Making contact with Tibet

Observations on Tibet

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.

This article first appeared in the 16 March 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The year of the crowd