NEW DELHI // Surrounded by Tibetan prayer flags in a makeshift tent, Sonam Sandup seemed remarkably cheerful for a man who had committed himself to the slowest of suicides. The 30-year-old Tibetan monk had nothing to eat or drink all day yesterday and vowed to continue his fast until death. Or, at least until police pry him from his cot. That is, in fact, exactly what police did the night before, bringing 500 officers to bear on a crowd of more than 100 Tibetan protesters, and wresting six monks from their beds for emergency medical treatment on the ninth day of their hunger strike.
The very next morning, the Tibetan Youth Congress introduced the second batch of six volunteers who have said they are willing to die for a free Tibet, their Himalayan homeland, which Beijing has ruled since 1951. "We have lost our freedom," Mr Sandup said. "We need to carry forward the legacy of the six people who were here the day before. This legacy, this struggle, is for freedom. "Even if someone falls, another person will rise up again."
With the Beijing Olympics set to begin tomorrow, Mr Sandup had a special message for the international athletes converging on the Chinese capital. "The medal which will be used in the Beijing Olympics is a bloodstained medal. It is bloodstained because the gold that has been minted is from Tibet and [so are] the workers and labourers who suffered to make it." Another Tibetan supporter, Aasha Reddy, had seen the gaunt, haggard faces of the men who were wrested from their cots by police Tuesday night. Each had lost about 11kg, their blood pressure had dropped precipitously and they were struggling to remain conscious. Which makes it all the more remarkable that Mrs Reddy should volunteer to join the protest the next day.
"I wanted to join the first batch, but my niece was getting married and I couldn't miss the wedding," said the 51-year-old housewife from Chennai, in southeastern India. Mrs Reddy's goal, however, is less extreme than that of the monks she has joined. She aims to fast "until my body refuses to co-operate". "Mine is not an indefinite strike." The protest may not have caught the eye of China's leaders in Beijing, but the media glare has lured a parade of visitors, from politicians to foreign ambassadors to students from across the globe.
George Williams, 17, from Rockport, Maine, who is studying Tibetan culture with a US school in New Delhi, said the "Free Tibet" movement would only resonate in Beijing if there were more international attention. "I think with enough events taking place worldwide it is enough of a voice to actually do something and make a real difference." At his desk, a few blocks away, the deputy superintendent of New Delhi district police, B K Singh, was already thumbing through a copy of the Indian Penal Code.
Under Section 309, attempted suicide is a crime that carries a maximum prison sentence of one year - a charge that awaits the six previous hunger strikers once they are discharged from hospital. "They can sit there," he said. "But we went there last night because they weren't eating. If you don't eat anything and you don't drink anything, ultimately, what will happen?" Mr Singh ordered the raid on the central New Delhi encampment on Tuesday evening, saying: "If we had left them, they would have died."
But he was resigned to the fact that police would have to keep visiting the new hunger strikers, with a doctor in tow, until the situation became desperate. "If they do it again, we will remove them," he said. He was equally resigned to the fact that the following day, another wave of Tibetan exiles would begin the strike anew. Organisers have said there is no shortage of willing volunteers in India, where thousands of Tibetans are living in exile after a failed uprising against Chinese rule in 1959, but they will maintain the number at six to represent the six million Tibetans in the world seeking independence from China.
"We need to continue this movement," said Dondup Shokda, vice president of the Tibetan Youth Congress. "We always have volunteers. If someone takes their last breath, then we have a replacement." "The list of volunteers keeps increasing," he said. "We have, in fact, stopped taking names." The strike-until-death protest showed just how desperate the plight of the Tibetans had become, said Stefania Marchesini, a 39-year-old activist who had travelled from Italy to support the Tibetans.
"It's the only way they have, really. They've been suffering for nearly 60 years and nobody's really listened to them." Asked how effective is it as a protest statement to starve oneself to death, she replied: "It would have been effective if those people died. That's the point." @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org