Local Tibetan families experience restrictions targeted in McGovern bill

  • Jamyang Wangchuk, owner of Momo Tibetan Restaurant in Amherst, talks Wednesday about his life in Tibet and the difficulties of traveling there. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Jamyang Wangchuk, owner of Momo Tibetan Restaurant in Amherst, talks about his life in Tibet and the restrictions on travel. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer
Monday, October 08, 2018

AMHERST — When Jamyang Wangchuk came to the United States from Tibet in 2002, he faced the reality of being indefinitely separated from his family.

Six siblings and his mother remained in Tibet, Wangchuk said, and re-entry for those who have left is exceedingly difficult.

When his mother became terminally ill, Wangchuk hoped that he would be able to visit her one last time. Ultimately, he and his sons were unable to see her before she died. In the 16 years that he has lived in the United States, Wangchuk has also been unable to reunite with any of his siblings who live in Tibet.

“It’s really difficult to get the visa to go to Tibet,” Wangchuk said Wednesday at Momo Tibetan Restaurant in Amherst, which he co-owns.

The People’s Republic of China has long been criticized for human rights violations in Tibet, including the strict limitations it has placed on traveling into the area.

The Reciprocal Access to Tibet bill, which recently passed the U.S. House, seeks to break this barrier.

The bipartisan bill, which was introduced by Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Worcester, would prohibit Chinese government officials responsible for the travel restrictions from entering the United States.

“The basis of diplomatic law is mutual access and reciprocity,” McGovern said on the House floor, according to a transcript. “But while Chinese diplomats, journalists and tourists travel freely within the United States, the government of the People’s Republic of China has erected many barriers to travel in areas of China inhabited by ethnic Tibetans.”

Wangchuk’s restaurant is a vibrant example of Tibetan culture, which is freely enjoyed by customers. But Tibetan culture is under constant threat from the Chinese government, said Pasang Norbu, president of the Amherst Regional Tibetan Association.

“Freedom, human rights, these are the fundamental rights for all human beings,” Norbu said. “This is human nature, you need freedom. This is what is lacking in Tibet.”

By releasing propaganda and restricting travel into the area, he added, authorities seek to limit outside knowledge of human rights violations.

International organizations such as the United Nations and Human Rights Watch have also called on China to address other human rights violations in Tibet, such as unlawful imprisonments and citizen disappearances.

“If China claims that everything is OK in Tibet, good,” Norbu said. “Let the United Nations or an independent organization go in. (China) should make access for them to see and listen to Tibet.”

One critical means of oppression includes suppressing the Tibetan language, which Norbu described as essential to Tibetan culture.

“From every corner they’re attacking the Tibetan people,” Norbu said. “So once you lose your own language, that’s it.”

Although current travel restrictions prevent Wangchuk from traveling to Tibet, he hopes that he and his siblings may be able to reunite elsewhere in China someday. With the strict prohibitions on entering Tibet, meeting outside of the area is the most plausible option.

Visiting China also carries difficulties, however. Prior to coming to the United States, Wangchuk said, he was shot, then imprisoned by Chinese authorities for two years due to his protest activities in Tibet. Wangchuk has permanent residency in the U.S. but hopes to secure citizenship before attempting a trip to China; otherwise, he is certain he would be imprisoned again.

“If I become a citizen I will go, because I have not seen my family in a long time,” Wangchuk said. “But if not, no chance.”

In Congress, McGovern’s bill will next be considered by the Senate.

“With this bill we are taking an important step forward on behalf of the human rights of Tibetans. We are reaffirming our support for the leadership of his holiness the Dalai Lama, and we are sending a message to the government of China: human rights are not negotiable,” McGovern said.

He continued, “Supporting human rights is the moral thing to do. It is the right thing to do. And it is the American thing to do — for Tibetans, in China and everywhere else in the world.”

Norbu, meanwhile, called for support for the act and more widespread attention to Tibetan rights.

“If we lose this culture, it’s not just lost for the Tibetans,” he said. “It’s lost for humanity.”

Jacquelyn Voghel can be reached at jvoghel@gazettenet.com.