Struggle for Tibet

Islanders Tom Castor and Louise Wilkinson traveled to India to meet with friends and found themselves in the middle of a protest that led to a swift and harsh response by the Chinese authorities.

  • Monday, November 24, 2008 9:01pm
  • Life
Tom Castor/Special to the Reporter Islanders Tom Castor and Louise Wilkinson witnessed first-hand the struggle between Tibet and China on their visit to the region last month.

Tom Castor/Special to the Reporter Islanders Tom Castor and Louise Wilkinson witnessed first-hand the struggle between Tibet and China on their visit to the region last month.

Islanders Tom Castor and Louise Wilkinson traveled to India to meet with friends and found themselves in the middle of a protest that led to a swift and harsh response by the Chinese authorities.

Tom Castor and Louise Wilkinson
Special to the Reporter

Tom: In early March, my wife, Louise Wilkinson, and I were in McLeod Ganj in the foothills of the Himalayan Mountains above Dharamsala, India. We had come to India — specifically to this Tibetan refugee village — at the invitation of our friend and filmmaker, Rosemary Rawcliffe, who has spent a major part of her life filming the women of Tibet. The trip was scheduled to coincide with the showing of her films to the Tibetans as well as to be there for the March 10 anniversary of the Tibetan National Uprising, an event at which the Dalai Lama would speak. The commemoration was held in the plaza between the Dalai Lama’s residence and a large temple where many monks and others had been attending Buddhist teachings.

On the day of the event, we arrived early in the morning to find the plaza and temple already filled with hundreds of monks, nuns, students and others. Eventually, the band announced the beginning of the procession, and soon thereafter the Dalai Lama himself, smiling all the way, walked across the plaza and onto the raised temple platform. The roar of the crowd greeting him was deafening.

After the national anthem was sung and a prayer given, the Dalai Lama read a speech praising the Tibetan people and reiterating his Middle-Way Approach to the problems with the Chinese government. He urged China to bring an immediate halt to the repressive human rights violations, denial of religious freedom and the politicization of religious issues. He explained that he was determined to continue supporting dialogue with the Chinese government. Finally, he urged the Tibetan people to work peacefully and within the law. Following his speech, Samdhong Rinpoche, the exiled Tibetan Prime Minister, gave a similar speech supporting the Dalai Lama and the Middle-Way Approach.

After the Dalai Lama returned to his residence, 100 marchers, decked out in orange hats and Tibetan flags — in some cases painted on their faces — kneeled before the podium. We had been told that the Dalai Lama opposed protests and were surprised to hear that they were planning on marching to Lhasa in Tibet and then onward to Beijing. The crowd around us became quite excited during the speeches and calls for resistance. Eventually, they marched off with nearly everyone in the crowd following them down the mountain and into Dharamsala on their way to Delhi. We later heard that district police had stopped the march in Dharamsala.

In the following days, we heard from the Tibetans of the problems in Lhasa. While China stated that only a few people had died in the riots and demonstrations, the local Tibetans indicated that the phone calls coming from Lhasa told of a much larger number. They told us the Chinese army had occupied much of Lhasa, journalists had been removed, and all TV news channels and the landline telephone system had been shut down. Despite the blackout, people seemed to be getting information on a daily basis about what was going on in Tibet. Every day we saw more young people with flags or “Free Tibet” shirts, and by the weekend there was a large group of Tibetans below the temple on a hunger strike and a protest rally and march in Dharamsala of many hundreds of people.

Louise: My first impression of Ama Adhe, a wizened Tibetan woman, was of deep and complete joy. She radiated happiness as she sat fingering her prayer beads. I wondered, how could she? She had spent 28 years in a Chinese prison in Tibet, 18 of them in solitary confinement. She had lost her children and husband, and had been tortured at the hands of her jailers. She is 76 now. Her smile is wide, and her eyes glisten.

I first met Ama Adhe in San Francisco prior to the screening of my friend Rosemary Rawcliffe’s film, “A Quiet Revolution,” which premiered at the Mill Valley Film Festival last October. It is the second of three films in her trilogy on the Women of Tibet. I met Dolma Tsering that weekend as well — a Tibetan woman full of fun and good humor. She was born in Tibet and longs to go back. She has spent most of her career as a teacher in the Tibetan Children’s Village in Dharamsala, India, and now serves on the parliament of the Tibetan Government in Exile centered there.

I was able to renew my acquaintance with these two beautiful women when my husband and I traveled to Dharamsala in early March. We went with my friend Rosemary to show her films to the people featured in them, the Tibetans who have created a community in Dharamsala dedicated to preserving their heritage, culture and religion. And it seems to be the religion, Tibetan Buddhism as embodied and taught by the Dalai Lama, that engenders this sense of deep joy. When you spend your time focused on love, compassion and cultivating tolerance, patience and forgiveness, it’s hard to hold anger or attachment to personal needs and desires.

However, our journey was not just a discovery of this nonviolent religion and those who live it daily. We watched Tibetans tested in front of our own eyes. We watched the community stress and saw the diversity of response. We observed the forces that threaten their way of life.

