If you’re a student at U of T, you know that toward the middle of every winter semester comes an exciting election period in which student leaders promise change on campus for the better. This election cycle was especially of interest for me due to the Scarborough Campus Students’ Union (SCSU) presidential candidacy and successful election of Chemi Lhamo — a fellow Tibetan and student activist.
This year, however, the SCSU elections became a national headline that drew much-needed attention to how global forces can threaten campus life. What should have been a celebratory occasion for Lhamo’s Shine Bright UTSC slate and the larger student community was instead overshadowed by a harassment campaign by a large group of international Chinese students.
The students involved left thousands of hateful online comments against Lhamo, and individually attacked her identity as an exiled Tibetan. They even went as far as starting a petition against her presidency on change.org. In light of what she has had to endure, we, the Students for a Free Tibet (SFT) chapter members at UTSG, UTM, Ryerson University, and York University, declare our support for and solidarity with Lhamo as both our fellow Tibetan and as the SCSU president-elect.
As a Canadian with a deep connection to and understanding of her Tibetan identity, Lhamo’s rise to a position of leadership and power seems to be an irritant for China. This is likely because her advocacy for human rights and Tibetan independence challenges the Chinese government and its harsh policies toward Tibetans and other oppressed peoples under their rule.
China’s forceful occupation of Tibet is nearly six decades old now. Despite its iron-fisted clamp down against the Tibetan people’s freedom, resistance to China has continued to grow from within Tibet as well as outside of it in its diaspora communities. Outside Tibet, the rise of younger generations of Tibetans in exile who are strongly committed to the politics of their identity demonstrates that the Chinese government has not succeeded in its oppression.
This is especially the case for SFT, which has been at the forefront of advocating for human rights and freedom in Tibet for over 20 years. Our organization serves as an amplifier for Tibetan voices that are banned back home. We have branches all over the world, including one based here in Toronto and a student-led chapter at UTSG.
Unfortunately, the harassment and slander directed at Lhamo is not surprising for us at SFT–UTSG. Our members have been a constant target of ire from certain sections of the international Chinese student community at our events on campus. It is not uncommon for Chinese students to show up at our tables to mock, question, and demean our displays and our objective of spreading awareness about the ongoing Tibetan struggle.
An example of this is Dr. Lobsang Sangay’s visit to UTSG last November. Sangay is the President of the Central Tibetan Administration, Tibet’s government-in-exile based in India. SFT–UTSG and three other SFT chapters, led by Lhamo as the main coordinator, organized a Hart House talk, entitled “Party-less and Global — A Case of Tibetan Democracy in Exile.”
At this event too, a number of international Chinese students showed up to protest. Clearly, these protest groups are well-coordinated, but their participants seem to be relatively unaware of the issues at hand — few of the comments made against Lhamo, for instance, had anything to do with her platform.
Such well-planned attempts to divert and disrupt Tibetan-focused events forces one to ask, who is behind it all? It would not be entirely surprising if the international Chinese students campaigning against Lhamo were receiving direct support from the Chinese government. It would not be the first time that questions over the Chinese government’s interference through student groups have surfaced.
The university is committed to the principles of academic freedom and the right to freedom of speech, as well as to equity and justice. Accordingly, students have a right to express their disagreement and opposition to their elected representatives, but they also have a right to express their identity without fear of retribution.
The attitude of some international Chinese students toward Tibetan identity exceeds the reasonable limit for free speech and should be regarded as hate speech. We need to be able to speak up against such organized campaigns that target people on the basis of national and ethnic identities.
Canada is known to be a country that places high value on and has respect for human rights, including freedom of expression. It is incumbent upon us to be aware of infiltrating forces seeking to destroy our very culture of respect for human rights. U of T can play a huge role in ensuring that Canadian values are upheld. The administration should investigate the possibility of external Chinese influence in a campaign of online vitriol against Lhamo.
March 10 this year will mark the 60th anniversary of the 1959 Tibetan National Uprising Day that took place in Lhasa, Tibet. The Chinese People’s Liberation Army crushed the uprising, which triggered the flight of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and thousands of Tibetans into exile. It has also been more than 10 years since mass uprisings took place across Tibet and other regions in response to the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
Tibetans around the world continue to remember the spirit of Tibetan National Uprising Day, to actively resist the forceful occupation of Tibet, and to seek the return of His Holiness the Dalai Lama to Tibet. We call on the U of T community to join SFT-UTSG and the Tibetan diaspora in Toronto in a collective march on March 10, as we pursue justice, human rights, and a free Tibet.
Dechen Tenzin is a fourth-year International Relations and Political Science student at Woodsworth College. She is a member of SFT Canada and President of the SFT–UTSG.
Editor’s Note: This article was updated to conclude with a call to attend an upcoming march.