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Saturday, June 22, 2024
Burning Tibet

Tibet burning: UW students react to protests

In the past year, 19 Tibetans lit themselves on fire in protest of a Chinese government that recently increased its security forces in Tibet, killing one protester in the process. At UW-Madison, campus group Students for a Free Tibet is speaking out against the alleged human rights violations. This is the first article of a three-part series that explores the issue.

Tenzin Dechen has never been to Tibet, though he considers himself Tibetan. His grandparents fled the region to India years ago following crackdowns by the Chinese government, and he lived there until 2002 when he moved to the United States.


After three Tibetan herders set themselves on fire last Friday, the number of people who have self-immolated protesting the Chinese government in the last year grew to 19, a number that Dechen said is upsetting.

“It’s kind of sad to see that my origin, where I came from, there are people suffering,” said Dechen, a UW-Madison student and member of Students for a Free Tibet. “I knew things were bad but I didn’t know it was so bad that people were willing to just give up their lives just to express how they’re feeling.”

He said he and his Chinese friends generally avoid politics when they talk because he knows his friends worry about possible backlash toward their families still in China.

China gained control of Tibet in 1951, and eventually abolished the Tibetan government in 1959. This forced the Dalai Lama, the political and spiritual leader of the region, into exile.

Currently, the government remains in exile, with a new political leader. It has tried to negotiate with the Chinese about more autonomy in education, health and infrastructure, while avoiding the subject of full independence.

The official stance of Students for a Free Tibet is that only full independence is acceptable, and if the Chinese will not give that, talking to them is pointless. But Dechen said he still agrees with the more “realistic” goals of the Tibetan exile government.

Zhennen Zhao, a member of UW-Madison’s Chinese Students and Scholars Association, said media reports cannot always be trusted, and conflicts between the governments are exaggerated. He said he doesn’t understand why there is a debate over Tibetan independence in the first place.

“The moment from when I was born, I learned that Tibet is part of China,” Zhao said. “We’re next to each other so I don’t see any reason we should be severed from each other.”

Both Dechen and Gabriel Feinstein, Midwest Director of Students for a Free Tibet, wanted to make it clear their grievances are against the Chinese government, not the Chinese people.

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“We’re not trying to bash Chinese students, we’re not trying to alienate Chinese students, but people, especially students, need to realize what is happening in China,” Feinstein said.

Regardless of how the relationship between the governments plays out, Dechen hopes people remember the sacrifices protesters have made.

“These people who died, at some point we might say it might be 17, 18, 19, and it just becomes a number,” he said. “It’s not just a number or a person; it’s actual human beings who gave up their lives.”

Dechen is currently learning to speak Chinese and hopes to study there this summer, so he can “learn more about Chinese people and have more interaction with Chinese people”

“The more I know the better, so I can talk to them, so they don’t see me as someone who is completely different,” Dechen said.



The second article of the series can be found here. It focuses a small Tibetan population in Madison that questions UW-Madison's plan to open an office in China this summer.

The third article of the series can be found here. It follows approximately 500 Midwestern Tibetans and 'Free Tibet' supporters, including two UW-Madison students, protesting China's Vice President Xi Jinping's visit to Des Moines Iowa.


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