18th Annual Tibet Day Report

San Francisco Tibet Day's Culture & Politics Attract Hundreds
by Giovanni Vassallo
November 15, 2003

Tibetan Cultural Fair

Bay Area Friends of Tibet (BAFoT) hosted several cultural and political Tibet-related activities during its 18th Annual Tibetan Cultural Fair and 20th Anniversary celebration on Saturday, November 15, 2003. The day featured entertaining performances by renowned Tibetan opera artists and a presentation by thangka painter Jamyong Singye. A panel discussion explored Tibet-China cooperation and outreach. Attendees were presented with several options to spend their time at photo, slide, and material exhibitions to inform the public about the rich cultural heritage of Tibet, as well as the ongoing political situation in Tibet. The new movie, Tibet: Cry of the Snow Lion was shown several times. Over eight hundred people including Tibetan vendors, Tibetan and non-Tibetan well-wishers gathered at Fort Mason Conference Center on the San Francisco waterfront. Members of many Bay Area Tibet-related groups such as the Tibet Justice Center, the Tibetan Association of Northern California, the San Francisco Regional Tibetan Youth Congress and the Committee of 100 for Tibet participated. A separate special benefit evening on behalf of ex-political prisoner Ngawang Choephel and his "work-in-progress" film project immediately followed the event.

Around midday, Margery Farrar, Human Rights Special Assistant to Congressman Tom Lantos, expressed solidarity with the Tibetan people. Dan Bernal, Deputy District Director of Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, on the Congresswoman's behalf, reaffirmed the Tibetan people's right to self-determination and both expressed outrage at the current sufferings of the Tibetan people. Bernal presented an award, a Certificate of Special Congressional Recognition, to BAFoT's President, Giovanni Vassallo, to honor the organization's "outstanding and invaluable support to the community on the occasion of your 20th Anniversary." Congresswoman Pelosi signed it. It was the second year in a row that BAFoT received this congressional commendation.

Former Tibetan Security Minister of the exiled Tibet government, Pema Chhinjor, and Arjia Rinpoche of the Tibetan Buddhist Center for Wisdom and Compassion participated on a panel discussion entitled, "Explorations in Tibet-China Cooperation and Outreach." It was moderated by BAFoT president Giovanni Vassallo. Ngawang Choephel and Tashi Tsering, an environmental specialist who works for Tibet Justice Center also were panelists.

Arjia Rinpoche elaborated on his person history of cooperation with the Chinese that took him from being abbot of one of Tibet's six most important Tibet Buddhist centers to being a farmer who worked in the fields during China's Cultural Revolution. Later, he became a research fellow in the Tibetan Department at Chinese Buddhism College at Beijing, where he studied with the late Panchen Lama. During this period, he was elected President of the Regional Buddhist Association, and Deputy President of the National Buddhist Association. In 1998, due to political and religious pressures, Rinpoche left China to settle in the United States.

Pema Chhinjor explained that His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan Government-in-Exiled strictly supported the Middle Way Approach. He said that there was a referendum that reaffirmed support for His Holiness to decide how to deal with the Chinese government. He explained that the Middle Way position meant that Tibet could agree to be part of China as long as China granted Tibet what His Holiness calls "genuine autonomy." He reiterated that His Holiness and the exiled government were not secretly furthering any other approach.

Ngawang Choephel took time to say that he could not yet elaborate on details of his confinement by Chinese authorities. Rather, he expressed tremendous gratitude and appreciation for the time when he was finally able to shake hands with his American liberators. He also expressed tremendous admiration to Arjia Rinpoche for his inspiring journey through Tibet-China relations.

Only Tashi Tsering, a last-minute invitee to the panel, elaborated on specific ways to cooperate with the Chinese. "It is very difficult to effect change in the area of high politics," he said. " Areas in low politics, such as in environmental issues, provide a clear possibility to have open and fruitful negotiations with the Chinese government." He explained how he had negotiated "face-to-face" with Chinese representatives on Tibetan environmental issues. "The Chinese sometimes want to protect Tibet's environment," he said. "This provides us with some common ground."

Afterwards, the panelists and the moderator were presented with khatas, ceremonial "good luck" scarves, by the representatives of the Tibetan Association of Northern California and the San Francisco Tibetan Youth Congress.

