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'Be Veg' competes with Tibet outside U.N.

NEW YORK – Ingrid Hong, a petite insurance agent with two grown children, rose early Wednesday morning and left her Queens, New York residence with a placard – and a mission: "We encourage people to get peace by meditation and no killing – but mainly, we urge people to keep a vegetarian diet." 

Hong was among hundreds who braved the crowds and the police barricades to come to Dag Hammarskjold Plaza, across from the United Nations, on Wednesday to try to compete for attention with the headline-generating protests associated with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi

She is part of a group called "The Supreme Master Ching Hai International Association," which advocates what they consider a simple solution to combat global warming. "According to a U.N. report," Hong explained, "livestock farming contributes more greenhouse gases than the energy sectors…We want the government to encourage organic farming." 

Image: Protest at UN General Assembly
Michael Nagle / EPA
Demonstrators protest against Iran in Dag Hammarskjold Plaza across from the United Nations headquarters on Wednesday. 

Hong and others in her group occupied a prominent position next to a police barricade at the entrance to the plaza. Amid somber and occasionally graphic posters of wounded and dead Iranian protesters, the vegan group's placards, "Be Veg, Go Green, Save the Planet," seemed to inspire many walkers to stop and chat. "You go!" shouted a well-dressed middle-aged woman. "I'm a vegan myself!  Way to go!" 

A voice for Tibet
However, some of the assembled groups who have come year after year to protest outside the United Nations during the General Assembly sessions had a more sobering message.

"Sadly, [the U.N.] should be the place where disputes are settled – but it's not," said Sonam Wangdu, Chairman of the U.S.-Tibet Committee. 

Wangdu and others, some kneeling in prayer amid the noise and the crowds, were there to call attention to what they consider unfinished business: Their call for Tibetan independence and the end to what they denounce as human rights abuses in the Himalayan region.

"Some of my friend's relatives were arrested in Tibet, and they are 'nowhere' – their family has no idea where they are and it's hard to wrest information from the government," said Pema Chodon, a 37-year-old Tibetan who worked in the design industry, but is currently unemployed. 

Image: 64th General Debate of the United Nations General Assembly
Michael Nagle / EPA
Protesters demonstrate for a free Tibet in Dag Hammarskjold Plaza across from the United Nations on Wedneday.

Chodon, who grew up in refugee camps in India, started to cry softly as she recounted why she has come here during the U.N.'s General Assembly every year for the past 12 years. "Those in Tibet cannot bring their voice here, so I can bring their voice." 

She added that the Tibet issue is not just about human rights, but environmental issues, too. "Tibet is vast, with the highest peaks and many natural minerals." Chodon believes that the world has an obligation to try to stop the deforestation in Tibet. She and Wangdu also warned that the rivers in Tibet are a major source of water and have to be kept clean. This, they say, is part of what the United Nations should be doing.

Still, after years of advocacy, does Wangdu believe that gathering in front of the United Nations makes a difference to their cause? 

"To be honest, it's very difficult," Wangdu said. He said he believes that the United Nations' current structure "is designed not to function. But symbolically, we have to do it."     

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