By Denise Nanni and Milena Rampoldi, ProMosaik. In the following interview with Sam of the organization Free Tibet struggling for the rights of Tibetan people and for their dignity as a free people. They denounce the Chinese oppressive regime at a national and international level. We would like to thank Sam for his detailed answers and the wonderful photos he sent us.
How was Free Tibet founded?
Free Tibet was formed in late 1987 (it is our 30th anniversary this year) in the aftermath of a huge uprising in Tibet that year when dozens of protesters were killed by the Chinese military. The organisation was created in the UK following a groundswell of global support against the harsh Chinese military occupation.
The 1987 uprising escalated as Tibetans reacted to a series of increasingly heavy-handed actions by the Chinese authorities. It was only the imposition of martial law across the whole of Tibet which finally brought the protests to an end in early 1989 – just a few months before demonstrations in Tiananmen Square in Beijing were harshly and infamously suppressed.
The 1987 protests were the strongest show of defiance to the Chinese occupation since the March 10th 1959 Uprising when 100,000 Tibetans – including the Dalai Lama – were forced to flee their homeland.
Since Free Tibet’s formation, it has continued to expose China’s atrocities in Tibet – a nation with a history of hundreds of years of independent, sovereign rule – as well as campaigning for international recognition of Tibetans’ right to freedom.
How responsive have the public been to your campaigns?
Every campaign resonates with global communities in different ways. Tibet’s rich and threatened spiritual history, its awe-inspiring landscape which now faces multiple challenges and the ongoing violation of human rights have all motivated people to take action for this region of the world.
In July 2016 Chinese authorities unleashed an army of earth-movers on the iconic Tibetan Buddhist monastery at Larung Gar. Within weeks hundreds of homes lay flattened and thousands of monks, nuns and students were forcibly evicted. So deep was the pain that three resident nuns took their own lives.
Once news of this blatant attack on peoples’ homes and lives reached the outside world the response was immediate: Free Tibet joined fellow campaign organisations in telling the world about Larung Gar and helped demonstrate that mass action can bring about change.
A global Day of Action in October 2016 saw people take to the streets in at least 20 cities worldwide including Buenos Aires, Delhi, New York, Paris, Tokyo, Vancouver and London.
Free Tibet did not shy away from highlighting Larung Gar’s symbolism as a centre of resistance to the Chinese state and hundreds of people wrote to their Ministers of Foreign Affairs and local Chinese embassies.
Nearly two thousand people contacted the European Union about the pointless destruction of the monastery prompting Federica Mogherini, EU Minister for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, to demand an immediate halt to the demolitions. Press coverage was secured in the New York Times, The Times, the BBC and Reuters news agency among other media outlets.
The demolitions were halted over the winter and recent news from Larung Gar has revealed that, while the situation remains critical, the number of people required to be evicted and the number of homes scheduled for demolition have both been reduced.
Larung Gar is just one example of the on-going litany of abuse taking place within Tibet, yet it demonstrates that when the public make noise, even authoritarian regimes take note.
How can the apparent silence around the severe violations of human rights that China commits be explained?
There are, of course, many reasons why China’s actions in Tibet elicit little condemnation from global leaders. The key issue, as so often in life, unfortunately, tends to be money.
China routinely pressures other national governments when they speak out on Tibet. With significant and valuable trade deals with virtually every nation on Earth, China is not averse to flexing its economic muscle. In 2016 the Chinese authorities tightened their grip on the governments of Slovakia and Mongolia following visits by the Dalai Lama to both states (though neither of these trips were political or involved any official government meetings). The subsequent trade threats that both nations faced prompted their governments to apologise and commit not to host the Tibetan spiritual leader again.
The UK government needs to speak out more and its strong trade links with China have too often taken priority over human rights concerns, with little public condemnation of Beijing’s abuses in Tibet. Britain’s decision to leave the EU could worsen this situation.
In the past the UK has done some good work to raise human rights issues in Tibet through the EU’s External Action Service – by issuing joint statements through the EU the UK has been shielded from direct Chinese criticism. However, once the UK leaves the European bloc it will have to develop a stronger approach to speaking out for human rights in Tibet – the need it now faces to sign new trade accords in its own right, with countries such as China, make it difficult to imagine how that will happen.
China is also increasingly aware of the role of ‘soft power’ and has launched multiple initiatives, such as the network of Confucius Institutes which facilitate the teaching of Mandarin, among other topics, worldwide. Chinese students themselves are also a lucrative market for western universities and China’s growing cultural reach – through film and increasingly tourism – also plays a role in the normalisation of China’s power structures.
China continues to make it incredibly difficult to get information out of Tibet and it remains to this day one of the most closed places on Earth. It is estimated that tens of thousands of Chinese police and security personnel have been deployed across the whole of Tibet to create an extensive and intrusive surveillance state while Tibetans’ freedom to travel both within and outside Tibet is heavily-controlled. Communications with the outside world are also extensively monitored while the UN, diplomats and human rights organisations are prevented from visiting.
That said, the Tibetan people – and their unique culture and way of life – have survived years of Chinese oppression, including the rampant devastation wrought by the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s, and they remain a tenacious and patient people. Free Tibet and its sister organisation Tibet Watch work alongside the Tibetan community – worldwide – to highlight the repressive regime while reminding politicians it is their responsibility to demand the investigation of abuse.
In what ways do you advocate for Tibetan freedom at the national and international level?
Free Tibet is a global organisation with supporters worldwide and the actions it spearheads, and supports, are as diverse as the supporters themselves. Campaigning strategies include, among others, street protests, political lobbying, petitioning for the release of political prisoners and a strong online presence designed to keep the Tibetan issue in the spotlight.
Free Tibet maintains important relationships with political leaders worldwide and regularly provides evidence of human rights abuses to the United Nations, for example. Pressure is also maintained on Chinese leaders with regards to their policies in Tibet and individual Tibetan political prisoners. Free Tibet tackles economic challenges as well and runs targeted campaigns that confront corporations seeking to profit from the occupation.
China uses its economic weight to silence discussion of Tibet on the world stage and propaganda to prevent individuals from learning the truth. Free Tibet counters this by pressuring world leaders and exposing the reality about Tibet, driving international support for Tibetans’ tireless and peaceful struggle for freedom.
What can people across the globe do in order to effectively support the Tibet issue?
For some people wearing a t-shirt is their way of keeping the issue alive, for others it is a financial contribution, for others still it is the thrill of waving a banner at a protest. The Free Tibet website (https://freetibet.org/take-action) lists all the existing campaigns which enable Tibet supporters to push back against the environmental damage, imprisonment of protesters and the systematic attacks on Tibet’s culture and religion. There are many ways to support the Tibetan cause and ensure that the ongoing oppression of Tibet’s people is kept in the spotlight.
What we cannot do is stay silent. Inside Tibet, Tibetans continue to give everything they have to resist the Chinese occupation, despite the heavy personal price that comes with defiance. They have been beaten, separated from their families, imprisoned and tortured for protecting their beliefs and their country. Such acts of defiance and courage in one of the most closed and suffocating environments in the world demand the attention of our governments and our media.
The tenacity and endurance of the Tibetan people should inspire us all. Similar to many struggles throughout history, Tibetans do not walk a straight road, yet they have never stopped and neither must we. To campaign on Tibet is to walk alongside some of the bravest people on the planet and once you begin this walk you will never look back.