By Briana Kerensky
On a damp Friday afternoon in the city of Ithaca, a group of people gathered in front of Namgyal Monastery, the national seat of Tibetan Buddhism and the American home of the Dalai Lama.
Among the throng of people were monks, wearing maroon jackets over their robes to stay dry in the steady drizzle. There were also Tibetan children and their parents, wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the words “Olympics in China, Torture in Tibet” with an image of the traditional Olympic rings reshaped into multi-color handcuffs. Some of the men and women draped Tibetan flags over their backs while others wore traditional garb. There were also college students, parents with their children in tow and senior citizens — about 30 people total. They stood in front of Namgyal Monastery, with flags and signs, before marching through Ithaca in protest of the Chinese government’s occupation of Tibet and their poor human rights record.
In August, Beijing will host the Summer Olympics. While a goal of the Olympics is to “build a peaceful and better world,” China’s gross human rights abuses in Tibet, and the thousands of people protesting around the world, are turning the 2008 Summer Games into what some are calling the most politically charged sporting event since the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.
In 1950, the Chinese government invaded Tibet as part of a plan to absorb it into China. But because the pro-Tibetan people see the Dalai Lama as their religious and political leader and refused to accept the state as a higher authority, in the late 1950s the Chinese government began a campaign of what Tibet activists term “cultural genocide.” By destroying monasteries, arresting and torturing monks and nuns, and denying all citizens the freedoms of religion and speech, they hoped to reform Tibet in communist China’s image. Fearing for his safety, the Dalai Lama fled Tibet in 1959 and now lives in India.
Now, 49 years later, the Tibetans who remain in Tibet are faced with similar dangers and restrictions. It is against the law to own, buy or sell images of the Dalai Lama, speak his name in public, or recite certain prayers dedicated to him. Monks and nuns are under surveillance by secret police and are banned from government buildings. The Chinese government controls the majority of schools, and they educate Tibetan children to scorn the Dalai Lama. In Tibet, religion is only tolerated as long as it does not interfere with or challenge the legitimacy of the Communist Party. The Congressional-Executive Commission on China estimates that there were 100 political prisoners in Tibet as of September 2007, though they acknowledge this number is likely too low. And with the recent protests in Tibet, it has surely risen.
Anyone who refuses to obey the laws outlined by the Chinese government can be imprisoned, tortured, and even executed. According to the Government of Tibet in Exile, over 1.2 million Tibetans (one sixth of the population) were killed between 1951 and 1979. A 2005 census shows that over 130,000 Tibetans are exiles in other countries. About another 3,000 leave per year, according to John Powers, a Tibet specialist at the Australian National University.
The Chinese government claims a historical right to Tibet, based on the fact that Tibet and China were united under Mongol rule during the Yuan Dynasty. They argue that Tibet has been a part of China ever since because they had no independent diplomatic relations.
In 2001, the International Olympic Committee awarded Beijing the chance to host the 2008 Summer Games. When China made its bid, it promised the International Olympic Committee that as host, it would improve “all social conditions, including education, health and human rights.”
According to the Association for Asia Research, the IOC’s intention in choosing China for the games was that the games would act as a force for change. IOC President Jacques Rogge was “convinced that the Olympic Games [would] improve human rights in China.”
But looking at China’s treatment of Tibetans, it seems like the force of change has been little more than a weak push.
The International Campaign for Tibet accused China of using the sporting event as an opportunity to step up its repression of all dissidents and to further spread the belief that Tibet is a part of China. The Chinese performance at the close of the 2004 Athens Games, included Tibetan costumes, and China chose a Tibetan animal as one of the 2008 Olympic mascots.
But while the yingsel, a Tibetan antelope, will be making an appearance at the games as a mascot, no Tibetan athletes will be present. In late 2007, 30 Tibetan athletes petitioned the International Olympic Committee to have the chance to compete as “Team Tibet.” On December 10, their request was denied. According to the IOC, Team Tibet cannot compete because of Rule 31 of the Olympic charter, which states that only national committees from countries recognized by the international community as independent nations can compete.
So while Team Tibet will not be seen at the opening ceremonies, Taiwan, Hong Kong and the Palestinian Territories will be. These places can compete because they received permission before Rule 31 was changed in 1996.
Around the world human rights activists are trying to get China to play fair before the games begin. And now that people are focused on China, many organizations are using the opportunity to get the media’s attention. Last year, The International Campaign for Tibet launched a program entitled “Race For Tibet.” Through an interactive Web site, people can learn about the human rights crisis and why the ICT believes China should not be hosting the Olympic Games in 2008. The Web site also offers ways for people to speak out against the injustices occurring in Tibet.
