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Young Tibetan protestors get media savvy

Reuters

In the run-up to the Olympic Games, which begin in Beijing on August 8, pro-Tibet activists – often young exiles – have been busy grabbing the headlines.

This content was published on July 28, 2008 - 16:05

The image of Pema Dolkar, who in March covered her face in ketchup and threw herself in front of a runner holding the Olympic torch in Athens, yelling "Stop Killing Tibet!", was broadcast around the world.

The sight of the hysterically angry Yangzom Brauen being dragged away by police in Moscow in 2001 when China was awarded the Olympics also caused a global sensation.

Dolkar and Brauen are both Tibetan exiles living in Switzerland, whose 4,000 Tibetans make up the largest Tibetan community outside Asia.

Tenzin Losinger-Namling, a 22-year-old student from Bern, was also in Athens calling for a free Tibet and demonstrating against what she considers China's disregard for human rights.

All three women belong to the Tibetan Youth Association in Europe, which was founded in Zurich in 1970 "out of moral duty to their people and country" and comprises around 350 members.

The small group of activists from Switzerland say they were shadowed around the clock by Chinese security forces in Greece.

"They knew everything about us," says Losinger-Namling, who is convinced the Chinese hacked into their emails – at any rate viruses infected their computers.

However, this surveillance served only to strengthen her resolve. "It shows the Chinese government is afraid of us – and that's good."

Violence is taboo

For Losinger-Namling it is not enough simply to sympathise with Tibet. "The important thing is for people to actually do something," she says.

And where does she draw the line for political activism? The diminutive woman in a white shirt and large Tibetan earrings says she'd "go far", although violence is taboo.

"The Tibetans in Switzerland – unlike those in Tibet – have the possibility to speak openly," she says. "The worst that can happen to us here is to end up in prison..."

Although the Tibetan Youth Association in Europe is demanding independence from China, Losinger-Namling says she has nothing against the conciliatory "middle way" policy pursued by the Dalai Lama, the Tibetans' pacifist spiritual leader, which calls merely for Tibetan autonomy within China.

"He is under more pressure than we are," she says.

Creative protests

"The Free Tibet movement has a new vitality," Losinger-Namling adds. "Now it is addressing the problem creatively."

For example a month before the Olympic opening ceremony in Beijing, a picture of Swiss President Pascal Couchepin with his eyes and mouth blacked out was projected onto the Swiss parliament in Bern. Underneath was the pun "Ich couche nicht", German for "I'm not giving in".

Couchepin has said that since Switzerland houses the seat of the International Olympic Committee it was "natural" that he should attend the ceremony. Four Tibetan organisations in Switzerland are calling for a boycott.

Losinger-Namling says this new style is not a question of generation, but more of language and integration. For example she says it is a lot harder for the older Tibetan exiles in Rikon, outside Zurich, to make their voices heard in public as even today they speak hardly any German.

Media savvy

After a Tibetan rebellion against Chinese occupation was crushed in 1959, the 14th Dalai Lama and around 120,000 other Tibetans fled into exile. In 1963 the Swiss government took in 1,000 Tibetan refugees and the Swiss kitchenware factory Kuhn Rikon gave many of them accommodation and a job.

Dolkar Gyaltag, Losinger-Namling's aunt, says the younger generation is more media savvy, but its message and goals remain the same.

"Young people know how to use the media better. They are also more Westernised," says the 59-year-old, who like many other children of Tibetan refugees grew up in the Pestalozzi Children's Village in Trogen, eastern Switzerland.

"Whereas the elder generation asked the world to embrace the Tibetan cause, the younger ones demand it. Previously people prayed; now they protest."

swissinfo, Corinne Buchser

Switzerland and Tibet

Switzerland is aiming to step up bilateral ties with China. The two countries have a long history of collaboration economically and politically.

Tibet, however, remains a difficult issue. Chinese President Jiang Zemin on a state visit to Bern in 1999 gave former cabinet minister Ruth Dreifuss a dressing down following a pro-Tibetan rally outside parliament.

China also expressed its displeasure when the spiritual leader of Tibet, the Dalai Lama, visited Switzerland in 2005.

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Tibet versus China

Tibet and China disagree about the legal status of Tibet. China says Tibet has officially been part of China since the 13th century, so should continue to be ruled by Beijing.

Many Tibetans disagree, pointing out that the Himalayan region was an independent kingdom for many centuries and that Chinese rule over Tibet has not been constant.

Although its status did not receive widespread recognition, Tibet functioned as an independent government until 1951. China sent troops to Tibet in 1950 and summoned a Tibetan delegation the following year to sign a treaty ceding sovereignty to China.

Although China has invested in the economy, human rights groups point to widespread mistreatment of the Tibetan population and a denial of religious and political freedom.

The Chinese government has been engaged in low-level talks with Tibet's government-in-exile, based in India, over recent years.

China insists that the Tibetans in exile, led by the Dalai Lama, want nothing less than full independence. The Dalai Lama has repeatedly stated that he wants nothing more than autonomy for the region, that he is against all forms of violence and that he supports the Beijing Olympic Games.

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