Rinzin Choedon, National Director of Students for a Free Tibet- India. Photo: TPI

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Dharamshala, India — An exclusive interview with Rinzin Choedon, the National Director of Students for a Free Tibet (SFT). She states that what we are dealing with today is a human-made catastrophe virus (Covid19), Chinese Communist regime could have prevented the pandemic if it had not suppressed the truth, destroyed evidence and lied to the world. She also calls on global institutions to come together in solidarity through this global crisis and in its aftermath, to ensure that freedom and human rights are upheld.

'The coronavirus outbreak and subsequent mishandling by the Communist totalitarian regime yet again reflect the failure of China's governance. The international community must reject the Chinese government’s model of surveillance, control, and manipulation,' Rinzin added.

TPI: Can you introduce yourself?

Interviewee: My name is Rinzin Choedon and I am the National Director of Students for a Free Tibet- India. As a passionate and dynamic Tibetan activist, Rinzin serves her community and believes in the power of youth and strategic nonviolence. She is also interested in the areas of animal rights, environment, social justice, and gender equality.

She is a former student of Tibetan Children's Village and earned her bachelor's and master's degrees in English Literature from Miranda House College and Delhi University. She joined Students for a Free Tibet ­India as the Grassroots Director in 2015, before becoming the National Director in 2019. Rinzin has traveled extensively across India visiting local SFT chapters, where she provided training programs to young people.

TPI: Living with unanswered questions on the origin of COVID-19, in Wuhan Province of China, many lawyers, NGOs, and Governments are suing/ blaming CCP for hiding the truth before it spreads across the globe. What is your take on this matter as one of the largest Tibetan Movement Organization?

Rinzin Choedon: What we are dealing with today is a human-made catastrophe. China could have prevented it if the Chinese Communist regime had not suppressed the truth, destroyed evidence, and lied to the world. It is still lying about the actual numbers of death tolls. The official counts of deaths in the country of 1.4 billion people reported to be 4,634 but dissident groups and others within China say that the actual fatalities are monstrously higher. The count is staggering. More than 502,000 deaths around the world with over 548,000 confirmed cases in India and counting.

The coronavirus outbreak and subsequent mishandling by the Chinese Communist regime yet again reflect the failure of China's governance. The international community must reject the Chinese government’s model of surveillance, control, and manipulation that Tibetans, Uyghurs, and the Chinese public have suffered under for too long. China must be held accountable for decades of human rights abuses and we call on governments and global institutions to come together in solidarity through this global crisis and in its aftermath to ensure that freedoms and human rights are upheld.

The recent coronavirus outbreak, first reported in Wuhan, China in late December, has now turned into an international pandemic. The entire global community is now paying the price for Beijing’s oppressive rule and closed society.

Soon after the first reported case appeared on 17th November 2019, whistleblower Dr. Li Wenliang was summoned and admonished by local police. Chinese citizens, journalists, and activists who had posted transparently about the risk of the novel virus or other comments about the epidemic were all arrested, detained or forcibly disappeared.

Similarly, in occupied Tibet, the Chinese government has increased its crackdown on online discussions of the rising number of infections from coronavirus. Ten Tibetans were reportedly arrested on March 12, 2020, for breaching control measures imposed across the so-called Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) to combat the spread of COVID-19. Seven more other Tibetans were detained in Tibet’s Chamdo prefecture on charges of spreading “rumors and misinformation” according to state media and other sources.

Furthermore, at least 75 WeChat groups have been closed down with users being accused of “disrupting social order” and “spreading false information” about coronavirus. The lack of information from Tibet or due process for these detentions has raised doubts over the real motivation for the arrests. It’s high time that the Chinese Communist Government should be held accountable for the deaths of millions due to this pandemic.

TPI: Can you highlight some of the works that SFT is doing in times of this pandemic?

