Beijing 08
Getting Tibet's message out
Activists seize on Beijing games to keep spotlight on troubled Himalayan region.
Last Modified: 07 Aug 2008 08:57 GMT

Many more protests are expected in the coming weeks [AFP]

Let the protests begin. With just a few hours to go before the Beijing Olympics open, pro-Tibet activists have begun agitating in the Chinese capital.

On Wednesday, in what Chinese authorities fear could be just a taste of things to come, four Western members of Students for a Free Tibet (SFT) were detained after they hoisted Tibetan flags and giant banners near the Bird’s Nest stadium, the centrepiece of the Beijing games.

Separately, a Swiss-based group calling itself Filming for Tibet held two screenings at Beijing hotels for overseas journalists of a documentary titled Leaving Fear Behind.

The 25-minute video was made up of interviews of local Tibetans expressing their feelings towards the games.


Coverage from the 29th summer Olympics

"We have no independence or freedom so Tibetans have no reason to celebrate [the Olympics]," says one young Tibetan girl featured in the film.

"The Chinese have independence and freedom, so it's something they can celebrate."

The second screening, at Hotel G next to the Worker's Stadium, one of the Olympic venues, was broken up by the hotel management.

"You know the situation in China," the hotel's general manager, Nikolaus Ellrodt, appealed to the journalists watching the video. "It's better for us if you leave ... The PSB [police] are downstairs and know you are here."

Hotel G paid a stiff penalty for hosting the private video event. Hours later, reception said they were no longer accepting guests and did not know when it would reopen.

'Suicide squads'

Some believe Tibetan 'terrorists' are out to disrupt the games [GALLO/GETTY]
While both events have likely riled the Chinese government, they are a far cry from the Tibetan "suicide squads" that Wu Heping, spokesman for China’s ministry of public security, warned about earlier this year.

Many Beijing locals, horrified by scenes shown on state TV of Tibetans in Lhasa smashing property and beating Han Chinese in the March riots, are convinced Tibetan "terrorists" are planning to disrupt the Olympics.

"I've heard about Tibetan suicide bombers," says Liu Yan, a 32-year-old mother in Beijing. "They strap bombs to their bodies and work in pairs. They are planning to come and ruin the games."

Western commentators though believe that while we are likely to see many more protests for a free - or freer - Tibet in the next few weeks, they will stay within the realm of peaceful banner- and flag-waving.

"Students for a Free Tibet and all the groups that I know of that have any reputation at all in the Tibetan exile community use non-violent tactics," American Matt Browner-Hamlin told Al Jazeera.

"I think there’s no question in my mind that the only types of protests you'll see from people pushing for Tibetan independence are non-violent ones, like we saw today."

Browner-Hamlin, a former staff member for Students for a Free Tibet, now works as a US-based political consultant.

Media spotlight

Chinese media have mostly ignored pro-Tibet protests [AFP]
While these kinds of protests are largely ignored by local media, the Olympics provides a perfect arena to keep the Tibetan question in the international spotlight.

"The aim of this screening is to get Tibetan voices heard in China on the eve of the Olympics," Dechen Pemba, spokesperson for Wednesday's screening, told Al Jazeera from London.

Pemba, an ethnic Tibetan with British nationality, was expelled from China last month after Beijing accused her of working for the activist group Tibetan Youth Congress - a charge she denies.

Meanwhile, the protesters' actual message is largely lost as Western journalists focus instead on the lengths activists have to go to get their voices heard in security-conscious Beijing.

Wednesday's protesters outside the Bird's Nest strung their banners out at the crack of dawn to evade the attention of Chinese police. While for the documentary screening, directions to the event were dispensed by a series of text messages.

Dhondup Wangchen and Golog Jigme, the two Tibetans who made the documentary, were arrested in March because of the film, says Pemba.

"Their contribution," she says, "has come at a huge price."

Al Jazeera
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