Free Tibet with Chemi Lhamo

Tibetan-Canadian human rights activist and community organizer, Chemi Lhamo, addresses the 16th Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy – see below for her remarks.

Full Remarks:

Home. 

Where is home for one that has never seen their own beautiful country, and in my case: Bhoe. Tibet. 

Tashi delek everyone. 

My name is Chemi Lhamo and I was born stateless in south India. Yearning my whole life for a place that I call home but have never seen. But also fight every single day to someday return home. 

In our community, we often say that every Tibetan born after 1959 is born an activist! 

That’s because when there is a colonial regime out there in the world that is actively on a global expansionist mission attempting to eradicate every aspect of our Tibetan identity, our existence, just our mere existence, becomes resistance. 

In Tibet, simply holding this flag, the Tibetan national flag, results in imprisonment.  Devotion and faith in Tibetan Buddhism, our literature, our music are banned. During this Tibetan new year, Gyejom Dorjee was arrested for singing a song simply referring to Tibetans as birds stuck in a cage. His whereabouts – still unknown to this day. Just like His Holiness the Panchen Lama, who in two three days will have been missing for 29 years.That’s longer than I’ve been born. 

The attack is on our 1. Our culture, 2. Our way of life and 3. Our language. 

You see, culture is often referred to as the way of life of an entire society. It’s “the collective programming of the mind”,” making us unique, human. It’s what dignifies our existence and gives meaning to our lives. And that is exactly what the Chinese government is hellbent on eradicating. 

2: Our way of life, deeply intertwined with our environment, but is being ravaged by the Chinese government with mega-developments projects like the dam that they built in Dege Tibet dislocating tens of thousands of our local community, who have ancestral branches of knowledge that have allowed them to take care and be the compassionate stewards of one of the most fragile ecosystems in the world. The same ecosystem that serves as the water source for over 1.4 billion people in the downstream countries. The very environment from which as I speak the Chinese government is stealing lithium, gold, copper and Rare Earths, producing high-end tech consumer products that are sold to more than 180 countries in this world. 

3: Language. Just 2 years ago, Tibet Action Institute released a report that 800,000 Tibetan children between the ages of six and 18 are being forced into colonial boarding schools. But you know what? They’re hiding something else. 

There’s a hidden policy where children, even four and five year olds, are being stolen from their families, which Dr. Gyal lo Educational Sociologist spoke last year on this stage about with firsthand research. Where he saw his own grand-nieces no longer being able to speak in their mother tongue within just three months. 

With the insidious tactics of the Chinese government, I am reminded that the last generation that saw a free Tibet is passing away. Our stories and the newer generations are being psychologically modified to become like the Chinese. 

And as Mother’s Day just passed, I remember talking to my mother, and telling her “thank you” and “I love you.” But for the million children inside Tibet, they are separated from their mothers. They are awaiting the action of this international community. You see, every aspect of our Identity is under attack because the Chinese government has realized that the violence, the oppression, the social and economic discrimination, the cultural and religious suppression, the environmental destruction, the re-education camps, the forced displacement, the torture of political prisoners – all of that does not work on us. Has not worked because our people, my people back home inside Tibet continue to rise. 

Until today, over 160 Tibetans have self-immolated, the act of burning oneself on fire, the act of not harming anyone else but themselves, calling for two things: 1: the return of His Holiness the Dalai Lama to his rightful place inside Tibet and 2: Freedom. 

With billions of dollars invested by the Chinese government, their oppression goes beyond the borders of Tibet – to control & infiltrate our societies, to intimidate us, to sell their narrative, silence our calls for freedom. And I got a stark reminder of that in 2019 when I ran to become my student union university’s president. 

There was a petition signed by over 11 thousand people saying I didn’t deserve to run because of my Tibetan spirit. I was subjected to a flurry of thousands of threats, death threats, rape threats against me and my family members. I was constantly under daily surveillance. Students on my own campus were sent on missions to follow me, to take pictures, follow me into the washrooms. 

Still to this day, one moment that I remember is getting personal messages that said “your mom is dead.” I remember having to call my mother multiple times to make sure she was ok without scaring her.

2 years later, in 2021, in Greece, during the Olympic torch ceremony, simply being Tibetan in the streets of Greece made my friends subjected to unreasonable detainment under the direction of Chinese operatives that were undercover giving instructions to the Greek police. 

Just recently, in 2023 during the APEC summit in San Francisco, USA, 3 young people and I unfurled a 30 feet banner on the 4th-floor of a parking lot that was opposite to the hotel that Xi Jinping was in. Suddenly, while we were holding our banner, we felt tugs on our wrists. Suddenly our weight started to shift over the railing. They tried to pull us down from the fourth floor parking lot! Soon after letting go we were attacked by 15 men who marched as a unit on American soil and stole our banner.  

Be it in Canada, San Francisco, Greece, we the voices of dissent are subjected to this violence because of the complacency and the inaction of the international community. 

From 2014 where students were denied the right to bring the Tibetan flag into their Canadian university because of the Confucius Institute to now local police getting directives to stay silent or in the case of just a few days ago in Hungary during the last leg of a Europe trip of dictator Xi Jinping where the Chinese police were not just there give directions, they were given authority by the Hungarian government to patrol Hungarian streets. 

So for us, even in exile, no matter where we are, they deploy to silence us. 

Given exactly this context, our international community, this international community, must not, cannot, be silent. This silence is not golden when it results in emboldening a regime like the Chinese government. Economic ties as the excuse while you, democratic countries, actively choose to shake the bloody hands of the Chinese government also results and means that you’ve got blood in your hands. 

What is truly golden ‘Norbu’ as we say in Tibetan for precious jewels, is the voices uniting. It’s the work of our youth activists at Students for Free Tibet and everywhere around the world where despite not even being allowed to bring this Tibetan flag just days ago in Paris, we unfurled a 10 meter banner that read “FREE TIBET. Dictator Xi Jinping your time is up!” right in front of his motorcade. 

With the spirits of my ancestors, the resistance of Tibetans inside Tibet, thousands of young Tibetans around the world, we are constantly reminded of our duty and responsibility not just as Tibetans but as global citizens to fight for a world that is free for everyone.

The rise of autocracies today is because of their intricate connection. They share secrets with each other, tactics from the genocidal playbook, so it’s evermore crucial that we are also working together: the human rights activists, defenders, supporters, allies, democratic governments. We must also continue to rise and work together because we, when the people are united, we’ll never be defeated. 

And rather than being complicit and benefiting at the cost of Tibet, I ask you, the members of the international community, to stand with us. Say the words FREE TIBET. Make moves. Act on calls that are ignored by the Chinese government, like one just a year ago when UN experts called for the abolishment of the coercive residential schools in Tibet. Push for unfettered access to Tibet for independent investigations. 

And soon, someday very soon, I can’t wait to invite you all to join my people and I in a free Tibet. We shall host you with a warm welcome Tibetan greeting of touching our foreheads, eating tsampa and enjoying our tea, which is not made with milk and sugar, but actually with butter and salt. 

Thank you. 

BHOD GYALO. FREE TIBET. 

 

16th Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy, U.N. Opening, Tuesday, May 14, 2024

 

Speakers and Participants

Chemi Lhamo

Tibetan-Canadian human rights activist and community organizer

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