A human rights activist and community organiser, Chemi Lhamo is recognized in Canada’s national current affairs and news magazine Maclean’s Top 50 Power List of 2022. Lhamo has previously served as the CEO and president of the Student’s Union at the University of Toronto Scarborough. She has also served on the board of the Canadian Tibetan Association of Ontario and Students for a Free Tibet Canada. Following an impressive campaign run, she came second in the race for a seat at the Toronto City Council for Ward 4 Parkdale-High Park, home to one of the biggest Tibetan communities in North America.
We had a candid conversation with Chemi la, who shared with us her story of grit and determination and her love for the Land of Snow.
Can you tell us about your journey, the challenges you overcame, and the best and worst moments as a Tibetan activist?
Every Tibetan born after 1959 is often born as an activist. I was born stateless and constantly reminded of my refugee status and statelessness whenever we had challenges, whether inside our home or outside.
Regarding the best moments, I don't think there will ever be a moment that beats August 9. It was the day I was able to get an audience with His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and it was for a brief moment, but it's something I cannot describe with words, and I think this is a feeling that many people have generally when they meet His Holiness. And for me, it was not just my moment with His Holiness but rather the moments right before leading up to it because I saw many seniors in our communities getting the audience first. When I saw the look on their faces, I thought these were the same seniors that left Tibet, so that was the generation that has seen Tibet, has lived in Tibet and is a free Tibet. And they all came to India thinking they would return home soon. But it's been 60-70 years for some of them, and when they saw His Holiness' face, there was this sigh of relief.
Challenges are there every day. I don't think there will be a day when we don't have challenges as a stateless people, as a displaced people, and as an immigrant living in Canada coming from stolen land and sitting on the stolen land where indigenous peoples' rights have been taken away by the Northern American colonizers. So, every day is a challenge when we think about it that way, but those moments keep me going.
In October 2021, you were part of the protests during the Olympic Torch Lighting Ceremony in Olympia. You were detained and held in prison. Tell us more about your No Beijing 2022 protests and the repercussions you have had to face.
Before I go into the repercussions I faced personally, I want to emphasise that people inside of Tibet are going through this every day. I only spent three days and two nights in jail, and they didn't harm me physically or mentally, although they had their typical interrogation processes, which I was aware of and prepared beforehand.
Inside Tibet, people don't get to go home like Go Sherbo Gyatso, the climate environmentalist, and they are currently serving 10-year prison sentences. I remember learning about Tsering Dolma, who sent money to India and died in prison. The price they pay for engaging is hefty, and folks in India who protest get beaten up and thrown in jail and lots of people in a single cell and such, and that was not the situation I had to go through.
So, it was very different as we were aware of the power and privilege that we had access to, and it was intentional that we take action because when we have power and privilege, we have a duty and a responsibility to make sure that we act on that. So that's why I was able to engage in this protest as a Canadian citizen.
As I said, physically, we spent three days and two nights in jail but our case is still ongoing; however, we are confident in not losing, and we have the support of the lawyers and the international world. When we started the campaign, everybody said no way anyone is going to Boycott Beijing, but we had more than 15 governments diplomatically boycott the Olympics.
Tibetans in exile have worked tirelessly to preserve, protect and promote the Tibetan identity. How would you describe the Tibetan Resilience and Spirit? How do you think Tibetans developed this strong sense of community?
The strong spirit is rooted in our natural sense of community; it comes from there. There is a sense of oneness; there is a sense of togetherness within the struggles in many ways of being unable to go home. For many younger generations that have not even seen Tibet, it's to imagine and envision Tibet together. We were always a very isolated community in historical Tibet, which has continued. Still, along with that, now, in addition to that, the fact that we are displaced people adds another layer of Resilience for our people, and that's ultimately it. We have a Buddhist upbringing, and in TCVs, students have grown up with the motto - others before self. We have a harmonious society and community, which is what the Tibetan community is about.
The new report by Free Tibet and Tibet Watch talks about rampant re-education and political education happening in Droga County in Kham and how CCP has ramped up measures to repress Tibetans by razing significant religious structures. Do you think the world should discuss more the Tibet issue?
