Life and Death Struggle; The illegal Suppression of Tibetan Language
Translated by Tenzin Dickyi
In Tibet, the issue and problem of language is growing. The situation is such that the Chinese language is pushing away the languages of minority nationalities to the edge.
Actually this situation is not reflected in the textbooks of Amdo region, but the problem has come to Lhasa and Kham along ago. Around Lhasa and in Kham, the textbooks were already lost to the Chinese language long ago. In Amdo, the Tibetan language was still dominant. It had not lost out in the textbooks. Recently in Amdo, students carried out a non-violent protest on the issue of language. The protest was lawful. There were even 9 year old students at the protest. Nine year old students? Yes, even a nine year old child could grasp the value of one’s language.
The news of the student protests has reached the western media but in a scattered rather than a clear and detailed manner. The New York Times, CNN and BBC and others posted the news of the protests on their websites. Their news was not comprehensive. They only reported on the Amdo Rebkong protests. Their numbers didn’t match. The New York Times said there were a thousand students; the Times also reported that some monks joined the protests. The New York Times mentioned the International Campaign for Tibet as its source. ICT had provided a detailed press report on the protests but the report was not without mistakes. For example, ICT reported that the slogan of the Rebkong protests was “Return the authority of Tibetan language” but actually the slogan of the Rebkong protest was “Equality of Peoples, Freedom of Languages.” (ICT has since made the correction on its website.)
BBC put the number of student protestors at 1000, and gave an estimation of 1000-7000, then gave it at 5000-9000. CNN, at first, said around 800 students, then said 4000-5000 students. The above three media were only talking about the numbers for Rebkong. As for the Tibetan media, they gave the number of Rebkong protestors as one thousand.
On the 22nd, Ed Wong of the New York Times reported again on the student protests. His piece was a little more detailed. He wrote not just about Rebkong but also about Chabcha and even about the student protest at Minorities Nationalities University in Beijing. Usually, the western media is very quick whenever there are incidents in Tibet. Their reports are detailed also. This time, the media was very slow and their news was not detailed. Perhaps it’s because this protest was not a political protest. In any case, this protest was different from previous protests. This protest was about language freedom; the protestors were students; the method was non-violent. Regarding this protest, the Tibetan media was very quick and they received a lot of news. Khabdha was one of them, and Khabdha alone received 28 different pieces related to the student protests.
These student protests were distinct in their timing and the demands expressed. On October 19th, one thousand students from six different schools in Rebkong protested with the slogan, “Equality of Peoples, Freedom of Languages.”
The non-violent protest did not stay confined to Rebkong. The protests spread. Where the Tibetan language was still used, there the protests spread. On October 20th, in places like Chabcha in Tsolho Autonomous P, more than 2000 students protested and demanded, “Return the authority of the Tibetan language.”
Then came news of protests in places like Trikha county, Chenza dzong and Dragkar. The protestors increased every day. The spread of the protests as well as the number of protestors kept increasing. On the 21st, more than 3000 students in Golok protested with the slogan “Equality of Peoples; Freedom of Languages”.
The tide of protest didn’t stay contained in Golok- on the 22nd, it travelled to Beijing. Now Beijing is the capital of China, the city where Mao’s mausoleum rests. Around 400 students of the Nationalities University in Beijing protested carrying a banner that read, “Preserve Nationality Languages and Expand National Education.” Moreover, another protested at Chenza on the 24th was reported. The protests that had started in Rebkong were able to end up in Beijing.
I wonder if the Chinese leaders heard the protest. If Rebkong students protests, can the leaders in Beijing hear them? Maybe not. If Beijing students protest, can the leaders hear them? Maybe so. Even if the leaders can hear them, will they open the curtain and stick their necks out the window?
Here we need to take a look backwards. Two events happened before the student protests. On September 10th, the “Planning Theme on Reform and Development of Middle School Instruction for Qinghai Province” was unveiled. It said, “For reform and development of effective bilingual instruction to move forward, the common national language must be made central and the medium of instruction.”