Rinzin Choedon: Despite the challenges we are facing with the COVID-19 Pandemic, our work for Tibet hasn’t stopped. Since quarantine, SFT International has coordinated new digital campaigns with 18 live episodes reaching nearly half a million viewers in just a month and a half! This involves a discussion on politics, health, culture, and Tibetan resistance stories. SFT India also organized an important discussion in the Hindi language on World Press Freedom Day to reach out to Indian masses and bring in the relevance of the Tibet issue while discussing China’s severe crackdown, manipulation and censorship on information during Covid19.

For many years, SFT has worked tenaciously to pressure universities to close Confucius Institutes (CI). We have been seeing more and more CIs being closed around the world with the latest being in Sweden, closing its last remaining CI! Last week SFT also joined College Democrats and Republicans in a nationwide movement to close remaining CIs on their campuses in the US.

Currently, we have 22 Co-Sponsors for the United States Tibetan Policy and Support Act. We are getting closer to this historic victory for Tibet! The US Senate Foreign Relations Committee will soon vote and the next step will be for TPSA to move forward to the Senate Floor for a vote by the full chamber. A Joint Press Conference was held on 1st June regarding the recent ‘Free Tibet Act of 2020’ (H.R. 6948) introduced in the United States House of Representatives by Congressman Scott Perry (R-PA) on May 19, 2020.

This bill represents a historic milestone for Tibetan people who have struggled for freedom and independence from China for the last 70 years and it will go down in history as an important moment when the American people recognized Tibet’s legitimate claim to independence. While H.R.6948 refers to the “Tibet Autonomous Region of the People’s Republic of China,” Students for a Free Tibet and the Tibetan Youth Congress have engaged with Congressman Perry’s office to request that he amend this language to include the whole of Tibet, not just the TAR.

As the Tibet movement welcomes this bill, we call on all governments and global institutions to come together in solidarity during this crisis to ensure that freedom and human rights are upheld. We urge world governments to take immediate multilateral action against Beijing’s authoritarian rule by challenging China’s illegal occupation of Tibet and by rejecting the ‘One China Policy’ in theory and practice. We urge other governments and leaders to take a stronger political stand when dealing with China and introduce similar bills to recognize Tibet as a separate, independent country that remains under China’s illegal occupation since 1959.

TPI: Can you tell us briefly how this organization comes into being?

Rinzin Choedon: Students for a Free Tibet (SFT) was founded in New York City in 1994 by a group of Tibetans, young students, and supporters. The concept of SFT was borne from understanding the critical roles students and young people have played in freedom struggles throughout history. SFT- India was started in 2000 from a very humble beginning as a group of young activists and students based in Dharamshala. SFT- India has grown to be a nation-wide network of youth campaigning for the Fundamental Rights of the Tibetan people and we are still growing!

Today we have chapters in major cities across India including Dharamshala, Delhi, Pune, Bangalore, Hyderabad, Guwahati, Kolkata, and Goa with over 4000 young activists taking part in the nonviolent struggle against the occupation of Tibet. At SFT-India we gain inspiration from the legacy of Indian Independence Struggle and leaders like Mahatma Gandhi. We believe India has a unique geopolitical and cultural connection with Tibet and is one of the most important bases for the Tibetan freedom movement. We know Tibet will be free and we work to turn this vision into a reality.

TPI: What are the objectives of this NGO and how many active members are there currently?

Rinzin Choedon: SFT works in solidarity with the Tibetan people in their struggle for freedom and independence. SFT has grown into an international network of students and non-students in more than 30 countries. Today, we have more than 650 high schools, universities, and community chapters. Our Head office is based in New York with National offices in India and Canada.

TPI: Could you share with us some of the particular ways that SFT uses to spread awareness about Tibet to the world?

Rinzin Choedon: We are a chapter-based network of young people and activists around the world. Through education, grassroots organizing, and nonviolent direct action, we campaign for Tibetans’ fundamental right to political freedom. Our role is to empower and train youth as leaders in the worldwide movement for social justice and to build next-generation leaders of Tibet. SFT carry out Human Rights Campaigns, Political campaigns, Economic Campaign, and cultural rights campaign. Whenever Chinese leaders visit other countries or China hopes to solicit foreign funding for their genocidal projects in Tibet and cover up the truth about Tibet, SFT is there to expose and make China accountable for the crime in Tibet!

