NEXT to Banana Republic, Barnes & Noble and other temples of mass consumption on Santa Monica's Third Street Promenade, 100 or so people stand around waving flags, shouting through megaphones and chanting vigorously. 'Made In China, We Won't Buy It,' they yell in unison. 'No Human Rights, No Trade.' With hand-held Tibet and US flags flapping in the breeze, and sporting 'Free Tibet' T-shirts or pictures of the Dalai Lama strapped around their chests, they seem passionate. And excited they have made it to Los Angeles. The group was in Santa Monica as part of the last leg of the March for Tibet's Independence, two publicity-generating walks that began 800 kilometres away in San Francisco on April 25, and 290 km away in San Diego about a month later, finally converging last Tuesday in LA. Yesterday they were to have gathered outside the Chinese Consulate General off LA's Wilshire Boulevard. 'I've always been passionate about [the cause],' says Gary Stone, a San Francisco resident who was part of the walk. 'But it was the movies that really made a difference - Seven Years In Tibet and Kundun. I knew I had to do something.' Not everyone shares his zeal, however. Observing the proceedings is Edward Williams, a Los Angeles resident in the midst of a court battle with the LA Police Department over claims he was beaten by police officers. 'What about all the problems in the US? The racism towards blacks, Hispanics, native Americans? These people are thrown into jail for no reason. Tibet? Tibet is a million miles away.' Williams' take on the situation in Tibet highlights one of the biggest challenges to the Tibetan people's struggle for independence. Since 1949, when Chinese troops invaded the eastern frontier, there reportedly have been a million deaths due to torture, starvation and execution. Amnesty International and the United Nations report that there are countless travesties of justice taking place in the remote Himalayan country every day. Meanwhile, Beijing maintains there is no truth to reports of prisoners being routinely tortured or of devout Buddhists unwilling to renounce their beliefs being shot perfunctorily in the head. Buddhist monk Palden Gyatso claims otherwise. The leader of last week's March for Tibet's Independence (he was part of the San Diego walk), he says the reports of torture are true. And he adds he has proof: torture instruments - some apparently with the brandnames of Chinese manufacturers - he smuggled out of Tibet in 1992, after 33 years behind bars. On October 13, 1990, towards the end of his imprisonment, Gyatso was taken to a special cell at Drapchi Prison in Lhasa, and had his hands and feet tightly bound, as chronicled in his autobiography published three years ago. A guard, brandishing an electric prod - began taunting him. 'If you want freedom, we'll give you freedom,' he said, before thrusting the instrument into Gyatso's mouth. The shock waves caused some of his teeth to fall out, before he passed out. When he came to, he was lying in his own vomit and excrement. Within a month, he was toothless. The false teeth he now wears were given to him in 1995 by the London office of Amnesty International. Anyone who has read Gyatso's An Autobiography Of A Monk (published as Fire Under The Snow in Britain), will remember this episode in gut-wrenching detail. It was, in his three decades in a succession of Tibetan prisons, closed-off monasteries, quarries, camps and vast, arid fields, his most painful memory. However, the torture and abuse that apparently were a fact of life for Gyatso and thousands of his fellow inmates now seem a lifetime away. On a recent Monday morning, Gyatso - now 69 - was happily and safely seated on a mattress in the upstairs bedroom of a comfortable home in an outer LA suburb. A quiet man swathed in burgundy-coloured monastic robes, occasionally he allows the impact of an old memory to bring pain to his lined, tired face. 'I believe I will see a freed Tibet in my lifetime,' he says, through a translator. 'I believe that with all the support we have, it will happen.' The core numbers for this protest, however, weren't huge; 13 walkers from San Diego and 21 from San Francisco marched from 9am to 4pm every day, and at night were given room in churches and private homes. The event was timed to coincide with the visit to LA of the Dalai Lama, who was to arrive in the city yesterday to deliver a series of talks. 'The response has been encouraging,' he says, referring to the numbers of people who helped swell the core group of walkers by joining in as they passed, if only for a few hours. Walking down the West Coast, they were met by Tom Harman, the mayor of Huntington Beach, who pledged his support. Others gave donations, cheered them on, handed out water and food. For some - Tibetans in exile and non-Tibetans - the cause has been all-consuming. 'I've seen it with my own eyes,' says Lamu Stadler, a Tibetan born in exile in Darjeeling who has lived in the US for the past 20 years, now married to an American. 