Student Group Strives for Awareness of Tibet's Plight





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Fifty years ago, on the other side of the planet, China invaded the neighboring country of Tibet, causing its political and spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, to flee and sending shock waves all the way to Berkeley.

The world community has since been shaken by what many see as the destruction of lives, culture and the environment in Tibet. Here in Berkeley, the shock seems particularly strong, as the city is home to more than half a dozen Tibet-focused action groups.

Janice Mantell, executive director of Berkeley's International Committee of Lawyers for Tibet, says there are many compelling reasons why Berkeley locals are so interested in Tibet's situation.

"Some people believe that Tibetans have something to offer the world in terms of peace," she says. "The Dalai Lama represents a state leader who has the moral trust of the people."

Tibetans practice Buddhism and believe the Dalai Lama is the reincarnation of the Buddha of Compassion, who chose to come back and serve the people. Tibetan groups say he has worked hard over the years to bring about a peaceful solution to the conflict between China and his country.

Others become involved in the cause because they are Buddhists or already have a general interest in human rights, Mantell says.

"A lot of people at Cal have heard about Tibet from the Beastie Boys and Tibetan Freedom Concerts," says Meena Makhijani, a recent UC Berkeley graduate who worked with the committee during the summer.

Another reason is simply that many Tibetan refugees live in the Bay Area. In fact, the Tibetan Association of Northern California, a Tibetan-run group dedicated to maintaining their culture, supporting the Dalai Lama and gaining independence for Tibet, is also based in Berkeley.

The lawyer's committee was founded in 1989 to write legal briefs on Tibet's right to independence and provide free attorneys in asylum cases for Tibetans who are trying to become U.S. citizens, Mantell says.

Last month, the committee released a report on children's rights in Tibet, discussing the kinds of torture they say the Chinese government uses on Tibetan children.

According to the report, a few reasons for imprisoning and torturing a child include writing the word "independence" in a notebook, posting a picture of the Dalai Lama on a public wall and trying to leave Tibet. The most common forms of torture were beatings and electric shocks with cattle prods, it says.

The committee accepts volunteers for help with administrative work and interns, usually law students, to do research. Mantell said they have had several volunteers from UC Berkeley's chapter of Students for a Free Tibet.

Makhijani, who became interested in Tibet after reading the Dalai Lama's autobiography, helped run the club last year. The club, she says, works with other Tibet groups to raise awareness and educate people about the country's situation by holding rallies, showing films, inviting speakers and writing letters.

Makhijani says that earlier this year, when the U.S. investment banking firm, Goldman Sachs, engaged in business dealings with a Chinese oil conglomerate, the club took action.

Students in the club obtained the names of people involved in the deal and wrote to them, explaining how participating in it would adversely affect Tibet by making China more economically powerful and giving the government another reason to move into Tibet - to get oil.

"People will buy into anything they can to make money, no matter what the consequences," Makhijani says.

They received four letters back from people who had changed their minds because of the information they received and decided not to invest in the company.

Makhijani says another major concern for Tibetan groups is U.S. trade relations with China. She says she worries that by trading with China the U.S. will make it stronger and worsen the circumstances in Tibet.

"It's very scary the way the U.S. supports China," she says.

Next week the U.S. Senate is expected to pass a bill pushed forward by the Clinton Administration and pro-free trade businesses, but opposed by labor and human rights groups, that would grant optimal trade status to China.

Lauren Dexter, who will lead the club this year, stresses Americans' role in the problem.

"Our country is kind of hypocritical because we claim to uphold human rights (but we) turn a blind eye to events in Tibet," she says.

Dexter, who once lived near several Tibetan families in Oakland, was impacted by the personal stories these refugees told her.

One Tibetan woman talked of her escape from Tibet to Nepal. Her family had to give her all of their money so she could bribe Chinese guards at the border, Dexter says. Once over that hurdle, she had to hide in a cart under several sacks for days.

The refugee said she misses her family, but at the same time is happy and grateful to them for helping her escape. Once one has left Tibet, it is very difficult to return, so she may never see her parents again, Dexter says.

Dexter is planning to put on film presentations and a musical festival, as well as a march on March 10, Tibetan Uprising Day, which commemorates the largest demonstration in Tibet's history.

The demonstration occurred on March 10, 1959 in Lhasa,Tibet's capital, when protesters asked China to recognize Tibet's independence. The uprising was crushed by the Chinese army, and the Dalai Lama fled to India, where he was granted political asylum, followed by approximately 80,000 Tibetan refugees.

Dexter also wants to revive a tutoring program, which sets up students with Tibetan refugee families to help the children with school.

"The Tibetan community in the Bay Area is very grateful for anything we do," she says.

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