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Stifling Tibetan voices

August 22, 2008

In the weeks leading up to the prime minister’s departure for Beijing, Tibetans and their supporters urged Gordon Brown to make a strong public statement about China’s broken promises on human rights and on the need for an independent investigation into the situation in Tibet.

En route to Beijing, the prime minister told reporters that he would be raising human rights concerns and the situation in Tibet with Chinese leaders. No promise was made to make a strong public statement, but hopes were raised that the British government might finally stand up for the Tibetan people.

Sadly, that has not turned out to be the case. Instead of condemning the lockdown of Tibet and the ongoing suppression of peaceful protests or calling publicly for an immediate independent investigation, the prime minister is today praising the Chinese government for temporarily lifting reporting restrictions for foreign journalists.

This lifting of restrictions for foreign media (although never for Chinese media) was the only Olympic promise the Chinese made even the most cursory attempt to keep. Foreign journalists were told they would be able to travel wherever they wanted and speak to whomever they pleased – except in Tibet, which would still require a visa and a minder. The new measures came into effect in January 2007 and are scheduled to end in October 2008.

All too predictably, within days of protests breaking out in Tibet in March, the Chinese authorities had evicted all foreign journalists. Communication with people in Tibet has become increasingly difficult, with Tibetans afraid to speak to outsiders and mobile phones being cut off (or being answered by Chinese voices demanding to know who is calling).

Despite this, a picture is emerging from various sources of Tibet as a country in lockdown. The Free Tibet campaign has provided a briefing detailing huge military build-ups in many areas of Tibet, with checkpoints on almost every corner and early evening curfews imposed. Undercover Channel 4 footage has shown snipers positioned on rooftops in Lhasa. Respected China analyst Willy Lam today suggests the Chinese regime’s pre-Olympics security build-up has been planned to enable a major crackdown on dissent after the games are over.

Does the prime minister have anything to say about this? Not really. According to Gordon Brown, “there is more common ground between the Chinese authorities and Tibet than is sometimes realised”. Really? The Tibetan people think they should be allowed to own an image of their spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama. The Chinese government thinks Tibetans should be tortured and imprisoned for owning an image of the Dalai Lama. This sounds more like a gaping chasm than common ground.

It is very dispiriting to hear the prime minister yet again endorsing the so-called talks between Chinese authorities and the Tibetan government-in-exile. After the most recent round of talks in July, the Dalai Lama’s special envoy Lodi Gyari was forced to concede:

In the course of our discussions we were compelled to candidly convey to our counterparts that in the absence of serious and sincere commitment on their part the continuation of the present dialogue process would serve no purpose.

Despite this, the British government continues to hide behind these talks, holding up this charade as evidence that the Chinese government is willing to seriously negotiate loosening its iron grip on Tibet, its people and its vast mineral resources.

Gordon Brown is known to pride himself on developing close personal friendships with the Chinese leaders. Friends tell friends when their behaviour is unacceptable.

If, whilst accepting Chinese government hospitality at the Olympics, the prime minister makes no stronger public stand about the human rights violations in Tibet, he will be shaming himself and he will be shaming the citizens he represents.

Anne Holmes is the acting director of Free Tibet.

From → Free Tibet

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