SAN FRANCISCO — As a 12-year-old living in Hong Kong, Michael van Walt devoured every book he could find describing the Chinese invasion and occupation of Tibet. Outraged, he wrote a letter to the Dalai Lama, the spiritual and political leader of the Tibetan people, and pledged to do something about it.
"I think children of that age are often very determined with what they want to do," says Van Walt, now a wiry, restless man with angular features and a hybrid European accent. "They're very serious about issues that intrigue them. And I was."
The ensuing years witnessed the strength of Van Walt's convictions: Moving from country to country with his family--his father was a Dutch diplomat--he continued to study the situation in Tibet. As a teen-ager in New Zealand, he created an organization to help Tibetan refugee children. Returning to the Netherlands, he founded a Tibetan advocacy group and published the Tibetan Messenger, a successful magazine.
By age 21, he had met the Dalai Lama, and when the spiritual leader, then little-known, expressed a desire to visit Europe, Van Walt did the groundwork, organizing the Tibetan monk's first trip to the West in 1973.
Today, Van Walt, 41, is the sole legal counsel to the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government-in-exile. But his youthful commitment to the "land of snows" has broadened, and he is also the co-founder and general secretary of the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization, a sort of alternative United Nations that seeks to revolutionize the notions of self-rule and sovereignty.
"I find it absolutely unbelievable," Van Walt declared during a recent speech at San Francisco's Commonwealth Club, "that people like the Tibetans, the Kurds and the elected leaders of Burma are not included in international discussions about their own fates. Each nation should have the right to decide its own destiny and to manage its own environment."
Van Walt has focused his considerable energies on assisting peoples and nations that have, despite their history and cultural integrity, virtually no representation on the international scene. UNPO gives a voice to the needs and aspirations of such nations, many of which have emerged over the past two years, but whose cultures, environments and human rights remain under the control of the countries that have absorbed them.
Fourteen nations and peoples, including Latvia and Estonia, made up UNPO's original roll. Today, the organization counts 26 members, representing nearly 350 million people. The largest member nation is Kurdistan, with a population in the Middle East of 25 million; the smallest, according to UNPO's San Francisco office director, Julie Berriault, is probably Belau, a tiny island protectorate in the Pacific with a population of 14,000.
What these nations and peoples have in common, and what served as one of the prime incentives for the founding of UNPO in February, 1991, in the Netherlands, is a keen sense of frustration.
"The representatives of these various peoples felt they were not being given a fair hearing," says Van Walt. "It was virtually impossible for them to speak to governments within the United Nations system--even about human rights, the environment or other issues that affect them. . . . So it was decided to create a organization that would develop dialogues, attract attention and get governments to listen without using violence."
In addition to the frustration, many small or isolated nations and peoples simply do not have the resources to play hardball in the global arena. UNPO, along with providing an international forum, addresses this handicap by assisting member nations with diplomacy training, media relations and conflict resolution skills.
One person who has found such training tremendously useful is Erkin Alptekin, leader of the Uyghur (pronounced WEE-gur) people in East Turkestan.
Known in the West as the Xinjiang Autonomous Region of northwestern China, East Turkestan was invaded by the Chinese People's Liberation Army in 1949, a year before the takeover of Tibet. Since then, an estimated 360,000 of Alptekin's countrymen have been killed. The region now holds 29 labor camps, with nearly 80,000 prisoners, most of them prisoners of conscience, Alptekin asserts. The area's natural resources (mostly minerals) are being diverted to Beijing, while the transfer of Chinese into the territory threatens to make the Uyghurs a minority in their own land.
"Before joining UNPO, our hopes were slim," says Alptekin, 52, a personable and articulate man with expressive eyes in a round, remarkably unlined face. "The Uyghurs have no one like the Dalai Lama, who is well-known throughout the world. We are Muslims, but the Islamic countries could not support us; they had their own problems. And most Islamic countries have a close relationship with China.