This is the second in a series of interviews. While working this summer in Dharamsala, I spoke with leading members of the Tibetan exile community about the freedom movement and the future of Tibet. In the first interview, I talked to Dhardon Sharling, the youngest woman in the Tibetan Parliament. This time we hear from Dorjee Tseten, a leader in the Tibetan youth movement, about new forms of nonviolent direct protest and why they scare China.
In November 2012, a parody of the viral Korean "Gangnam Style" video was released with a slightly different theme: the struggle between China and Tibet. Made by International Tibet Network and Students for a Free Tibet (SFT), a Dharamsala NGO, the hilarious video shows a life-size bobblehead representing Chinese leader Xi Jinping dancing the Gangnam dance. What a lot of people don't know is that the guy in the Ray-Bans jumping into the frame and doing the Gangnam dance with Xi Jinping in the streets of Dharamsala is Dorjee Tseten, the 30-year-old national director of SFT. At first the bobblehead is happy that Dorjee is dancing the same dance, but when Dorjee pulls out the Tibetan flag, he's dragged off by "Chinese guards." Dorjee says his intention was "to make fun of the dictator and take away the fear from people's minds, undercutting the regime." Though soft-spoken and unassuming, Dorjee is a driving force behind the increased youth involvement in the Tibet movement. I interviewed him about SFT as well as the evolving role of Tibetan youth.
Can you tell me a little about yourself?
I am a Tibetan refugee born and raised in India. I attended the Central School for Tibetans in Paonta and Mussoorie, and did postgraduate economic and human rights studies at an Indian university.
How did you get started with SFT?
Having family who escaped Tibet in 1959 when the Chinese military invaded, I heard my parents' stories about how our people have had to suffer. In college, I was president of the Tibetan Youth Congress chapter and SFT was a key organization leading the freedom movement. So after college, I joined SFT as a campaign director and later became the national director.
What is the biggest challenge for SFT?
Since its inception in 1994, SFT has created a global network in almost 30 countries. But it is always a challenge to engage especially non-Tibetans in the movement. At this time when China is perceived as so strong, it is difficult to gain sympathy and support. That's what we're working on.
What do students bring to the struggle?
The way that students engage in activism and show such interest from a very young age, from high school or college, is so powerful. If we have a chapter in a school or university, they can reach out to hundreds of thousands of students in other schools easily. Students are more eager to learn, to work, and to experience new things. They are really fresh and excited to take part in the social movement. SFT is one of the most active grassroots networks and we believe that this approach is important because then when students become adults, they will continue working with the movement.
What are SFT's ultimate goals?
SFT's final goal is justice and freedom for Tibet, as well as a safe environment for the people inside Tibet. To achieve that, we follow the Tibet movement's policy of nonviolent resistance. We want to develop the nonviolence movement into a really strong grassroots movement inside and outside Tibet. That's our 10 to 15-year goal in order to gain the final goal of independence.
What are your immediate actions to this end?
2013 is the centennial of the declaration of Tibet's independence by His Holiness the 13th Dalai Lama, so this entire year is full of events and campaigns. On February 13th, we had events in almost 20 countries. The activist network joined together and there were celebrations and protests to seek the support of global leaders. We even submitted a declaration that delegitimized China's rule over Tibet. We received strong objection to that campaign from the Chinese government, so it was really successful.
What are SFT's tactics?
Overall, our strategy is to make China's occupation of Tibet costly enough that one day they will leave Tibet. You need a cultural campaign and an economic campaign, as well as an environmental campaign. These are our different strategies.
Specifically, SFT does a lot of nonviolent direct action, especially when Chinese leaders travel outside China. We highlight the bad things happening inside Tibet, the human rights violations, the killing. It could be a blockade, it could be a protest, it could be banner-hanging. We are trying to shift the movements from the riskier direct confrontations to a path that is less risky but able to involve the larger community. The Internet is very useful because we can engage a lot of people. This is why China is scared of the Internet: it is one of the mediums that they cannot completely control and cannot stop.
What do you see SFT's role being in the coming years?
SFT has the responsibility of crafting a new level of leaders that are highly skilled and serve as our weapons. When we talk about violence we have all the physical weapons but when we talk about nonviolence, the weapons are those individuals who will lead through the knowledge and understanding of nonviolence. They have to know the strategies, they have to know how the world works, they have to understand how to involve not only Tibetans. We now have chapters in some of the most important countries for China, such as India, the US, Japan, and Taiwan; we need to engage this global community in our movement. This is our strength, it is how we can challenge China, and it is our young network's responsibility.