NEW DELHI, India, 15 April 1998
Tibetan hunger strikers hoping to spur UN intervention in their dispute with China say they are asking very little, and ready to give up everything.
Today was the 36th day of living on only water and lemon juice for the five men and one woman, ranging in age from 28 to 70. The six Tibetans exiled in India all say they are prepared to die if their demands are not met.
The hunger strike is longest and most drastic protest staged in India against China’s 48-year rule of Tibet and marks a growing frustration among the 100,000 exiles in India at the lack of movement toward resolving the issue.
Many young Tibetans are even questioning the leadership of the Dalai Lama.
Fifty-year-old Dawa Gyalpo described their demands as “cheap”: That the United Nations supervise a referendum to determine whether Tibetans want independence, autonomy within China, or some other status; appoint a Tibet human-rights investigator; and resume debate on Tibet in the General Assembly.
Gyalpo, his chest and cheeks sunken, barely resembled the photo of himself, chubby-cheeked and smiling, on a card identifying him as a long-standing member of the Tibetan Youth Congress, sponsor of the strike.
In a statement Tuesday, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan pleaded with the six not to endanger their lives, but made no reference to their demands.
The UN leadership generally avoids taking sides on issues involving any of the five permanent members of the Security Council — China, the United States, Britain, France, or Russia.
But Adama Dieng, secretary-general of the Geneva-based International Commission of Jurists, said in New Delhi this week he believed the United Nations would soon act. The hunger strikers’ demands were drawn from ICJ proposals for resolving the standoff over Tibet.
The Dalai Lama and other Tibetan activists say China has resorted to human rights abuses to control the region and is trying to stamp out Tibetan culture.
Dieng joined the strikers’ relatives, Annan, and visiting politicians from around the world in urging them to give up their dangerous protest.
The Dalai Lama — the revered spiritual and political leader of exiled Tibetans — told them hunger strikes constituted violence against oneself, and therefore violated his commitment to peaceful protest.
But the six say they are undeterred.
Yungdrung Tsering, 28, said his father, estranged for years, travelled to New Delhi from the northern Indian city of Dharamshala when he heard on the radio that his son was among the strikers.
“I told him, ‘Don’t cry, I’m doing this for my nation,'” Tsering said.
Rising from his wooden cot is enough to leave Tsering dizzy. He can no longer concentrate enough to work on thangkas, the Buddhist religious icons he learned to paint at a Tibetan school in Dharamshala. His throat is so parched that talking is painful.
Tibetan Youth Congress President Tseten Norbu says doctors monitoring the strikers told him they can go without food as long as 50 days before their conditions become serious. Bobby Sands and nine other Irish Republican Army prisoners who staged one of the world’s best-known hunger strikes in 1981 died after about two months.
The Tibetan strike has endured twice as long as any other staged by the congress, Norbu said. He said protesters had erred in the past by giving up at the urging of the Dalai Lama or because of promises from officials that were never kept.
All the strikers have prepared wills.
Striker Palzom, who uses only one name, added a last wish: “I would particularly like to ask the Tibetan people to work unitedly for the independence of Tibet, even if it means sacrificing their lives.”