BELLEVILLE, N.J. -- The mayor of Belleville, New Jersey says a representative of the Chinese government tried to stop him from showing solidarity to the Tibetan people and honoring a member of his community.
Tibet has been an autonomous region of the People's Republic of China since 1950, but many Tibetan exiles in the U.S. and around the world say their religion and culture has been stifled under communist control.
Yangchen Nodong, 74, said her escape from Tibet to Nepal, then to India in 1960 brings back painful memories. She was a 10-year-old orphan when she escaped with her aunt and brother.
"One time we had to cross the glacier. We couldn't cross all the way so we had to sleep on the glacier. It was cold. I never forget that part," said Nodong.
This year, the Tibetan New Year falls on the same day as the Chinese Lunar New Year. Nodong was elated when Mayor Michael Melham agreed to raise the Tibetan flag after her son made the request.
"It means so much to us that the mayor was kind enough to raise the flag even though we are a small town. I never heard of any mayor doing this. It's so great. Thanks mayor from the bottom of my heart," said Nodong.
"We are grateful to the mayor of Belleville for affirming our Tibetan identity here and standing up to the Chinese communist government," said Pema Nodong, her daughter.
But the mayor, who put information on his social media, said China's vice consul in New York reached out right before the ceremony to try and stop him from raising the flag.
"They were urging us to cancel and reconsider and my township attorney, my township manager, police chief all said to me what are you going to do? And I said the flag is going to fly at noon," said Melham.
The Tibetan flag is banned in Tibet by the Chinese government because it's become a symbol of freedom for exiles like Nodong who continue to demonstrate to keep their culture alive.
"As we continue to try to exert our independence and our identity, our Tibetan Buddhist identity, they would oppress the people," said Nodong's daughter.
"We want to stand in solidarity with the people of Tibet and let them know that we stand up for everything they stand up for," said Melham.
The mayor said his decision was not political and that he sent a respectful letter back to China's vice consul saying the flag went up because his diverse community respects all voices.
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