Our ongoing human rights campaigns are Free Panchen Lama, Tibetan political prisoner Tashi Wangchuk. Environmental Campaigns such as Tibet's Rivers, Asia's Lifeline. SFT launched the Feb 13th campaign in 2013 on the 100th anniversary of Tibet’s Independence proclamation on 13th Feb 1913 by the Thirteenth Dalai Lama. Since 2013, February 13th has been celebrated in over 30 cities worldwide.

Tibetans and their supporters have commemorated the 2008 Uprising, the Tibetan flag, the Centennial of the 1913 Tibetan Proclamation of Independence, and the Legacy of the Tibetan Empire by organizing flag-raising ceremonies, exhibitions, lobbying events and other creative actions to put a spotlight on Tibet's independent past. Globally, elected representatives take part in honoring this day and show solidarity with Tibetans in Tibet. Last year SFT- India organized “Majestic Walk” to commemorate the 107th anniversary of Tibetan Independence Day with the theme to highlight Tibetan Cultural Resistance.

SFT-India has adopted the Tibetan Environment campaign and initiative Save Tibetan Rivers campaign since 2015. To highlight the urgent threat Tibet’s rivers face from Chinese state-sponsored damming, mining, and water diversion. Tibet, the Water Tower of Asia, serves as the source of the ten major river systems of Asia.

Tibetan rivers flow into some of the most densely populated countries such as China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Burma, Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Bhutan, and Pakistan. Close to two billion people in Asia depend on Tibet’s waters for their survival. Tibet also contains the third largest reserve of ice and snow giving it the name “Third Pole.” The issue of Tibet’s environment particularly Tibet’s rivers has become a geostrategic concern for many countries in South, Southeast Asia, and has been raised both at high levels of the Indian government as well as in civil society with wide range coverage in the media.

While highlighting the cause for Tibet as the Third Pole, SFT­India’s campaign particularly focuses on the deteriorating health of Tibet’s rivers. With India being the strategic location for SFT­India, this campaign spotlights the Yarlung Tsangpo/Brahmaputra River in detail in order to serve as an Indian Relevant example of the systematic drain of Tibet’s water. In the past year, this campaign has mobilized a large number of Indian youth across Delhi, Bangalore, Dharamsala, Jalandhar, Pune, Mumbai, and Guwahati. In the coming year, SFT­ India aims to build on 2015’s grassroots momentum in order to take the campaign to the next phase of advocacy and action.

In the lead up to World Rivers Day 2019 and in the week of Global Strike for Climate Change (20th Sep-27th Sep) SFT-India convened the 2nd International Seminar ‘Climate Crisis in Tibet; Rivers Under Threat in Asia’ at the India International Centre in New Delhi. With academicians and activists from different backgrounds of expertise on environment and rivers exclusively, the seminar helped bring out a collective call for the protection of Tibet's rivers and aim to build a network of civil society, environmental stakeholders to take action to mitigate and terminate the danger caused by China.

One of the key SFT programs is the grassroots awareness program. Dharamshala, Headquarter of Tibetan exile movement and residence of His Holiness Dalai Lama, it has risen to international fame as ‘The Little Lhasa in India’. SFT initiated the Little Lhasa project to provide opportunities for students all over the world to explore Dharamsala and connect with the Tibetan community in exile. International students are joining SFT for the Annual flagship program which is normally held in June. ‘Little Lhasa’ allows participants to experience Tibet and explore Tibet’s political condition, its unique culture, heritage, and history of Dharamshala.

During the one week course, participants get an opportunity to engage with former Tibetan political prisoners, activists, leaders, and visit places like Norbulingka, Tsug-Lak-Khang, Nechung monastery, Tibetan government in exile, Library of Tibetan Works and Archives and Tibetan Children’s Village. This year we had 12 participants from South Africa, China, and India. The group consisted of participants from all walks of life such as Professors, activists, researchers, students, and lawyers.

