By AMANDA BEAM
Halfway across the globe in faraway cities that overlook ancient Asian steppes, Tibetan men and women are setting themselves on fire.
Called self-immolation, these protesters give their lives to bring attention to the plight of their people. According to savetibet.org, 107 Tibetans have self-immolated in China since February 2009, at least 88 of which have died for their cause.
Bloomington resident Kunga Norbu gains awareness for these forgotten people of Tibet in a much different way. He walks.
On March 10, also known as Tibetan Uprising Day, Norbu began a 10-day, 230-mile journey from Washington D.C. to New York City in memory of his brother, Jigme. In 2011, Jigme lost his life when an sport utility vehicle stuck him on a Florida road during a similar walk for Tibetan independence. He was 45.
“My brother was a martyr. He died for what he believed in. Now how many people can say that?” Norbu said in a recent interview a day prior to his departure.
During the walk, the 50-year-old plans on traveling 25 to 30 miles each day, more than a full marathon. Four other people will accompany him on the trek. At night, he hopes neighbors along the route will offer a place in their homes for him to sleep. If not, he’ll always have a sleeping bag during the peaceful protest.
“We’re asking for a free Tibet. We’re not asking for violence,” he said. “Now it’s time for Tibetans to stand up and voice their opinion.”
Championing Tibetan rights runs in Norbu’s family. His father, Thubten Norbu, established the Tibetan and Mongolian Buddhist Cultural Center in Bloomington and was a professor at Indiana University. On several occasions, he too walked incredible distances, some more than 600 miles, to protest the Chinese occupation of his homeland.
One of the first Tibetan exiles to come to the West, Thubten had received training as a Buddhist monk. Until the Chinese invasion, he served as abbot of Kumbum Monastery in Tibet. He died at his Bloomington home in 2008 at the age of 86.
“When my father fled Tibet, he always wanted people to know where Tibet was, what Tibet is, what it stood for,” Norbu said. “Now I’m the one carrying on the legacy because I’m not going to let this just go by the wayside.”
Thubten’s brother and Norbu’s uncle, the Dalai Lama, has also made a name for himself for his desire to save Tibetan culture. Promoting a nonviolent solution to the Chinese occupation earned the Dalai Lama a Nobel Peace Prize in 1989. In addition to his duties as a high lama, he continues to be an advocate for the people who still call his mountainous birthplace their home.
But don’t think Norbu and His Holiness agree on the method to bring about this change. Norbu said his uncle has called for autonomy under Chinese authority or a “middle way” approach, while he and his father have supported total Tibetan independence.
“Nobody is going to tell me what’s right or wrong,” Norbu said. “I love my uncle to death, don’t get me wrong, but I know what I believe in. I know what my father believed in. I know what my brother believed in. And I know what many Tibetans believe in. They want a free Tibet.”
News reports out of Tibet indicate China has begun to tighten already constricting security around Tibetan towns in response to the growing wave of self-immolations. According to a Feb. 13 article by New York Times writer Edward Wong, “Security forces have also flooded towns in parts of the Tibetan plateau where the self-immolations have been common. But nothing the authorities have done has curbed the acts, which are being committed by a wide range of Tibetans, from young men to middle-aged parents.”
In his walk, Norbu aims to draw attention to these acts that the Western media rarely reports. He reiterated he and other activists aren’t against the people of China, but the Chinese government regime itself. Unsure if he’ll see this government relinquish Tibet during his lifetime, he continues to do what he can to bring awareness to the cause, just as his brother had done before him.
“I cherish all the memories of him and my father and I know they’re happy with what I’m doing,” he said. “I just have to carry on the tradition.”