley and thinking about these past four days. The highest peaks are beginning to reflect their bright pink glow from the setting sun. Tomorrow morning, we’ll go on a big hike up to Triund where we’ll enjoy impressive views of the Himalayan range. I feel so lucky to be here and meet with all these people every day. Even if the task at hand is an oppression that is larger than I can comprehend, I can at least ask simple questions and try to learn and understand as best as I can. I can at least sympathize without the fear of being imprisoned. I wonder what would happen if we all practiced a little more sympathy, of course out of compassion, but also as a conscious act of practicing our freedom of speech. What would happen if we said to one another more often, “I see you, I hear you, I feel you.” “I am sorry for your loss.” Or some variation of this. To know that we are all on this planet together, and to express such a thought as a conscious act is perhaps the least that we can do.