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"As long as human rights are violated, there can be no foundation for peace. How can peace grow where speaking the truth is itself a crime?"

Tibet in Turmoil - How 3 Canadians Upstaged Beijing

March 31, 2008

It was supposed to have been China's week - the Olympic torch ceremony
kicking off the final countdown to the Beijing Games. Instead,
protesters spoiled the party. Doug Saunders traces the seven years of
planning to usurp the showcase
Headshot of Doug Saunders

The Globe and Mail
March 29, 2008

LONDON -- This was supposed to be China's week. The launch of the
longest Olympic torch relay in history was heralded in the Chinese press
as a spectacle that would bring the nation glory, until Monday, when
editors of Beijing's newspapers struggled to edit blood-covered Tibetan
protesters out of photos of the torch-lighting ceremony in Olympia, Greece.

China's week has become Tibet's moment. Tibetans and their supporters
are being driven by the belief that this Olympic year and its vast media
attention are a last opportunity to challenge Beijing's rule. It now
looks like activists have succeeded in making China's 57-year occupation
of the territory the dominant issue of the 2008 Olympic Games.

Behind this dramatic capture of the world's attention are three young
women from British Columbia, who have spent much of the seven years
since China won the Games organizing thousands of international
volunteers and hundreds of Tibet-related organizations into a six-month
campaign of stealth activism intended to humiliate China before an
international audience.

Standing just to the edge of the TV cameras in Greece on Monday was Kate
Woznow, a 28-year-old Vancouverite who organized the day's
attention-grabbing interventions - blood-covered Tibetans lay down in
front of the torch carrier during the lighting ceremony - from the
offices of Students for a Free Tibet in New York, where she runs the
Olympic-related campaign:

"We realized seven years ago, when China got the Olympics, what an
incredible opportunity this would be to shine a spotlight on the
terrible treatment of Tibet," she said as she arrived in London to
organize a day of demonstrations to coincide with the torch's arrival in
Beijing on Monday.

The Tibet cause has been popular on campuses for years, and has
attracted celebrities such as actor Richard Gere, but it has long had
the somewhat passive image typified by bumper stickers and drum circles.
The runup to the Olympics has changed that, as have the events in Tibet
this month, which have reportedly seen more than 100 Tibetans killed by
Chinese authorities in nationwide uprisings that seem to have been
spurred by the Olympics protests.

"Young people really got it; they've been signing up and telling us that
they have a real determination to push the bar, to make this the year
when there's some change for Tibet. They know that every media
organization in the world is going to be focused on the Olympics, so for
years we've realized that what we have to do is to be creative and find
ways to insert the Tibet issue into that frame."

As Ms. Woznow was bailing the Tibetan students out of Greek jail (the
two who appeared most prominently on TV were Swiss citizens), another
B.C. woman, 28-year-old Freya Putt, was in her office in Washington,
preparing documents that would be sent to 150 Tibet support groups
around the world giving them detailed notes on how to behave when
organizing similar disruptions as the torch makes its six-month trip
around the world.

Last May, the Dalai Lama's Tibetan government-in-exile put together a
meeting in Brussels of all the major Tibet organizations - there are
hundreds, and they're organized under a Washington-based umbrella group,
the International Tibet Support Network. There, the exiled Tibetans
decided that the Olympics should be the single focus of their activities
for the next 15 months, and they hired a full-time organizer for the
Olympic-disruption campaign.

They picked Ms. Putt, a University of Victoria graduate who had spent
years in the student movement. When Tibet activists disrupted
then-prime-minister Jean Chrétien's 2001 visit to China, Ms. Putt was
there, directing it and communicating with the media as students
unfurled a protest banner behind the Chinese and Canadian leaders. One
of the demonstrators was Ms. Woznow, who was arrested and detained by
Chinese authorities.

 From Washington, Ms. Putt has steered a disorderly circle of thousands
of volunteers on six continents into a carefully designed campaign that
will combine Greenpeace-style attention-getting techniques with the
Buddhist country's traditionally non-violent values, all directed at the
thousands of media outlets that are converging on Beijing.

She also leads the efforts to communicate with the International Olympic
Committee, whose president, the Belgian Jacques Rogge, has refused to
consider requests to prevent China from sending the torch relay over
Mount Everest and through Tibet, which Tibetans consider a gesture of
subjection. The committee may be forced to bend after European leaders
suggested this week that they will stay away from the opening ceremonies
unless China changes its approach to Tibet.

And she works closely with groups that are using the Olympics to bring
attention to China's other controversies, including its support for the
government of Sudan during the Darfur crisis and its mistreatment of the

"I make sure we're co-ordinating all these groups around the world,
making sure we're speaking with a common message and focusing our
efforts so they'll have the greatest impact," Ms. Putt said. "I make
sure that we have a common target, that all of these groups' energies
are going in the same direction, which is to put pressure on the Chinese
leaders in Beijing to make Tibet the critical issue that really needs to
be resolved immediately."

While Ms. Woznow had become involved in the politics of Tibet after a
yearlong tour of China in 1999, Ms. Putt got involved through her
family: Her mother had been a volunteer in India with the aid agency
CUSO in the 1960s, working with Tibetan refugees who were flooding
across the border. So when Ms. Putt encountered Tibet activists at the
University of Victoria, she was quickly drawn into their circle.

She soon met another young B.C. woman, Lhadon Tethong, a family
acquaintance. Her mother had also worked with CUSO near Tibet, and had
married a Tibetan activist who had been in the Dalai Lama's inner
circle; the two had moved to Canada, where Ms. Tethong was born.

