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This article by Nicole Plett was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on March 11,
1998. All rights reserved.
Tibet’s Princeton Friends
An elderly Tibetan woman stands alone and still in
New Delhi’s busiest marketplace. She carries a sign, "Please help
me see my only son before I die."
"I saw her there last month," says Princeton resident Tsering
Yangon, a native of Tibet and co-founder of the Princeton Area Friends
of Tibet. "She is a refugee, living in India, and the government
of China will not give her permission to travel back to Tibet to see
Yangon says the young man in question, ethnomusicologist and Fulbright
scholar Ngawang Choepal, was a student at Middlebury College, Vermont,
when he went back to Tibet to record traditional songs and dances.
Arrested and eventually charged with spying, he has been sentenced
to 18 years in prison.
Like a single point on a sweeping, panoramic landscape, Choepal’s
mother, in her one-woman vigil to protest human rights violations
in Tibet, stands in relief to two recent Hollywood movies that have
also served to bring the Tibetan story into the public spotlight.
Although it has been almost 50 years since the army of the People’s
Republic of China invaded Tibet and crushed its small army, the plight
of Tibet’s 6 million citizens has never figured so prominently in
the mind and eye of the American public. In recent months, Hollywood’s
"Kundun" and "Seven Years in Tibet" have introduced
millions to the ancient culture and history of the remote mountain
Princeton Area Friends of Tibet (PAFT) sponsors its second annual
Tibetan Film and Food Festival at Nassau Presbyterian Church Friday,
March 13, at 7 p.m. The event features the screening of the films
"Tantra of Gyoto" and "Red Flag Over Tibet," with
discussion, Tibetan and Indian foods, and a raffle. Proceeds go to
benefit the Jampaling Children’s Refugee Center in Prokhara, Nepal,
and the Siddhartha School for Tibetan Children in Ladakh, India. On
her most recent visit to India and Nepal, Yangon delivered about $800
to the children of the Jampaling Center, the proceeds of PAFT’s past
Founded in 1992, PAFT has scheduled the cultural festival to commemorate
the 39th anniversary of the Tibetan National Uprising of March 10,
1959, the people’s protest against Chinese rule when the Dalai Lama
fled into exile in Ladakh, India. The invasion of Tibet took place
in 1949, but since the Dalai Lama’s flight in 1959, 140,000 Tibetans
have left their homeland. Currently about 200 people each month continue
to make their escape.
The Dalai Lama, awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989, is both Tibet’s
spiritual and temporal leader, and heads the Tibetan Government in
Exile, based in Dharamsala, north India.
As if to celebrate its new-found celebrity, the website of the Government
of Tibet in Exile, at www.tibet.com, is emblazoned with the
posters from the movies "Kundun" and "Seven Years in Tibet."
The site is a fund of information, with history, speeches of the Dalai
Lama, and news stories that include actor Richard Gere’s testimony
last month before a Congressional subcommittee on human rights in
which he reported on his trip to a refugee transit camp in Kathmandu,
Nepal. The camp, he said, in his request for more U.S. assistance,
"is a wonderful and sorrowful place, a mixed bag of hope and despair,"
where many refugees arrive suffering from frostbite, dysentery, and
exhaustion. He requested additional U.S. assistance for Tibetan refugees.
Gere and Harrison Ford are among the Hollywood celebrities
who have taken up the cause of Tibet. Now the activism has filtered
into the industry’s product, and it seems to be helping. Last October,
a PAFT benefit screening of "Seven Years in Tibet" at Montgomery
Theater attracted new members to the area organization. The film,
starring Brad Pitt, is based on the autobiography of Heinrich Harrer,
who escaped from a British prisoner-of-war camp and became a companion
to the young Dalai Lama.
"Kundun," directed by Martin Scorsese, is based on the Dalai
Lama’s 1991 autobiography, "Freedom in Exile," in which he
tells his story, from his remarkable childhood as the leader of 6
million Tibetans through the crisis of the Chinese invasion up to
the present life in exile and re-establishment of his culture in India.
To help him realize "Kundun," Scorsese assembled a distinguished
group of players with a special calling. Working with writer Melissa
Mathison and casting director Ellen Lewis, none of the performers
featured in Scorsese’s "Kundun" is a professional actor.
For four months on location in Morocco, the cast took leave of homes,
businesses, and monasteries to become a part of the production that
became a celebration of the land and life they could no longer experience
in their exile. The cast includes Tenzin Thuthob Tsarong, who plays
the adult Dalai Lama, a relative of the Dalai Lama’s extended family
who prepared for his role by living in a monastery for six weeks.
Tencho Gyalpo, who plays the Dalai Lama’s mother, is actually her granddaughter.
And Tenzin Trinley, who plays Ling Rinpoche, the Dalai Lama’s spiritual
teacher, is himself a Rinpoche, or reincarnation of a spiritual teacher,
who studied under Ling Rinpoche for many years.
The movies featured at PACT’s Tibetan Film and Food Festival are not
as well known or as well funded as their Hollywood counterparts. "Tantra
of Gyoto" features Buddhist ceremonies introduced by the Dalai
Lama, Tantric rites, chanting, lama dances, and historical footage,
with images of sacred art woven throughout. "Red Flag Over Tibet"
chronicles the current political situation. According to a December,
1997, report from the International Commission of Jurists, an independent
group of about 40 lawyers based in Geneva, the rights of Tibetans
have eroded rapidly in the last three years, and the organization
has urged the United Nations to intervene.
