Spotlight On Tibet: Calling Tibet? Please Hang Up & Try Again PDF Print E-mail
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Written by Rebecca Novick   

You have the wrong house. I have no son.” This is what nineteen-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 refuses to speak with him. Yangzom, a twenty-four-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.

Tibetan Prayer Flags
Tibetan Prayer Flags

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 in prison 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 joining the Spring protests. Click! The line went dead.

Already cut off from friends and relatives through the reality of exile, exiled Tibetans are having to sacrifice their last form of contact with those they love. Even if they manage to get the call through, they 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 most 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.

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. The following comments were made during a Radio Free Asia call-in program by 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...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 overtime to keep up with the conversation.

A longer version of this article was originally published in The Huffington Post. Rebecca Novick is a writer and the Executive Producer of The Tibet Connection radio program. She is currently based in Dharamsala, India.

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