03/22/2012 07:02 EDT | Updated 05/22/2012 05:12 EDT

Tibetan hunger strike outside UN hits 1-month milestone

Dorjee Gyalpo is intent on starving himself to death so it was little surprise when the NYPD turned up Monday and forced the 69-year-old into an ambulance. Gyalpo is a Tibetan-American activist who along with two other Tibetans began a hunger strike in front of the United Nations headquarters in Manhattan a month ago Thursday.

When police officers arrived at the site of the protest on Monday evening, he was unable to stand. They gave him no option but to leave by ambulance, and since then, the remaining two hunger strikers have been asked to show that they can stand up by the officers who pass by periodically to check on their protest.

All three men are gaunt, their eyes sunken from weeks of starvation. Each has lost at least 20 pounds. But when the police came for Gyalpo, he pleaded with them to let him stay. He was weeping as they strapped him to a stretcher and carried him away. Supporters sat down in front of the ambulance, trying to block it from leaving. After 20 minutes, they were convinced to move.

Gyalpo has said goodbye to his family. He told reporters he wants his relatives to be proud of what he’s done and that he is ready to die for this cause. To hear those words spoken in China is one thing, but across from the UN headquarters, it is altogether different.

Gyalpo is now at New York’s Bellevue Hospital and is still refusing to eat. Like his fellow hunger strikers, he says he is ready to die unless the UN dispatches a fact-finding mission to Tibet. The three activists also want the UN to pressure China to end the de facto state of martial law in the region, whose people have long been oppressed by Chinese authorities bent on assimilating them into Chinese culture and squashing their attempts to gain full autonomy for Tibet.

Younger hunger strikers from India

March is the traditional month of protest for Tibetan activists the world over, who every year this month mark the bloody but ultimately futile uprising against Chinese rule that took place in March 1959. In China, several Tibetan monks and nuns have self-immolated in the past few weeks — Buddhists, who view their body as a temple, pouring gasoline on that body and burning themselves to death. The Chinese hide the corpses, so that they aren’t used to inspire others.

Gyalpo, who lives in Minneapolis, is the oldest of the hunger strikers in New York, and he is also the only American. The other two are much younger activists from Dharasalam, India, the home of Tibetans' government in exile and the Dalai Lama, their spiritual leader.

Yeshi Tenzing turned 39 in the early weeks of the fast, and Tenzin Choeki Gyalsen is 32. Gyalsen is a well-known activist monk who fled Tibet in 1997 and is considered by Buddhists to be the 11th reincarnation of Shingza Rinpoche, a past lama, or spiritual master.

Ban Ki-moon a no-show

The Tibetan Youth Congress organized the New York fast, and its members wait patiently in front of the UN along with the hunger strikers, quietly hoping someone will emerge from inside to address their concerns

Gyalpo, Tenzing and Gyalsen have spent a month sitting or lying quietly on the sidewalk — 12 hours a day, seven days a week — leaving only to sleep in the homes of supporters, since city rules prevent them from camping on the street overnight. They return no later than 7 a.m. the next day.

The UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon sent his delegate for human rights to meet with the men, but the protesters want to speak to Ban himself. So far, he has said no.

Others have come. Tourists find the protest a curiosity, taking photos from double-decker buses. U.S. actor Richard Gere, a Buddhist, paid a visit, hoping to raise awareness of the plight of Tibetans and the hunger strike, which has gone largely unnoticed in this thumping metropolis.

So, how long can the hunger strikers last?

In the first three days of a hunger strike, the body can feed off stored-up glucose. When that is exhausted, the liver starts to process body fat. Typically, that lasts about three weeks, and then the body enters starvation mode, raiding its own muscles, bone marrow and organs for energy, which is considered life-threatening.

Gandhi lasted 116 days before the British caved to his demands, but that is an exceptional case.