Prior to the panel, BAFoT volunteers dished out hundreds of pieces of chocolate and vanilla cake in celebration of their 20th Anniversary. BAFoT President Giovanni Vassallo spoke during the cake distribution about the organization's history including its founding twenty years ago by Tenzin Sonam, son of Lhamo Tsering, Chief of Operations of the Mustang Resistance Force, Michael van Walt, current legal advisor to His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and other notables such as Tenzin Tethong and Jigme Yugay. He recounted recent BAFoT campaigns and spoke about future plans. He said that BAFoT would continue to think, analyze and plan for campaigns to benefit Tibetans locally and internationally. "Tibetans and the friends of Tibet are survivors," he said. He said that he believed that the traits of survivors would carry us through the future. He also said that it was important to not be afraid to surrender to the realities of the Tibetan situation. He said that this included thinking, analyzing and deciding what is truly the best approach to achieving Tibetan freedom. "Should we focus on independence or the Middle Way?" he challenged the crowd. He further questioned: "Or should we step back and recognize Tibet's right to self-determination?" He ended by encouraging the crowd of well-wishers, supporters, and volunteers to do as His Holiness advised and "never give up" the fight for Tibetan and human rights.

Earlier Chaksampa Tibetan Dance Opera and Semshug Pundha and other Bay Area Tibetan Dance groups delighted attendees throughout the day with special performances. The Tibetan Association of Northern California's Children's chorus produced special smiles and hand clapping among a crowd of about several hundred people. Dennis Cusack, former President of the Tibet Justice gave a brief report about the Fourth International Tibet Support Group Conference held in Prague in October 2003. Nyunt Than, General Secretary of the Burmese American Democratic Alliance, expressed his solidarity with the Tibetan people and admiration for His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

During the event, Mr. Vassallo made a special appeal to the crowd to take action on behalf of political prisoner Tenzin Deleg Rinpoche who could face death by Chinese authorities as early as next April. He then led a moment of silence on behalf of all Tibetans who may have died, directly or indirectly as a result of the Chinese government's occupation of Tibet. The deep resonating vibrations of Karma Moffet's Tibetan horns followed this moment.

Ngawang Choephel Evening Benefit

BAFoT and the Tibet Justice Center co-sponsored a special benefit evening with Ngawang Choephel who is seeking support for his film project. About two hundred people attended it.

Choephel, whose family fled in 1968 from Tibet to southern India to escape Chinese persecution, returned in 1995 to gather material for a documentary film on traditional Tibetan performing arts. More than a year later Chinese authorities indicated Choephel had been arrested and sentenced to 18 years in prison or "espionage and counterrevolutionary activities." A Chinese court tried Choephel in secret, but could never produce evidence that Choephel had been spying.

Choephel spoke little about his experience in Chinese custody. He said that this was primarily out of concern for his fellow political prisoners.

He showed a preview of this "work-in-progress" film at the event. The documentary film, narrated by Richard Gere, discusses the history of Tibetan music and the Chinese government's influence. The film includes early footage of Tibetans performing dances in traditional garb, the Chinese occupation and the introduction of the radio. Radio brought Tibetans songs whose Tibetan lyrics were changed into Chinese. It also was used to spread Maoist messages. The documentary discussed how more modern music is sometimes a mixture of Tibetan music and Chinese pop music. One scene included Tibetans singing for the camera. Before this scene, Choephel, in the film stated that the singers could be arrested for their specific participation in the film.

It was evident by the crowd's reactions that they greatly enjoyed the preview film.

Tenzin Tethong, former Chief of Cabinet of the Tibetan Government-in-Exile, then spoke in support of the film project and of the two co-sponsors. The evening ended with a silent auction that raised funds for Choephel's work.

Founded in 1983, BAFoT is a non-sectarian, non-profit, tax-exempt 501(c)(3) organization and is the US West Coast's original Tibet support group. BAFoT educates the public about Tibet and the Tibetan people; organizes grassroots projects and events to benefit Tibetans locally and internationally. BAFoT organizes events in cooperation with local Tibetan groups including the Tibetan Association of Northern California, San Francisco Tibetan Youth Congress, Dalai Lama Foundation, Tibet Justice Center, Tibetan Nuns Project, Committee of 100 for Tibet, and Students for a Free Tibet.