27 Days Into Hunger Strike, Somber Mood at Tibet Protest

Dorjee Gyalpo has lost more than 20 pounds since he began his hunger strike in front of the United Nations on February 22. (Photo by Gwen McClure)

With his legs extended on the cot beneath him and hands resting in his lap, Dorjee Gyalpo sat in front of the United Nations on New York City’s East Side last month. Braced against the February cold, the 59-year-old was bundled inside coats, sleeping bags and blankets. Next to him, Tenying Yangsel crouched, her small hands tucked under the edge of his blankets as she translated his Tibetan to English. As it started to snow, she withdrew her hands briefly to tug the layers tighter around Gyalpo’s shoulders. There was a danger of his body temperature dropping; he hadn’t eaten in four days.

That was more than three weeks ago. In protest of China’s occupation of Tibet, Gyalpo and the two men lying beside him have been on hunger strike since Lo-sar — the Tibetan New Year — began on February 22. Monday marked the 27th day that they consumed nothing but water. They refused to be taken to hospital yesterday.

On Sunday, as dozens of Occupy Wall Street protesters were arrested downtown at Zuccotti Park, the atmosphere was somber at Ralph Bunche Park, where the Tibet protest continues until sundown each day, when the park closes and the hunger strikers are wheeled out in wheelchairs. Hundreds gathered there on the first day of Lo-sar, but now there are about 30 at any given time, many of whom spend their time tending to those who are fasting.

Gyalpo and his fellow fasters, Shingza Rinpoche and Yeshi Tenzing, have lost at least 20 pounds apiece and are visibly weaker than they were on the fourth day. Gyalpo declined an offer to be taken to hospital when a doctor visited him at the protest site yesterday; he will not leave until the United Nations responds, he said.

This year, Lo-sar was the opposite of a holiday, not just at the protest outside the United Nations, but in Tibet and among Tibetans worldwide. Rather than the traditional feasts and candy, men have gone hungry. Rather than traditional new coats, hundreds outside the U.N. wore black as they mourned.

It is customary to eschew celebrations if a family member has died in the past year. This year, Gyalpo and many of his countrymen have extended the idea of family to include all Tibetans. Over the last three years, 26 people in Tibet — known for having a peaceful and non-violent culture — have set themselves on fire to protest the Chinese occupation of their country.

“When we have people burning themselves to death inside Tibet, we in the free world must do something,” said Tsewang Rigzin, president of the Tibetan Youth Congress. “We don’t have time to party when people are burning themselves.”

Rigzin, who came to New York City from his home in Dharamsala, India specifically for this protest, said the situation is only getting worse. This month alone, six Tibetans, among them a 32-year-old mother of four, a 19-year-old female college student and an 18-year-old boy, have self-immolated in Tibet.

In 2009, the first time Lo-sar became a day of grieving, it was because Tibetans were killed in the uprisings around the Beijing Olympics the year before. Estimates of the number of fatalities in those clashes varied from about a dozen to over 400, depending on the source.

Gyalpo said he is on hunger strike for the same reason that so many have burned themselves to death or risked their lives protesting; he and other protesters find the Chinese occupation so intolerable that they feel they have no choice. Protesters are demanding independence from China, the return of the Dalai Lama to Tibet and civil rights for all Tibetans.

For the first time last Monday, the United Nations acknowledged their presence when the U.N. Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights, Ivan Simonovic, visited and invited Rigzin to meet. On Wednesday, a representative of the U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon appeared at the protest’s daily press briefing, but protesters have heard nothing from the organization since.

Although Tibetans around the world refused to celebrate the holiday this year, many of the protesters said that the Chinese government, which has occupied Tibet since 1951, has coerced and forced Tibetans within the country to participate in festivities in order to give the appearance that they are happy and have the cultural freedom to observe their own holidays.

The consequences for refusing to celebrate Lo-sar in Tibet are unclear, since international media is not allowed inside Tibet. Robert Barnett, director of the Modern Tibetan Studies Program at Columbia University, said it is possible that people are being ordered or coerced into celebrating the holiday — it is not uncommon for Tibetans to be told by the Chinese government that they must wear traditional dress and pose for pictures with the media. Still, he said, there may be other explanations.

“They could be people who don’t know that there’s been a call for a boycott,” he said. “There’s no free media. It could be people who support the Chinese government. It could be people who don’t support the Chinese government but think it’s wiser to play along.”

Gyalpo hasn’t been in Tibet since 1969, when he left for bordering Nepal. Memories of his life near the Himalayas mean that February’s snow wasn’t foreign to him. He remembers three-month stretches where neither he nor the yaks his family kept could go outside. When he last tried to contact his family in 2008, Gyalpo discovered that the phone was disconnected, and he hasn’t heard from any of them since.

As Gyalpo sat outside the United Nations, a Tibetan woman approached him with a white scarf held loosely between her extended arms. In a gesture of thanks that is traditional in Tibet, she touched it to his lap and he slowly reached out to graze it with his gloveless hand. Their eyes met in acknowledgment, with a nod.

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