Tuesday, 10 March 2015

Supporting Tibet in the Scottish Parliment

An invitation out of the blue

As a member of the Australian federal parliament between October 2002 and October 2004 with the Australian Green Party and representing the seat of Cunningham, I was a supporter of the Free Tibet! movement. During those two years my staff and I worked closely with the Australian Tibet Information Office to raise the issue of Tibet in the parliament, doing so on a number of occasions. The Tibet Information Office was based in Canberra and headed, at the time, by Tibetan exile Tenzin Phuntsok Atisha. The Office knew it could rely on my support, even after I left parliament.

Tibetan flag at Parliament House, Canberra, Australia, 15 October 2003. Held by Australian Greens politicians - Michael Organ MHR, Senator Bob Brown and Senator Kerrie Nettle, with the Dalai Lama's representative in Australia, Tenzin Phuntsok Atisha, following a meeting of the Australia Tibet Parliamentary Group. 

Late in 2005 it was announced that His Holiness the Dalai Lama was to speak at the Scottish Parliament, following an invitation from the local Greens Party politician Chris Balance. The occasion was the staging of the 4th World Parliamentarians Convention on Tibet. As a result, an invitation was forwarded to the Australian Greens for their participation in this landmark event, which would take place on Friday 18th and Saturday 19th November 2005. As Senator Bob Brown could not attend, I was invited to Edinburgh in his stead. ALP politician and Member for Melbourne Ports, Michael Danby, would also be in attendance. Michael was a long-time supporter of Tibet and a leading member of the Victorian Jewish community.

The invitation arrived via phone call from Atisha approximately one week before the convention was due to take place. Without hesitation I accepted, leaping at the opportunity to once again promote the issue of Tibet on a public stage, and also to visit a part of the world I perhaps would never get to again. Shortly after the invitation came through I walked into the office of my supervisor at the University of Wollongong Library and said, "I have been invited to go to Edinburgh next week. Is that ok?" She was somewhat taken aback, but immediately supported my request for leave. Luckily my passport was in order and, after a hectic week of preparation, and somewhat incredibly, it all came to pass.Between 17-21 November 2005 I would visit Edinburgh, Scotland, in a whirlwind trip, travelling across the other side of the world for 5 days from Sydney to Edinburgh via Singapore and London, then back home again and return to work. I was excited by it all and looking forward to the opportunity to meet, for the first time, His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

The trip proved all I expected it to be. Whilst there I purchased a small notebook in the bookshop at Edinburgh Castle, on the top of the hill overlooking the city. The aim was to record events of the trip, and this was achieved, though to a limited degree. The following account is primarily taken from the notes I made at the time and covers the period from leaving home on Wednesday 16th through to Saturday lunchtime. The diary omits the final day and a half of the trip and is primarily a personal account of the journey, rather than a description of the politics associated with the convention. The notebook sat in my archive for almost a decade before I decided, in March 2015, to transform it into this blog post. I have trasncribed the diary notes and added to them what I can recall, especially for the Saturday and Sunday prior to returning home. A more fulsome report on the events of the 4th World Parliamentary Convention on Tibet is included in my webpage, which was posted shortly after I returned from Edinburgh. It includes a copy of the Declaration prepared by the 133 delegates, of which I can proudly say I was one. So let's open up the diary on the morning of my departure from 38a Owen Street, Bulli.

Leaving on a jet plane

Wednesday, 16 November. Up out of bed and off to work at 7.30 am. I leave there at 12 pm, drive home before Jeanette and I head up to Sydney airport at 12.30, leaving Kyle at home with my sister Denise. I am dropped off at the airport at 2. There are no problems with tickets, baggage or customs and by 3 o'clock I was ready to fly out, relieved that I had got over the many hurdles leading up to that point. For the first time I made use of the Qantas Chairman's Lounge facilities - a carry over from my time as a federal politician when I was given special privileges, though they were ones I rarely made use of. "I should have come here first!" I thought to myself, after having meandered around the terminal for a while. The lounge had nice seats, free newspapers, free food, a decent cup of tea, showers and internet facilities. It was indeed the place to spend a stopover, compered to the general terminal which was hot, noisy, expensive and lacking facilities. I was only in the Qantas lounge for an hour, between 3 and 4, as I had spent the previous hour, from 2 to 3, in the main terminal buying a Mojo to read and something to nibble on. Whilst in the lounge I rang home, as I would on arrival in Edinburgh and London. I was finally able to relax a bit after the hectic preparations of the previous week, and it was still sinking in regards the incredible opportunity offered me to participate in the convention and hopefully meet His Holiness. Though we had worked on inviting him to Wollongong during my time in parliament, it never came to pass. However, we remained hopeful and, in 2006, our work was to pay off with the holding of the Wollongong Tibet Festival ... but that is another story.