The ICJ report documents a multitude of escalating human rights abuses,
marked by an intensive "re-education" drive in the monasteries,
a clamp-down on information coming from Tibet, and a ban on carrying
or displaying photographs of the Dalai Lama in public places.
Meanwhile China continues to refuse to disclose the whereabouts of
nine-year-old Gendhun Choekyi Nyima, recognized by the Dalai Lama
as the 11th Panchen Lama. While the Dalai Lama is the highest spritual
and secular leader of Tibet, the Panchen Lama is the second most important
religious figure in Tibetan Buddhist culture.
Yangon says that both big Hollywood movies are essentially accurate.
"I think `Kundun’ is by far everyone’s favorite film because it
really describes what the Dalai Lama is all about," she says.
"It gives a sense of Tibet the way it was before the invasion.
Of course it was all re-created in Morocco, so I thought the street
scenes were rather skimpy.
"We have an active letter-writing campaign and recently wrote
letters to Mobil Oil and to Boeing Corporation protesting China’s
record on human rights. Sometimes it pays off, but, more importantly,
people are beginning to boycott goods made in China. This is important
because the profits from this trade go to the People’s Liberation
Army, and are used for repression. A lot of goods are produced by
prison labor. And this is one of the reasons China is becoming so
wealthy so soon."
The International Campaign for Tibet is truly multi-faceted, and indigenous
arts is part of its focus. Jill Carpe of the Salty Dog, a Princeton
crafts store that features "Crafts with a Conscience," started
her retail business in Belize in 1984, and relocated to Princeton
in 1992. In the tiny Spring Street store, small shelves are tightly
packed with colorful handmade clothing and jewelry.
The shelves carry a significant number of items imported from the
crafts cooperative of the Government of Tibet in Exile, which does
business under the name dZi (pronounced ZEE). The dzi is a Tibetan
bead, once used as currency, and still considered a powerful charm.
The handmade goods created by refugee artisans are made in a wide
variety of media, marked by a tremendous decorative energy and ingenuity.
They include a five-foot long copper horn, decorated with tooled brass
and inlaid beads of coral and turquoise. There are wool fleece coats,
now tailored to Western tastes, an important export item. There are
saffron-colored cloth pillows stuffed with aromatic Himalayan herbs,
and healing bracelets of interwoven copper, brass, and iron. From
refugees here in the U.S. come packaged Tibetan teas and jars of fiery
hot sauces. The store also sells "Free Tibet" T-shirts ($15),
a year-round PAFT fundraiser.
Yangon, 53, was born in Lhasa, Tibet, and works as an
instructor and field project coordinator in the graduate program in
public health at the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in Piscataway.
She moved here with her mother and son from New Hampshire in 1990.
An only child, Yangon’s father worked for the Tibetan government and
died after a period of imprisonment. "Every Tibetan who did not
actively support the Chinese was a target," says Yangon, "and
one out of every ten Tibetans has been imprisoned by the Chinese."
To obtain official permission for her widowed mother to leave Tibet,
which she did in 1978, Yangon enlisted the help of Senator Edward
Kennedy and others. Her mother, now 82, shares the Princeton home.
Educated at British boarding schools in India, Yangon returned to
Tibet after high school and was not able to leave again until 1967.
She then lived in Nepal and India for two years, one of which she
spent working in the Dalai Lama’s office in New Delhi. She speaks
her native Tibetan, English, and Nepalese, as well as some Hindi and
"When you meet his Holiness the Dalai Lama, he will talk to you
like a parent," says Yangon. "He’s our spiritual leader, but
he’s also familiar like a parent. He’ll ask you if you are working
hard, if you’re doing your best. He’s concerned about you."
Yangon came to the United States to the University of New Hampshire,
where she graduated with a B.S. in 1972; she then earned her M.S.
at Johns Hopkins School of Public Health. After working for New Hampshire’s
health department, she came to Robert Wood Johnson in 1990. Her son,
now a student at Dartmouth College, is currently spending a semester
in India teaching English to Tibetan monks there.
"That’s the irony of it," says Yangon. "President Clinton
claimed that if we traded with China and brought them into the international
business community, that human rights would automatically improve.
In fact, when Clinton de-linked trade and human rights, human rights
immediately worsened for Tibetans and for the Chinese themselves."
Noting that China’s trade deficit with the United States is close
to $50 billion, Yangon says, "I don’t think the U.S. has as much
to gain from China as China has to gain from the U.S. We hope the
Hollywood films will make a difference. People who see them know more
about what is going on and may contact their government officials
and legislators to urge them to deal more strongly with the Chinese.
"Fortunately, through his leadership, the Dalai Lama has stressed
cultural preservation. From the very first, he sensed that we needed
to put that as a priority." She says the government in exile has
been able to rebuild all the major Tibetan institutions.
"You can never give up hope," says Yangon. "If you give
up hope, there’s nothing left. Regardless of how horrible or impossible
things may be, who knows what the next leadership in China will be.
There are now some Chinese who support Tibet’s right to self-determination.
And this is a big step. You would never have heard that 10 years ago.
We have to believe that truth and justice will eventually prevail."
— Nicole Plett
of Tibet , Nassau Presbyterian Church, 61 Nassau Street, 609-497-4615.
"Tantra of Gyoto" and "Red Flag Over Tibet," plus
discussion, Indian and Tibetan foods, and a raffle, to benefit the
Jampaling Children’s Refugee Center in Nepal and the Siddhartha School
in Ladakh. $5. Friday, March 13, 7 p.m.
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