Human Rights Situation in Tibet: Annual Report 2008

The year 2008 was historic for Tibet! The 49th anniversary of the Tibetan People’s Uprising on 10 March 2008 sparked off an unprecedented magnitude of spontaneous mass popular protests in the so called “Tibet Autonomous Region” (“TAR”) and the Tibetan areas outside the “TAR”; Sichuan,Qinghai, Gansu and Yunan. The pan-Tibet political uprising this past spring is an eruption of popular resentment against the Chinese authorities’ five decades of misrule in Tibet which saw systematic gross violations of human rights in every sphere of life. To China and the world the year was a stark reminder that the Tibet issue needs to be urgently resolved. It is clearly evident that the policies designed and ordered from the faraway central government in Beijing have failed miserably in Tibet. Decades of state propaganda, especially aggressive in the years leading up to the Olympics year, about development in Tibet is torn apart. Tibetans in Tibet yearn for human dignity and fundamental human rights and they have spoken their aspirations clearly and strongly in the pan-Tibet peaceful protests this year.
It was known from the beginning that 2008 being the year of summer Olympics in Beijing was going to be a noisy one for the People’s Republic of China for its notorious human rights record. But interestingly nobody foresaw such a huge uprising in Tibet.It is clear that the outside world has underestimated the sentiments of the Tibetans inside Tibet. There were some reservations in certain sections of the international community that there have been some positive changes taking place inside Tibet. However, the uprising in Tibet has shattered that myth for the better. Tibetans inside Tibet are suffering and the Tibetans have spoken their hearts and minds clearly and strongly.
The uprising in Tibet in 2008 saw at least 120 known Tibetans killed in police firing, at least 6500 Tibetans arrested, over a thousand cases of involuntarily or enforced disappearance, at least ten known cases of death due to torture, and at least 190 Tibetans sentenced to varying prison terms from nine months to life imprisonment.The Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy (TCHRD) believes that the actual figures could be manifold in light of the magnitude of the uprising in Tibet.However, the government’s severe blockade of in-formation which is often linked to “leaking state secrets” and punishable by lengthy prison terms under the charge of “endangering state security” for what is a standard practice of reporting human rights violation has enormously stifled the flow of information. In order to avoid international condemnation, the government engaged in a systematic and intermittent ban on communication channels. Those arrested for communicating to the outside world have been dealt with severely.
The protests in Tibet subsequently led to the world wide condemnation of Chinese authorities’ use of brute armed forces on the Tibetans. Sympathetic individuals and Tibet supporters resonated the call for justice during the global relay of the Olympics torch. Tibet supporters and other rights group activists sent a strong message of condemnation of the grave human rights situation in Tibet and in particular the brute use of armed forces on peaceful protesting Tibetans.The Chinese authorities in a counter  measure whipped up nationalism amongst its citizens as well as those overseas. Nationalist Chinese lashed severe attacks on western media and dozens of anti-west websites were setup to launch cyber campaigns in conjunction with those on the ground. But the authorities quickly realised that the ordinary Chinese were experiencing a unique opportunity of protest and freedom of association facilitated by the authorities, which could in fact boomerang hard on the government in the future. This reluctance to accept criticism and prompting conflicts in the name of “nationalism” leads to the conclusion that China fails in these qualities to become a global superpower. One of the key characters of global superpowers is free speech and confidence in its people, yet China fails to exhibit these qualities.In its path to become a global superpower the world has to engage China, and China in turn has to heed with dignity the critique by other countries.
The role of information and communication tools played a vital role during the uprising in Tibet in2008. Unlike the past large scale protests in the late 1980s and early 1990s which were largely clustered in Lhasa, the protest which began on the 49th anniversary of the Tibetan People’s Uprising on 10 March 2008 rapidly spread like a wild fire. Within a couple of days the protests had already engulfed the whole Tibetan plateau. Modern electronic gadgets and digital technology played a crucial role in the flow of information both within Tibet and to the outside world. Making it hard for the authorities to deny, evidence of state law enforcement agencies’ use of excessive armed force surfaced in the outside world in the form of mobile phone clips and graphic pictures. The Chinese authorities were quick to curb the flow of information by cutting channels of communication.When free and independent media persons were being denied access toTibet to cover the protests, brave individuals took maximum use of modern technology to report the situation on the ground despite the risk of lengthy prison terms and torture when caught. In the absence of independent media; the risk was worth taking felt these brave individuals. Labrang monk Jigme Guri’s video testimony of torture and Dhondup Wangchens “Leaving Fear Behind” video documentary are some of the leading evidence tapes that have marked a milestone in the use of modern tools in proving human rights violations in Tibet.