Due to the graciousness of the Tibet Information Office I was now travelling on a British Airways jumbo jet, leaving Sydney at 4.25 pm for London, with a 1 hour stopover in Singapore. Holding an economy class seat, I sat in a rather crowded space all the way on what seemed like a very long flight. In my previous overseas trip to Taiwan in 2004 I had travelled business class and it was decidedly more comfortable. I didn't have any real sleep on the plane on this occasion, except until near the very end, and I don't usually doze off for any length of time. Apart from that, the trip was fine to start with, though it just seemed very,very long.

British Airways jumbo at Sydney airport, awaiting departure, 17 November 2005.

We flew out from Sydney and headed in a north-westerly direction, flying over Alice Springs. I took a picture from the window of the interesting, pinkish landscape below - all very hot, dry, flat and dotted with scrub, like an Aboriginal painting. We then flew on towards Broome and over the Indian Ocean towards Indonesia and Singapore. It was light outside until half way through Indonesia, so I enjoyed the window seat for as long as I  could.

Singapore stopover 

We arrived at Singapore about 8 hours after departure from Sydney, around midnight Australian time and 9.30pm local time. Sitting in economy was tight and I was not able to sleep. I sat in a row of 3 seats, by the window, with a young German backpacker on the far isle and nobody in the middle. I spent most of my time reading the latest edition of Mojo, the rock music magazine, along with New Musical Express, an English newspaper, and listening to a couple of old CDs, including Nick Drake, Tim Buckley and Budgie. The meal on board was fine - antipasto - warm, not hot, and tea with artificial milk. Note to self: the first thing I do when I get home is make myself a nice cup of tea.

By the time I got to Singapore I felt alright, though cramped from the plane seat and relieved to be able to move about again. However when we arrived at the terminal it was warm, humid and very stuffy, reminding me of the sub-tropical climate of Taiwan. I knew then it was midnight and all of a sudden the tiredness began to hit. We spent most of the hour layover in a glass-walled lounge area with a couple of hundred quiet, bleary eyes people like me - zombies - just sitting around with nothing much to do. All of them were tourists and business people on different time zones and from various flights. I was unable to go anywhere or even buy a hot chocolate. I briefly logged onto the internet whilst there, but it only contained work stuff. I would have liked to have left the terminal for a brief visit to the city, but that was not to be. So I did not see anything of Singapore.

Thursday, 17 November. Singapore, 12.15am. We hop back on the plane for the long haul to London. I am sitting next to two Newcastle (UK) ladies who have just spent 6 weeks in Australia. As I had seen the on board movies and read my magazines, I was happy to just try to sleep. I kept in mind the comment of a lady from work - Heather - who regularly traveled to the UK. She advised me to drink lots of water during the flight to ward off dehydration. This is not an easy thing to do when your body clock is telling you it is the middle of the night and you should be in a deep sleep.

Flight time to London was about 12 hours - from Singapore to Heathrow airport. The crew served us another big meal - sweet and sour chicken. It was about 2 am Sydney time! I ate it, though I thought at the time I should give it a miss, but didn't. Anyway, about 6 hours into the flight I started to develop a headache and from 9 to 11 hours into the trip I was sick - headache, hot flushes, the typical symptoms I suffer on such occasions. I was sick in the toilet 3 times before I felt better, down to the bile. It could have been the post-Singapore meal, as I usually don't get airsick. However, in hindsight, it is typical of the way I have gotten sick since acquiring chronic fatigue syndrome back in 1989. It may be related to the stress of travel, rather than the travel itself, if you know what I mean. Anyway, I felt alright afterwards, though drained, and for the last hour of the flight I slept, as I usually do after being sick. I was fine when the plane arrived in London.