There is no doubt that the world should pay attention to the Tibet issues, not just because they care about Tibet but their own respective countries. China imposes a threat not just to the Asian countries and Southeast Asia. Xi Jinping has committed genocides against the Uyghurs and the Tibetans and continues to erode the democracy of Hong Kong, Taiwan, and neighboring countries. We saw and learned about the A4 Revolution and his regime's treatment of Hu Jintao while the party work commission was happening. We are dealing with a dictator who is hellbent on getting power, and it's not about the people.
So when I saw the Drogo report, it was just another tool in our toolbox to explain the current genocide happening inside our country. Tibetans always knew that the Chinese government was destroying our statues; since 1959, 6000 monasteries have been destroyed. We have seen how the Chinese government destroys physical monasteries and every aspect of how the Tibetan identity lives - from values, rituals, language, and culture. And it just breaks my heart to think about the realities inside Tibet. If we, the folks that have access to this information, are not doing something about it, the international communities will be silent and use it as an excuse to remain quiet.
We must continue to rise and use every opportunity to raise awareness, not just in records to Tibetans sovereignty but for the rest of the world. That can be done in many ways by talking about the Chinese government damming all of the water river resources; here in Canada, three illegal police stations have been stationed to watch over Tibetans and any other dissent and criticism against the Chinese government.
You have been vocal about the cyber death threats you have received and the bullying and harassment that you have had to face online – for being Tibetan. How did you handle these, and what is your message to those nameless, faceless accounts that target you online?
Going back to my roots, my Buddhist roots and the community had my back supporting me throughout this process. What helped me was reminding myself that they were not attacking me as an individual or Chemi Lhamo, which is what I would generally feel if someone harassed me or insulted me. You think I have been insulted. But the nameless entities behind the screen are not attacking Chemi, they are attacking just someone who is a Tibetan who is succeeding in life, and they are not happy about it; their government has tried every way to eradicate Tibetan identity from us and now not only they are seeing a Tibetan rising, they are seeing a Tibetan rising in one of the best universities in Canada as the President. So, it was a reminder for me that I have nothing to be scared of; in fact, it strengthens me to remember that they are attacking a larger entity, they are attacking the idea of a Tibetan succeeding, and if that's the case then the Tibetans who are succeeding, Tibetans who are in support of Tibetans growing and non-Tibetans who support anyone succeeding are all in the same team. And in that sense, my team was huge, and they were just individuals behind the screen. So that gave me immense power when I shifted the narrative in my head, and thanks to the one who supported me in that journey.
Handling and dealing with the threats were challenging while facing them, but I overcame them by reminding myself of why they were attacking me; in particular, it wasn't for me; it was more about Tibetans thriving.
Tell us something about your life in Canada, the community in Canada, and about being a Tibetan in Canada.
Being a Tibetan in general and in exile comes with a lot of pain and suffering because you go into this world, and the first question that I often get is, 'Oh, your name is Chemi. What kind of name is that, or where is that from? Then I say, it's a Tibetan name, and everyone almost stresses to go on in a tangent about how beautiful they know Tibet is or what it is like in Tibet, and I have no answer to them. Tibet is home, but what does home look like is to set an image in my head that I often dream about, and that's a challenge, sure. I was born and raised in India until I was about 11, so I'm very grateful because I have a base and love Bollywood, Hollywood, and Tollywood. I bring those references about how to go in life, which is very much influenced by Indian culture.
And here in Canada, it is very different; we see the difference between a collectivist and an individualistic society; here, it's just the fact that we live in a capitalistic society. A lot is about just me, me, I like what I'm going to do, what type of job I'm going to get over somebody else, and as the level of competition, competition is healthy. It exists everywhere. Still, it's a different type of competition that encourages selfish behavior. I often find myself in the cracks of my values in trying to succeed, and there is always a middle way to go through that includes both your success and not harming others, but it is a bit challenging sometimes to find in a society like here. So, I find myself in an emotional wreck sometimes, but I navigate that by just going back to my motivations and intentions of what I do, I do.
One of the aspects we have been working on is the idea of including Compassion in the modern school syllabus and teaching children Compassion. This is a vision often shared by HH, the 14th Dalai Lama himself. How have the values of Compassion and Peace – values that we desperately need as a society today – and Dalai Lama's messages on the same influenced you? Do you believe in the power of Compassion to change the world?
