Taiwan on March 11-12 hosted the ‘Civil Society Dialogue on Securing Religious Freedom in the Indo-Pacific Region.’ Organized by the U.S. State Department, the Taiwanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy, the American Institute in Taiwan and the International Religious Freedom Roundtable, the event — the first of its kind in the region — brought together more than 100 academics, religious leaders, experts and officials from more than 10 countries for talks on religious freedom in the region. Taiwan Sentinel chief editor J. Michael Cole sat down on the sidelines of the event with Dawa Tsering, Representative of H.H. the Dalai Lama, and Tashi Tsering, Chairperson of the Human Rights Network for Tibet and Taiwan, to discuss the current plight of Tibetans, who continue to face severe repression by the People’s Republic of China.
Q: We just marked the 60th anniversary of the Tibetan uprising against Chinese occupation. Tell me what the situation in Tibet is like today?
Dawa Tsering (DT): Sixty years ago Tibetans lost autonomy of their country when the Chinese government signed the 17-Point Agreement [also known as the Agreement of the Central People’s Government and the Local Government of Tibet on Measures for the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet] with us. Eventually we all realized the the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) government violated its commitment to Tibetans and built the highway to Tibet. After six decades, what the CCP government has been doing is to systematically destroy the culture, language and living habits of the Tibetan people. Those are not isolated incidents, it’s about destroying our culture as a whole.
Many people want to know about which human rights Tibetans currently have, but the question now is not about whether the conditions are good or bad; now it’s about survival, it’s about life and death.
Q: Has it gotten worse under Xi Jinping? And if so, how do you explain the intensified crackdown?
DT: Before Xi assumed leadership of the CCP, some people had expectations there would be change, but obviously what we can see is the continuation of Beijing’s longstanding policy in Tibet. Comments and literature by academics and government officials show that their solution to the “Tibetan issue” is to destroy their language and culture and turn Tibetans into Chinese. This is the only solution for the CCP government. This policy started about a decade ago.
The case of Tashi Wangchuk is a good example of this policy. The young man was sentenced to jail for five years [for “inciting separatism”] simply because he wanted to learn the Tibetan language. This sentencing was meant to warn Tibetans that they should abandon efforts to learn the language or they will suffer a similar fate.
The CCP government has a long-term plan to destroy Tibetan culture. It is aimed at a whole generation. The first target is the school system. They created schools that all Tibetan children are force to attend. They are also forced to live there, which is meant to isolate them from their families and to prevent them learning their culture from their relatives. The second target is temples. The CCP sends people to temples to monitor Tibetan monks 24 hours a day, seven days a week. To counter this oppression, Tibetans have opened holiday schools that offer free education so they can learn the Tibetan language, but the CCP has endeavored to close those schools or fined them huge sums of money.
The CCP government has a long-term plan to destroy Tibetan culture. It is aimed at a whole generation.
Tashi Tsering (TT): In traditional Tibetan Buddhism His Holiness the Dalai Lama can recognize the Panchen Lama, and the Panchen Lama can in turn recognize the Dalai Lama. The 14th [current] Dalai Lama recognized the 11th Panchen Lama, Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, when the latter was only six years old. He was immediately kidnapped [in May 1995] by the CCP, making him the youngest political prisoner in the world. Today the Panchen Lama is more than 20 years old. I believe the Chinese government intends to appoint a 15th Dalai Lama, and of course they already have their own “state-sanctioned” Panchen Lamas. The Tibetan people do not recognize those appointed by the CCP, but the government forces them to respect them.
As Tibetans, we nevertheless believe that before he leaves this world, His Holiness the Dalai Lama can resolve this problem. He is not simply human. He is like a god to us.
Q: How serious is the threat of Chinese espionage/surveillance against Tibetan communities around the world? And can you talk a little about the kind of Chinese “sharp power” that has been used against the Tibetan cause, and how effective this has been?
DT: Surveillance by the Chinese government will definitely become a more serious problem in the future, because that, too, is part of their long-term plan — especially in the period post-current Dalai Lama. The rely on several tactics to conduct surveillance. One is using money and other kinds of temptations. Another one is to threaten them with violence, to intimidate them. They use this to interfere in elections of the Tibetan government in exile, and also to undermine unity among Tibetans. That is the biggest problem facing the Tibetan community today.
Tibetans have also been co-opted by the Chinese government in countries like Switzerland, Australia and the United States. Those have been involved in spreading CCP propaganda at various events. Others have also taken various actions to spread discord within the Tibetan community. That is a relatively new phenomenon and we need to find solutions to address this challenge as this risks becoming a serious problem for us.
Q: There are clear signs of growing Chinese influence at the United Nations, particularly at the General Assembly and the Human Rights Council. Does this worry you?
DT: This has definitely influenced the voice of Tibetans at the U.N. The former Tibetan government leaders had already felt China’s growing influence at the U.N. and had given up on continuing their work there. But the new Tibetan government leadership believes it is important to continue working at the U.N. because by continuing the discussion, and by continuing to push for votes, we can sustain Tibet’s voice at the organization. This also helps us demonstrate the contrast between Tibet and China. China uses money to try to silence the Tibetans, but Tibetans have the advantage of having truth and justice on their side. The more people see that contrast, the more they will support Tibet.
Tibetans have also been co-opted by the Chinese government in countries like Switzerland, Australia and the United States. Those have been involved in spreading CCP propaganda at various events.
Furthermore, while Chinese influence at the U.N. has undoubtedly increased, across Asia support for the Tibetan community has risen. For example, Taiwan’s donations to the Tibetan community has been No. 1 for the past six years, and Japan is usually the second-largest. We believe that growing support for Tibet across Asia will eventually result in a louder voice at the U.N. We must continue to create more space for us within the organization.
TT: After the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, the Olympic torch rally and the March 14 crackdown in Tibet that same year, many Tibetans inside Tibet took to the streets, and many sacrificed their lives to demonstrate that they do not care for the CCP. Also after 2008, many countries in Asia showed support for Tibet, among them Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia and Thailand. This led to new contacts with a wider range of Asian partners.
DT: Also, all that talk by Kuomintang (KMT) Chairman Wu Den-yih in Taiwan about signing a peace agreement with China. Taiwanese people will check online and find out more about what a peace agreement meant for the Tibetans.
Q: Every year we have rallies and protests, and over the years Tibetans have successfully raised awareness about their plight with various governments worldwide. And yet, the situation for Tibetans today is arguably worse. What’s not working? And what, if anything, can be done differently?
DT: Tibetans will not stop rallies around the world for if we stop, nobody will hear our voice and it will signal that we have given up fighting for our rights. We will also continue to seek assistance and resources from the international community. The Chinese government has Confucius Institutes around the world, and is using as many as 2,000 Tibetan so-called academics to spread lies about Tibet and Tibetans. To me this indicates that the CCP is on the defensive — it needs lies, and relies on these 2,000 Tibetan academics to spread that propaganda. It’s actually very difficult for the Chinese government to manufacture those lies. Meanwhile, it’s the Tibetan community that is on the offensive against the CCP government.
The international community sees that the Tibetan people continue to suffer as a result of the CCP government’s policies in Tibet. But this doesn’t mean that our efforts have had no effects — they actually have. Just look at the amount of money the Chinese government spends on defense and domestic security to oppress Tibetans. This stems from fear. The CCP is afraid that one day the Tibetans will overthrow their rulers. This kind of behavior doesn’t suggest a strong and confident Chinese government. Quite the opposite, this shows how afraid they are of Tibetans.
With thanks to Chou Ya-wei of the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy for her kind assistance with translation.
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