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Grassroots in exile: Tibetan Activist Sonam Anja-Tsang

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There have been 155 confirmed instances of self-immolation of Tibetans within Tibet and China since 2009.  Since China’s occupation in 1950, the government has violently silenced Tibetans’ cultural and religious expression. 

Self-immolations are extreme acts of protest against the government’s systematic suppression.

Detailed info about each act of self-immolation can be found in this fact-sheet and its location is marked on this map.

Self-immolations are a strategic form of nonviolent resistance. Some have denounced the practice as violent while others have disagreed:

I think the self-burning itself on practice of non-violence. These people, you see, they easily use bomb explosive, more casualty people. But they didn’t do that. Only sacrifice their own life. So this also is part of practice of non-violence.”

– The Dalai Lama in a 2015 interview

Tibetans are faced with few options to command international attention to their cause. China’s imposing political presence threatens transnational solidarity. HRDs struggle to carry out their work in the country’s highly censored climate. 


Grassroots in exile

Sonam (Nawang N. Anja-Tsang) is a Tibetan born and brought up in exile. He advances the Tibetan cause and raises awareness through film and charity.

Sonam waving the Tibetan Flag towards Tibet – his forbidden homeland. 

In this video, Sonam addresses freedom of expression as a basic human right and the main problem characterising Tibetans’ struggles: 

“For those of us still living in Tibet, raising concerns about matters such as mining, environmental changes or Tibetan language education, can lead to arrest, detention or imprisonment”.

Based in the UK, Sonam can bypass the severe censorship that silences Tibetans within China. Abroad, he can freely speak to the hardships that Tibetan Rights Defenders face as a consequence of their activism. 

Today, more than 500 Tibetans are political prisoners. This detailed report covers 29 cases of Tibetan political prisoners and encourages organizations and governments to take specific action. 

Documentaries directed by Sonam:

  • In Little Tibet, he sets out to explore the northernmost parts of India in search of the culture and spirit of the very homeland he has been banished from. 
  • Little Tibet 2 follows Sonam’s journey to one of the holiest places in upper Mustang, as he tries to get close to his country.
  • A Mother’s Son is a tragic documentation of the lives of those affected by Tibetans’ acts of self-immolation. 
  • Drensol (Memory) is an attempt to do justice to Tibet’s history by correcting misrepresentations of the key 1959 events based on actual witnesses’ testimonies.

Sonam at a screening of “A Mother’s Son” in Delhi, India. 

Act for Tibet!

Below we highlight some existing organizations and initiatives you can join to help advance the Tibetan cause:

Sonam has worked with the International Campaign for Tibet and Tibet Society.

  • Sign this petition by the Tibet Society to support the fight against China’s digital censorship that infringes on Tibetan’s rights to information and expression. 
  • Learn about upcoming events and how to take action with the International Campaign for Tibet. 

The state censorship of Tibetan voices makes Tibetan grassroots activism all the more valuable. Engaging with these campaigns paves the path to putting an end to Tibetan self-immolations and suffering. 


Email us at [email protected], browse our organizations and initiatives in our online library leave us a comment on Facebook, tweet us @rightsconnected and interact with us on Instagram @rightsconnected.

This blog post was written by the HRC team: Education and Communications Intern, Denitsa Dimitrova, and edited by Education and Communications Associate, Sabrina Sanchez.

Featured image borrowed by The Spectator

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