 Following the March protests in Tibet, the Chinese authorities dismissed several interventions made by high profile entities entrusted with protecting human rights. In early April, a request made by the then United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Ms. Louise Arbour, to visit Tibet to independently assess first-hand the situation on the ground was declined by the Chinese government reasoning that ‘the timing was not convenient.”Additionally seven United Nations Special Procedures mandate holders issued a joint statement expressing their deep concern over reports of security forces firing on peaceful protesters. The statement called for “restraint and non-violence by all parties, greater and unfettered access to the regions concerned for journalists and independent observers, guarantees for the free flow of information, and full implementation of international standards in regard to the treatment of protestors and those detained, both in the People’s Republic of China and in other countries in which protests are taking place.”The joint statement by experts was never heeded. The International Committee of the Red Cross which has the mandate to monitor the well-being of prisoners worldwide has never been given access to Tibet. PRCs denial of access to the UN mandates on human rights discredits these offices in general and in a way proves the allegations of gross human rights violations made by the rights group. Clearly China has plenty to cover up in denying access to those entrusted with investigating human rights issues. The government’s non cooperation with the UN Committee against Torture during the examination of the fourth periodic review of China’s compliance to the United Nation’s Convention against Torture (CAT) and Other Cruel,Inhuman or Degrading Treatment exposed PRC’s total disregard of the UN human rights mechanism to protect people against torture although it is a state party to the convention.
One of the key components of the authorities’ crack-down upon the Tibetan protesters has been mini-mal tolerance and to strike deadly in order to quellthe mass protests. On several occasions the authorities have indiscriminately opened fire into peacefully protesting Tibetans which have resulted in the deaths of many innocent Tibetans. The events in Lhasa, Kardze County and Ngaba County were especially drastic in nature of the retaliation by the armed forces and the actual figures of casualty during an event.On 14 March 2008, Lhasa went up in smoke as the city was gripped by protest. The Chinese armed forces fired live ammunitions on the protesting Tibetans and around 80 Tibetans were shot dead. There were unconfirmed reports of government agents firing indiscriminately in the cover of darkness. On 3 April 2008, at least 14 Tibetans were shot dead when armed security forces fired live ammunition indiscriminately into a protesting crowd near Tongkhor Monastery in Kardze County. The protest broke out when monks of Tongkor Monastery (Ch: Donggu) in Zithang Township, Kardze County, Kardze “Tibet Autonomous Prefecture”(“TAP”), Sichuan Province, called for the release of two monks arrested for objecting to the Chinese ‘Patriotic Education’ campaign in the monastery. The bodies of the dead were not returned to the families. On 16 March 2008, the Chinese security forces made a bloody armed retaliation over a protest in Ngaba County participated by thousands of Tibetans which resulted in the death of at least eight knownTibetan who died after sustaining bullet injuries. The actual number of deaths can be much higher aspeople have seen at least “30 Tibetans felled” by thearmed troops. The youngest among the dead was a 16-year-old girl; Lhundup Tso.The UN Committee against Torture in its concluding observation tothe examination of the fourth periodic report of China’s compliance to the Convention against Torture has in its recommendation specifically asked for the PRC to give a detail account of the events in Lhasa, Kardze and Ngaba County. PRC as a stateparty to the convention is bound to provide the details as required by international law and the reply is watchfully awaited by all the concerned parties including the TCHRD. 
A crucial tactic employed by the Chinese authorities in order to suppress Tibetan protests is the systematic use of torture in police stations, detention centres and prisons. Torture is used as a tool to break the nationalistic sentiments of the Tibetans and in order to spread a message of intimidation to those who dare to question the state and its officials.Many Tibetans have been tortured severely as an exemplary case to the others from active participation in protests. In some areas Tibetans have died as a direct result of torture whilst in the custody of state law enforcement agencies. As a direct result of relentless oppression by the Chinese security forces to combat peaceful protests, many anguished Tibetans have taken the ultimate drastic decision of committing suicide to free themselves from the authorities’ constant physical and mental torture. In Tibetan Buddhism, ending one’s life is considered as one of the gravest forms of sins violating the fundamental principles of the religion. Buddhist monks of Tibet are known for their compassion, patience and resilience in the face of adversity. The cases of suicides by Buddhist monks in Tibet strongly corroborate the fact of use of relentless torture by the authorities. 
