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"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

The exiles' tale

September 14, 2010

Tom Hyland
The Age (Australia)
September 12, 2010

Fifteen years on, old friends reflect on the
silent protest in China that voiced the Tibetan struggle. Tom Hyland reports.

DORJI Dolma isn't sure where she was born. It was
somewhere in Tibet, maybe on its western border
with India. She doesn't know when she was born
either, but it was about 1959. All she knows is
she came into the world while her parents were
crossing the mountains, fleeing into exile to escape the Chinese occupation.

Kesang Wangmo doesn't know her birth date either,
except it was in 1959. She was just a few months
old when her parents made the same perilous
journey to escape a world that had been turned
upside down. ''They just fled, like thieves at night,'' she says.

Dorji and Kesang are old friends. They laugh and
embrace when they pose for a photo for The Sunday
Age. They've been in a press photo before, but
there were tears and fear that time.
Tibetan women's protest at the Beijing Women's Conference in 1995.

Dorji in the red shirt fourth from left, and
Kesang, three women further along, at the women’s
protest in Beijing in 1995. Picture: Craig Sillitoe

Fifteen years ago this month they were in
Beijing, the political heart of the country that
was sealing its conquest of their homeland when
they were born. In late August 1995 they
travelled to the Chinese capital for the largest
gathering of women anywhere in the world, the
United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women.

While there, they took part in an extraordinary
silent protest - the first such action by Tibetan
exiles inside China. They stood in the rain,
tears streaking their faces. Their mouths were
covered with silk scarves to symbolise official
Chinese attempts to gag them at the conference
and Beijing's wider effort to silence their homeland.

Their simple protest attracted international
media attention. A Reuters report, published in
Australia the following day, described the
women's action as daring and unprecedented. It
quoted Dorji saying she did not fear Chinese
retaliation. ''I'm not afraid,'' she said. ''This
is what this conference is all about. No matter
how hard they try to suppress us, the women of
the world are behind us.'' These days, however,
she admits she was very much afraid.

Fifteen years on, they describe their Beijing
experience as profound, even spiritual. At the
same time, they concede that, despite all the
attention Tibet received then and since, nothing
has changed for the better in their homeland.

They admit protests such as theirs can lead to
intensified repression by Chinese authorities.
But they say their protest was worth it, and that
the Tibetan cause is not defeated.

Kesang lives in an unremarkable house on a
typical Melbourne suburban street, far from the
Tibetan exile community in Dharamsala in India,
where she spent the first decades of her life.
Tens of thousands of Tibetans, with their leader,
the Dalai Lama, fled to Dharamsala after the
Chinese put down a Tibetan uprising in 1959.

Her parents fled brutal repression, when ''the
Chinese Communists were torturing, killing,
burning the temples'', Kesang says. ''Everything
was turned upside down. My parents could not
tolerate the situation. They just fled, like
thieves at night, with nothing but their children.''

She has lived in Australia since 1987. She has
raised two children and worked in factories,
restaurants and offices. These days she practices
therapeutic Tibetan massage. She speaks of
Australia as a place of peace, democracy, justice and freedom.

Yet coming here she felt a great shock and
depression. ''In a sense, you felt like something
was missing - a sense of belonging,'' she says.
''If you're not a refugee or in exile, it's very
hard to put into words. If someone has never
eaten an orange, it's very difficult to describe the taste.

''Yet I am not saying, 'I am suffering, poor me,
I'm a victim.' I don't say I'm a victim, because
if you feel like a victim then you are still
occupied, your soul is occupied. I have freedom,
inside freedom, and no one can take it from me.
They took my country, my parents have died, but
that freedom inside, they cannot shake.''

She met Dorji at school in Dharamsala, when both
girls were about six years old. Dorji arrived in
Australia in 1982 and lives in Sydney, where she
works as a teacher's aide with the children of Tibetan migrants.

In 1995, after two years of planning, they joined
a group of nine Tibetan exiled women who
travelled to Beijing for the UN conference, which
attracted more than 20,000 women from almost 200 countries.

Tibetan support groups had hoped to send a larger
delegation but they faced official obstruction.
The nine got in because they had Western
passports. As well, the two Tibetan Australians
had the backing of the International Women's
Development Agency, a Melbourne-based
non-government organisation that gave accreditation and funding.

Kesang describes the Beijing trip as an
''incredible experience in my life''. She felt it
her duty to go, to do something for her country.
Her aim was to create awareness of Tibet's plight
among delegates at the UN conference, and the
associated gathering of women in non-government
organisations. She also believed the conference
would send a message to Tibetans that the world had not forgotten them.

It was a message Chinese authorities were
determined to block, and the two women were
confronted by heavy-handed security from the day
they arrived. This set a pattern of harassment
and surveillance that continued over two weeks.

Both were afraid. ''We were at a UN designated
site, with the international media surrounding
us, international women surrounding us, yet the
Chinese officials still intimidated us, harangued
us and followed us,'' says Dorji. ''It made you
feel as scared as you can get.''

By day two, the nine women had resolved to stage
a protest, gagging themselves with the Chinese
silk scarves they had been given in their
delegate kits. On the morning of September 1,
they gathered in the rain at the the
non-government forum site, outside Beijing. The
media and other delegates had been tipped off.
''That was a momentous occasion,'' says Dorji.

''It was bucketing down. All the other women had
gathered behind us, and they were singing. Oh, it
was a very, very moving experience. We were all
crying anyway, but we were drenched by the rain as well.

''We were crying because of the difficulties we
were facing, all the obstacles that were in our
way, all the harassment and surveillance that was
preventing us getting our message across to the
other delegates. It was a culmination of emotions
- and then we realised there was this mass of
women behind us. It was very moving, so overwhelming and touching.''

Chinese officials were unable to prevent the
protest, but the harassment continued when, a few
days later, Carmen Lawrence, then Australia's
health and women's affairs minister, visited the
NGO conference site. Minutes after she spoke to
the two Tibetan Australians, they were surrounded
and jostled by what an ABC reporter described as
an ''angry mob'' from the Chinese delegation.

The then Australian ambassador Michael Lightowler
intervened and rescued the two in his official
car, which in turn was blocked by the mob;
foreign minister Gareth Evans later instructed
him to lodge a formal complaint with the Chinese government.

The heavy-handed Chinese actions and the women's
protest succeeded in drawing attention to their homeland.

''It made people realise that if women attending
a UN conference in the glare of international
media attention could still be subjected to
harassment and intimidation, well, imagine what's
happening in an occupied country, with no
international media, no scrutiny,'' says Dorji.

If the conference was about creating awareness,
it was also a revelation to the women themselves.
''I realised what freedom really is, what
democracy really is, what fear is,'' says Kesang.
''We said, Dorji and I, we are lucky, we have
this Australian passport. We have all these
things. Yet just beyond the mountains thousands
of people are suffering and in fear.''

She realised, too, that whenever international
attention is focused on Tibet, China tightens its
grip and Tibetan suffering intensifies. ''But again, we can't keep quiet.''

Kesang has a message for Chinese students in
Australia: use the freedom here to discover the
truth about Tibet and their own country. ''I
would like to say to them, 'Please use your minds
and use your freedom here, and see not just what
the Communist Party wants, but see the other side
of the story as well.' Even this article, even if
nothing else, if it jolts one person's mind, that's enough.'
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