One month after peaceful demonstrations erupted into violent melees across Tibetan areas of China, Tibetans living in the Twin Cities say they have been unable to contact loved ones in their homeland.
“It’s been increasingly difficult to get a connection,” said Kalsang Phuntsok, 37, president of the Tibetan Youth Congress of Minnesota.
On March 10, the 49th anniversary of a Tibetan uprising against Chinese rule, Buddhist monks and nuns in Tibet began demonstrations that erupted into violence between Tibetans and Chinese security forces.
The subsequent Chinese crackdown resulted in a number of deaths, estimated at about 20 by the Chinese government and at more than a hundred by Tibetan exiles. Tibetans in Minnesota responded with prayer vigils in community centers and monasteries and candlelight vigils and rallies at public buildings. Tibetans and supporters have protested the Olympic Torch Relay in locations from Paris to San Francisco over the past few weeks.
Tibetans and their supporters have seized on China’s hosting of the Summer Olympics as an opportunity to draw attention to the government’s human rights abuses. An April 16 rally, which involved a “human rights torch relay” from the state capitol to the University of Minnesota, was met by counter-protesters who argued that the abuses are being fabricated or exaggerated, and that it’s inappropriate to use the Olympics to draw attention to the autonomy issue.
Phuntsok, reading a statement from the Twin Cities’ Tibetan community at the April 16 rally, said they plan to continue to cast shame on the country’s Olympic games until “the Chinese government stops marginalizing Tibetans in Tibet.” The statement called on China to withdraw its military and security forces from Tibet and allow foreign journalists and United Nations inspectors into the area.
“For China it may be a celebration of economic power, but for Tibetans it is human dignity and freedom,” Phuntsok said.
The Twin Cities is home to the second-largest Tibetan community in the United States. About 150 refugees arrived through a resettlement program in the early 1990s, and as they invited relatives and started families, their numbers have since grown to almost 2,000.
Prior to last month’s violence, many were able to keep in touch with relatives in Tibet via telephone. Since March 17, though, people aren’t picking up the phone.
Phuntsok said it’s not clear whether there’s a problem with the telephones in Tibet, or if they are working fine but residents are afraid to use them for fear of surveillance.
To make matters worse, the government of China continues to restrict journalists from entering the Tibet Autonomous Region, an area of southwest China that Tibetans believe should be autonomous.
“It’s a complete media blackout,” said Lobsang Gyatso, 31, who has several cousins living in Milarepa, Tibet.
Gyatso said his mother, aunt and uncles try to visit family in Tibet annually, but for the last two years they have been denied travel papers by the Chinese government. He vented his frustration Wednesday at a rally, which called on China to improve its human rights record.
China occupied the region of Tibet in 1950, and the following year signed an autonomy agreement with the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan’s spiritual leader. The document, which some believe the Dalai Lama was coerced into signing, said Tibet is a part of China but that Tibetans would have freedom to preserve their culture and language.
By 1959, Tibetans concluded China was not holding up its end of the deal. When Tibetans suspected a plot against the Dalai Lama, they led an uprising, which China promptly sought to crush with force. Some 100,000 Tibetans fled to neighboring India and Nepal and have been living as refugees ever since.
The U.S. State Department has documented a long list of human rights violations committed against Tibetans by the Chinese government. According to its most recent annual report on Tibet, the government of China strictly controls information about, and access to, the Tibetan region. It rates its human rights record as poor and said the level of repression of religious freedom increased in 2007.
“Authorities continued to commit serious human rights abuses, including torture, arbitrary arrest and detention, and house arrest and surveillance of dissidents,” the report says.
Tibetans in the Twin Cities plan to indefinitely hold weekly candlelight vigils from 5-8 p.m. Fridays outside the federal courthouse in downtown Minneapolis.