Tibetan-Canadian student defiant amid nationalist protests.

15 Feb, 2019

By Voila Zhou and Grace Tsoi, Insjtone, 14 February 2019

An incoming Tibetan-Canadian student union president at the University of Toronto has pledged to continue advocating for a “free Tibet” after her support for Tibetan self-determination prompted protests from Chinese nationalists.

Chemi Lhamo, the president-elect of the undergraduate student union of one of the university’s three campuses, said she is worried about her physical safety because of the hate messages she said she had received after her election win.

Lhamo’s support for Tibetan activism has made her a target of the ire of some Chinese internet users and students at the university, who have accused her of trying to separate Tibet from the rest of China.

The police have given her a walkie-talkie so she can call for help at any time, Lhamo told Inkstone.

Chemi Lhamo, the president-elect of the undergraduate student union of one of the university’s three campuses

Free Tibet

The controversy around Lhamo, an open supporter of the Free Tibet movement, stems from long-running tensions between the mainly Buddhist ethnic Tibetans and the Communist government.

The Communist Party maintains a tight control over ethnic minorities in border regions.

Free Tibet’s calls for Tibetan self-determination have led to a harsh crackdown in China, which intensified after violent protests erupted in Tibet in recent years.

Although many supporters say they are pushing for an autonomous Tibet instead of independence, Beijing regards such calls as separatist schemes, saying Tibet is already an autonomous region.

The Chinese government blames the movement on exiled spiritual leader the Dalai Lama, while Tibetan activists and human rights groups say the movement has been fueled by China’s suppression of Tibetan culture, religion and identity.

Chinese nationalism

Defending Beijing’s control over Tibet has also become part of growing Chinese nationalism.

Symbols of Tibetan activism often lead to nationalistic outcry in China, and increasingly, among Chinese nationals living overseas.

In 2017, a group of Chinese students at the University of California San Diego demonstrated against the Dalai Lama’s appearance at the school’s commencement ceremony.

Free Tibet supporters protest against China during a demonstration in front of the White House in 2012. The Chinese government blames the campaign on exiled spiritual leader Dalai Lama. Photo: AFP/Jewel Samad.

Tibetan Identity

Lhamo, a neuroscience and psychology major, grew up as a refugee in India, where some Tibetans run a government in exile. After moving to Canada, she has been active in promoting Tibetan culture and identity.

On Instagram, she has posted photos of Free Tibet rallies, the Dalai Lama and the snow lion flag of Tibet – which is used by the exiled Tibetan government, and banned in mainland China.

Since Lhamo’s election to the Scarborough Campus Students' Union made headlines in China, her Instagram page has become a battlefield for Chinese nationalists and Tibetan independence supporters, as users attack each other with insults and racist slurs.

Lhamo said she had been receiving direct messages and comments on Instagram such as “you should go die” and “we are going to make sure your life will be like hell.”

A spokesman at the University of Toronto Scarborough said the school would keep in touch with Lhamo to make sure she felt safe.

“The University of Toronto is a global university. We are located in a diverse city, and we have students coming here from diverse backgrounds, which is one of our strengths,” the university said in an email to Inkstone.

The union represents more than 13,000 undergraduates at the university’s satellite campus in Scarborough, Toronto. By fall 2017, the Scarborough school had 2,170 Chinese students.

An online petition has also been launched on change.org appealing Lhamo’s presidency, saying Lhamo’s Free Tibet advocacy “will damage the relationship and feeling of international students.” More than 10,000 people have signed the petition.

But Lhamo said the online attacks would not affect her activism and leadership at the students’ union.

“My political stance will make me a stronger president because I come from a diverse background, a plethora of experiences, I will be able to connect with our students better,” Chemi said in an email to Inkstone.

“I’m driven by my values of wisdom and compassion, this backlash only encourages me to strive for wisdom to eradicate the ignorance and have nothing but compassion for all sentient beings,” she said.

Courtesy: tibet.net