Tibet’s anguish felt by local expatriates

Times Staff Writer

He has waited for so long.

Pema Khangtetsang was 4 years old when he says Chinese communist soldiers entered his Tibetan village in 1949, promising peace and liberation. He was 10 when they belied that message by confiscating his family’s land and attacking their deep Buddhist beliefs and adoration of their spiritual and political leader, the Dalai Lama.

He was 13 when he fled Tibet for refuge in India -- a harrowing 10-day journey of searing sun, frigid snow and nothing but tea leaves to eat. At age 49, he was elected to Tibet’s government-in-exile in India after teaching Tibetan language and culture at Punjab University for 20 years. Seven years later, in 2001, he joined his wife and children in the United States.

Now, more than half a century after China invaded Tibet, the 62-year-old Long Beach grocer is still waiting -- waiting for the day when the repression of his homeland will end, when Tibetans once more will be able to freely practice their faith, honor their traditions, reclaim their economy and control their political destiny in their own land.

China bars Tibetans from displaying the Dalai Lama’s photos, studying his teachings, controlling the land’s mineral resources or teaching their own version of Tibetan history and culture in the schools, Khangtetsang said.

His patience is waning.

“His Holiness has been talking peace, peace for the last 50 years, but no peace is in sight,” Khangtetsang said as he headed for a protest rally in Westwood on Friday evening. “The Chinese are more bound than ever to destroy everything which identifies Tibet. I don’t know where this is going to lead.”


In recent days, growing Tibetan impatience has led to the largest uprisings against Chinese rule in decades, with violent clashes reported in Tibet and protests in several cities worldwide. Tibetan exiles claim there have been nearly 100 deaths, but China reports one-fifth as many.

U.S. leaders, including presidential candidates of both parties and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), who visited the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala, India, last week, have criticized China, and the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom issued a condemnation of what it called China’s “heavy hand of repression” against Buddhist monks and others.

In Los Angeles, Tibetans and their supporters staged five straight days of protests last week in front of the federal building on Wilshire Boulevard. About 200 of them -- some wearing saffron Buddhist robes and others in their traditional dress -- gathered there Friday to wave Tibetan flags, hoist “Free Tibet” signs and chant, “China out! China out!” As night fell, they lighted candles as cars whizzing past honked in support.

A spokesman for the Chinese Consulate in Los Angeles declined to comment beyond e-mailing an official government response that condemned the “violent sabotaging” and blamed the Dalai Lama for allegedly instigating his supporters to set fire to more than 130 buildings in Lhasa, kill innocent civilians and attack Chinese government offices in Washington, New York and Chicago.

“Their sinister intention is to create trouble during a sensitive time. They intentionally took provocative actions and blew up the incidents, and even went so far as creating bloodshed in order to put pressure on the Chinese government, disrupt the Beijing Olympic Games, undermine China’s stable and harmonious social and political situation, and tarnish China’s international image,” the Chinese news release said. “Their ultimate political purpose is to separate Tibet from China.”

Though Tibetans in China and Tibet have been afraid to speak to journalists, those in Westwood eagerly poured out their stories and pleaded for an international investigation of the violence.

About 15,000 Tibetans are believed to live in North America, but fewer than 400 are in Southern California and about 1,000 are in San Francisco, community activists say. No detailed demographic data on them are available, but community leaders say Tibetans here include doctors and professors, truck drivers and nannies.

Tibetan Buddhist centers have sprung up in Pasadena, Westminster and Long Beach; a small Sunday school in Culver City teaches about 25 children each week the Tibetan language and history, cultural and religious practices.

Nawang Phuntsog, a 54-year-old Cal State Fullerton education professor, was a toddler when his parents put him on their backs and crossed the Tibetan border into Bhutan after Chinese Communist Party Chairman Mao Tse-tung launched his Cultural Revolution in 1966.

As barley farmers who owned land and yaks, Phuntsog said, his parents were scheduled for a “struggle session” where they were destined for public beatings, humiliation and forced confessions of guilt for their capitalist sins. Instead, they fled.

Phuntsog, who was raised in India and came to the United States for his doctoral work in 1986, tries to remain hopeful about Chinese intentions.

“China has a wonderful opportunity to solve this crisis in a way where Tibetans would be given the dignity and respect they deserve and China in the process would redeem its image,” he said at Friday’s protest. “It’s a win-win situation for China if it showed courage.”

Phuntsog, like many Tibetans interviewed, ruled out resorting to armed resistance against China in favor of the nonviolent approach long advocated by the Dalai Lama. Tibet’s supreme leader has urged what he calls “the middle way” that would give Tibet autonomy while remaining part of China.

“It’s unthinkable,” Phuntsog said of armed resistance. “Buddhist practices always encourage nonviolence. We will protect the lives of others before our own.”

Khangtetsang, the Long Beach grocer, has formed a Southern California pan-Asian human rights alliance. He likes to look to the hundreds of thousands of Chinese who have studied in free democracies abroad. Surely, he said, they will take ideas of freedom and human rights back to their homeland to agitate for change. That, he said, will eventually help Tibet’s cause.

And Pema Choden, a 38-year-old Gardena clinical laboratory scientist, said one of the best ways to support Tibet is not to strike out against China with violence but to make sure that she keeps Tibetan religion and culture alive in her own home.

Choden deliberately chose to marry a man of Tibetan descent. She insists that their two young sons speak Tibetan, teaches them Buddhist values of compassion and selflessness, and decorates her tidy home with portraits of the Dalai Lama, prayer wheels and Tibetan Buddhist religious art known as thangka paintings.

Choden maintains a Tibetan prayer room in her home, resplendent with brocade wall-hangings portraying Buddhist deities and an altar graced with seven silver bowls of water offerings.

“One way of showing solidarity with Tibet is to do what we can to preserve our culture,” she said.

But Namgyal Kyulo, the 37-year-old president of the Tibetan Assn. of Southern California, said many in his generation are impatient and supportive of more aggressive action against China. Young people are also more adamant about full independence for Tibet rather than the Dalai Lama’s “middle way” of autonomy, he said.

“We’ve been so patient for so long with the Chinese, thinking they would do us justice. But there is a point where this has to burst,” said Kyulo, a manager at UCLA Medical Center. “If the Chinese people refuse to negotiate with the Dalai Lama, absolutely, I believe Tibetan youth will rise up more strongly.”

Tseten Phanucharas, a longtime Tibetan American activist and laboratory director at Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, said Internet and cellphone technology have helped youths and other Tibet support groups in the United States and abroad blossom and coordinate their activities more closely than ever.

More than 600 Students for a Free Tibet groups have formed worldwide, and the London-based International Tibet Support Network formed in 2000 to coordinate the activities of 153 organizations across the globe. The network has issued appeals for help to international human rights groups, shared ideas for local action and disseminated information about Chinese actions in Tibet.

Although the Tibetan government-in-exile asked activists to refrain from protests during the last three years while its representatives negotiated with China, the latest uprisings have changed that, she said.

“Now all bets are off,” Phanucharas said. “The Dalai Lama has said Tibetans have the right to express themselves peacefully.”

And so they went to Westwood last week, day after day, to protest and wave their signs and chant their slogans. Protests at the Chinese Consulate in L.A. are planned next.

Will it ever make a difference?

“I really don’t know,” said Khangtetsang, the Long Beach grocer. “But we have truth, and ultimately the truth will prevail.”