Tibetans protest San Francisco's hosting of Olympic torch

Updated: March 11, 2008, 1:40 AM ET
Associated Press

SAN FRANCISCO -- Tibetan immigrants protesting Chinese control of the Himalayan region vowed Monday to make San Francisco, the only U.S. city to host the Olympic torch relay, the focal point of American demonstrations against the Beijing Games.

Demonstrators unfurled a Tibetan flag over the flight of white stone steps leading into San Francisco City Hall and held a portrait of the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan Buddhist spiritual leader, above the crowd next to banners saying "Olympics in China, Torture in Tibet," and "Truth is our only weapon."

The protesters, some wiping away tears while singing the Tibet national anthem, also called on Mayor Gavin Newsom to reject the April 9 torch run and urged city officials to pass a resolution calling on China to improve conditions for Tibetans in their homeland.

"San Francisco has always stood for freedom and human rights," said Yangchen Lhamo, one of protesters, who like many of the women present wore the slim wrap dress that is part of the traditional Tibetan costume. "But Gavin Newsom has clearly sided with China on this."

Newsom's spokesman, Nathan Ballard, said the mayor was deeply concerned about human rights in Tibet, but believed the Olympics was not the forum to address political issues.

"It's important to remember that the Olympic spirit is one of international harmony and goodwill, and it transcends politics," Ballard said. "In this spirit, San Francisco is proud to be the only North American city to host the Olympic torch relay."

Monday was the anniversary of the 1959 uprising that forced the Dalai Lama into exile, and Tibetan exiles around the world used the day to protest against China's hosting of the summer Olympics.

Exiles demonstrated in New Delhi, India and Katmandu, Nepal. In Dharmsala, India, hundreds of Tibetans started a six-month march to their homeland.

In Olympia, Greece, birthplace of the ancient Olympic games, Tibetans lit a Freedom Torch to start a relay intended to course through 50 cities and finish inside Tibet on the same day Beijing will hold the opening ceremonies, Aug. 8.

Tibetan activists plan to congregate in San Francisco in the days preceding the Olympic torch's arrival and line the parade route to remind Americans of China's human rights abuses in their home country, organizers said.

"The torch carries this message that China is a great, benevolent country," said Tonzin Wangchuk. "That's false, and it is important that we show the true colors of China."

Chinese Communist troops occupied Tibet in 1951 and Beijing continues to rule the region with a heavy hand. Beijing enforces strict controls on religious institutions and routinely vilifies the Dalai Lama, who won the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize.

China says it has ruled Tibet for centuries, although many Tibetans say they were essentially an independent state for most of that time.

China's official torch-lighting will be held March 24 in Olympia. The flame's route will include Mount Everest, in Tibet, in what protesters said was an attempt to legitimize China's hold on the region.

The International Olympic Committee has responded to pressure from activists by saying that although the games came be a catalyst for positive change, they are not a political tool and the organization will not comment on China's human rights record.

"We're not a political organization," IOC president Jacques Rogge told The Associated Press in an interview earlier this month. "There are organizations that are far more knowledgeable and powerful than we are to move on the political front."

Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press

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