TPI: What are the challenges SFT faces and what are action camps and its purpose?

Rinzin Choedon: As most of our chapter members are students/college graduates there's a tendency of chapters becoming dormant once they graduate. Mostly it takes time for the transition for the new chapters’ leaders and executive members to take their roles and responsibilities. But in most cases, we have new students/freshmen who sign up for membership and continue to lead the chapters. SFT’s youth leadership programs combine celebration, inspiration, education, discussion, and action to empower young people and activists to be leaders in the Tibet movement and the movement for social justice worldwide.

Free Tibet! Action Camp is a week-long intensive training in the skills and strategies of nonviolent action and grassroots organizing for the current and future leaders of the movement for Tibetan independence. The Camp provides the skills to be a leader in the movement to free Tibet and give one the encouragement to keep doing it for the next ten years!

Action Camp immerses participants in a comprehensive curriculum that includes the history and philosophy of applied nonviolence, grassroots organizing, campaign strategy, media advocacy, nonviolent direct action tactics, political theater, and fund-raising, etc. The camp brings together student activists, Tibetan community organizers, and seasoned human rights campaigners from around the world for a week of workshops, presentations, and discussions to advance the goal of human rights and freedom for Tibet.

TPI: Can you please tell us about some of the contributions SFT had made in the quest for a free Tibet?

Rinzin Choedon: SFT has been at the forefront of the Tibetan Freedom movement since its inception. The potent combination of Tibetan and non-Tibetan youth is the essence of SFT. Through training such as Action Camps and Leadership training, we are able to train/groom leaders from the grassroots level. At SFT we believe in the power of youth and through their skills and creativity, we are able to push the Tibet issue on a global platform.

Some recent contributions are; last year after months of campaigning, we had a tremendous victory in shutting down Google’s plan for a censored search engine in China, code-named ‘Project Dragonfly.’ SFT Delhi members joined this global campaign. Over the last 2 years at least 23 Confucius Institute (CIs) shut down across US and SFT worldwide networks are also working on this campaign. This is a big victory for the Tibetan movement as CIs are directly funded by the Chinese Government, trying to bring Censorship and use it as a tool by CCP to spread their propaganda on campus.

More recently, SFT along with other Tibet groups successfully shut down the Chinese Government-sponsored oppressive and propaganda exhibition at Queen Public library in New York. In 2019, SFT also coordinated 15 leadership training sessions for hundreds of new youth activists around the world who will continue to power our movement in the years to come. This is perhaps one of SFT’s most valuable contributions to the movement: Cultivating the next generation of leaders and equipping them with the tools they need to hone their talents, skills, and energy towards nonviolent action and strategic campaigning for Tibet.

Students for a Free Tibet- India’s environmental justice campaign, ‘Tibet’s Rivers, Asia’s Lifeline’, have created unprecedented cross-sections between the Tibetan freedom movement and the global focus on environmental justice.

TPI: Do you have any message for the general masses?

Rinzin Choedon: It is because of the vision and leadership of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama that the Tibetan freedom movement is not only alive but thriving even after more than 6 decades of China’s illegal occupation of Tibet. At the same time, it is also because of the undying spirit and determination of Tibetans inside Tibet. The situation inside Tibet is worsening day by day therefore it is our duty and moral obligation to work and double our efforts in working towards a Free Tibet.

Our elders have done their part by making sure we the future generations remain rooted to our cause and culture. As youths, it is now our responsibility to carry the baton and fulfill their vision of unification of our brethren Tibetan brothers and sisters and return of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama to the homeland.

The fact that Tibetans are resisting and the issue of Tibet is still alive even after 6 decades of China’s continuous attempts to wipe off Tibetans from the phase of this earth shows the power in the People’s movement. To those who have stood by Tibetans and supported the movement, I want to thank them for standing up for Human Rights and Justice.