Blog: Through darkness and silence - campaigning on Tibet

Monks with Tibetan horns, or dungchen, confront Chinese soldiers
Monks with Tibetan horns, or dungchen, confront Chinese soldiers

25th January 2016
Post by John

This week Free Tibet begins campaigning on our third ‘Robed Resister’, Thardhod Gyaltsen. The campaign to support Tibet’s protesting monks and nuns has struck a chord with supporters, who have sent hundreds of messages of solidarity with Bangri Tsamtrul Rinpoche and Tsangyang Gyatso.

Put briefly, the campaign’s aim is to support Tibetan monks and nuns in detention in one of the world’s most repressive and secretive regimes, a place where people who stand up for their community or speak out against the authorities can virtually disappear: occupied Tibet. In addition, it is our hope that the campaign draws the world’s attention to the under-reported story of resistance by Tibetans to Chinese occupation.

The Chinese response to acts of resistance, big or small, is harsh.

Resistance to China’s rule, its environmental destruction and its human rights abuses in Tibet is often led by monks and nuns. Tibet is renowned as a deeply religious society and many monks establish old people’s homes and orphanages and help preserve Tibetan language and culture, making them natural community leaders and the forefront of the resistance.

The Chinese response to acts of resistance, big or small, is harsh, with monks often beaten or sent to jail where they are put at risk of torture. Acts considered subversive can include planning large protests or trying to tell the outside world about events in Tibet.

It was a far more innocuous act that landed Thardhod Gyaltsen in trouble. In 2013 Chinese authorities decided that Driru County was out of control. The locals had stood up to a mining operation with vigorous protests, putting it on hold, and had reacted to demands that they fly Chinese flags on their houses by chucking the flags into the river. China cracked down hard, deploying a large and aggressive police presence and shutting down several monasteries. Thardhod Gyaltsen’s monastery was among those closed down so that police could enforce a political re-education campaign on the residents. While the police were there he appears to have been found in possession of images of the Dalai Lama and recordings of his speeches and teachings, all prohibited under Chinese rule. This transgression was enough to earn Thardhod Gyaltsen the charge that he was a “splittist” (someone attempting to break up the People’s Republic of China) and ultimately land him in prison with an outrageously severe 18 year sentence.

Bangri Tsamtrul Rinpoche
Tsangyang Gyatso
Thardhod Gyaltsen

The difficulty I find with work on Tibet is just how much effort China puts into ensuring that people outside Tibet cannot make contact with those standing up for human rights and self-determination inside.

As Free Tibet’s Campaigns Officer, one of my jobs is to react to this kind of repression by putting pressure on the Chinese government and getting our supporters involved in our actions. One of the most basic yet most effective tools in human rights campaigning is encouraging large numbers of supporters to write letters to governments, telling them to release political prisoners, stop torture and end threats against people standing up for their rights, and make them know that we will not leave them alone until these wrongs are righted. Large floods of letters will make anyone, from elected Prime Ministers to despotic military dictators, take notice.

Unfortunately, the very reason that makes shining a light on Tibet’s political prisoners necessary is also the reason why it is incredibly difficult. Over the past decade I have researched and campaigned on human rights in several countries, including places like Colombia, Sudan and Zimbabwe, where human rights defenders are routinely harassed, often jailed and sometimes assassinated. Each country has its distinct complications and the difficulty I find with work on Tibet is just how much effort China puts into ensuring that people outside Tibet cannot make contact with those standing up for human rights and self-determination inside.

Tibet under Chinese rule is one of the most closed places in the world. A ban on communicating with the outside world is enforced with prison sentences.

Tibetan exiles are a vital source of information about what is happening inside their country, but in recent years a clampdown by China on Tibet’s borders and a more hostile environment in Nepal has seen the number of people leaving plummet. Between his release from prison and his arrival in India, monk and human rights activist Golog Jigme spent 20 months on the run from China. Only then, free of surveillance and threats of jail, could he fully recount his experiences in prison and tell the world of the torture that Tibet’s political prisoners are subjected to.

Getting information out of Tibet is even tougher and fraught with risks. Tibet under Chinese rule is one of the most closed places in the world. A ban on communicating with the outside world is enforced with prison sentences. A Tibetan protester dragged away by police will disappear for months from their own friends and family. And last week a massive surveillance programme deployed by Beijing throughout Tibet, consisting of 21,000 Communist Party officials, police and security forces, effectively became permanent.

Information can trickle out of Tibet, sometimes slowly and intermittently, sometimes suddenly, flashes of illumination like sitting in a thunderstorm during a power cut. For long periods it may even seem like nothing is happening, no protests, no crackdowns, no arrests. Then, suddenly, Free Tibet, through our research partner Tibet Watch, receives breaking news of a protest, an arrest, or the account of a family member about their husband, wife or child who vanished six months ago. Slowly, surely, persistently, the information reaches us.

When we are sure that the facts are assembled and our help is needed, we intervene, and give it all we have. 

For a campaigner this can be frustrating. You are sure that arrests are taking place and want to intervene. You want to intervene quickly because the consequences can be dire for a Tibetan political prisoner. But you have to balance this desire to act with other considerations about what is effective and that fundamental rule of intervention: “first do no harm”. On one occasion we built up our information on a political prisoner and identified them as someone that needed urgent help. We planned a campaign with activities and key targets. And then, just as we were preparing to act, information came through that the campaign could derail efforts by family members inside to help. The campaign was scrapped, because the wellbeing of the prisoner must always be the priority.

But when we are sure that the facts are assembled and our help is needed, we intervene, and give it all we have. Last year, for example, we provided vital evidence to the United Nations’ Committee against Torture about torture in Tibet, allowing it to confront Chinese authorities about the torture methods that they use against Tibetan political prisoners – evidence that was especially vital because the UN can’t go to Tibet and obtain that evidence for itself.

Free Tibet will continue to campaign as long as it has to alongside Tibetans standing up to the Chinese occupation and letting Beijing know that the world is watching. You can join in by standing with Thardhod Gyaltsen here.

About the author: John is the Campaign Officer at Free Tibet. He has spent the past ten years working on human rights, and when he isn’t doing that, likes to spend his time learning languages and travelling.