Besides torture, cases of enforced and involuntary disappearances are enormous.To a certain extent the phenomenon is state sponsored as it is a deliberate attempt by the government to purge dissent by making individuals disappear. Denial of information regarding arrestees is a standard practice by the Chinese prison authorities. Family members are left to run from one police post to another in search of their loved ones although the state agencies are required to inform them mandatorily. In an apparent case of disappearance, Thabkhey and Tsundue, both monks at the Labrang Monastery disappeared after they defiantly briefed the media about the truth on the ground during the government organised media tour to the area on 9 April 2008. Midnight mass disappearance too was rampant especially from the monasteries. And perhaps the most prominent case of disappearance is that of the Panchen Lama, Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, who was abducted in1995 by the Chinese government and has not been seen till date.
When massive protests broke out in Tibet, the authorities in a counter measure unleashed the vicious “patriotic education” campaign in order to suppress the Tibetans after the immediate measure of direct brutal crackdown.The authorities’ implementation of “patriotic education” acted as rubbing salt on the fresh wounds already sustained by the Tibetans many of whom had either lost their near and dear ones in the protest or someone from the family got arrested or disappeared. The “patriotic education” campaign brought further psychological trauma amongst the Tibetan community especially in the monastic institutions. The campaign acts as a political tool to humiliate the Tibetans and break down their nationalistic sentiments. By early April,“patriotic education” campaign was being extended beyond the monasteries into the community of lay Tibetan society in rural areas of Ngaba County.“Patriotic education” “work teams” arrived in homes and ordered Tibetans to condemn the recent protests, denounce the Dalai Lama and pledge allegiance to the Communist Party. Eight points were forced to be reiterated in front of a camcorder and those who refused to cooperate were threatened with imprisonment. One of the key components of thepatriotic education campaign is the vilification of the Dalai Lama. The opposition and launching of criticism on the Dalai Lama had been the broad policy formulation adopted by the leadership in Beijing. The strategy was to discredit the Dalai Lama of his moral authority and as the legitimate leader of the Tibetan people. Since China maintained a rigid system of information blockage and embargo on Tibetan people inside Tibet, the Chinese leadership presumed that tarnishing the image of the Dalai Lama could win over the hearts and minds of theTibetan people. However, it was not to be.
Despite almost 50 years of rule by China, the Dalai Lama rules the hearts and minds of the Tibetan people. In the pan-Tibet spring 2008 protests, registered around 300 separate events covering over 90 counties in the so-called “Tibet Autonomous Region” (“TAR”) and the Tibetan areas outside the“TAR”, the call for the return of the Dalai Lama  was unanimous. At a point when the protests in Tibet started to turn violent, the Dalai Lama expressly called for an immediate end of violence attached with a warning of resignation if the Tibetans start to abandon the path of non-violent struggle. The violent agitation dramatically subsided for theTibetans can not go against the words of the Dalai Lama against all odds. The Dalai Lama has showed them the path of non violence and at this critical juncture too the exiled leader continues to lead the Tibetan struggle through non violence.
Beijing has repeatedly downplayed the nature of theTibetan protests through the prism of criminal activities such as looting, smashing, arson, theft and rioting.Beijing refuses to see the reality of the political nature of the pan-Tibet popular protests.
On 17 March 2008, Zhang Qingli, the “TAR”Communist Party Secretary, urged that there be“quick arrests, quick hearings, and quick sentencing” of the people involved in the protests, which was virtually a political directive to circumvent guarantees for a fair and impartial legal due process. In view of such express orders, fast track courts in a clear exercise of summary execution of judicial process passed verdicts quickly. Handing life imprisonment term and lengthy prison terms up to 20 years in a record one and half month’s time is self explanatory about the nature of judiciary in Chinese administered Tibet. The nature of the court proceedings and the official interpretation of the Tibetans’ activities obviously bring forward the questions of competency of the court and the official downplaying of the nature of the Tibetan activities.The fast paced court verdicts were clear mockery of law and due process. In fact in all cases there was absence of due process as required under international law. The purpose and nature of the court in Lhasa obviously is only to provide a legal rubber stamp on pre concluded convictions without the concept of innocent until proven guilty. Courts in China clearly are not for protection and delivery of justice and on the contrary it acts as a vehicle to legitimise state actions. For instance, 21 Chinese lawyers who had publicly offered to defend Tibetan protesters were forced to withdraw their assistance after judicial authorities in Beijing threatened to discipline them and suspend their professional licenses. The authorities claimed that the Tibetan protesters were “not ordinary cases, but sensitive cases.” The TCHRD documented at least 190 Tibetans being handed prison terms ranging from nine months to life imprisonment for individuals as young as 16 years old to 80 years old. Out of the total sentenced so far, seven received life imprisonment terms while 90 Tibetans were sentenced to 10 years or more. The Tibetans have been largely sentenced under the charges of “endangering state security”; a controversial legislation which has neither ever been defined properly nor mentioned its scope of application. The legislation is used as a blanket cover to strike anyone daring to question the state.
