Last week, the Dalai Lama embarked on an international tour to keep the issue of Tibet alive ahead of the Olympics. His talks with leaders in Berlin, London, Canberra and elsewhere, which will continue through part of the Games, are aimed to maintain pressure on Beijing to address Tibetan discontent.
A degree of calm has returned to the region, but developments indicate that the storm continues — out of the public eye. Last month, the authorities tried 30 Tibetans in closed-door proceedings for their alleged roles in the protests that erupted in Lhasa in March, Human Rights Watch reported. Those sentenced were denied fair legal representation.
The regional government then paraded those 30 people at a public rally to announce their sentences — anywhere between three years and life in prison. Beijing proudly called this an “open court.”
As the weeks pass, more reports of secret trials will likely emerge as China makes public the sentences handed down against scores of demonstrators. Although Beijing has averred that the protesters instigated violence, its refusal to present evidence in open trials casts its charges in a dubious light.
Likewise, fresh arrests of apparently peaceful protesters indicate that the crackdown continues. Last week, Sichuan police told Radio Free Asia that “many” Tibetans had been detained in recent weeks. Three monks and 14 nuns were arrested in separate incidents last week alone.
Other reports indicate that authorities have stepped up “patriotic education” of Tibetan children, with the goal of teaching them to value Chinese culture above their own.
None of this is anything new. Arrests of dissidents and anyone else perceived as a threat weren’t uncommon in Tibet before the March protests and there is no reason to think that this would subside after the strongest show of local discontent in decades.
This is evident in the context of China’s growing intolerance of dissent around the country. At the National People’s Congress in March, Beijing revealed that arrests of “political criminals” hit an eight-year high last year. The violators include those who agitate for independence or autonomy, or petition against human rights violations.
As the Dalai Lama renews his efforts to highlight these and other disturbing developments, he will need to win strong support from key leaders to engage Beijing. But with China pressing countries to spurn the spiritual leader, governments will be loath to upset Zhongnanhai.
The Dalai Lama’s visit to Germany this week differed from a trip last fall in that he did not meet German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who was abroad. The Tibetan spiritual leader in exile instead spoke at the Reichstag and met Development Minister Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul. That sparked concern that Berlin may not be prepared to risk another falling-out with Beijing. Likewise, observers made much of British Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s decision this week to receive the Dalai Lama not at Downing Street but at Lambeth Palace, a subtle but telling signal.
How Berlin and other governments respond to the ongoing abuses in Tibet will be a crucial ingredient if progress is to be made. The people of Tibet have made their pain and frustration clear at enormous personal cost and are still suffering the ramifications. Without increased pressure on Beijing by the international community, they can do little more to secure the nominal freedoms China has granted them.