Almost two weeks before the Dalai Lama’s 80th birthday on 6 July, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has started preventing public celebrations and detaining people for sharing photos online. Tsering Dondrub, 25, was detained for posting images of the Tibetan flag and the Dalai Lama on WeChat. It is unknown where he is being detained or how he is being treated. The secret detention of Tibetans arrested for exercising their human rights is common and family members only learn about the specifics of the case and see their imprisoned relatives at their trial, if it is ever held.
The detention of Tsering Dondrub, follows established patterns of human rights violations in Tibet. WeChat is closely watched by the PRC and Tibetans can be arrested and given severe prison sentences for sharing material on WeChat. In the weeks leading up to the Dalai Lama’s birthday PRC officials are tightening already existing restrictions in Tibet. Tibetans in Tsering Dondrub’s village in Rebgong (Ch: Tongren) County in Malho (Ch: Huangnan) Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in Qinghai Province were prevented from participating in a variety of events on 21 June to commemorate the Dalai Lama’s birth year. (According to Tibetan lunar calendar, the Dalai Lama turned 80 on 21 June.) The public was also banned from attending events at monasteries and could have their phones confiscated and searched. The detention of Tsering Dondrub may well be the tip of the iceberg, and more Tibetans may have been detained or are in danger of getting detained since it has increasingly become a standard practice for the local Chinese authorities to punish Tibetans when the world is not watching.
The PRC has frequently cracked down on peaceful gatherings commemorating the Dalai Lama’s birthday. In 2013, police fired into a crowd of Tibetans who had gathered in Tawu (Ch: Daofu) County in Kardze (Ch: Ganzi) Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in Sichuan Province to celebrate the Dalai Lama’s birthday. Nine Tibetans were injured by bullets, including Gyen Tashi Sonam, a monk and teacher at Nyatso Monastery, who was shot in the head.
Usually, before major events the PRC will attempt to prevent people from gathering and begin arresting activists. Tsering Woeser was placed under house arrest to prevent her from meeting United States Secretary of State John Kerry when he visited Beijing in 2014. More dramatically, in the build up to the 25th Anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre in 2014, the PRC detained people for any potential reference to the anniversary. This included detaining people for taking pictures in Tiananmen Square flashing a V for victory sign. Journalists were warned about going near the square. At least 66 people were detained and more, like 81-year-old Bao Tong, were forced to leave Beijing. The detention and threats leading up to the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre were also accompanied by increased restrictions on digital communications—including blocking all Google services.
The crackdowns against Tibetans for celebrating the Dalai Lama’s 80th birthday are following a similar pattern as the build up before the Tiananmen Square anniversary. Tsering Dondrub’s detention for posting photos of WeChat was accompanied by officials blocking public gatherings and vehicles specially equipped with digital surveillance equipment patrolling Tibetan areas. TCHRD is concerned that as the Dalai Lama’s 6 July birthday approaches the scale and scope of repression in Tibet will increase. Accordingly, TCHRD urges the PRC to respect Tibetan’s rights to freedom of assembly, freedom of speech, thought and expression, and the related right to privacy.