It was with innocent delight that we heard the Dalai Lama speak on March 10 at the main temple in McLeod Ganj in honor of the 49th anniversary of the 1959 Tibetan uprising against China. This is the uprising that covered the escape of His Holiness in the night. Though in Tibetan, we knew he spoke of his own “Middle-Way Approach” to gaining the autonomy of the Tibetan people, their culture and religion, now repressed under Chinese rule. This approach has been adopted by the Tibetan parliament in exile. We discovered then that counter to this approach, 100 young Tibetans and several other supporters had committed to marching to Lhasa prior to the Beijing Olympics. They were sent off amid speeches about resistance and cheers and songs about a free Tibet. We began to see the array of political positions in this struggle.

While the marchers had schooled themselves in nonviolent protest, their choice was not supported by His Holiness, except that he supports democratic ideals and individual choice. He knew the likelihood that the orange hats, painted faces and energetic appeals for total liberation of Tibet would raise the ire of not only the Chinese, but the Indian government officials concerned with placating their enormous neighbor. The marchers were warned by Indian police not to leave the district.

And then began the terrible news from Tibet. As the days passed, reports increased of violence on the part of the Tibetan protesters as well as against them. We heard of deaths, and the direct communication links between Tibetans in China and those in Dharamsala provided very different information from the official Chinese reports. Correspondents were removed from Lhasa, and demonstrators filled the streets of Dharamsala.

Ama Adhe and the gentle young mother who translated for her, cried. And we cried. Dolma Tsering announced that the entire parliament was traveling by bus to Delhi to appeal to the Indian government and the international diplomats there. The Dalai Lama held a public prayer session for those in Tibet that had died or were imprisoned. He appealed once again for nonviolence, for the world to understand the repression that drove the Tibetan protesters to violence, and for China to negotiate the restoration of Tibetan rights in Tibet.

We began to understand what is at stake. The Tibetan language, culture and religion are threatened with extinction in Tibet. They have been purposefully diluted by an influx of Chinese population, and teaching them is disallowed.

Despite some international pressure, China shows no movement toward honoring the autonomy of Tibetans and Tibetan culture in Tibet. Many young Tibetans, both there and internationally, are developing anger rather than compassion. They suspect that the Dalai Lama’s nonviolent Middle-Way Approach will get them nowhere. Who can blame them? The world seems to respond to power rather than understanding and nonviolence.

This culture is threatened by external political forces. It is also threatened by the very responses to those forces — the anger and frustration that drive people to confrontation, and disillusionment with the strategic effectiveness of compassion and nonviolence. Many cultures have become extinct, and perhaps many more will disappear. Why be so concerned over this one? Are its values outmoded?

I think not. I look at the deep compassion and fundamentally positive outlook of Ama Adhe — a woman who survived long years of torture in prison while nearly 300 of her sisters succumbed. She had the will and strength to make it out of Tibet and go to the Dalai Lama to let him know the truth about the prisons. He helped her learn to forgive and love again.

I look at Dolma Tsering, committing her life to the education of children in order to prepare them to serve, and to the success of the government in exile to continue the ways of nonviolence. I look at Rinchen Khando, the sister-in-law of the Dalai Lama, creating nunneries to help women carry on the deep wisdom of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. And at Dikki of the Tibetan Women’s Association, finding ways to help women maintain the values of the Tibetan culture as they nurture the next generation. I look at my friend Rosemary, who has sacrificed material gain and security to capture the essence of the Tibetan values in her films, to help educate the world and remind the new generations of Tibetans of who they are and why their culture is so unique.

There is something extremely powerful in the values of this small and, in some ways, backward culture. They hold a spiritual philosophy that is on to something, and it may be the secret of how best to live, the secret of deep happiness. It is the essential message of the Buddha and of Jesus Christ. It turns the world’s values upside down. And it is currently embodied in the Dalai Lama and those Tibetans who hold to the Dalai Lama’s teachings. Many already recognize the Dalai Lama as the moral leader for our time.

While touring other timeless areas of northern India — the palaces and poverty that have existed for centuries and persist — as well as immersing myself in Indian newspapers, I became ever more aware of the economic and political power shifts that have always left most of humanity powerless. Historically, these forces shaped countries isolated by distance and communication barriers. Now, of course, they are global.

If there is some evolution of the human spirit that can shift the nature of the game, now is when we need it most. And there, in the self-effacing, non-materialistic and seemingly archaic Tibetan culture, we see it lived.

Tom: We spent time with Rinchen Khando, sister-in-law to the Dalai Lama, visiting the large nunneries she has created to ensure that the young Tibetan nuns coming from China retain their culture. China does not allow the teaching of the Tibetan language, Buddhism or culture in schools. Children are brought over the Himalayas to Dharamsala to ensure that the culture does not die. Khando explained that her commitment to the education of these women is a commitment to the Tibetan culture, which China will eradicate. Another trip took us to the Tibetan Children’s Village where hundreds of children — some orphans, some sent from Tibet, some simply children of the exiled — are being taught the Tibetan language, customs and Buddhism in order to preserve what might be otherwise lost.

Adhe told us how she was filled with bitterness when she came to McLeod Ganj and told her stories to the Dalai Lama. His Holiness helped her to forgive and love again. It is when we speak of the possibility of Tibetans returning to their homeland that the pain emerges and we all weep. For Adhe, born in 1932, the possibility seems quite remote.

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