'I went to a hospital in Nepal to visit my dying sister. There was an awful smell, like rotting meat. I opened the door, and there they were, about 35 bodies . . . I thought they were dead, but I found out they were badly frostbitten, having crossed the Himalayas to escape from Tibet. Many of them had to have their limbs amputated. After that, I said to myself, 'I'm not going to sit here and do nothing'. I knew I had to get involved.' Tenzing Chondon, who runs the Orange County Friends of Tibet, says the idea for the walk was born out of sheer frustration. 'We feel that time is running out for our country. Five decades of suffering is long enough. We need to pressure governments to do something before Tibet becomes just a mark in the history books.' According to Chondon, eight million Chinese now live in Tibet, compared with six million natives. He says the streets of Lhasa are now filled with brothels, and Aids is a growing problem. He adds that his people are languishing, monasteries are still being forced to remove pictures of the Dalai Lama and that thousands of Tibetans risk their lives to escape every year, ending up as ill and beleaguered amputees in India (Dharamsala, a small town in the foothills of the Himalayas, is the adopted home for numerous exiled Tibetans and headquarters of the Tibetan government in exile.) While Gyatso is now safe, he feels he cannot rest. He promised himself that if he got out of Tibet alive, he would tell his story to the world, to the UN, international governments, anyone who would listen. The Dalai Lama apparently encouraged him to write his autobiography. Gyatso was one of allegedly thousands of Tibetans swept away into prison in the wake of the 1959 uprising against the Chinese. It was the same year that another respected Tibetan-in-exile, Ani Pachen Dolma, suffered at the hands of Chinese troops. Pachen Dolma, a Buddhist nun, led the walk from San Francisco. But, between 1959 and 1980, she was imprisoned as a result of her leading 700 resistance fighters on horseback against the tanks of the invading Chinese communists. Today, she is called Tibet's Joan of Arc. Gyatso remembers his last day of peace as if it were yesterday. On March 10, 1959, the Dalai Lama had been asked to visit one of the Chinese military bases in Lhasa, without escorts or protection. His followers, believing his life was in danger, rallied round his home in uproar. Gyatso was one of many thousands captured. 'I thought I would be killed. But in the event that I would survive, I forced mys In 1983, Gyatso was sentenced to be executed. News reached exiled Tibetans in India, who gathered outside the Chinese Consulate General in New Delhi in protest. Gyatso believes that this was what ultimately led to his being spared. But he was to spend another nine years in prison - until the BBC featured him in a documentary about oppression in Tibet. His cause was taken up by Amnesty International in Italy, which fought for his release. In 1992, after his release, he left the country immediately. But Gyatso says he doesn't allow a day to go by without remembering the torture. 'They were barbaric,' he declares. 'Our hands and feet were tied behind us so tight that we looked like round human balls. Then we would be strung up on a pole, and left to hang there for days. We were beaten, and when our skin broke or was bruised, we had hot peppers rubbed in, or boiling water thrown on us. Sometimes, they lit a fire underneath us. I could hear my skin sizzling.' The torture sessions were regular, he says, and usually unprovoked. It happened around every two weeks or so, and not just to force prisoners to renounce their beliefs. 'It was done to demoralise and break us. Mostly, I could handle the physical pain. But what I couldn't bear was being forced to testify against fellow prisoners. I never gave in, as doing so would surely have led to their execution.' This Saturday, Gyatso and Pachen Dolma are scheduled to visit Washington, where they will join actor Richard Gere in a gathering outside the Chinese Embassy. Following that will be another walk, this time through Europe. The trek begins in France and goes over the Alps, to acknowledge the suffering of Tibetans fleeing through the Himalayas. Walkers and supporters do not expect to be received by Chinese consular officials. Xue Bing, the press consul at the Chinese Consulate General in Los Angeles, says the offices will be closed because it is a Saturday. In any event, he says the Chinese Government's position on Tibet remains unchanged. 'We firmly oppose the activities,' he says. 'We know of their [the demonstrators'] visit to the consulate general, and that it will coincide with the visit to Los Angeles of the Dalai Lama. But he [the Dalai Lama] is not just a religious leader as he claims. He is a political leader in exile who is using divisive techniques to separate Tibet from the motherland. Our position is clear. Tibet is a Chinese territory, and has been since the mid-13th century.' On behalf of his government, Xue denies any inflicting of torture and abuse on Tibetans. 'The accusations . . . are fabrications,' he says. Back at Third Street Promenade, an employee at the Lucky Jeans boutique stands at the edge of the doorway looking out at the demonstrators. 'Yeah, I've been listening,' he says. 'Right on.'