If it was not for His Holiness, I don't think many Tibetans, or if not all, would be in exile. It is because of the visionary leadership of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and all of the institutions he has built, working tirelessly since the age of sixteen for the Tibetan people, which is why we continue to thrive.
But in terms of teaching Compassion to children and syllabi that have been implemented in various education systems, it is wonderful. We come to a society where the polarity between the poor and the rich is vast. The middle class is just trying to jump on one of the two sorts of boxes in the categories. While trying to survive, we distance ourselves from human nature and become robotic with specific rituals. It is always work, take care of, and pick up your kids, and if we don't have kids, then work, party, and whatever else you want to do and repeat. It's like a machine and no longer human anymore.
Implementing Compassion in our school systems will allow us to reconnect with the genuine goodness that we all have. I believe Compassion is the emotion that wishes for another being's suffering to end, and that's the difference between love and Compassion. Love is when you want others to be happy, but Compassion is even going further; it is not just only that I want you to be happy, and I want your sufferings to end. It is a magnificent emotion to feel and a goal to strive for, and so do I believe that Compassion has the power to chase the world. Even if most of our people focus more on Compassion, we will not have any wars; people would go back to the fundamental idea of living as a human rather than being struck at borders and boundaries.
You have often highlighted the issue of the Tibet Climate Crisis and the importance of having Tibet at the center of any climate change discourse. Climate solutions were a part of your recent election campaign also. How critical is the need to discuss Tibet climate crisis? How can we hold CCP accountable for the greenwashing and environmental crimes in the Third Pole?
The Chinese government is conniving; it is very strategic in how they behave, and every move is a strategy to undermine the voices of Tibetans inside Tibet and in exile. Greenwashing is a tactic that the Chinese government is constantly using to create a facade that the situation inside of Tibet is sectionally getting better; in the so-called modernized Tibet. The entire community must understand the tactics that the CCP uses because if we don't call it out, we become susceptible to their language. We become desensitized to the pain and trauma of the Tibetan and oppressed people worldwide.
Now, look at the international community. How many countries refer to East Turkistan as Xinjiang? And it is accepted, and nowadays, I see that rhetoric and narrative are even repeated amongst the circle of educators and even activists to some degree, and it's such a shame because that is us adopting the language of the oppressor. Similarly, we see the Sinicization of various names; there is a name for Tibet, and there are names for all of the border regions near Ladakh and the Galwan Valley.
When it comes to the environmental crisis, giving the community agency is the key because the people of those regions are the best representatives and stakeholders to discuss the issues. So, when it comes to the climate crisis, the indigenous people should be at the forefront of the conversation, no matter where it is. And so, when it comes to Tibet, it should be the Tibetan people inside of Tibet, the nomads that have been displaced; millions of nomads have been displaced, the quality of air is decreasing day by day, and the pollution created by the factories and Chinese government's presence in Tibetan regions. Tibet's glaciers are melting three times faster than the rest of the world. Asia's water tower serves almost 2 billion people worldwide, and they have built the most dams compared to the rest of the world. So, it's evident that the Chinese government intends that they are trying to control water. At the switch of a button, they can now create a drought in one country and flooding in another.
In this part of America, we often have an indigenous saying that we go by that is 'water is life.' Water is life for many communities, and the Chinese government is using that and understanding that if water is life, we better have control over this water they have at this point and what we are going to do about it. We need to recognize the strategies and tactics they are using to call them out and then create alternatives and have communities that are affected at the forefront present solutions, back them up, and amplify their voices.
How can we use social media to raise our voices loudly?
Social media is one of the tools of organizing and a very powerful one in the time we live because most audiences are already on social media. It's a medium. It's not the strategy; it is a medium where you can enroll and deploy your strategy, and your strategy needs to be clear-cut, and most of the social media tools we have are the various tactics you can deploy. So, it's essential to differentiate between your strategies and tactics and go back to your campaign's intentions and motivations, whatever your campaign is.
