Taiwanese and Tibetan activists are urging Taiwan’s government to show greater concern over poor human rights conditions in China, and especially Tibet, that have led Tibetans to set themselves on fire in protest.
Chow Mei-li (周美里), chairwoman of the Taiwan Friends of Tibet, said she believes Taiwan’s government has the ability and is obliged to influence China on the issue as the two sides “have many channels of communication open.” With leaders in Taiwan and China able to communicate frequently, it is Taiwan’s responsibility to urge Beijing to respect the human rights and religious freedoms of Tibetans, she said.
She also called on the government to urge China to at least withdraw its troops from Tibetan monasteries and allow monks to travel freely.
Tenzin Tsundue, an exiled Tibetan writer and activist based in Dharamsala, India, said the situation is worsening in Tibet.
“Forty-one Tibetans have set themselves on fire and yet the Chinese government is firmly maintaining brutal military control in Tibet, driving Tibetans to such desperate measures in protest,” he said. “It’s not likely to stop anytime soon.”
“As a friend of China, we believe Taiwan can speak to Chinese leaders,” he added.
Tashi Tsering, former head of the Regional Tibetan Youth Congress, Taiwan and a Tibetan who has lived in Taiwan for 14 years, said he hopes the government will break its silence and “say something” to help Tibetans receive “the basic human rights they deserve.”
Two more Tibetans were reported to have set themselves on fire on June 20 in China’s Qinghai Province. One reportedly died and the other suffered serious burns. The two were reported to have raised Tibetan independence flags, known as the Snow Lion Flag, as they self-immolated on the streets of Yushu County.
The self-immolation protests began on March 16 last year, when Tibetan monk Rigzin Phuntsog set himself on fire in Sichuan Province. Since then, an estimated 41 to 46 Tibetans inside Tibet and within Tibetan communities outside the region have set themselves on fire to protest China’s tightening control over the area. Many of them have died, but the conditions of some remain unknown.
In response to the activists’ call, Chen Ming-jen (陳明文), spokesman for the Mongolian and Tibetan Affairs Commission, said the government continues to pay close attention to the self-immolations of Tibetans and urges China to respect and protect human rights and religious freedom.
“We deeply regret the way they handle the issue and understand the Tibetans’ call for better human rights,” Chen said. “We have repeatedly called on China to face the needs of the Tibetan community and to respond these with rationality and tolerance.”
However, he said that the commission would not confront China with “extreme measures,” such as threatening to cut off ties, because that “may not necessarily have a positive effect.” He added that what the government could do is try to influence Chinese officials through personnel exchanges, such as bringing Chinese officials to visit government agencies responsible for ethnic minority affairs and “show them how we handle such issues.”
However, Chow questioned whether the government’s “soft stance” has achieved any results or improved conditions in Tibet and said she hoped the muted response was not simply an excuse for “being afraid of China.”
“If we don’t challenge them, they will challenge us,” Chow said, adding that the issue addresses not only Tibet, but also Taiwan.
“Taiwan and China are countries with some of the closest ties in the world. If we don’t speak out on the Tibet issue then, in the end, Taiwan, with so many businesses and citizens in China whose human rights also need to be protected, will be the one that gets hurt,” she said.
Chow urged the government to include human rights issues to be included on the agenda for negotiations between Taiwan and China on economic and trade issues at their next round of formalized talks.