Why are Tibetans protesting?
The situation in Tibet is one of the world’s greatest and longest-standing human rights crises – a country that has been occupied for decades by China.
Tibetans are subjected to daily violations of their basic human rights in many forms
- they can be detained indefinitely without charge and with no legal representation
- they can be sentenced to life imprisonment for sending an email about the situation inside Tibet
- there is widespread and routine torture of prisoners
- they cannot practice their religion freely
- Tibetan monks risk expulsion from monasteries if they do not denounce the Dalai Lama
- Tibetan nomads are being expelled from their lands
- Tibetans have no political or legal recourse and protest is their only means of gaining global attention for their plight
When did these protests start?
In 2008, protests swept across Tibet, but were brutally cut down by China. Protests have continued since, but, facing arrest and torture, Tibetans sought new ways to protest.
In February 2009 Tabe, a monk from Kirti Monastery, set himself on fire - an uncommon form of protest in Tibet at the time.
In March 2011, Phuntsog (right), a monk from the same monastery, did the same. More than 100 Tibetans have set themselves on fire since with around 90 dying. Initially it was exclusively monks participating in this brutal protest, but this is no longer the case.
Two-thirds of those who have self-immolated have been under the age of 25.
Tibetans continue to demonstrate, taking to the streets and marching. They fly the banned Tibetan flag and hand out leaflets. They put up pictures of the Dalai Lama, whose image is banned, and students protest against the lack of Tibetan language in their textbooks.
The Lhakar, or ‘White Wednesdays" movement, emerged in the aftermath of the 2008 uprising. It is a practice whereby Tibetans promote their culture; they speak their own language, shop exclusively in Tibetan shops and wear Tibetan clothes; every one a rejection of Chinese rule.
What’s different about these protests?
The scale of self-immolations is unprecedented. People have been protesting this way for two years and it shows no sign of stopping.
Reported immolations have increased from 1 in 2009 to 12 in 2011 and 82 in 2012. And as news of the protests and self-immolations has spread, more and more Tibetans are risking imprisonment by sharing photos and videos so the world can see what is happening in their country.
One Tibetan said: “For me, I really don't have the courage to sacrifice my life with immolation but I can spend time in a Chinese jail for passing the information out.”
When do you expect them to end?
We expect that protests will continue in Tibet until Tibetans are given the right of self-determination. The crackdown by the Chinese - increased imprisonment, disappearances and torture of Tibetans - has done little to deter calls for freedom.
What has been China’s reaction?
For example, in January 2012, Chinese forces opened fire on peaceful protesters three times in one week, killing at least five people. In one incident in Drango, two people were killed, including Yonten (right), and Free Tibet has details of more than 30 others who were injured, making it the largest single shooting of unarmed protesters since 2008.
We have already seen one suspended death sentence for allegedly inciting self-immolations and harsh sentences for seven other individuals.
The rule of law is a fiction in Tibet and the confessions on which convictions are based could be the result of threats, reprisals on local communities and even torture, which the United Nations Committee on Torture reports is “widespread” and “routine” in Tibet.
Chinese military presence at protest locations has increased and hundreds of Tibetans have been arrested or disappeared. The many documented prisoner deaths give us grave concerns for their safety, as security forces often refuse to inform families where their relatives are or even if they are still alive.
House searches and intimidation are regular features of daily life in many areas, and Tibetans are often beaten simply for being Tibetan.
China’s rhetoric has also escalated with one senior official telling his colleagues to prepare for ‘war’.
What’s happened to people who have set themselves on fire?
We have confirmed that around 90 have died, although it could be far more. The well-being and whereabouts of the others are unknown.
One monk Lobsang Konchok (left) has been in hospital since October and his family has been denied visiting rights.
The first monk to set himself on fire, Tabe, has also been denied family contact. After almost two years in detention, he was paraded on Chinese state television, to denounce his actions. There is no evidence he was not forced to do so under duress.
What has been the reaction of the international community?
Some officials have spoken out but it has been highly unsatisfactory when you consider the response in other instances, such as the civilian uprisings in the Middle East.
How has the Tibetan Government in Exile responded?
The Dalai Lama had been sending his envoys to Beijing to discuss Tibet with the Chinese government since 2002, but, despite repeated requests, there have been no meetings since 2010 and in June 2012, two senior envoys resigned, citing frustration with China’s lack of engagement.
The international community has continually hid behind these talks; citing them as the best means of solving the Tibet issue. The resignations ended the guise of Chinese diplomacy and left the world no means to hide from the ongoing repression and human rights violations continuing inside Tibet.
Is this like the Arab Spring protests?
Yes, in the sense that this is being driven by people inside Tibet. These are brave people making a public stand for freedom and sharing footage with the outside world, while knowing the possible consequences of their actions.
However, Tibet has attracted considerably less media coverage than the Arab Spring. This might be because Tibet is essentially closed to foreign media. In February 2012 Reporters Without Borders reported that even North Korea has an international media presence, but Tibet does not.
Tibetans also have severely restricted access to the social media tools that were key in the Arab Spring's success. This makes it even more vital that Free Tibet disseminate information from inside Tibet.
Western leaders have also been less keen to speak out on Tibet compared to the Arab nations due to their close economic ties with China.
Is setting yourself on fire against Buddhist teaching?
All life in Buddhism is sacred.
These protests underline how desperate the situation has become. For some Tibetans, this feels like their only recourse.
Many Tibetans are mournful for the loss of life but regard these individuals as courageous and acting on behalf of all the people of Tibet.