HADLEY — A Tibetan cabinet minister arrived Wednesday in the Pioneer Valley to meet with Tibetan refugees in the region, where he will provide a progress report on accomplishments and goals of their country’s exile government and to discuss how they can preserve their native language and culture.
Home Minister Sonam Topgyal of the Central Tibetan Administration, Tibet’s exile government based in India, will also meet with municipal leaders in Northampton and Amherst.
Topgyal arrived in New York City earlier this month to celebrate the Dalai Lama’s 83rd birthday, and extended his stay to visit Tibetan communities in three states.
Speaking in the lobby of the Holiday Inn off Route 9, Topgyal, who has worked for the Tibetan government for 38 years, said he wanted to inform Tibetans living in America about the work his office has done and to hear suggestions from them on how to best serve migrated Tibetans as part of his visit to the United States.
He is scheduled for separate meetings with Amherst Town Manager Paul Bockelman and Northampton Mayor David Narkewicz on Thursday, as well as a public event at the Jones Public Library in Amherst at 4:30 p.m. Pasang Norbu of the Amherst Regional Tibetan Association helped organize Topgyal’s visit to the area.
“My main reason of coming to the United States is to meet with a large number of Tibetans… Firstly, it’s to see them, share my experience of two years of ministership in our cabinet,” Topgyal said, who is on his first visit to the U.S. as home minister. “We came to inform and to make aware to Tibetans in the United States what we’ve done in the past two years and what we are going to do in the next three years. And to hear what they have to suggest in order to bring things (forward) in a more meaningful way.”
Both Amherst and Northampton this spring commemorated the 59th anniversary of the Tibetan National Uprising against the occupation of their country by China and the ongoing suppression of human rights and freedom in Tibet. Proclamations by both communities on March 10 were meant to cultivate awareness of injustices against the Tibetan community.
Since the Dalai Lama and Tibetans fled from Tibet to India in 1959, the Indian government has been sympathetic toward the Tibetan cause while simultaneously recognizing Tibet as legally part of China. The Tibetan government, under the leadership of the Dalai Lama, holds elections and has judicial, legislative and executive branches of government, yet it is not officially recognized by China, according to Norbu.
Norbu said he and the association want to show gratitude toward the town manager and the mayor for each of their proclamations. They want to recognize the work that American Tibetans have done in their communities while in the presence of Topgyal.
“(Amherst and Northampton) are continuously supporting the Tibetan cause and we want to say thank you,” Norbu said. “I am a U.S. citizen, and we (Tibetans) are all citizens of Amherst and Northampton, and we are showing what we did in front of our minister. We are urging them (town officials) to continue their support into the future.”
A united Tibet
After New York City, Topgyal spent a few nights in Burlington, Vermont, before arriving in Hadley on Wednesday. After spending a week in the Valley, the minister will move on to Connecticut and then Boston before heading back to India.
The main refrain Topgyal has heard on his tour of the Northeast is the need for Tibetans to be united. In 1951, the Chinese government took Tibet by force and the region has been a source of tension ever since.
Tibetans were forced to leave their homeland, with 80,000 following the Dalai Lama to India, and currently there are over 150,000 Tibetan refugees around the world, according to the Central Tibetan Administration.
Topgyal said he has heard from Tibetans living in America who want to help “uplift” compatriots living in remote areas of India. Since the 1960s, hundreds of thousands of Tibetans have been settling across different regions of the country, many of them in poorer conditions than those who have immigrated to the United States.
“If the Tibetan community outside of Tibet is not united, and they don’t start taking care of their own just cause, then freedom in Tibet is out of the question,” Topgyal said.
To help bridge those gaps he said his cabinet has adopted principles such as unity of Tibetan people, innovation, and sustainability so that Tibetans can “stand on our own feet.”
Tibetan culture, language
One of the biggest challenges Tibetans in America face, Topgyal said, is retaining their native language and culture.
The Tibetan government has recognized that problem and it decided to publish a series of age-appropriate textbooks that include comics and stories about their country’s history tailored to one’s comprehension levels, he said.
“The idea was to improve the system of teaching the Tibetan language to the youngsters,” Topgyal said.
His cabinet is also working toward providing more skilled job opportunities in India and also Nepal and Bhutan where there are large numbers of Tibetan refugees. Through education, he hopes to give them a better chance of improving their living conditions.
Norbu said his goal for Topgyal’s visit is to help inform Tibetan people in the Valley about the government’s policies, and to have him speak to the younger generation about the importance of language and culture.
“Tibetan people enjoy all the freedom and rights in this great country, but at the same time we are in danger of losing our language and culture,” Norbu said. “This is one of the many things Tibetans are struggling with at the moment. There are traditions you won’t get in a classroom, you have to be born and brought up with that in the family, they are deep rooted, and if you don’t get that, I don’t think you can achieve it easily.”
Language is the foundation of the culture, he said, and if Tibetans lose their language then they will lose their foundation and won’t be able to build anything without it.
As for Tibet regaining their independence from China, Topgyal said there is a strong feeling among Tibetans that they have the right to live in their own country one day.
“What we need to do now, and what we’ve been doing, is to put more pressure on all world leaders to come out with big political pressure on the Chinese government,” Topgyal said. “There will definitively be a day when Tibetans can go back to their home country.”
He added, “My hope for Tibet is very optimistic. We are firm believers of the lord Buddha. What he has preached is truth and justice will prevail at the end. No matter how long it will take, justice is on our part and we will be the ultimate winner.”
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated a country with a large population of Tibetan refugees. The correct country is Bhutan in South Asia.
Luis Fieldman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org