Dharamsala: His Holiness the Dalai Lama gave American Jim Petersen a Tibetan name. It is Tenzin Tenkyon, which means ‘spreader of Dharma.’ The local Tibetan community calls him ‘Pala,’ the Father of Tibet. In March 2008, five NGOs, the Central Tibetan Women’s Association, the Gu Chu Sum Association of Ex-Political Prisoners, the Democratic Party of Tibet, the Tibetan Youth Congress and the Students for a Free Tibet, organized a ten-week human rights march from Dharamsala through Delhi and on to the Tibetan border.
Mr. Petersen admits that he was unemployed in the United States. He has no profession, and considers His Holiness the Dalai Lama his only root teacher ‘Guru.’ He converted to Buddhism five years ago. His intentions when he arrived in India last January were to immerse himself in Tibetan culture. He participated in cooking classes, tutored young Tibetans in English and attended His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s spring teachings. He was struck by the serene and beatific faces of the people. He truly believed in a ‘Shangri-la’ society. Eventually he learned of the Tibetan People’s Uprising Movement. As he spoke on Sunday 17 May, 2009 he made no apologies for his subsequent extremism. “All that I will tell you is propaganda; all information is propaganda.”
At this year’s Tibetan New Year ‘Losar’ dinner he sat beside a ten-year old boy. He had questions, but sought not to reinvigorate wounds which have been scarred over but hardly healed. He asked the boy’s uncle about the documentation of Chinese genocide against Tibetan refugees in the Himalayas; the man pointed to the boy and said, “He was there. He didn’t make it that day. He was arrested, transported back to Lhasa, and held in jail for several days. His parents were so desperate that they risked their son’s life a second time. That is how he came to sit beside you today. These families in Dharamsala are not nuclear families; they are fractured families.”
Jim added that, “Tibetan friends are Tibetan people, and you are a person also. The difference between justice and legality has been blurred. This fuels my activism. All of the marches are the same march, a movement spanning centuries.”
Beijing had assured the Olympic Committee that the Chinese government would “open up the country” of 1.3 billion people and enforce Constitutional rights, and invited Tibetan people to “come back to the motherland.” In a savvy political move of guerilla political theater, the Tibetans decided to do just that which Beijing asked for; they sent the seed core of revolution to the Tibetan border tell the world about their struggle for human rights. Mr. Petersen marched alongside hundreds of Tibetan monks and nuns. He told them, “I will carry you on the march.”
On the first night the peaceful marchers endured hassle by Indian police authorities. On the thirteenth of March, they woke up in the early morning and walked sixty-five kilometers, to be brought to a standstill by yet another police force. One armed guard asked him, “You are a white man from North America, why fight against the system?” The officer admitted that, “this problem is about three countries: India, China and Tibet.” Even he acknowledged Tibet as a separate nation. Mr. Peterson assured him that they could not solve this problem standing there on the side of the road. The marchers had been trained in non-violent, resistant political activism. They began chanting prayers on the side of the road. Mr. Petersen resisted by making himself heavy. He spent one and a half hours in jail. The 101 Tibetan marchers served sentences of between five and fourteen days.
Buses arrived within thirty-six hours of the first arrest, containing over fifty additional supporters. They began the next segment of the march at the exact meter at which their fellow activists were taken into custody.
At 10:30 that evening, the secret police informed the marchers that they would be placed under arrest at 7 in the morning if they did not cross into Punjab. They walked forty kilometers through the night.
Mr. Petersen and his fellow marchers reached New Delhi on April 9, 2008. The 101 core supporters had recently been released from jail. They were halted by riot police around the time that the Tibetans resigned their own Olympic torch. “We exercised democratic action in a democratic country. We went to India Gate in New Delhi and were arrested while being interviewed by Channel 18 News on the charge of violating the national security of the state of India and faced deportation. Supporters of the Chinese torch were also present, and the police van in which we were transported to jail drove directly past them. We chanted for a free Tibet. I served twenty-eight hours in custody; my Tibetan friends were detained for three weeks. Our crime was stepping off of a bus on a street corner in Delhi.”
Mr. Peterson then spoke of his moral qualms about visiting a Tibet that is subject to Chinese oppression. On the journey he met a young woman who gave up her education to march for Tibet. She had missed her final exams, thus losing the 30,000 rupees she had borrowed from her family. “If the bullet hits me and I can fall into Tibet, I will die a fulfilled person,” she vowed while they walked in the sunshine. “I have met very brave people who have never been to Tibet but are Tibetan. We belong in Tibet but are forced to live in exile.”
He was forced to leave India shortly after the march. “As I lay my head down to sleep, I will say a prayer because I know you’ll be waking up,” he assured his Tibetan friends. He has since returned to continue his activism. “On the march I wanted to say a prayer for every person who died for humans rights in Tibet. I didn’t get to say it a million times.”