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"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

Blog: Woeser -- Tibet's Fearless Poet

July 27, 2008

Agams Gecko Blog
July 25, 2008

There is always a puzzle -- for me, at least -- when reading about
Chinese judges' sentencing decisions. There are almost always two
components to the punishments meted out (excluding the death sentence
cases): a period of incarceration and a period of "loss of political
rights." Such an example is found in the immediately preceding post.
The Tibetan monk tells how he was sentenced to "three years in
prison, and two years' loss of political rights." What exactly are
the political rights of a citizen, which make it a form of punishment
to lose them?

Plenty of rights are apparently outlined in the country's
constitution, but these rights are also (apparently) not worth the
paper they're printed on. Another current example of this is the
widely-reported announcement a few days ago, that the authorities
were preparing three "protest pens" in Beijing for pre-approved
demonstrations during the Olympics. The official who made the
revelation during a press conference told the assembled scribes that
under the constitution, Chinese citizens' right to protest or
demonstrate is legally protected. Yet no one expects any Chinese
citizens to make use of these "protest pens," festooned as they are
with closed circuit cameras.

In other words, you have the right to protest. You do not have the
right not to be abused by the state in retribution for your protest.
Some "political right" that is.

There is no freedom to speak one's conscience (if it should differ
with the Party's ideology), no freedom to publish (anything that
differs from the Party policy), no right to worship (at any but
Party-sanctioned institutions). Where are the political rights? The
fundamental political right -- the right of the people to choose
their own political leadership -- is right out. The Communist Party
has the single biggest right: a mandate to permanently rule the
country, written into that same constitution.

One basic political right that all citizens of every country would
expect, is the right to hold a passport (of course, with certain
proof of identity, and the expected fees). It's simply an
identification document legally affirming citizenship in one's
country. It is certainly a loss of political rights to have a
passport revoked, or withheld from the citizen. But this is another
"loss of political rights" which requires no court verdict, if you
happen to be a fearless Tibetan poet.

The Tibetan writer Woeser, frequently referred to on this page as
Tibet's citizen journalist in Beijing, wants a Chinese passport.
Police officials in Lhasa told her she would never get approval for a
passport there (it's nearly impossible for Tibetans to get one), so
she applied in her Han Chinese husband's hometown. The document has
been repeatedly denied to her over the past three years. So she's
suing the government. Tibet scholar Robert Barnett calls her "the
poet who forgot to be afraid."

"I'm not expecting to win. But if you don't take action, there's no
chance to let the outside world know the truth," Woeser said. "It's
an opportunity to talk about the unfair treatment of Tibetans over the years."

Woeser lives under constant surveillance in Beijing, and earlier this
year was placed under house arrest, unable to leave her apartment.
Through it all (including repeated hacker-hijackings of her web log)
she continued reporting much of the limited amount of information
coming out of her homeland, which was being relayed to her through
her personal networks. She took incredible risk to do this, but has
so far survived. Her blog, Invisible Tibet (written in Chinese), also endures.

After she had asked friends to make official inquiries about the
reasons she was having such a difficult time acquiring her passport,
they were told that the Tibetan poet posed a "danger to state security."

     "I'm an author who writes from home all the time. If I really am
posing a threat to society, doesn't it make the great country of
China seem very weak?" she said with a laugh...

     "I still have hope in China, which is such a strong nation,"
Woeser said. "I hope it will be strong enough to give me a little space."

The lady has a remarkable faith toward the country that bans her
books, and won't let her receive the international acclaim she has
earned with her writing (awarded the Freedom of Expression prize from
the Norwegian Authors' Union this year, and unable to accept it in
person). Using the Olympic spectacle to promote a vision of China's
strength, the authorities would look pretty silly in this trial if
they claim the state is afraid of a Tibetan poet. China's leaders
would do well to study Aung San Suu Kyi's philosophy of Freedom from
Fear, maybe they wouldn't be so touchy. Woeser seems to have already
mastered the practice, having much in common with Daw Suu.

A new translation of Woeser's poetry has been published in English:
Tibet's True Heart. More exerpts and ordering information is on the
book's website. Not a lot of her work has been translated, although
China Digital Times had been translating her Tibet dispatches, but
that seems to be discontinued. Some essays are available at Tibet
Writes. Very highly recommended is a two-part essay she published
this month, on meeting some Tibetans far from home in Beijing. These
conversations include a lot of accounts of what went on in Lhasa a
few months ago. These essays defy my usual synopsis treatment, and
are essential reading for those who wish to understand the situation.

     Part 1: The Fear in Lhasa, as Felt in Beijing
     Part 2: Lhasa, Making Sound in Fear

It's exceedingly difficult to know what has been going on in Tibet,
other than through such accounts as those. The Chinese government has
gone to extraordinary lengths to prevent independent reporters from
getting anywhere near Tibetan areas. So it was with great (and
pleasant) surprise that I chanced upon the news that a reporter from
the Far Eastern Economic Review was given a five-day pass to report
from Lhasa. Kathleen McLaughlin is now in the Tibetan capital, from
whence she has now sent two dispatches on her Lhasa Diary. Yesterday,
she ran into her first official obstruction.

How much we get to see and whether people will be willing to speak
honestly with us remains unclear. Our requests to visit the Drepung
Monastery – once the biggest monk-training school in Tibet – were
rejected. The monastery, which critics charge has become a prison
camp for monks, remains closed to outsiders. After just a few hours
here, I can already tell that the elusive truth I'm looking for will
not be easily found.

There is another new entry on the page today, but as yet no sign of
getting to the bottom of any of the important questions. One truth,
of which there was never much doubt, comes through clearly. Security
is very tight, and Tibetans are afraid to say too much. She only has
three days remaining -- hardly enough time to build up any trust or
friendships. But as the single independent source in Lhasa at the
moment, worth keeping an eye on.
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