London

We got there about 4.30 am local time. As we flew in low from the east, the lights of this huge city glowed orange. I could see in the distance London Bridge, all lit up, and the Thames River in darkness. I was so glad that I had finally arrived. We had to sit in the lounge for 1 1/2 hours waiting for our connecting flight to Edinburgh. And we had to wait half an hour for the shop to open to get a hot chocolate. During this time I sent an sms home, though I was not sure if it would arrive.

Our British Airways jet to Edinburgh left London at about 7 and arrived an hour later, at 8 am. This was my first chance to see England and Scotland in the light, as our trip across the world was mostly in darkness, from the time we got over Indonesia, which was a shame. I only saw the flight path screen on the back of the seat in front of me for most of the flight from Sydney. We flew over the Indian Ocean, Kuwait and the gulf - with interesting lights below - then Eastern Europe to the UK. I recall seeing the top of a snow covered peak pretty close to us somewhere near eastern Turkey, We flew at 30,000 feet or 10 kilometres, and at 900 kph or 430 mph, reaching speeds of up to 1000 kph with a tail wind!

England from the air, early in the morning, was simple - a dark emerald green mat with lots and lots of ploughed fields, odds and sods and rectangular shapes and villages squashed in between the fields. There was no great linearity like in Australia, or that dry, reddish colour which seems to cover much of the continent. The landscape was more sinuous, curving around streams and the like. It  looked pretty flat from the plane, and this only changed a little when we got nearer Scotland. It was like Cockington Green from the air and would obviously be a real adventure to drive around. "If only I had the time and money", I thought to myself. But it will come one day, when the kids are older and perhaps on a motorbike. It would be pretty cold, I feel, but a great adventure nevertheless.....

Edinburgh

As we flew further north the landscape was the same - flat and quilted. Then I blinked and we were flying over the mountainous, rolling hills of Scotland, with lochs and rivers appearing below and the rugged, ragged coastline also visible. One hour from London to Edinburgh. The landing was fine. As we rode the airport bus into town the landscape looked to me like the Southern Highlands at home, especially around Bowral. It was not a lush green, but rather a dry, brownish green, though this was perhaps influenced by the -3 degree temperature and the frosty ground. I feel that in the sunny summer it would take on a pretty, dark green colour, but here we were coming into the northern winter. It was getting cold, though I liked it.

Upon arrival in Edinburgh I contacted Chris Balance, the local Greens Party member of the Scottish Parliament. He met me at the Waverley Station bus drop off. The drive into town was a revelation - lots of historic landscapes and buildings. Not much was out of place, nor were obvious blots on the landscape to be seen. As we came into the city I was overwhelmed by the beautiful, sandstone, grey granite and black volcanic rock buildings. The streetscape was everything - no high rise generally, or modernist messy interventions. Rows and rows of old buildings, original or restored, and it all worked well.

We arrived at the Carlton Hotel (4 nights accommodation - £380) and I had a quick chat with Chris about the Greens and the convention and Chinese intervention around the visit to the parliament by His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Some things don't change, I thought to myself when he relayed the recent opposition he had encountered in putting the Tibet event together. But they were able to get His Holiness the Dalai Lama to Parliament House on the coming Saturday. A real coup.

After a shower, shave and settle in, I headed off for a walk around town at about 10am and didn't get back until 2. I then headed up the road towards Edinburgh Castle.

Forecourt of Edinburgh Castle, 17 November 2005.

I had the movie camera with me and wanted to get some footage and also visit some of the local shops. All of this was fortunately achieved. The castle was interesting - in good condition, quite complex and with lots of buildings. I tried to get a picture of it from street level but this proved difficult because the sun was low behind it all day long. I nevertheless took some video whilst I was there.