Today Ms. Tethong, 34, is the charismatic executive director of
Washington-based Students for a Free Tibet, with 650 chapters around the
world, and is perhaps the leading figure in the international
Olympic-protest campaign.

The three women work closely together, drawing on their long experience
in Canada. "We've all kind of grown up together," Ms. Woznow says. "It's
been a kind of maturing of the movement as we've gotten older, and I
think now is its most exciting time."

But Ms. Tethong, unlike her non-Tibetan friends, has never visited
Tibet. Given her family's history, that would be too dangerous. But she
did sneak into China last year and help organize the unfurling of a
large banner on the Great Wall and a protest on Mount Everest, all the
while posting video clips on the Web. She was taken into custody by
Chinese police and questioned.

In an interview yesterday from Dharamsala, India, where she has been
working with Tibetans all month, Ms. Tethong explained that the Olympics
have come to be seen as a decisive historical moment, and that the
bloody events of recent weeks have not dimmed a hope that this year's
international attention will force China to change its stand toward Tibet.

"We want to lessen the damage that can be done to Tibetans by shining as
bright a light as possible on them, especially during the Games and this
torch relay," she said.

"The Chinese government wants something from this; they want world
acceptance. That's why they're taking the risk of inviting the world in
for these Games. They want to be part of the club and to be liked. And
our job as young activists is to deny them this, to tell them that their
approach to Tibet is going to cost them something, it'll cost them face.
And loss of face is the most serious thing we can deliver."

The three women have been campaigning around the Olympics since 2000,
when Beijing was bidding to be host of the 2008 Games. At the time, they
were simply trying to prevent China from getting the Games. When that
campaign failed, there was a mood of dismay, and the issue was dropped
for a couple years.

Then, about 2005 or 2006, there was an epiphany, a realization that
China's Games could be the ultimate opportunity to make a change, if
angry, mistreated and dying Tibetans became their emblematic image.

The campaign falls into a long tradition of political campaigning around
Olympic Games. It probably began in 1936, when Adolf Hitler hosted the
Berlin Olympics as a showcase for the new fascist Germany, and there was
a major international discussion of a boycott. It was Hitler who
introduced the torch relay, intended to show off his regime's power and
purity, and gave the opening ceremonies much of their nation-promoting pomp.

Because the opening events of the Olympics became tools of national
promotion after 1936, they soon became targets of activism, including
the civil-rights protests by athletes at the 1968 Mexico City Games, the
boycott by several democratic countries of the 1980 Moscow Olympics and
the reciprocal Communist boycott of the 1984 Los Angeles Games.

"Even when we were opposing Beijing's bid," Ms. Putt said from
Washington, "people knew that if China was awarded the Olympics, it
would mean that all the attention of the media and a huge number of
people around the world would be on China in a way that it isn't
normally. And for Tibetans, they've been struggling to get their voices
heard for 50 or 60 years. It's not a fresh issue, it's not a violent
conflict, and because of that it's hard to get a sense of attention and
urgency on the issue. So we knew right away that it was an opportunity
not to be missed."

As the torch makes its slow journey around the world, passing through
Beijing this weekend before crossing Asia, the Middle East, Europe and
the Americas before returning to China for its controversial trip
through Tibet in May, the three Canadian women are working their
BlackBerrys and laptops late into the night, ensuring that something
dramatic will happen at each stop.

Their biggest plans, however, are for August, when Beijing will be on
every TV station and the front page of every publication. "We are
determined to have non-violent direct action in the heart of Beijing,
inside the Games, every day," Ms. Tethong says.

"We know that Tibet won't be free in September, but we want the next
generation of Chinese leaders to know that this occupation is very
costly for them, that its cost to their reputation outweighs any
benefits. That's what we want to accomplish this summer."

Olympic developments

Not attending

German chancellor, Angela Merkel, yesterday announced she has decided
not to attend the Olympics in Beijing.

Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Germany's foreign minister, confirmed that Ms.
Merkel was staying away. Poland's Donald Tusk and the Czech Republic's
Vaclav Klaus had previously announced they had declined to attend the
opening ceremonies.

Making an appeal

The European Union is appealing to China to resolve the crisis in Tibet
through peaceful means. The appeal comes from foreign ministers of the
EU's 27 countries, at a two-day meeting in Slovenia. The ministers say
Tibet's cultural heritage must be respected. No officials at the EU
meeting are asking for a full-blown boycott.

Blocking demonstrations

Greek authorities prevented more demonstrations against China's
crackdown in Tibet yesterday as the Olympic flame headed for Athens and
its symbolic handover to Beijing Games organizers. Echoing an
increasingly tense week as the torch travelled around the country,
police stopped 20 demonstrators putting up a banner in Volos, arresting
one person. About 10 Danish activists were also blocked by police around
70 kilometres outside Larissa, again in central Greece.

Paying A visit

China yesterday allowed the first foreign diplomats to visit Tibet after
deadly riots, as European nations appeared split on the idea of
boycotting the Beijing Olympics opening. Two weeks after protests in the
Himalayan region turned deadly, diplomats from 15 embassies, including
those of the United States, Britain, France, Japan and Canada arrived in
the Tibetan capital, Lhasa, for a hastily arranged tour.

Calling for symbols

Former German Olympic medalists yesterday called for those competing in
the 2008 Olympics to wear a specially designed green and blue bracelet
to protest against human-rights violations by China in Tibet.

The four are Stefan Pfannmoller, a bronze medalist in the canoe at the
2004 Athens Game; former German handball star Stefan Kretzschmar, 1992
Olympic swimming champion Dagmar Hase, and four-time Olympic rowing
champion Katrin Boron.

Sources: Associated Press, AFP, Reuters
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