US lawmakers call on UN to investigate China’s family separations in Tibet

State-run schools aim to separate students from their native language and culture, Tibetans say
By Lobe Socktsang for RFA Tibetan
2022.12.01
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US lawmakers call on UN to investigate China’s family separations in Tibet Students attend a Chinese language learning class at Nagqu No. 2 Senior High School, a public boarding school for students from northern Tibet, in Lhasa in western China's Tibet Autonomous Region, June 1, 2021.
Credit: Associated Press

Two U.S. lawmakers have called on the United Nations to investigate Chinese authorities’ forced placement of Tibetan children in state-run schools where they are separated from their families in a bid to reduce contact with their native language and culture.

Writing in a letter Thursday to Volker Turk, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR) and Representative Jim McGovern (D-MA), said around 80 percent of Tibetan children are now being sent to Chinese boarding schools where they are taught a “highly politicized curriculum.”

“We see this system as resulting in serious human rights violations and cultural and linguistic erasure,” Merkely and McGovern wrote as chair and co-chair respectively of the bipartisan Congressional-Executive Commission on China.

“Tibetan parents are often faced with no choice but to send their children to residential schools because of school closures and consolidations, in some cases accompanied by fines or threats for noncompliance,” the two congressmen wrote, citing a 2021 report released by the Tibet Action Institute, or TAP.

Mental and emotional distress

The report also notes “high rates of mental and emotional distress” among Tibetan students sent to Chinese state-run residential schools, Merkely and McGovern wrote.

“We believe these actions by the Chinese authorities constitute a fundamental violation of the rights of Tibetan parents and children by interfering with their right to preserve the integrity of their family units and stripping them of their right to choose the educational direction of their children.” 

Speaking to RFA, Tenzin Lekshey — spokesperson for Tibet’s India-based exile government the Central Tibetan Administration — said China’s boarding schools in Tibet “target and exploit minorities, especially Tibetans who are intentionally cut off from learning their mother tongue, culture and religion.

“The Central Tibetan Administration appreciates and is grateful to the U.S. Congress for seeking United Nations investigation on forced family separations in Tibet,” Lekshey said.

The Chinese government has now also prioritized the teaching of Mandarin Chinese in many daycare centers in Tibet, added Tenzin Nyiwoe, a researcher at the Dharamsala, India-based Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy.

“If the United Nations can deliver a thorough investigation into these policies and campaigns and release a report on the urgency of this situation, this will not only [prevent] China’s attempt to eradicate the Tibetan language, but will also protect the human rights of the Tibetan people,” Nyiwoe said. “So the concern expressed by the U.S. Congress is very significant.”

Language rights have become a particular focus for efforts in recent years to assert national identity in Tibet, a formerly independent Himalayan country that was invaded and incorporated into China by force more than 70 years ago.

Informally organized language courses in the monasteries and towns are routinely deemed “illegal associations,” with teachers subject to detention and arrest, sources say.

Translated by Tenzin Dickyi for RFA Tibetan. Written in English by Richard Finney.

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