Raising the Flag
By Email[Thursday, April 03, 2008 06:28]
by Tashi D. Lek

Sixty-three years ago, on February 23, 1945, in one of the most unforgettable moments of history, five U.S. Marines and a Navy Corpsman raised the American Flag on the Pacific island of Iwo Jima. The iconic photograph of that flag raising captivated the world, weary from years of
bloody conflict in WWII. The simple act of raising the Stars and Stripes provided the free world the resolve needed to persevere in the battle to liberate oppressed people everywhere throttled by ruthless rulers.

Since 1950, Tibetans have felt subjugated by the brutal Communist dictators of China. They have
seen their homeland invaded and inundated with Chinese migrants, their monasteries demolished,
their culture and way of life destroyed and their spiritual leader, His Holiness the Dalai Lama,
forced to live in exile.

For the last two weeks, Tibetans throughout the world have been proudly raising their country’s
flag. Despite being banned in China, the colorful Tibetan flag, first introduced by the 13th Dalai
Lama in 1912 as the Tibet nation’s flag, has become a rallying cry for Tibetan independence.

As they have done numerous times in the past, Tibetans unfurled their flag again on March 10th,
the 49th anniversary of an uprising in Lhasa that led to the Dalai Lama fleeing into exile in India.
Knowing full well that the simple act of waving the banned Tibetan flag in China risks arrest and
torture, monks have defiantly carried the flag on peaceful demonstrations. Nomads on horseback
have galloped into Chinese administrative centers, tearing down the Chinese flag and replacing it
with the Tibetan flag. Tibetan students have raised the flag in their schools. Demonstrators in Nepal, India and in many other countries have even painted the Tibetan flag on their faces as they joined in protests calling for the end of tyranny in Tibet.

In the past, flag waving protests in Tibet were isolated incidents, often lasting only a day or two before being brutally crushed by the Chinese. Illusory achievements, they were soon forgotten
about. This time, the whole world has been watching and the demonstrations have been
unprecedented in their scale and extent, occurring in numerous places with hundreds and hundreds of Tibetans involved in raising the flag.

The Tibetan flag is rich in symbolism and meaning for Tibetan people. In the center of the flag is
a white mountain, representing the country of Tibet, which is widely known as the Land of
Snows. Across the blue sky the six red bands represent the original ancestors of the Tibetan
people. At the top of the mountain, the sun’s rays shine brilliantly representing the equal
enjoyment of freedom, spiritual happiness and prosperity by all sentient beings in the land of
Tibet. On the slopes of the mountain stand two snow lions, blazing with the turquoise colored
manes of fearlessness, which represents Tibet’s victorious achievement of a unified spiritual and secular life. The three-colored jewel held aloft by the snow lions represents the undying respect
Tibetans have for the Three Supreme Jewels: the Buddha, the Dharma (the Buddha’s teachings) and the Sangha (the Buddhist community). The two-colored swirling jewel held between the snow
lions represents the Tibetans guarding and
cherishing the self-discipline of correct ethical behavior. The surrounding border of yellow
on the flag represents the spread and flourishing in all directions of the purified gold-like teachings of the Buddha.

A country’s flag is a sacrosanct symbol. It serves to inspire its population to undertake noble acts. A flag provides a beacon in times of trouble. In the United States, we honor our fallen soldiers with a flag- draped coffin and fly the flag at half-mast as a sign of respect for the deaths of important people. I remember as a child in primary school standing proudly every morning with my hand over my heart and reciting the pledge of allegiance in front of the flag. Even now, I still get goose pimples on my arms when the Star Spangled Banner is sung before sporting events. For Tibetans, their flag is also an emotive symbol.

While historians, politicians and lawyers may debate whether or not Tibet is an independent
country, Tibetans themselves believe they have legitimate and longstanding claims to nationhood.
This strong sense of national identity is rooted in a common culture, language and religious belief
than spans an immense geographical region. Tibetan claims to nationhood are also grounded in
historical events dating back to the 7th century when the Tibetan ruler, Songsten Gampo, conquered a wide swath of territory on the Tibetan plateau, unified various tribes and entered into treaties with neighboring countries. These nation-building actions served to create the Tibetan Empire, which ruled across much of Inner Asia for over two centuries. At one time the Tibetans even captured the Chinese Tang dynasty capital at what is now the modern day city of Xian.

Over thirty years ago, I got to know a number of Tibetan resistance fighters. They were proud
nomads and former monks from the Tibetan regions of Kham and Amdo who had organized themselves into a guerilla force in the 1950s known as the Chushi Gangdruk and who fought a protracted campaign to try to regain their homeland that had been invaded by China.

The Khampas, as these guerrilla fighters were popularly known, were men who carried Garand M-1 rifles, like the Marines on Iwo Jima used. Vastly outnumbered, charging horseback into Chinese positions, their M-1s slung over their backs as they unsheathed their long swords, the Khampas carried the Tibetan flag and the specially designed flag of the Chushi Gangdruk force on standards into battle.

The yellow field of the Chushi Gangdruk flag is the color of their Buddhist religion and represents the ardent determination of the Tibetans to protect Buddhism from the Communist
Chinese. The burning sword is Manjushri’s weapon (the Bodhisattva of Wisdom), who uses his
sword to cut through ignorance. The drawn sword represents the bravery of the Tibetans and
their hereditary legacy: it is the only weapon they make themselves. For the Tibetans riding into battle against the Chinese fifty years ago, these flags instilled in them a sense of pride and hope.

For over fifty years now, despite insurmountable odds, Tibetans have maintained their sense of
nationalism. This has been clearly evident over the last two weeks as the banned Tibetan flag
was proudly unfurled all over the Tibetan areas of China, and especially in Kham and Amdo.

For almost all Tibetans, their ultimate hope is that their national flag waves in the wind again
from the top of the Potala Palace in Lhasa, the residence of the Dalai Lamas since 1649.

Tashi D. Lek is the pseudonym of an American who has been involved with Tibetans for many years and has traveled and worked widely in Tibetan areas.