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UA students bring Tibetan refugee to speak

By Genevieve D. Cruise
Arizona Daily Wildcat
January 25, 1999
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Jennifer Holmes
Arizona Daily Wildcat

Tibetan singer Yungchen Lhamo talked about her youth spent in Tibet under Chinese rule and her eventual escape to Nepal Friday in the Cactus Lounge to a group of UA students. Lhamo performed at the Social Sciences auditorium Saturday in a benefit concert for the Tibetan Children's Village.

The pain of Yungchen Lhamo's past has strengthened her voice.

The world-renowned Tibetan singer, whose career has included a Lilith Fair appearance, shared the stories of the persecution that shaped her childhood under the authoritarian Chinese government.

"It's important for people to take an interest in political issues and understanding of the world," Lhamo said to about 60 UA students, faculty and staff in the Memorial Student Union Friday.

Lhamo fled Tibet in 1989, crossing one of the steepest mountain ranges in the world - the Himalayas - to avoid persecution for her belief in the Dalai Lama.

The political and religious subjugation that resulted in the torture of Lhamo's grandmother and the death of her grandfather, drove the 18-year-old from the small country.

"People were forbidden to speak with my family because of our connections with the Dalai Lama," she said.

China seized control of Tibet in 1950, making the Dalai Lama - spiritual leader of the largely Buddhist populace - exile to India as China eradicated religious freedoms and demolished 6,000 monasteries.

During her speech, sponsored by the UA Students for a Free Tibet, Lhamo painted a vivid picture of the economic hardships that face the roughly 6 million Tibetans under the Chinese regime.

Lhamo's mother, a livestock feeder, was forced to steal animal grain to nourish her children - yet two of her six children died of malnutrition. Lhamo herself was forced to work in a factory at the age of 12, where she was paid little, often in food.

"We had to maintain a certain standard of behavior for three years before we were given a vacation," she said.

Even after Lhamo reached Nepal after her trek across the Himalayas, threats remained.

"There were many bounty hunters who captured Tibetans and sold them back to the Chinese," she said, adding that women were often taken as "prizes" by the Nepalese soldiers in exchange for passage for the remaining refugees.

Once in India, Lhamo started a theatrical production with other exiles geared towards educating the public about the circumstances in Tibet.

Lhamo, who has worked to raise money for Tibetan children, recorded her first CD in 1993 followed by a performance in the World Music Festival and the recent 1997 Lilith Fair concert.

Lhamo credits her grandmother for encouraging her to sing as a child despite the starvation and chaos of her homeland.

She also has dedicated herself to raising money for Tibetan children.

"The ties between the Chinese and U.S. government are very strong," Lhamo said. "At least people should be allowed to exist in peace if not freedom."

Steve Wind, an anthropology major, said students need to be aware of the problems Tibetans face.

"Students can support organizations that work on behalf of Tibet and the human rights issues," Wind said, "The country needs to realize it's priorities for the humans of the planet rather than for profit of large corporations in China."

The Free Tibet Campaign site has links to information about the Free Tibet movement.