In Action: Dolma Choephel Tibetan Hunger Striker
“Talking and doing are two different things,” declares Dolma Choephel, thirty years old, a member of the Tibet Youth Congress, the largest and most active non-governmental organization of Tibetans in exile. “I had been talking so much about the Tibetan issue, I was ready to do something practical.”In that spirit, last spring Choephel and two of her colleagues left their home in the Tibetan exile community of Dharamsala, India, and flew to New York City, where they began a hunger strike in front of the United Nations in midtown Manhattan to protest human rights abuses in Chinese-controlled Tibet.
The group’s demands included a call for the proper religious education of the 11th Panchen Lama, the second-ranking figure in the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism, who is currently being detained by the Chinese government. At thirteen, the Panchen Lama is the world’s youngest known political prisoner. The group also called for the United Nations to station a human rights monitor in Tibet, and for the release of several imprisoned Tibetan religious leaders, one of whom has been sentenced to death.
After consuming only three small glasses of water each day for nearly a month, Choephel collapsed and was rushed to the hospital. When she was released three days later, her colleagues met with U.N. Assistant Secretary-General Carolyn McAskie and agreed to call off the hunger strike. Secretary-General Kofi Annan instructed McAskie to assure the hunger strikers that their message had been heard and that the U.N. would “follow up” on the group’s demands.
Although His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama supports the goals of the Congress, he disapproves of the hunger strikes, which he considers acts of violence toward one’s body. But like the self-immolating monks during the Vietnam War era, Choephel considers her act one of constructive self-sacrifice. “As a Buddhist woman, I accept the hunger strike as a nonviolent part of our struggle,” she says. “I may make myself hurt, but I am not going to hurt anybody else. By offering myself, I am doing something for six million people. I feel doing something for the betterment of living beings is the Buddhist way.
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