On April 26, 2007, the organizers for the 2008 Olympics officially announced the route of the traditional torch relay. The route calls for relay runners to climb up Mount Everest and through Lhasa, the capital of Tibet. Many Tibetan independence organizations, including Students for a Free Tibet, see this section of the torch route as part of a PR ploy.
“Lhasa is fairly remote, and the fact that they are going through all this effort to go through Lhasa and up Everest is unfeasible,” said Students for a Free Tibet deputy director Tenzin Dorjee. “I think that by putting in all this effort and spending all this money, China is using the torch on Everest as a stage from which they can publicize and claim Tibet as part of China.”
The day after the Olympic torch route was announced in April 2007, Tenzin and four other members of Students for a Free Tibet took action and protested on Mount Everest. The group unfurled a large white banner with the words “One World. One Dream: Free Tibet 2008” on it in English, Chinese, and Tibetan. The message was a jab at the slogan for the Olympic Games, “One World. One Dream.”
A recording of the protest was sent on a live satellite feed back to Students for a Free Tibet headquarters in New York City. They put the whole video on YouTube, including the part where the Chinese police took away the banner and proceeded to arrest Tenzin and his team members.
For 55 hours, Chinese police subjected Tenzin and his team members to aggressive interrogations. They were confined in dark rooms, denied food and sleep, and had questions yelled at them as over 150 police guards marched outside.
“They used intimidation tactics,” Tenzin said. “They told us that we were going to be in prison forever. They used hunger and sleep deprivation towards us, and we sort of broke down towards the end.”
When the video footage of the protest spread across the Internet and became a media sensation, the Chinese government let Tenzin and his friends go and dropped them off in Katmandu, the capital of Nepal.
“I think my protest is definitely one of the reasons China is starting to step up security,” Tenzin said. “Suddenly they feel a lot more insecure of their role in Tibet.”
Since Tenzin’s protest on Everest, tensions between the Chinese, Tibetans and Tibetan activists have escalated. As the opening ceremony of the games gets closer, more media attention has been focused on China. People are using that focus as an opportunity to make their voices heard. Aggressive protests during the Olympic torch route in Paris and London had people trying to stop the torchbearers by running in their path, trying to take the torch, and on more than one occasion, trying to put it out with a fire extinguisher. But for all the thousands of people going to the streets in the name of Tibet, there are just as many defending China and its right to host the games.
In Ithaca, beliefs about the Olympics in Beijing and the human rights situation surrounding the games are diverse.
Katie Zimmerman, a freshman at Ithaca College and a member of IC’s chapter of Amnesty International participated in a peace march organized by Namgyal Monastery.
“The Chinese government has just manipulated people,” Zimmerman said. “They said they were going to change all these things, and now that they’re officially hosting the Olympics they haven’t changed a thing. But according to our laws we have the freedom of speech, and I think it’s important for all opinions to be respected. [During the march] some people didn’t like what we were doing, but I wasn’t openly offended. It’s kind of a given that someone wasn’t going to agree what we were marching for.”
Robin Si is the president of the Mainland China Student Association, an organization at Cornell University. She was born and educated in China, and believes that Tibet is a part of China.
“Personally, I believe that people shouldn’t relate the Olympics to politics. This is something that has a long history of being a sport-oriented event, not one about politics. You’re supposed to compete in honor, and I don’t think it’s appropriate for organizations to mix the Tibet issue with the Olympics.”
Si believes that people need to understand all perspectives before they can choose sides on a matter as serious as this one.
“I’m not saying it is right or wrong for American students [to protest],” she said, “but if they want to comment on the issue they should understand the history before they get involved. It’s very important to understand both sides. Human rights mean a lot of different things to different people. The western media emphasizes a lot of human rights, something that we [in China] interpret differently.”
In a few weeks, the monks of Namgyal Monastery, the Tibetan residents of Ithaca, and others who believe that Tibet should be free from Chinese occupation will pick back up their flags and signs and march through the city again. The Olympic Games begin on August 8, and tensions are only going to grow bigger before then. The world is focusing its cameras on China, and those who believe that Tibet should be free are going to use the opportunity to run in front of the lens and be seen, before the media focuses their attention elsewhere.
Briana Kerensky is a sophomore journalism major. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.