Unrecognized and Unassisted: The Struggle for Freedom in Tibet

Since 1950 when the People’s Republic of China (PRC) invaded Tibet and forced it to recognize Chinese rule, the Tibetan people have suffered numerous human rights violations. A US Department of State International Religious Freedom Report from 2014 pointed out that the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China states that citizens may enjoy ‘freedom of religious belief,’ but limits these protections to only ‘normal religious activities’ and does not define ‘normal.’ This wording has been used as China’s loophole to persecute Tibetans despite the promise that Tibet’s political system and Tibetan Buddhism would be protected.

In response to China’s failed promises, a monk-lead uprising began in June of 1956, lasting until 1959. Fearing the kidnapping or assassination of the Dalai Lama (the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism) Tibetans surrounded the Potala Palace in Lhasa on March 10 to protest Chinese occupation and protect their spiritual leader, eventually securing a route for him to India where he would remain in exile.

The PRC has further devastated Tibetan life with its 2006 mass rehousing and relocation policy, aiming to build a new socialist countryside in the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR). Interviewed in 2013 by Human Rights Watch, locals claimed that they were not relocated or rehoused voluntarily. In addition, a 2015 report from Human Rights Watch stated that “Since 2006, over 2 million Tibetans, both farmer and herders, have been involuntarily ‘rehoused’- through government ordered renovation or construction of new houses – TAR; hundreds of thousands of nomadic herders in the eastern part of the Tibetan plateau have been relocated or settled in ‘New Socialist Villages.’” Another 115 page report documented extensive human rights violations, addressed the poor quality of the houses provided, and pointed out the disregard for autonomy rights supposedly guaranteed by Chinese law in Tibetan areas.

Tibetan national flag with Chinese flag behind it, by Michael Lieu

National Uprising Day is observed by Tibetans every year on March 10 to commemorate the Dalai Lama’s exile and their unsuccessful uprising against the Chinese. Chinese government repression is particularly severe during this time.

In response, more than 140 Tibetans have self-immolated in protest since 2009. Monks carried out most of the initial acts, but more and more Tibetan farmers and nomads are taking part. An 2014 report by International Campaign for Tibet claimed that since 2012 at least 11 Tibetans were sentenced to prison terms or death on ‘intentional homicide’ charges for allegedly ‘aiding’ or ‘inciting’ others to self-immolate. Punishments for those allegedly involved or those who have incited these self-immolation protests include imprisonment, heavy fines and restrictions of movement. This year, on February 29th in the Sichuan Province of China, an 18-year-old Tibetan monk died from self-immolation while protesting Chinese rule in Tibet. On the same day, in Dehradun, India, Tibetan student Dorjee Tsering committed the same act while shouting “Free Tibet.” He died three days later in a New Delhi hospital.

This year, the US think tank ‘Freedom House’ ranked Tibet among the 12 worst countries in the world for denial of freedom. Tibetans are under daily surveillance by Chinese government forces; the Tibetan flag and national anthem are banned and Tibetan Buddhism is seen as a threat to the Chinese state. People found in possession of images of the Dalai Lama or his teachings are imprisoned and tortured.

The on-going struggle for freedom of expression manifests in many ways. In 2012, the UN reported that a 17-year-old girl was severely beaten and sentenced to three years in prison for distributing flyers calling for the freedom of Tibet and the return of the Dalai Lama; others have been sentenced to up to seven years in prison for writing essays, making films or distributing photos of events in Tibet outside China. 84-year-old former Tibetan political prisoner, Gyaye Phunsok, died after ten years of house arrest at the end of last month. Phunsok was charged with engaging in separatist activity after Chinese police raided his home and seized a portrait of the Dalai Lama and a Tibetan history book. He was detained at age 68 in August of 1998 for two years, and was released in 2000 to be put under house arrest. Phunsok died due to poor health sustained from injuries during his more than two years of detention in Chabcha County of the Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture. This is a common experience for many political prisoners, who are “commonly subjected to prolonged incommunicado detention, subjected to beatings and torture, with increasing number of deaths in detention,” and many fail to recover from the physical and psychological damages.

The Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet, once the seat of the Dalai Lamas and the political center of Tibet, by Dennis Jarvis

The West has never acknowledged Tibet as an independent country – the goal of any attempt to improve life there is limited to the actual implementation of what is theoretically granted by the PRC Constitution. The EU has also expressed concern on the issue, but does not openly support freeing Tibet due to the fear of damaging relations with the Chinese government. Periods of tension in EU-Chinese relations correspond with the publicity of human rights abuses in Tibet and also the Dalai Lama European tours. Officially, all European governments acknowledge that Tibet is part of China. None have recognized the Tibet Government in Exile (TGIE). EU policy makers have not committed themselves to support more than autonomy for Tibet under China, rather they insist that Tibet should focus on China’s violation of human rights. However, the Chinese government generally ignores these international criticisms. The Dalai Lama has accepted Tibet as part of the PRC but “insists that Greater Tibet should become a self-governing political entity founded on a constitution that would grant Tibet Western-style democratic rights.” The PRC has dismissed this request as indirectly seeking independence.

In September 2013, the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) highlighted China’s abuses when China was seeking election to return as a member. Navi Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, urged China to address these alleged violations in Tibet back in 2012. Pillay called on the government to respect peaceful protest through assembly and expression and to release those who were detained for exercising those human rights. She also urged the Chinese government to allow independent and impartial monitors to assess the conditions in Tibet and to lift restrictions on media access to the region. As of November 2012, there were 12 outstanding requests for official visits to China by the UN Special Rapporteurs on various human rights issues.

If you would like to take action or get involved, you can support various Free Tibet campaigns here. You can also sign Unite for Tibet’s petition to urge world leaders to demand that China find a peaceful solution.

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