Can the World Help Tibet?

Despite push-back from China, more can be done, experts say.

Two Tibetans (hidden) self-immolating in Dzatoe township in Qinghai, June 20, 2012.
Photo courtesy of Lobsang Sangay.

The international community needs to do more to help Tibetans protesting decades of repression under Chinese rule, analysts and human rights groups say, calling for pressure on Beijing at the U.N. and for dialogue with Tibetan groups.

With 47 Tibetans having self-immolated so far in opposition to Chinese rule, the Tibetan question has been highlighted across the globe, but international response to the fiery protests has been muted, the analysts and rights groups said.

“There is as much leverage as governments are willing to put in,” Sophie Richardson, China director at the Washington office of Human Rights Watch, told RFA in an interview.

Governments can sponsor a joint resolution, or even host a side event, at the Geneva-based U.N. Human Rights Council to express their concerns about Tibet, Richardson said.

“We know that the Chinese government doesn’t like to be publicly criticized, but there is certainly no harm in calling them out on this kind of behavior, especially at a time when enormous numbers of people inside China are consuming this kind of information.”

Richardson noted that in human rights dialogues and other diplomatic meetings with China, the U.S. and EU frequently raise concerns about Tibet, but are rebuffed.

“If China’s government is consistently a bad-faith participant in these talks, have a dialogue instead with Tibetan human rights activists and writers who want to talk about these topics,” Richardson suggested.

“Or do one with the government and one with the activists, if for no other reason than to credential and give a platform to the people who are really trying to make a difference.”

Concerns ignored

International calls for China to address Tibetan concerns are routinely brushed aside by Chinese diplomats, who assert China’s right to rule the Himalayan region it invaded more than 50 years ago.

Nearly all of the self-immolators have called for the return to Tibet of exiled spiritual leader the Dalai Lama and for freedom for the Tibetan people as they challenge what they call political, cultural, religious, and social injustices.

Increasingly, ordinary Tibetans have been joining Buddhist monks and nuns in the fiery protests. At least two of them, young women, were the mothers of small children.

In response, Chinese security forces in the region have cracked down, arresting scores of Tibetans—including educators, writers, and cultural figures—and  accusing outside forces of plotting the protests.

Writing in a Washington Post opinion piece on July 13, India-based Tibetan exile prime minister Lobsang Sangay made an urgent appeal to the world for help.

“Because we know that the democracies of the world recognize basic human rights and freedoms to be universal values, we ask the international community to intervene before our situation deteriorates even further,” Sangay wrote.

Lack of information

Speaking to RFA, a former State Department official and expert on Tibetan affairs said, “There should be coordinated demarches by concerned governments requesting access to Tibetan areas for fact-finding purposes for their own diplomats, the International Red Cross, and the U.N.”

“There is a real problem of lack of information and context about what is happening. The media has not been able to gain much access either, and this has inhibited coverage of the situation.”

“The U.S. should also look at using some of its mechanisms for blocking human rights abusers on visas and other issues, and apply these provisions to officials who are designing and implementing these deeply flawed policies [in Tibet],” she said.

Also speaking to RFA, New York-based Students for a Free Tibet president Tenzin Dorjee called for a strengthened “multilateral approach to pressure China to reverse its repressive policies in Tibet.”

“What we need is a Friends of Syria-style coalition, a Friends of Tibet group to raise the priority of Tibet as a humanitarian issue of global concern,” Dorjee said.

At the same time, Dorjee added, “We’re not putting all our eggs into the basket of political or diplomatic intervention.”

In a self-reliance movement in Tibet called Lhakar, or “White Wednesday,” growing numbers of Tibetans are making efforts to wear traditional clothes, speak Tibetan unmixed with Chinese, eat only in Tibetan restaurants, and buy only from Tibetan-owned businesses, Dorjee said.

“We emphasize the importance of noncooperation tactics in the long-term strategy of making China’s occupation too costly to maintain,” Dorjee said.

An 'ineffective' case?

At the same time, though, the Tibetan people themselves have sometimes been “ineffective” in making their case to the world, said Jamyang Norbu, a Tennessee-based blogger and writer on Tibetan affairs.

The Tibetan people have an historic claim to independence and want to be free, Norbu said.

But support campaigns launched outside Tibet have focused on a confusing range of narrower issues—for example, the protection of religious freedoms or protection of the environment.

Tibetans, as a people, have to decide “what we really want,” Norbu said.

“We have to get our act together before we ask the world for anything,” he said.

In an Aug. 9 letter sent to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, two U.S. lawmakers called for "stronger, more coordinated, visible international diplomatic steps" in response to China's policies towards Tibetans.

"We are very aware that U.S. officials regularly discuss Tibet and many other human rights issues with like-minded governments," wrote congressmen James McGovern (D-MA) and Frank Wolf (R-VA).

"However, more visible, public and coordinated diplomacy is necessary for the Chinese government to feel pressure to alter its conduct."

The U.S. could play a leadership role in hosting an international conference on Tibet, McGovern and Wolf suggested, "or consider periodic, public meetings with a handful of other governments, as an effective means of expressing concern."

Reported by Richard Finney.


Add your comment by filling out the form below in plain text. Comments are approved by a moderator and can be edited in accordance with RFAs Terms of Use. Comments will not appear in real time. RFA is not responsible for the content of the postings. Please, be respectful of others' point of view and stick to the facts.