By Zoe Leavitt
The “Free Tibet” bumper stickers may have faded since the 1990s, but for Samdhong Rinpoche, Buddhist scholar and Tibet’s prime minister-in-exile, the issue remains as clear as ever.
He and Rebiya Kadeer, leader of the Uighur minority movement in China, spoke in Stanford’s Cubberley Auditorium on Friday about the problems their societies face under Chinese sovereignty.
Clayborne Carson, history professor and director of Stanford’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute, joined the panel to discuss his own experiences in China and the promise that nonviolent protest holds for the future.
Wearing traditional dress, the prime minister and Kadeer received standing ovations as they entered the auditorium. Both in exile, both attempting to gain their peoples’ freedom from Chinese sovereignty, they described the oppression of two ancient societies.
“The Tibetans remain in exile, and inside Tibet, the people have undergone a great deal of misery and torture,” said the prime minister, 70, in halting English. “We are not seeking separation. We are not seeking independence. We are just seeking autonomy within the PRC [People’s Republic of China].”
The current Samdhong Rinpoche — a Tibetan title meaning “precious jewel — was recognized at age 5 as the reincarnation of the fourth Rinpoche. He became prime minister of the India-based Tibetan government-in-exile in 2001 after the Dalai Lama decided that Tibetans should elect their own prime minister.
Beginning his talk with his explanation of the past 1,500 years of Tibetan history, the prime minister said the Chinese government continues to limit Tibet’s native culture and commit human rights violations in the area.
Kadeer, also a refugee from the Chinese government, took advantage of the panel to describe the oppression of the Uighurs, a largely Muslim ethnic group in northwestern China.
For the past 60 years, Kadeer said, China has imposed a campaign of forced assimilation and harsh repression against the Uighurs.
“Uighurs were repeatedly promised that they would enjoy self-rule,” Kadeer said through a translator. “However, under 61 years of communist China occupation, the Uighur people never enjoyed any kind of human rights or democracy. In fact, they have not enjoyed a single moment of peace under Chinese rule.”
Furthermore, since September 11, 2001, China has increased the imprisonment and execution of many Uighur intellectuals, according to Kadeer.
“Using the label of ‘terrorist’ since 9/11, the Chinese government was able to murder hundreds, if not thousands, of Uighurs,” Kadeer said. “They arrest them, imprison them and torture them to death, but so far, the Chinese government has not been able to provide any evidence of such Uighur terrorism. They only use it as a lame excuse.”
Not all in the audience agreed with the speakers’ take on China. During the question and answer session, a man who introduced himself as a Chinese doctoral student in history spoke out against what he saw as the bias permeating the panel.
“Partial truth is not truth,” he said. “Demonizing the Chinese government won’t help the situation.”
The prime minister responded: “The violent people, particularly the PRC authorities who are willfully violating human rights and inflicting a great deal of violence to the people are a kind of teacher in disguise, to teach us the importance of nonviolence.”
Tenzin Seldon ’12, whose parents are Tibetan refugees and who works as the regional coordinator for Students for a Free Tibet, organized Friday’s panel. Seldon’s Gmail account was hacked from China this winter.
Before the talk, Seldon discussed what she saw as its value.
“It’s not a topic that’s widely discussed in our curriculum,” she said. “Many students view Tibet through the Dalai Lama. That’s one human being. How could he possibly represent the lives of all Tibetans?”
“So many people know so little about my country and my people,” she added.