As the world marks the Dalai Lama's 78th birthday, the Tibetan community marks a grim milestone: 120 Tibetans, mostly youth, have burned themselves alive to protest China's repressive rule. Xeni Jardin traveled to Washington, DC to document a group of Tibetan-American activists asking lawmakers to open up immigration doors for political refugees, and hold China accountable.

Tibetans around the world this week celebrate the 78th birthday of the 14th Dalai Lama, their exiled spiritual leader. From July 4th through 6th, many will gather in the Bay Area for a series of events marking his birthday and recognizing the ongoing human rights crisis in Tibet. China has been condemned for harsh treatment of ethnic Tibetans there, and the forced relocation and displacement of millions.

Earlier this year, I accompanied a group of Tibetan-Americans from California who walked the halls of Congress and Senate buildings in Washington, DC, asking US lawmakers to pay attention to Tibet and demand that China respect human rights. Their efforts were part of Tibet Lobby Day, an annual gathering in the US capital on March 18 and 19, just after the 100th Tibetan had burned themselves alive in desperate protest. As I write this, the death toll has risen: at least 119 have now set themselves on fire. Tibet on Fire is tracking the data here.

Venerable Thepo Rinpoche was one of the Tibetan citizen-lobbyists I followed down the halls of Hart Senate Office Building and the Rayburn House Office Building. I snapped photos and short video clips on my phone, and observed their experience. One of the amazing things about American democracy is that anyone, including a Tibetan monk, can just show up and petition their representatives for justice. One of the other amazing things? Sometimes, those lawmakers really do listen and act. Seeing this openness in person is an amazing thing.

Thepo-la fled Tibet as a child monk shortly after a young Dalai Lama did; he wrote about his experience in an earlier feature for Boing Boing.

Above, a video snapshot from that lobbying day in DC, as I watched the Rinpoche and his compatriots knock on the doors of Democrats and Republicans, echoing what he wrote in that Boing Boing essay: "The people of Tibet need help now."

I shot this video on my iPhone as we walked down the halls of those government buildings on Capitol Hill. From time to time, as we walked, Thepo-la and his fellow activists sang quietly in unison.

What was the song, I asked?

He translated:



YIZHIN NORBU (Buddha, His Holiness)


A quick YouTube shows this song, "Norbuling la (Sungta Lemo)" is a popular anthem. There are auto-tuned remixes, extended dance versions, karaoke clap-a-longs, and nostalgic slideshows.

But I like the versions you can watch in this Boing Boing video snapshot the best.

The Tibetan activists meet with Ann Norris, Senior Foreign Policy
and Defense Advisor to Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA).

Rinpoche Thepo Tulku waits to speak with Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA).

A framed portrait of the Dalai Lama hangs inside the International Campaign for Tibet offices, which co-organizes Tibet Lobby Day. His Holiness' sister is one of the organization's directors.

The activists meet with Senator Feinstein.

The rinpoche waits for a lawmaker's spokesperson. At left, a copy of the Assault Weapons Ban.

The activists plead their case to Congressman John Garamendi (D-CA).

Teddy Kỳ-Nam Miller, from the office of Congresswoman Barbara Lee (D-CA), listens.

No question: they're the most likeable lobbyists on Capitol Hill, at least for a day.

Your Boing Boing correspondent accepts a "kata," a ceremonial Tibetan scarf, from the lobbyists.