FREE SPEECH ZONE | An Open Letter to the United States House of Representatives: Stop China’s Annihilation of Tibetan Identity, Religion and Culture in Tibet


Dear Members of Congress:

I am writing with urgency, on behalf of the Regional Tibetan Youth Congress of Minnesota, to bring to your attention the large-scale protests by Tibetan school and college students that are occurring inside Tibet and Beijing, and especially the detention of students following the protest.

Since 19 October 2010, almost eight thousand Tibetan students, joined by parents and educators from vast distances across Tibet, have peacefully spoken out against the Chinese government’s forced policy of replacing the Tibetan language with Mandarin Chinese as the medium of instruction.

For you to fully appreciate the meaning of this protest, please allow me to elaborate. Tibetan is a distinct and unique tongue, belonging to the Tibeto-Burman group of languages. It is one of the four oldest and most original languages of Asia, but more importantly, it is the bedrock of Tibetan identity, religion and culture. The Chinese government’s measure, which seek to erode Tibet’s language in favour of Chinese, strikes a blow at the heart of the Tibetan issue — for without language, culture cannot be preserved. Language experts have already noted a decline, and possible extinction, of the use of Tibetan inside occupied Tibet. The preservation of Tibetan language is strongly reflected as the central issue by His Holiness the Dalai Lama in His effort to find a peaceful solution for Tibet.

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The use of the Tibetan language is being systematically wiped out as part of China’s strategy to cement the stability of its governance over occupied Tibet, and as part of a model for ethnic integration and assimilation into the mainstream Han-Chinese community. Throughout its occupation of Tibet, much of Chinese government policy has been aimed — directly or indirectly — at the forced assimilation of the Tibetan people into the “motherland.” The Chinese-dominated education system in Tibet offers young Tibetans little, if any, opportunity to learn about their own country’s rich history or unique culture. Instead young Tibetans are forced to denounce the Dalai Lama and are being “re-educated” about their cultural past without any reference to the history of Tibet before the Chinese occupation and the subsequent Cultural Revolution when 6,000 monasteries were destroyed, along with ancient scriptures and the loss of millions of civilian lives. The loss of Tibetan Buddhist culture, whose primary values rest upon the principle of compassion, non-violence, and altruism, would be a grave loss in today’s world.

The education offered to Chinese children in Tibet is far superior to that available to Tibetan children. Secondary school education is predominantly taught in Chinese, which results in a large number of Tibetans not able to speak or write Tibetan after graduating high school. The Tibetan language and culture are viewed as handicaps; linguistically disadvantaged, few Tibetans graduate from secondary schools. This is further evidenced in the low numbers of Tibetan enrollment at prestigious Chinese Universities in comparison to other ethnic minorities.

Despite claims of development in Tibet, educational levels remain very low. The US State Department estimates that illiteracy rates in Tibet are five times higher than the national average. According to United Nations Development Programme data, the adult literacy rate in Tibet is 54 percent, as compared to a national average above 90%. Lack of access to institutions of higher education greatly impacts economic sustainability for young Tibetans. By replacing Tibetan language with Chinese, young Tibetans are culturally and economically disenfranchised.

Annually an approximate 2500-4500 Tibetans are forced to make the tragic decision to leave their families and homeland by escaping over the Himalayas to Nepal and into exile in India. The majority of Tibetans leave to pursue the right to their own culture and to have equal access to education. Traveling with inadequate footwear and clothing, they risk death by exposure to extreme weather conditions, amputation due to frostbite, and murder by Chinese snipers. If they make it to Nepal, they face exploitation by Nepalese border guards who violate international refugee law by returning them to China if they do not pay exorbitant bribes. If returned across the border they are immediately imprisoned. The majority of them are, in effect, victims of China’s educational policies.

The students active in the recent protest were born and grew up under Communist China’s occupation; they knew no other life. And yet their activism indicates their dissatisfaction with China’s occupation of Tibet. From their perspective, these post-colonial tactics support the annihilation of their Tibetan identity. Language is the lifeline of a culture.

With this in mind, we ask you to strongly convey this message to President Obama and the Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, to express solidarity with the principles of freedom and equality within education — principles which are being forcefully denied to Tibetan students, as a consequence of China’s occupation of Tibet.

We encourage you to contact the US Department of Education, and submit a proposal requesting China to reassure the United States that no punitive reprisals are currently or will be taken against Tibetan students, parents or teachers in relation to these protests. If so, current educational exchange programmes, which already exist between the US and China will need to be reassessed and suspended until such time as China is able to reassure the international community that the human and educational rights of Tibetan students are being fully respected.

We call on you to contact the Chinese Ambassador to Washington, Mr Zhou Wenzhoung, for his commitment that all detained students will be immediately released, and his assurance not to withdraw the Tibetan language from the education system in any Tibetan area. We urge you to highlight to the government of China that the systematic decimation of the Tibetan language is a serious violation of the principle enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that “[e]ducation shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms.”

To deny a child access to his/her cultural identity impacts each stage of identity development, and weakens resilience against the risk of psychological disturbance. When one’s sense of belonging and identity is stolen, profound multi-generational trauma is created. Culturally-sensitive education is vital to the realisation of fundamental rights and developmental capacity. The annihilation of a culture is a loss to the world. The circumstances described above should be of concern to us all as global citizens. These are moral choices, and they have moral consequences.

Thank you for your time and consideration. We look forward to your support and immediate actions.


Jigme Ugen
Regional Tibetan Youth Congress of Minnesota

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