Hunger strike attracts UN attention
Protesters outside of the UN are a dime a dozen. While their causes may be worthwhile – their mere presence is generally not newsworthy.
A small group of Tibetans got my attention last week however, and now the UN is taking notice too.
Three men are now in the 22nd day of a hunger strike, calling on the UN to do something about the situation in their homeland, where they say Tibetans are denied basic rights of religion and expression under Chinese rule.
The situation has gotten so bad that at least 25 people have set themselves on fire there in the last year.
After Al Jazeera aired my report on Saturday the men got a visit from the Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights, Ivan Simonovic on Monday.
Martin Nesirky, spokesperson for United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, announced on Wednesday tat Simonovic had also paid a visit to China’s Deputy Permanent Representative to the UN and will be forwarding their concerns to the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva.
“The Secretary-General affirms the right of all people to peaceful protest,” Nesirky said. “He is, however, very concerned about the health of the hunger-striking protesters.”
The men have each lost about 22 pounds, according to Tsewang Rigzin, President of the Tibetan Youth Congress, which is sponsoring their protest.
The men spend all day at the UN before moving indoors for the evening because the New York Police Department will not let them stay in the park all night (they have the Occupy Wall Street to thank for that).
They have had nothing to eat for 22 days, drinking only water.
One of them, 32-year-old Shingza Rinpoche the 11th, tells me that he is starting to have pains in his chest as well as difficulty sleeping.
Rinpoche is a revered monk, recognised as a reincarnation by the Dalai Lama. He came to New York with 39-year-old Yeshi Tenzin by way of India.
Dorjee Gyalpo is a 59-year-old father of five who came from Minnesota.
Ultimately, the men want a free Tibet. Their five demands for the UN are more modest, however. They include sending a fact-finding mission to Tibet and pressuring China to make reforms and release political prisoners.
They say the visit from Simonovic was appreciated but not enough.
Supporters do their best to keep the men comfortable sitting on cushions or in wheel chairs.
On cold days they are carefully wrapped in blankets and scarves.
On Wednesday Rinpoche, like the others, vowed to stay there until his last breath.
Rinpoche was sitting in the warm sun with a book about Martin Luther King Jr. on his lap – he told me through a translator that he had studied the non-violent methods of King and Ghandi.
“This is the path we are taking here,” he says.