Edinburgh, 17 and 18 November 2005. Video by Michael Organ of view from Edinburgh Castle and the scene near the main commercial shopping centre on Princes Street.

From the castle and  the forecourt which is the site of the famous Edinburgh Tattoo, I walked down to Edinburgh's main commercial precinct along Princes Street, past the crowds of people. It was very much like in Australia, really. People shopping. HMV / Virgin had an amazing collection of dvds. I purchased 4 or 5, mostly BBC and sci-fi that are not easily obtained in Australia. The only trouble I found was the exchange rate - 0.392 : 1. This meant that the Australian dollar did not go far in Scotland. For example, a book which was listed on sale for £14.99 actually cost Aus$30, which is closer to full price, and no sale at all.

In the old, southern part of the town the streets are cobblestone of grey, dark rock - like something out of Harry Potter such as Dygone Alley. There is not a lot of traffic, and it is good to walk on, being rather smooth. People get around the city on double decker buses. The air is cold and clear. There was not any rain whilst I was there. The sun was out, but low in the sky, to the south, behind the castle which dominates one half of the city landscape.

I walked back to the hotel and lay down around 2.30pm for a rest. I woke at 5 to 4 all of a sudden, as I had dropped off into a deep sleep and was due to be at the Parliament building at 4 to meet the Greens! I rang Chris to say I would be a bit late and got there at 4.30. Gaby and some of the other Greens politicians showed me around their offices. There are seven Greens members of the Scottish Parliament. It is a strange, modernist, bat cave like building of grey concrete and pale brown timber. A real rabbit warren. The chamber is not like ours in Australia - it is not split down the middle, but more like a theatre arrangement. I did not get the sense of Government vs. Opposition. They have silent, electronic voting, rather than division.

After the visit, at 6pm there was a reception in the parliamentary area for delegates to the convention. I had finally caught up with Atisha after my city walk and again during the reception. I also met PMS Samdhong Rinpoche - he was a nice, intelligent, strong monk. I was back at my room at 9 and asleep by 9.30. I woke at 12.30. and wrote in the notebook I had purchased earlier that day at Edinburgh Castle.

Friday, 18 November 2005. 1 am. The Charlton Hotel, Edinburgh, Scotland. I awake at this unfortunate hour after my first decent sleep since leaving home on Tuesday night. I decide to recall events over the last 24 to 48 hours. After doing this I read until 3am then back to sleep until 6.30. When I awoke I went for a half hour walk around town before breakfast. The convention started at 9 and I met up with Atisha and Michael Danby. The latter was much the same as when I worked with him in parliament, and still very much interested in international affairs. He was not a great fan of China, like many of us at the convention.

The best of the opening session talks was by Samdhong Rinpoche - informative and up to date. He is the primary political spokesperson for the Tibetan Government-in-exile in Dharamsala, India. Michael Danby was keen to get him to Canberra. We had morning tea and then a presentation by some Indians followed by a report back by the Tibetan Envoy to the Chinese Government. The news was good and bad re the Chinese, with no real change in their attitude to Tibet and the Tibetans. I then had lunch with Chris and two Italian Greens.

Dalai Lama Press Conference

At 1pm I went with Chris to the press conference given by His Holiness the Dalai Lama. This was terrific. It was actually the first time I had ever seen the Dalai Lama and I felt very fortunate to be able to attend. I was in a small room with about 40 media representatives. I just sat there listening and taking photographs and shots with Terry's video camera. The press conference went on for about an hour and every word by His Holiness was riveting. A lot of what he said was familiar to me, with good questions coming from the local, young journalists. At the end I got a closeup photograph, but the movie camera ran out of power and I did not get it all on film I would try to get more tomorrow at parliament. What the Dalia Lama said was wide ranging and very relevant to me - stick to your religion, but take on board elements of Buddhism if you like. He reminded us all that he was just a Simple Monk. But then Jesus was also just a simple man. He deferred political questions to Samdhong Rinpoche, who was seated next to him.

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ASIDE THOUGHT: Dear John Howard. I would ask that you meet with His Holiness the Dalai Lama during his tour of Australia in June 2006. Why should you do this?

