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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?"

Making contact with Tibet

March 15, 2009

Dinah Gardner, New Statesman

Published 12 March 2009

Observations on Tibet

Here in China, the beginning of March is an anxious time for anyone who
has a friend in Tibet. This year, paranoia has reached such a pitch that
the absence of instant messages from a Tibetan contact for more than a
couple of days or so can prompt panic.

The sensitive anniversary of the Dalai Lama’s flight from Tibet falls on
10 March; around that date, pockets of protest always flare up across
the region. The security stranglehold is getting ever tighter and
rumours are spreading of crackdowns and arrests. So when a Tibetan
friend is offline and stays offline the dread soon kicks in.

This past week, an acquaintance living in Lhasa “ let’s call him
Tenzin “ had been missing from the instant messaging service Gchat for
several days. I feared the worst. His phone was ominously off. My emails
and texts were going unanswered. In this situation there is only the
feeling of helplessness. There is absolutely nothing you can do. If your
friend has been arrested, asking the police may well make things worse
because there is no transparency.

According to rights groups, the security services regularly round up
Tibetans for anti-government crimes. Often they don”t even bother
issuing a formal notification of arrest. The crimes that might get you
arrested could be as simple as downloading a “reactionary” song or
speaking with a journalist.

Take the case of Dhondup Wangchen, a 35-year-old father-of-three who was
arrested last March for making an anti-government documentary on Tibetan
attitudes to the Olympics. Almost a year has passed and the authorities
have yet to issue a formal notice. Even his family isn”t sure where he
is, says Dechen Pemba, a British Tibetan who was involved with the
documentary. He is believed

to be held at Ershilipu Detention Centre in Xining, in the north-western
Qinghai Province. “His brother-in-law tried to deliver him some food and
clothes

on 31 August last year but was denied. He was told Dhondup was a
‘special case”,” Pemba says.

Back in Beijing, it seems incredible that this could happen. China is
now a country with strong international standing, a fast-developing
soon-to-be-superpower. But when it comes to Tibet, the 21st-century
People’s Republic often reverts to the horror of its Cultural Revolution
past. “Lhasa harmonious ahead of New Year,” proclaims Xinhua, China’s
state news agency. Yet friends in Lhasa say there are so many soldiers
on the streets that they feel safer indoors. Many have boycotted New
Year celebrations “ a 15-day holiday that started on 25 February “ as a
sign of respect for those they say died in last year’s protests. The
official figure is roughly 20, but many Tibetans and Tibetan exile
groups say more than 200 were killed.

China is so nervous that foreigners are now banned from going to the
Tibet Autonomous Region and from several Tibetan areas outside the TAR.
Tibetans are also finding it hard to get around. One friend from Xiahe,
a Tibetan area in Gansu Province, described how, a few weeks ago, she
had to carry a pile of paperwork and pass through several roadblocks
just to get back to her home village.

Pemba says that many Tibetans overseas are too worried to contact family
and friends inside Tibet because they risk arousing the authorities”
suspicions “ even if the communication is innocent: “I get a little
heart attack every time my friend from Lhasa emails me.”

“The overwhelming feeling is that people are scared in the face of all
the military,” says Lhadon Tethong, director of Students for a Free
Tibet. Of course, Tibetan exile groups such as Tethong’s have an agenda:
they want China out. But Tibetans living inside China “ and not all of
them support the exile groups “ tell a similar story of fear.

Woeser is a Tibetan writer living in Beijing who comments frankly on her
blog about the situation in Tibet. Her blog is blocked on the mainland
and she has suffered spells of house arrest for her outspokenness. “Last
August in Lhasa the police detained me for eight hours,” she says. “They
searched my room and confiscated my computer. They accused me of taking
photos of the armed police in the city streets. A few days later they
kicked me out of Lhasa.”

So, after 50 years of so-called democratic reform, Tibet is now a region
where the only information comes from hurried anonymous phone calls to
rights groups and media such as Radio Free Asia.

But there is one piece of good news. “Tenzin” finally got in touch. He
was fine. He had been in the mountains for a few days and was now en
route to Nepal.
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