When it comes to Tibet, social media is helpful. This is an addition to all organic ways of engaging in social media. One unique thing I found recently is that connecting with Tibetans inside Tibet is risky. However, it's trendy through creative forms of expression such as dance and TikTok videos. Tibetans inside Tibet are doing dance tutorials, and Korean or Bollywood lip-sync videos. For the first time, because of social media, young Tibetans who were born and raised in exile and who always dreamt about what Tibetans inside of Tibet are like and what Tibetans inside of Tibet look like could see it; I got a glimpse of the beautiful scenery views of Tibet right now even though I don't communicate with Tibetans inside of Tibet. It's a beautiful re-connection that I may find through social media.
You are a youth icon, and we look up to you, Chemi la. You were awarded the first Tibetan youth icon Award in 2019. How did your role as the President of the Student's Union shape you as a young leader who represents the three Rs – Resistance, Resilience, and Responsibility? And also, what is your message to the young Tibetans of today?
There are various ways to define a leader based on their leadership styles and qualities that they have, and I have been able to evolve into different leadership positions because of our community. If it weren't for our community, which continuously believes in me and encourages me to rise beyond, and reminds me of the responsibility that we have, I would be able to be resilient. As Tibetans, displaced people, and organizers, we are born activists, so there is resistance in our existence, and so is the leader aspect of it. I can't imagine myself in any position right now, like standing in front of you or sitting in front of you and without the guidance of my parents, who mentor me, and my community.
In terms of the message for Tibetan youth and the world in general, this is it: it can get quite lonely because of the ongoing injustices around the world. I want to remind them that they are not alone. I have had the privilege of meeting a lot of Tibetan seniors around the world, well, I go on for my work purposes, and when I meet them, they know about everything that I'm doing. Like when I was in Paris for a conference, they were listening to Tibetan news and whatever they could find to get updates on my life. So when I met them, they did not only know where I had been in the previous week or so but also reminded me that they were praying for my well-being every day. And I am even wearing one of the kavach or a protector they gave me, so I collect them as I go. So, this beautiful feeling that keeps me going and strengthens me in many ways is not just for me; this is for anybody that works for our movement. And I'm just again another character that I have been blessed to meet these seniors and elders in our community, but again, they are praying not for Chemi Lhamo but for all of us. Everyone here, whoever stands up to injustice and works for the benefit of oppressed people and even implements Compassion in schools. These seniors and elders are praying for us and our well-being. And I want to share that you're not alone. You're not physically alone because these seniors and the community members are praying for your well-being as you continue to seek justice for the people who need it.
And for me, another source of inspiration is the Tibetans inside of Tibet. Anytime I feel down, I look inside Tibet at the Resilience and resistance that every day must embody, giving me another jolt to the energy to continue working.
If there is one thing you want the world to do for Tibet, what would it be?
The biggest challenge we have faced in exile and the international community when it comes to Tibet is China's effective lockdown of Tibet. Since 2008, the situation has only worsened, and the information blackout and media blackhole and overall strategies of complete lockdown and blackout of Tibet were very effective. The report on Colonial Boarding Schools and the Dargo Report came up last week. These are the new reports that have been able to go forth, but before this, having information or updated information was quite challenging.
One time there was self-immolation; it took us two and half days to confirm about that individual, to confirm a death about someone that had physically set themself on fire; it's ridiculous, and that's the situation that we are in. It is pathetic in many ways that we live in a global world that is connected and has social media that connects us to every level, but the Chinese government is being able to block it out completely.
If there is one thing I could have asked all people around the world to demand for, it is just access to Tibet. Tibetans inside of Tibet to be able to leave, Tibetans outside and in exile to be able to enter Tibet, independent investigations to be able to take place in every aspect from the religious element from the cultural part, and right now with the colonial boarding schools, we don't have much time, experts says that within 15 years to 20 years just remembering who the Tibetan identity would become a challenge. Because there is an erasure of our identity at every level, they have understood that the older generation is dying off now. All they need to do is uproot the younger generations. Children as young as four years old have been forced into colonial boarding schools for five days a week, where they are not only being taught to read and write in Chinese but are bribing the kids and celebrating and telling them to dream in Chinese and vision in Chinese symbol. And so when they go back home, they longer can speak in Tibetan just three months, and then experts have said that they have witnessed they are pretending to be guests in their own homes; they don't want to hug their parents. So, this is the current situation that Tibet is going through with the new generations. At every level and in every way possible, we must continue to raise awareness and act as if time is ticking.