Zuzana Ondomišiová: pro-Tibetan activist in Prague

Zuzana Ondomišiová, photo: L. Sklenka, www.tibinfo.cz

My guest this week is Zuzana Ondomišiová who runs an organisation called Portala, which promotes Tibetan cultural issues in the Czech Republic. With the recent protests and subsequent Chinese crackdown, Tibet has certainly been on the radar both in the Czech Republic and around the world. I began by asking her to tell me a little more about this NGO.

“I work for Potala, which is an NGO, and our main aim is to preserve traditional Tibetan culture. We organise many discussions, slide-shows, lectures, exhibitions and different actions in the Czech Republic to show people Tibetan history, religion and especially the traditional way of life. In the practical field, we try to do our best to help Tibetans and also Tibetans in exile, especially in the field of education, education of young monks and repairing monasteries. Perhaps our biggest project is sending our support to TCV in India.”

What is TCV?

“It is the Tibetan Children’s Village, which is an organisation which helps not only children without parents, but also during recent years, there have been more and more children coming directly from Tibet to get a traditional education in Tibetan culture.”

Are there a lot of Tibetan exiles living in the Czech Republic?

“There are maybe three or four Tibetans living here, but from time to time, some others visit.”

So how did these three or four Tibetans find their way into the Czech Republic?

“There is one way and that is those that married Czech girls! There is also another way, and that is to come here and teach the Tibetan language.”

And you mentioned that you do teaching and exhibitions and so on…so what kind of Czechs take part in this?

“It is quite a wide cross-section, because we organise our own lectures in our own facilities, which are not particularly large. For larger lectures and especially slide-shows, we go out to many places – in halls, in galleries, in museums and tea rooms which are very popular in this country. And also, sometimes we visit various schools as part of their history, social sciences and geography studies related to Asian countries.”

I guess a broad question is – why Tibet?

“Why Africa, why India, why whatever? To use the concept of Karma, which is used in Buddhism, maybe some people have a special inclination to take an interest in certain things. For me, Tibet is really a very personal connection and I think that for many people, Tibetan culture creates a kind of romanticism and people imagine a very spiritual culture.”

So are you a Buddhist yourself?

“I wouldn’t say it that strictly, because I am an ethnologist, which enables me to see things from an outside perspective. But I must say that the Tibetan way of thinking is very close to my own view of the world.”

Tell us about the history of the Potala organisation.

“Potala was established exactly ten years ago, but already in 1990, the Buddhist Society of Czechoslovakia was re-established. The same organisation existed before the War, and then disappeared after the end of WWII. But during the 1980s, there were many people that came together through their interests in eastern cultures, and there were informal groups practicing Zen Buddhist meditation, experimenting with alternative music and there was also a great amount of interest in Yoga. In fact, Yoga, was the only eastern practice that was officially recognised in communist Czechoslovakia.”

It could be said that your organisation has the support, at least in terms of a foreign policy standpoint, of the Czech government. So why does Tibet, along with say North Korea and Cuba have a particular emphasis for Czech governments?

His Holiness the Dalai Lama with Václav Havel, photo: CTK
“From the practical sense, there was Václav Havel, our first president, who invited His Holiness the Dalai Lama to visit the Czech Republic immediately after the Velvet Revolution. Since then, His Holiness has visited our country many times. This also marked a time when more and more people were interested in the problems in Tibet – not just through romantic dreaming, but through seeking out information. And so the public consciousness of Tibetan problems became deeper.”

And there is also the communist angle, right?

“I think it is one of the reasons, because we had a very similar experience with a ‘big’ Soviet Union neighbouring our country and pushing its own politics on our government. But I think that in comparison with Tibet, we had a very easy time.”

And now the global spotlight has been refocused on China and on Tibet because of the Olympic Games and also because of the recent demonstrations…

Photo: CTK
“There is at present a very inconvenient situation for China before the Olympic Games, so they are trying to trivialise the problems. There certainly were many bad things that happened, for example in the Tibetan capital Lhasa, but the main Chinese official standpoint is that there was just violence against Chinese citizens and that this needs to be suppressed. But there were so many other demonstrations in other parts of the Tibetan area and these are not mentioned in the Chinese media because they were peaceful. Everybody thinks about Tibet just as a holy country full of monks and full of people which cannot get angry. But when you consider that it is nearly fifty years since the Dalai Lama left the country and nearly sixty years with a Chinese presence in their country, then you can understand why people get a little bit angry.”

There has been a lot of debate in this country and around the world as to whether to boycott the Olympics or the opening ceremony. Should, in your view, the world take part?

“It is very difficult to decide. From my point of view, the best way would be if the Chinese side, before the Olympic Games start, decides to start communicating with Tibetans in exile and also Tibetans in Tibet. But this is not very likely and I don’t have any strict opinion as to whether to boycott the Games or not, but I don’t agree with many politicians who say that sportsmen and women are not allowed to express their thoughts openly. Also, I think that it will become very difficult to be happy in Beijing and to pretend that there is great joy from the Olympic feats – you must also think about the fact that just a couple of hundred kilometres away from these places, there are dead people and their families, and there are police and the army pushing people not to express their own problems, thoughts and experiences.”

Zuzana Ondomišiová of the Potala civic group thanks very much for joining us.

“Thank you.”