I've just ordered vegetable chow chow (a Tibetan specialty), cream of tomato soup, plain curd and a cup of milky coffee in McLlo Restaurant, which overlooks the bus stand in McCleod Ganj.  McCleod Ganj sits a few minutes up the road from Dharamsala.  Many Tibetans sit along the street below with handfuls of burning incense; others count their prayers with necklaces of prayer beads.

Large red Tibetan prayer wheels surround a square in the center of town.  Indians, Tibetans and a few foreigners circumnavigate the prayer wheels, intensely focused and repeating the mantra "Om Mani Padme Hum" under their breath, always keeping the wheels on their right and spinning them in a clockwise direction.  Spinning the prayer wheels releases the magical powers of the mantra to the heavens.  It is believed that the more times this mantra is recited, the greater the protection it affords against evil.  They must be praying for the future of Tibet, and for the hunger strikers from the Tibetan Youth Congress, who are on an unto-death fast in New Delhi to protest the Chinese occupation of Tibet.

I feel compelled to find out more about the situation in Tibet, and learn that in 1949, one-hundred thousand Chinese troops invaded Tibet, a remote country that had existed for centuries with a theocratic government and the Dalai Lama as its spiritual and political leader.  An uprising by the Tibetans against the Chinese in the Spring of 1959 was brutally crushed.  The Dalai Lama fled to India along with 80,000 Tibetans, where he established a Tibetan Government in Exile here in McCleod Ganj and nearby Dharamsala.  The twenty years following the 1959 uprising were filled with brutal oppression against the Tibetans remaining in Tibet by the Chinese army.  In that time, more than 1.2 million Tibetans, one-fifth of the country's population, died as a direct result of the Chinese government's policies.  Over 6,000 monasteries, temples and other cultural and historical buildings were destroyed.  The oppression continues to this day.  Population transfers by the Chinese government have led to a situation where Chinese now outnumber Tibetans in Tibet.

On March 10th of this year, 1998, six members of the Tibetan Youth Congress, representing the 6 million Tibetans now living in Tibet, began an unto-death fast in a tent near Jantar Mantar, an ancient astronomical observatory in New Delhi.  They are demanding that the United Nations resume its debate on the question of Tibet based on its resolutions of 1959, 1961 and 1965.  They are also demanding that the United Nations appoint a special rapporteur to investigate the human rights situation in Chinese-occupied Tibet, and that a special envoy be appointed to promote a peaceful settlement of the question of Tibet and initiate a UN-supervised plebiscite to determine the wishes of the Tibetan people.

Seven weeks into the hunger strike and obviously coinciding with the imminent first official visit to India by the head of the Chinese Army, Indian police came, ripped through the hunger strikers' tent with a knife and forcibly dragged three of the hunger strikers to a hospital, where they are intravenously force-feeding them glucose.

Early in the morning of the 27th of April, the police returned in greater numbers and removed the three remaining hunger strikers.  In response, Thupten Ngodup, a 60-year-old veteran of the Bangladeshi liberation war, a man who had volunteered to be part of a second group of hunger strikers, dodged the police and ducked into a nearby bathroom.  There, he doused himself with gasoline and lit himself on fire.  In an August, 1998 article entitled "The Life and Sacrifice of Thupten Ngodup", Jamyang Norbu describes what followed ("The DIIR video" is a video shot by Choyang Tharchin of the Department of Information and International Relations):

"When he came out he was, quite literally, an inferno.  The DIIR video makes that horrifyingly clear.  We see him charging out to the area before the hunger-strikers tent, causing chaos in the ranks of the police as well as the Tibetans there.  A very English female voice -- off camera -- screams "Oh my God" Oh My God" again and again.  With that and other screams and shouts, it is impossible to hear what the burning man is saying.  According to someone there he shouted "Bod Gyal lo" or "Victory to Tibet".  Others heard him crying "Bod Rangzen", or "Independence for Tibet."  He also shouted "Long live His Holiness the Dalai Lama".  How on earth he managed to shout anything, much less run about as he did is a mystery to me.  Every breath he took must have caused live flames to rush into his lungs and sear the air sacs and lining.

"The burning man then appears to pause and hold up both hands together in the position of prayer.  At this point the fire seems terribly intense and the cameraman later remarked that he could distinctly hear popping sounds as bits of flesh burst from Thupten Ngodup's body.  The cameraman was so shaken he found it difficult to hold his camera steady.  Then policemen and Tibetans beat at the flames with rugs and sacks, and finally pushing Thupten Ngodup to the ground, stifled the blaze."

Jamyang Norbu's article, "The Life and Sacrifice of Thupten Ngodup" can be read in its entirety on the internet at http://www.savetibet.org/news/aug98/080698.html.  The International Campaign for Tibet, which maintains the site http://www.savetibet.org, is an excellent source of information on the culture and history of Tibet as well as the current Chinese occupation of Tibet and the very real danger of the loss of Tibetan culture.  Their e-mail address is ict@peacenet.org, and they can also be reached at:

International Campaign for Tibet
1825 K St. NW, Suite 520
Washington, DC 20006
Tel. (202) 785-1515
Fax (202) 785-4343

The Dalai Lama visited Thupten Ngodup in Ram Manohar Lohia hospital the following evening and told the conscious man that he should not hold any feelings of hatred towards the Chinese, that his act had greatly increased awareness of the Tibetan cause, and that he had to live to see the free Tibet of his dreams.  But with burns covering 90% of his body, Thupten Ngodup died at 15 minutes after midnight on April 29th.

The Dalai Lama is in a difficult position; he is against violence in all its forms, including violence to oneself.  But frustration in the Tibetan population that has lived for decades in exile from their own country is growing.  Many were born outside of Tibet and have never seen their homeland.  Thupten Ngodup is the first Tibetan living outside of Tibet to die for his beliefs, and that act has energized the entire Tibetan population.