March 21, 2006
China is preparing to present its best face to the world as host of the 2008 Summer Olympics. The World's Mary Kay Magistad reports that Tibetans see it as an opportunity to push for more rights.
There was a daring human rights protest today in the heart of China's capital. It took place in Beijing's Tiananmen Square. A Tibetan man briefly unfurled a banner. It had a message directed at President Hu Jintao. It read, "Hu, You Can't Stop Us - 2008-FreeTibet". 2008 is a reference to when China will host the Summer Olympic Games. China has been going to great lengths to present its best face to the world ahead of the Olympic Games but many Tibetans say that for China to really do that it must give Tibetans more of a say in their own land. The World's Mary Kay Magistad has more from Beijing.
Tiananmen Square has long been a centre for protest and protesters have sometimes paid dearly. Hundreds were shot in the 1989 pro-democracy demonstrations here. One protester, who unfurled a commemorative banner here 3 years later was put in an insane asylum for 13 years. But today, under the noses of hundreds of police providing security for the annual 10-day session of China's legislature, a 42 year old Tibetan man named Wangpo Tethong took a similar risk. He unfurled a banner reading "Free Tibet". He held it up for about 5 seconds, just long enough for journalists to get photos.
"I could have stayed there for maybe 2 seconds longer but it was very very tough. And then a Chinese lady next to me started to shout something. I saw that she got the attention of a security man about 10 metres far from me and then I thought it is time to stop."
Tethong then calmly walked away, hopped on a bike, went to a hotel, changed clothes and went to the Swiss embassy. He was born in exile in Switzerland and Swiss diplomats accompanied him to the airport to make sure he got safely on a plane. He did and was in Hong Kong by evening. Waiting for him there at the airport was Dechen Pemba. Like Tethong she is with the International Tibet Support Network.
"This action has shown us that it is possible to pull off a Tibet protest in China. It is not easy but this is the real message behind the action that it is now 2006 and there are 2 years until the Olympic Games in Beijing. And from now until 2008 there have to be some major changes in China's Tibet policy. Otherwise they have to reckon with more of such actions and these will only intensify in the next 2 years if nothing changes."
The change many Tibetans want is the right to choose their own government. The Chinese government says that's impossible because it says Tibet is and always has been part of China. In fact, Tibet only came under direct Chinese rule when Chinese troops invaded in 1949. Since then, Tibetan culture has been suppressed, many Buddhist temples closed and monks and nuns persecuted. Some Tibetans have even been imprisoned for possessing photos of their religious leader, the Dalai Lama, who fled into exile in 1959. Meanwhile, the Chinese government has encouraged hundreds and thousands of Han-Chinese to move to Tibet, diluting the Tibetan population. That trend is expected to intensify after a new Chinese railway to Tibet opens this summer. This accelerating dilution of Tibetan culture has alarmed the Dalai Lama into sending representatives to bargain with the Chinese government for more Tibetan autonomy. The fifth round of such talks in three years was held last month.
But the protester Tethong says not much progress has been made, "I really can't see an end to the process to be honest. If you compare it with a soccer game I think we are in the half time. We have suffered some defeats, some goals but there is a long way to go. I think it is important to be clear on the principles and I think that the Tibetans have a right to self-determination, right to freedom. This should actually be the base to start any kind of dialogue."
The Chinese government has agreed to the negotiations in part because it knows that the ageing Dalai Lama has become more willing to accept limited autonomy for Tibet. But younger Tibetans in exile are growing restive. They are increasingly talking about fighting for independence. They'd never win in a match of force but they showed today that they have other ways of fighting their battles and the courage to do so.