1. His Holiness the Dalai Lama is one of the most important religious leaders in the world today.

2. His Holiness the Dalai Lama is a Nobel Peace Prize winner - the primary proponent of non-violence as a means to settle the problems of the world.

3. George W. Bush met with His Holiness the Dalai Lama on 9 November 2005, a couple of days prior to his visit to China.

4. A meeting would show that Australia is an independent sovereign nation, and not one to be bullied by China, who would demand that you do not meet with him.

5. His Holiness the Dalai Lama is the spiritual leader of 6 million Tibetans.

6. His Holiness the Dalai Lama is one of the world's leading thinkers and philosophers.

7. You will get a lot of positive publicity out of meeting with this "simple monk."

One the other hand, why should you not meet him?

1. Because the Chinese have asked you not to, and because the Chinese have threatened you, and Australia, should a meeting take place. Therefore, if you meet, the Chinese will not be happy with you. I can see no other reason why you should not meet.

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After the press conference at the Earth structure near Parliament House, I walked back to the conference with Chris Balance, the main Tibetan organiser Pema, and one of Chris' staff Michael. It was pretty cold, but clear and sunny, so we got back to the Carlton at about 2. The press conference had gone from about 12.35 - 1.45. I remained at the conference until about 4, then I had some more time to wander around town a bit and take some video of the landscape. This included buskers with bagpipes, people rugged up with all manner of scarves, the sun low in the west behind or just above the castle. I brought a bracelet for Jeanette at a Buddhist shop and was back at the hotel for a rest at 6, followed by a shower then off to dinner at 7, where I sat next to a lady parliamentarian from Norway. Heidi I think her name was. She was married to another MP who was also at the conference. He was former head of Friends of the Earth and now a member of the ruling Socialist Left Party. Also at the table were some Tibetans and Africans, and an English MP OBE, head of the English Tibet support group. It was a good night, though stiflingly hot in the room, which gave me a bit of a heavy head. the following day. I was in bed by 11. I woke again at 1 am and remained awake until 3, then slept through until 6.30. During the night I started this diary.

Saturday, 19 November. Up at 6.30, shower then a brief walk before breakfast at 7.30 with Michael Danby and Atisha. Michael had a lot of newspapers as usual - he is a veracious reader. He commented on the importance of Samdhong Rinpoche's speech. We agreed that I would get a copy and pass it on to him to read into the Hansard, and also a motion, perhaps on heritage matters. I eventually wrote up a comprehensive motion on 27 November and I think Michael tabled it.

After breakfast then at 8.30 we headed off to the Edinburgh Town Hall for the day. It is a grand old building from the 18th and 19th centuries in amongst the old part of town. We had talks, then a very good workshop session to prepare a Declaration. I was a bit tired and heavy headed this morning, due, I think, to the stuffiness the night before. My session was chaired by a Canadian Conservative. Me, the Austrian Green lady and Canadian were most vociferous, with the Tibetans rather quiet. However we came up with a lot of good ideas to feed into the Declaration.

Lunch was had then I went for a brief walk into town and a final check of stores before the afternoon session..... [Here the diary notebook ends].

During the afternoon we were privileged to hear His Holiness the Dalai Lama address the convention at the Scottish Parliament. It was a tremendous occasion and I found his presence in the room to be unlike anything I had ever experienced. He radiates peace and tranquillity, such that in his presence it is as though all your cares and sufferings are lifted. This, of course, is the essence of the teachings of Buddha, and the Dalai Lama's are a manifestation of those teachings. I was fortunate to video some of the address.

Speech by His Holiness the Dalai Lama at the 4th International Parliamentary Convention on Tibet, Edinburgh, Scotland, 19 November 2015. Film taken by Michael Organ. Audio only file also available.

After his address and as His Holiness left the buildings and thanked the delegates and those involved in making the convention happen, there was the opportunity for photographs. Atisha made sure that Michael and I were in the right place for such a wonderful encounter. I met His Holiness, who posed with me for a photograph taken by Atisha. He held my hand, smiling and full of warmth and compassion. You can see from the photograph that I was very happy to be able to meet His Holiness. He is an incredible individual, full of the wisdom of the ages and able to express that wisdom in the simplest form, for us all to understand and take on board. Even though I was not a practicing Buddhist at the time of the meeting, I was nevertheless impressed by the simplicity and profound truth of his words.