In the aftermath of protest, Tibetan Communist Party members and the civil servants were racially targeted for their loyalty. According to China’s Tibet Information Centre on 10 July 2008, 13 Tibetan party members under Lhasa City were expelled from the Communist Party for their involvement in the “March 14 riot” and their failure to uphold the three themes under the renewed “patriotic education” campaign. In another instance the Tibetan CCP members and civil servants were served with the issuance of a two-month ultimatum on 14 July 2008 to recall their children studying in schools run by the Central Tibetan Administration or face expulsion from party membership and government job.Consequently at least 24 students have been pulled out of schools in India and another equal number of students have already made plans to return. Every year minors below the age of 18 form the largest number of refugees arriving from Tibet in pursuit of broad based modern education in schools established by the Dalai Lama and the Central Tibetan Administration in India. As against the usual figure of around two thousand refugees escaping Tibet, this year only 627 Tibetans have managed to arrive in India. 
At the height of political repression in Tibet in 2008,calls of restraint were consistently issued by the various heads of states as well as world bodies such as the United Nations. In the backdrop of the sum-mer Olympics in Beijing in August 2008, the calls for improvement in human rights in China and particularly dialogue by China with the Dalai Lama to resolve the Tibetan issue were heightened. Although certain issues like pollution in Beijing and free access to foreign journalists were relatively tackled, the Tibet issue remains stagnant. China’s refusal to address the issue sends a wrong signal of irrelevance of non-violent movements to the various contemporary struggles being waged in the world. China is head strong in its resolution to pressurise world leaders against meeting with the Dalai Lama and it does so openly. China cancelled a major EU-China summit scheduled at the end of November 2008 because the Dalai Lama would then be visiting Europe around the same time and was scheduled to meet President Sarkozy, the EU President.Such a move by China in flexing its economic muscles was unprecedented.
The Sino-Tibet dialogue started in 2002 collapsed after eight rounds of talks till date. At the height of mass protests in Tibet, the Envoys of the Dalai Lama visited China to secure the well being of the Tibetan arrestees and diffuse the tension in Tibet.The Tibetans inside and outside of Tibet banked on the visit for some tangible results finally after years of parleys between the two sides. Despite enormous tension on the ground the visits turned out to be another futile diplomatic exercise. The eighth round of talks was a litmus test of sincerity of the Chinese side since it took place after the Beijing Olympics and hence was devoid of pressure on China. As per the strategy China made unprecedented disclosures about the latest talks blasting the Dalai Lama and dismissing the Tibetan demands as “motive of independence” or “half independence”or “independence in disguise etc. Soon after the exile Tibetans gathered for a special meeting in Dharamsala which was the first of its kind.The meeting enjoyed the mandate of free voice of the Tibetan people. Around 560 delegates from 19 countries around the world during the five day meeting resolved to end the negotiations until genuine political will is shown by China. Despite the Tibetan side’s genuine attempts to engage in a result oriented dialogue, China seemingly tried to gain the upper hand by showing of engagement with theTibetan envoys until the end of Olympics in August. Chinas strategy was to delay all criticisms at least until the end of the summer Olympics and it has been executed skilfully with an unprecedented press conference soon after the eighth round of talks.
The year 2008 was historic for Tibet with a chain of events throughout the year. The Tibetans inside Chinese occupied Tibet have spoken their heart out with great sacrifices. The brave individuals have championed the spirit of non-violence in the face of extreme adversity. The year 2009 marks the 50th anniversary of exile for the Tibetans. In a conflict ridden world, the Tibet question, especially in the aftermath of the spring 2008 protest, poses a serious moral challenge to the world. It’s a test of the world’s conscience about the relevance of a non violent struggle and peace and dialogue. Tibet needs humanity to support it in this critical juncture of its history and humanity needs Tibet to continue to show light in the path of non-violence as the only hope for the solution for long standing political issues.

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