By Jehangir S. Pocha
Wangpo Tethong after unfurling the banner at Tiananmen Square, Beijing. (AFP)
Beijing, March 8 - A Tibetan activist challenged Chinese authorities yesterday by unfurling a provocative banner opposite the Great Hall of the People at Tiananmen Square, where China’s parliament is currently in session.
The activist, Wangpo Tethong, 43, held open his banner for just a few seconds before melting into the crowd.
The banner was addressed to China President Hu Jintao directly, saying: “Hu, you can’t stop us! 2008-Freetibet.org”.
“This is the first time there will be a Tibetan protest at Tiananmen Square”, Tethong said in an interview the day before he carried out his act. “It’s meant to show the Chinese government that they can’t just keep ignoring the issue of Tibet or that sooner or later it will arrive in the heart of China.”
Also meaningful, Tethong said, was the date on his banner, as well as the exact spot he chose to unfurl it – just besides the electronic “Olympic’ clock that is counting down the days to the 2008 Summer Olympics that Beijing will host.
China has been gearing up to put on a spectacular Olympics and use the occasion to announce its arrival on the global stage as a developed country. But Tethong said he and other Tibetan activists are planning to use the fact that “the world’s eyes will be focused on China” to draw attention to their own cause.
Though there were plenty of Chinese policemen at the square when Tethong opened his banner, they seemed perplexed by his act and hesitated before taking any action. This allowed Tethong, a Swiss citizen, to leave the square unharmed and bike to the Swiss embassy.
There diplomats gave him an informal escort to the airport from where he flew to Hong Kong, he said in a telephone interview from the island territory.
Tethong was lucky, for Chinese authorities do not take kindly to protests, even the momentary display of banners, at Tiananmen Square where hundreds of pro-democracy demonstrators where killed by army troops in 1989.
On June 4, 1992, when Wang Wanxing, a political activist, tried to commemorate the third anniversary of the 1989 massacre by displaying a banner at Tiananmen Square, he was arrested and sent to a psychiatric hospital for 13 years where he was forced to undergo shock therapy and put on psychotropic drugs.
Though Tethong admitted that his Swiss passport would probably have protected him from such harsh reprisals, he also said his act should be seen as an indication
of how angry and impatient Tibetans are growing with the Chinese government, which has been “ignoring” all their demands.
After Chinese forces invaded Tibet in 1959, the Buddhist country’s leader, the Dalai Lama, fled to neighboring India and set up a government-in-exile at
Dharamsala, in northern Himalchal Pradesh state. The two sides did not speak until 1987, when they began secret negotiations on the future of Tibet.
But the discussions have yielded little, and Wangpo said that when the fourth round of these talks that were held in China this February also failed, he decided to act.
“I don’t see any movement by the Chinese, so I ask myself ‘what is the use of these talks’?”, Wangpo said. “We need to show the Chinese and the world we won’t just disappear.”
That attitude contrasts vividly with the position of the Dalai Lama, who is in favor of continuing negotiations with Beijing, and has already agreed to give up the demand for full independence from China in return for autonomy.
While many of the 110,000 Tibetan refugees spread across the world see this as their best chance of returning home, others are irked by how much the Dalai Lama has conceded to Beijing.
“We all respect the Dalai Lama (but) you cannot give up the independence of Tibet. Anyone who tries this is making a mistake,” said Kalsang Godrupka Phuntsok, president of the Tibetan Youth Congress (TYC), an organization that is critical of the Dalai Lama’s “middle path” diplomacy and openly advocates taking a hard line, even starting a guerilla movement, against China.
Tethong was an active member of the TYC’s European branch, the Tibetan Youth Association.
Though Tethong said he abhorred violence, which was against the Tibetan nature, he said it was now becoming essential for Tibetans to take a stand against China.
“We don’t believe independence will be a gift that will be conferred on us. We will have to fight for it.”