 His Holiness 14th Dalai Lama with Michael Organ, Edinburgh, 19 November 2005.

Following the end of the convention we had dinner with Chris Balance and some of the others involved in putting the convention together. I returned to the hotel at about midnight. As I looked out the window from on high I saw some local young people, dressed in only jeans and t-shirt, running out onto the street from a local pub. It was near freezing outside, but Saturday night is the same around the world I suppose, and I could have been in Sydney, or Wollongong, not Edinburgh. The temperature in the city was usually below 10 degrees, but I did not have the feeling of freezing as I was pretty well rugged up and the sun usually shone during the day to take away any wind chill factor. The absence of rain also made me feel like it was just a cold winters day at home. I slept soundly after a busy day.

Sunday, 20 November. Up early to depart from the Charlton Hotel and get the bus to the airport for the flight to London.This time I would be accompanied by Atisha, which was nice as we would have an opportunity to talk about all matter of things. Whilst a member of parliament I had helped to support Atisha's application for Australian citizenship which, thankfully, was successful. Previous to this he had been largely a stateless person, which made his job as an ambassador for Tibet rather difficult. As a refugee from Tibet and having renounced Chinese citizenship, individuals such as Atisha found it difficult to travel and obtain visas as they were not issued with a passport. For this trip he thankfully had his Australian passport and he was very happy at the outcome.

The flight from Edinburgh to London was a repeat of the trip up, providing an opportunity to once again view the landscape of Scotland and England from on high. Our flight left Edinburgh at about 10. All I remember is a rather crowded plane, the bright winter sun shining in the window, and a relatively quick trip.

London Bridge

We got into London about 11 am and our flight to Sydney was not due to depart until around 8 pm, so Atisha and I took the opportunity to take a quick trip into the city. We hopped on the Underground and alighted at Picadilly station. We then headed off on foot, with Atisha having visited London before and quite calm about the visit. It was a terrific afternoon, with the weather slightly cool and overcast, a lot like Edinburgh. We made it to London Bridge, past the Houses of Parliament and a brief photo opportunity outside the gates of Buckingham Palace. At the edge of London Bridge I purchased a t-shirt for Kyle emblazoned with the cartoon "I went to London Bridge and all I have to show for it is this t-short" or something like that.

Michael standing on London Bridge, outside the Houses of Parliament, 20 November 2005.

By this time it was getting dark and the lights of the city we starting to come on. We walked towards Trafalgar Square

Atisha amongst the crowd at Trafalgar Square, London, 20 November 2005.

The flight home was eventful for the fact that we flew across the northern part of India and close to Mount Everest which, at one stage, I was able to see from the window. The wind was blowing snow off the peak of the highest mountain on the planet. It was a far off in the distance awesome site. The fact of its relationship to Tibet - a country I knew I would never get the chance to visit - made the observation more poignant.

Back home again - Wow!

So ended my 4 day visit to Scotland. A wirlwind, but something I am so glad I took the opportunity to experience. To actually meet His Holiness the Dalai Lama, to visit Endinburgh and Scotland, and to actively participate in the Parliamentary Convention on Tibet are highlights of my life. I will never forget them and I thank the Australian Tibet Information Office for providing me with such moving and cherished memories.

A positive outcome of the trip to Edinburgh was the visit to Wollongong in 2006 by Samdhong Rinpoche as part of the Wollongong Tibetfest 2006 staged by the Wollongong Dharma Collective, an initiative of the late Ariane Lewis. Arising in part out of Tibetfest was the staging of a Tibet-themed performance in the Australian national high school rock estedford by Smith's Hill High School. They went on to win in a presentation that was truly moving and spectacular. As a result, when His Holiness the Dalai Lama visited Australia later that year he specifically asked to meet with the students and teachers involved. Once again, that was an amazing event and a real manifestation of karma.

Michael Organ
14 March 2015