Norzin Wangmo got five years
for talking on the phone
"You have the wrong house. I have no son." This is what 19-year-old Legdup heard when he called his mother in Tibet from Dharamsala, India. Sitting in a dark café with a tantalizing view of the Himalayan foothills that separates the North Indian state of Himachal Pradesh with his homeland, a monk nods silently when I tell him about Legdup, and confides that his own family back in Tibet refuse to speak with him. Another young man says that his mother has insisted that he stop calling her. Yangzom, a 24-year-old student who left Tibet in 2006, has given up trying to call home because she doesn't want to put her parents in danger. Ask anyone in this town and you hear the same story. People afraid to receive calls. People afraid to make them.
The fear is well founded. In April 2008, Radio Free Asia reported that a popular singer and writer, Jamyang Kyi, was detained and tortured for sending text messages to her friends about the protests. In November, the International Campaign for Tibet reported that a Tibetan woman named Norzin Wangmo was sentenced to five years imprisonment for trying to get information about the situation in Tibet by phone and internet to the outside world.
Your call might abruptly end in mid-sentence, say exiled Tibetans, especially if you mention anything "sensitive." One man I spoke with recently asked his aunt about the prison sentence of his brother who had been arrested for his participation in the Spring protests. Click! The line went dead. Sometimes callers from overseas hear Chinese voices on the line. A Tibetan-American man tells me that calls to his family near Lhasa often mysteriously re-route to a residence in India.
For Tibetans outside Tibet, this is simply another heartache in a long list that continues to plague them. Already cut off from friends and relatives through the reality of exile, they now have to sacrifice their last form of contact with those they love. "You have to try to put these things in perspective," says Alison Pinkney, a Scottish documentary filmmaker who has spent a lot of time speaking with young Tibetans in Dharamsala. "The worst thing I can expect when I call my mum in Scotland is a bad connection." Even if they manage to get the call through, Tibetans try to keep to the most mundane topics like food and the weather. "No matter what is going on, my family in Tibet will say, "I'm fine," a young NGO worker explains. "We know it's not true, but no one dares dig any deeper."
It's the self-censorship that muzzles the most. If you don't know where the line is, you will likely stop short of crossing it. Just in case. Everyone in Tibet knows that phone calls are monitored, and cell phones have proved to be no safer than landlines. Public Security Bureau police might turn up on your doorstep if you've been speaking to people overseas, particularly India -- for Beijing, the home of the much-maligned "Dalai Clique", and a place where Tibetans pick up dangerous notions like democracy and freedom of speech.
Article 19 of the UN Declaration of Human Rights describes the freedom "to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media regardless of frontiers." The architects of the Declaration clearly understood how the control of personal communications is key to the function of a modern police state such as is effectively in place in today's Tibet (read report by The Australian newspaper).
But as concerned as China's leaders may claim to be about popular dissent being fostered from outside influences, it is the homegrown freedom lobby that must be keeping them awake at night, especially when it hints at the unification of freedom movements within the country. The following comments were made during a Radio Free Asia call-in show. The caller is a Tibetan student named Losang who is studying in mainland China.
"Right now, a lot of us younger Tibetans inside Tibet feel that we need to do something to stand up...We are a people oppressed by another, and little by little, pieces are being cut off and destroyed....I feel that the people inside Tibet need to 'start the fire'...The Chinese are deceiving not only the world, but their own people with pictures of a peaceful Tibet...We need to work not only for the Tibetan people but for democracy for the whole of China."
In spite of Olympian efforts to the contrary, freedom is fast becoming a hot topic in China. And with 200,000 new cell phone accounts opening daily there, its surveillance industry will need to work over time to keep up with the conversation. The writer is founding producer of The Tibet Connection radio program. She is currently based in Dharamsala, India.