Like so many members of her Tibetan community, Sonam Rabgay has never been home. She’s never watched the world’s tallest mountains cut through pillowy clouds or gazed upon a holy, turquoise-hued lake from a nearby monastery.
Still, the 24-year-old Santa Fe resident, the daughter of Tibetan refugees, has marched on March 10 each year since she could walk for the right to return to the region known as the “Roof of the World,” she said.
On Sunday, as she hit the pavement yet again in observation of Tibetan Uprising Day and reflected on her people’s struggle for freedom, Rabgay said she sees progress .
“There’s definitely been a new sense of being able to achieve legislative change, which is a big deal, especially as China has become more authoritative,” she said. “… There’s a heightened awareness of what’s going on there.”
Rabgay joined about 80 other members of Santa Fe’s Tibetan community and supporters in a downtown march and rally at the Plaza to bring renewed focus to her people’s decadeslong struggle for freedom.
The event, held annually in cities worldwide where exiled Tibetans have settled, this year commemorated the 60th anniversary of the Tibetan uprising against China, which resulted in the exile of the Dalai Lama and the start of a mass Tibetan diaspora. Since that year, thousands of Tibetans have lived as refugees, primarily in India, but also in other southeast Asian countries, Europe, Oceania and North America.
Santa Fe, which participated in a nationwide Tibetan refugee relocation program, has welcomed Tibetans since the early for decades. Today, about 150 Tibetan refugees and their family members call the city home — or at least a stand-in for it.
At this year’s rally, at which Rabgay spoke, words of hope punctuated a sometimes somber, never-forget message.
“People are re-examining China and what they’re doing — and not only in Tibet,” Rabgay said. And that is especially true, she said, since the 2008 Beijing Olympics, when international attention fell on human rights issues in Tibet and throughout China.
Rabgay and another speaker, Kathy Nikeefe, pointed to a bill signed into law by President Donald Trump in December. The Reciprocal Access to Tibet Act, passed with broad bipartisan support, requires the State Department to report annually the level of access to Tibet granted to U.S. diplomats, journalists and travelers. It then requires U.S. officials to provide similar access to Chinese officials deemed responsible for the policies.
In other words: no access to Tibet, no access to the U.S.
The move was followed by conflicting reports from China. In January, officials vowed to provide easier access to tourists. Then on Wednesday, Reuters reported, a top Chinese official said China needs to restrict access because foreigners struggle with the region’s high altitude.
China long has dismissed charges of human rights violations by watchdog groups, and held that it brought prosperity and peace to the region when it took control of Tibet in 1950.
For Nikeefe, a member of the Santa Fe chapter of Students for a Free Tibet, the U.S. government taking a stand against China is something to cheer.
“This is the first time a government has passed something with actual teeth,” she said. “It’s not just a proclamation, a statement of support. It actually puts real consequences on the Chinese government for their repression inside Tibet. So this is of huge significance.”
Namgyal Tsewang, vice president of the Tibetan Association of Santa Fe, moved to the city nine years ago from Chicago. She was raised in India and has never visited Tibet. Still, she said, her family’s homeland is ever-present in her mind, regardless of whether her vision for a free Tibet seems possible or not.
“At times it’s very depressing,” she said. “Today is a very solemn occasion, a very sad reminder. But we know that we have to keep the fight going. If we don’t, who will? … We don’t know if we’ll ever gain freedom or autonomy, but we’ll always make noise about it.”