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Vancouver has a pivotal role in the Tibet debate

April 20, 2008

City's an unexpected centre for some of the key intellectuals and
activists dealing with China's policy problem

Miro Cernetig
The Vancouver Sun
Saturday, April 19, 2008

We're hardly Dharamsala, current home of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan
government in exile in India.

Vancouver's not even the major hub of Canada's Tibetan community, with
only a few hundred Tibetans here to Toronto's four or five thousand, and
even that is a small component of the 150,000 Tibetans living in exile.

Yet this city is evolving into an unexpected centre for some of the key
intellectuals and activists who are likely to determine the future of
Tibet. Vancouver may even play -- in a sense it already is playing -- a
crucial role in resolving the Chinese puzzle of how Beijing and Tibet
can co-exist.

I discovered this little-known fact recently at a meeting of the Asia
Pacific Foundation, where a group of China and Tibet experts were
invited to Vancouver to discuss this foreign policy crisis for China's
leadership in the run-up to the Beijing Olympics. It turns out two of
the world's best minds on the question live here and they were both in
the conference room, surrounded by other luminaries on Canada-China
relations.

One of the Tibetan scholars and political leaders was Tsewang Choegyal
Tethong -- or TC for short. He is a remarkable figure in the Tibetan
government in exile, living in personal exile from his homeland since
1949, shortly before the Peoples Liberation Army invaded in 1950.

Like most Tibetan exiles, TC can still only dream of the day he can
return. So he came to the West Coast in the 1970s, invited to teach at
Pearson College on Vancouver Island, and has waited for the chance to
return. Despite being away from Tibet for more than half a century, he
has nonetheless emerged as a key figure in the Tibetan government in exile.

In 1959, he volunteered as a translator at the initial refugee camps in
India for Tibetans fleeing Chairman Mao's army. He caught the eye of the
Dalai Lama, who that year had fled Tibet after an uprising against the
Communist forces. TC was made the Tibetan leader's personal interpreter
and was then groomed for ministerial positions in the Tibetan government
that hopes one day to return to Lhasa.

Sitting across from TC, who is now retired and is an honorary professor
at UBC, was another internationally renowned Tibetan. Tsering Wangdu
Shakya is the author of The Dragon in the Land of Snows, described by
the New York Times as "the definitive history of modern Tibet." Shakya
may just be the most plugged-in Tibetan scholar around, and he, too, is
working at UBC.

I can't say what each man said in the meeting, which was all on
background and not for attribution. Those, alas, are the rules of
engagement when you want to hear what the experts really think about an
explosive issue like Tibet and how, perhaps, Canada may play a part in
resolving it.

But as the discussion continued over a three-hour period, it quickly
became clear that there's also something else here, just as influential
on the Tibet question -- a supremely organized group of pro-Tibetan
activists who also make their home on the West Coast.

They are three women, in fact, who have been key in making all those
Olympic torch protests happen around the world. They are Lhadon Tethong,
executive director of Students for a Free Tibet; Kate Woznow, who runs
the group's Olympic protest campaign, and Freya Putt, a university of
Victoria graduate who works for the International Tibet Support Network.

Why is the West Coast a hub for the key pro-Tibet activists? It's got a
lot to do with the Vancouver protest movement's long history and, as
Greenpeace demonstrates, a keen eye for making a global media splash.
Tethong told me that seminal moments for her and other free-Tibetan
activists were the 1997 APEC protests in Vancouver. Then there were the
violent confrontations with police at the 1999 World Trade Organization
summit in Seattle, where China's entry into the global trading body was
an issue.

They served as a training ground for the international protests the trio
and their fellow protesters are now mounting in major cities where the
Olympic torch touches down. (Notice to the Canadian embassy in Beijing:
They have every intention, incidentally, to carry out those protests in
Beijing during the Olympics.)

This is all-important background because Vancouver, of course, is
hosting the 2010 Winter Olympics, following the 2008 Summer Games in
Beijing.

This city, and the Vancouver Organizing Committee, have counted
themselves fortunate for avoiding the current Olympic torch relay and
the protests that have dogged it. However, the reality is they probably
won't be so lucky in 2010; the elements for a repeat performance of the
torch protests, in some form, are already clearly entrenched in this city.

But there's also something else that happens in 2010, which may make
this city a significant forum for the Tibet debate -- more than 600 of
the world's experts on Tibet, from within China and beyond, are coming
to Vancouver for the International Association of Tibetan Studies.

Arranged by one of our local Tibetan luminaries, Prof. Shakya, it
promises to present some reasonable solutions to the Tibet-China
standoff. It just may offer China some new ideas for a face-saving
solution to its crisis in Tibet and make Vancouver, at least for a few
weeks, seem a little bit like the West Coast's Dharamsala.

Miro Cernetig was awarded a 2008 fellowship by the Asia Pacific
Foundation to research Canada's diaspora in Asia. You can read his blog
at www.vancouversun.com/blogs
CTC National Office 1425 René-Lévesque Blvd West, 3rd Floor, Montréal, Québec, Canada, H3G 1T7
T: (514) 487-0665   ctcoffice@tibet.ca
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