Exile Tibetan and Uyghur groups on Wednesday marked the 25th anniversary of the Chinese government’s massacre of pro-democracy demonstrators at Tiananmen Square by pointing to what they described as Beijing’s use of deadly force to suppress their own struggles for greater freedom and rights.
Tibet’s spiritual leader the Dalai Lama offered prayers Wednesday for those killed in the June 1989 assault, saying they died for freedom, democracy, and human rights—values he called the foundation of a “free and dynamic society.”
“They are also the source of true peace and stability,” said the Dalai Lama, who fled into exile in India in 1959 after an abortive national uprising in Tibet against Chinese rule.
“While great progress has been made to integrate China into the world economy, I believe it is equally important to encourage China to enter the mainstream of global democracy,” the Dalai Lama said in a statement.
“This will help China to gain the trust and respect of the rest of the world, enabling China to fulfill its potential in playing a leading role in global affairs.”
The Dalai Lama's statement came ahead of a campaign to be launched on Thursday by the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA), Tibet’s Dharamsala, India-based government in exile, in a new push for its "Middle Way" approach for greater autonomy for Tibetans within China.
Beijing has ruled Tibet with an iron fist since 1951, a year after invading the Himalayan region. It further tightened controls since unrest spread across Tibetan regions from Lhasa in March 2008.
The CTA says about 220 Tibetans died and nearly 7,000 were detained in the subsequent region-wide crackdown. The Chinese government says rioting killed 22 people.
A total of 131 Tibetans have also set themselves ablaze to date in self-immolation protests calling for Tibetan freedom, with another six setting fire to themselves in India and Nepal.
Lives still at risk
Twenty-five years after the Tiananmen massacre, a growing number of Chinese activists, scholars, journalists, and artists still risk their lives “for constitutional democracy and human rights” in China, the Dharamsala-based Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy (TCHRD) said in a statement.
“[These represent] the hope and aspirations of many including Tibetans for a more humane and democratic China,” said TCHRD executive director Tsering Tsomo.
“The one-party regime may continue to hold onto power today in China, ruling the country by sheer force and falsehood, claiming that without its leadership China will be plunged into chaos and anarchy,” Tsomo said.
“The truth of the matter is the killings at Tiananmen will continue to question and taint the legitimacy of the current and past leadership of the [People’s Republic of China].”
The ruling Chinese Communist Party’s use of lethal force to suppress challenges to its rule is not “a thing of the past,” though, and continues today in Tibet and in Tibetan-populated areas of western Chinese provinces, said Eleanor Byrne Rosengren, director of the London-based Free Tibet advocacy group.
“Tibetans were shot and killed in 2008 and 2012 and unarmed protesters have been shot with live ammunition twice within the last year, some sustaining life-threatening injuries,” Rosengren said, adding, “At least two Tibetan prisoners have been killed in jail within the last year, and reports of torture remain widespread.”
“While China attempts to silence any discussion of events in 1989 in China today, that kind of censorship is a daily reality in Tibet, as is the use of threats and violence.”
During an event in London Wednesday organized by Amnesty International UK and attended by Tibet support groups, Chinese embassy officials angrily blocked an attempt to lay flowers on the embassy’s steps to mark the anniversary of the 1989 massacre.
Those placing the flowers on the steps “were shoved off the steps of the embassy and the flowers thrown back at the watching crowd,” Free Tibet said.
Crackdown in Xinjiang
Meanwhile, in China’s northwestern region of Xinjiang, Chinese authorities have been stepping up crackdowns against Uyghurs they say are linked to a series of violent incidents in the troubled region, including a May 22 bomb attack at a crowded market in the capital Urumqi that killed 39 and left scores injured.
Chinese security forces have killed or detained hundreds of mostly Muslim ethnic Uyghurs following deadly 2009 ethnic riots with Han Chinese in the capital Urumqi that left around 200 people dead and sparked the crackdowns.
Uyghur rights groups, which accuse the Chinese authorities of curbing Islamic practices and the culture and language of the minority group, say Uyghurs across China had supported the 1989 Tiananmen protestors in their struggle for fundamental rights and freedoms.
“We still stand with them and ask now, as the Chinese government conducts a brutal crackdown on Uyghurs in East Turkestan, that the Chinese people stand with Uyghurs to face down tyranny,” Washington-based Uyghur American Association president Alim Seytoff said in a statement, using a name preferred by many Uyghurs for their ancient homeland.
Official figures show that about 100 people, mostly Uyghurs, are believed to have been killed in attacks in Xinjiang over the last year.
Dilxat Raxit, Germany-based spokesman for the World Uyghur Congress (WUC) exile group, said police in Xinjiang have been targeting Uyghurs based on their ethnicity in the wake of the May 22 attack, the deadliest violence to hit the region since July 2009 ethnic riots.
Recent high-profile terrorist attacks by Uyghurs and continuing self-immolation protests by Tibetans “show that the edges of the empire are restive,” said former Tiananmen protest leader and ethnic Uyghur Wu’er Kaixi, who fled after the protests to France via Hong Kong and later moved to Taiwan.
“The ideology of China’s leadership is falling to tatters, as it was 25 years ago,” Kaixi said, writing in an opinion piece this week in the Wall Street Journal. “The demands of the people are coming back.”
“The best way to sum up the legacy of Tiananmen is not enforced forgetting, it is resurgent memory,” he said.