The second event took place on October 15th. Teachers from the Qinghai Prefecture schools wrote a letter to the local government. The letter was written in both Tibetan and Chinese. Around 136 teachers had signed this letter. Our source informed us (Khabdha) that around 300 teachers signed the letter, but we weren’t able to receive all the documents. The person who sent the document from Tibet had done so in great haste. Therefore, the 2nd page of the Tibetan was obstructed and couldn’t be viewed properly.
In the letter, the teachers base their argument on the Chinese Constitution and the Law on Regional National Autonomy. At this point, we must examine if there is a way to preserve language using the law. If there is such a way, then we must fight on the basis of that law. And we must continue to fight on the basis of law. However, the Chinese government is not a country that fully obeys the rule of law. Ultimately the Chinese Constitution is just a paper constitution. In China, the individual is above the law. In China, the law doesn’t have authority over all individuals; the individual has authority over the law. There are a few such countries in the world; Chinese is the most prominent of them.
Even so, the protesters should continue their non-violent protest. They should continue to raise their voice. They should continue their struggle with the government. There are two ways to struggle- the first is lawful struggle, struggle through legal avenues.
There is a way to preserve Tibetan language on Tibetan land using the law. This can be based on the Chinese Constitution and the Law on Regional National Autonomy. Article 4, Article 19, and Article 121 of the Chinese Constitution talk about the freedom and responsibility to preserve and promote nationality languages. With Article 4, “All ethnic groups have the freedom to use and develop their own spoken and written languages and to preserve or reform their own folkways and customs. And Article 10, Article 36 and Article 39 of the Law on National Regional Autonomy mention that a people have the power to use their own language. Article 39 says, “In accordance with the guidelines of the State on education and with the relevant stipulations of the law, the organs of self-government of national autonomous areas shall decide on plans for the development of education in these areas, on the establishment of various kinds of schools at different levels, and on their educational system, forms, curricula, the language used in instruction and enrollment procedures.” Therefore, legally there is a right to preserve, use and promote one’s language.
This right should be exercised. It should be exercised through the law. If this right is violated, this right must be protected, again through a legal avenue.
The second way is based on livelihood and employment. The teaching in Amdo of not just Tibetan language class but also other classes in Tibetan gives employment to many Tibetan teachers. This is a very good livelihood; it is a good thing to make a living based on one’s language. In general, although unemployment rises in Tibet every year, the ability to make a living from one’s language reduces unemployment a little bit. If these people lose their jobs, needless to say, unemployment will increase. The rise of unemployment will hurt on many fronts. If these Tibetan teachers lose their jobs, who will take care of their livelihood? Will the government take care of them? In any country, if the government takes away jobs from people, these people have the right to appeal to the government. They can do this by law. Thus, it is possible to fight the government on the basis of this unemployment issue.
In any case, neither the teachers nor the students have any wish to substitute Chinese language for the Tibetan. The protests and the letter attest to this. In fact, on the issue of language, Professor Palden Nyima of Southwest Teacher’s Training College said in answer to a question from BBC, “Tibetan students should be taught in their preferred language, and their livelihood and their happiness should be the main consideration.” He emphasized, “To practice Tibetan culture, Tibetan language must be used and the children must be taught in that language.”
So although it is possible to struggle for rights and freedom on the basis of the law and livelihood, is it possible to get results? Maybe it is possible. As the students continued their protest, did the local leaders tone down their talk? That remains to be seen. For example, on the 21st, when the head of Education Department of Qinghai Province Chang Wei came to Rebkong, he gathered the county heads and ordered, “The students and teachers must be strictly instructed, and the new education policy must be implemented without hesitation.” Isn’t this the best proof that in China the individual is above the law? Also, the vice-head Zhen Chun went to Chabcha and called a meeting there. On October 22nd, around twenty students from Gonghe County Middle School were arrested by the Public Security Bureau officers. Can there be a positive result from non-violent protests? Can we have faith in the appearance of the Chinese leaders? I have none. Do you? Perhaps you don’t. Up till now, the Chinese leaders have done nothing to inspire faith among the Tibetan people.
This is the situation of situation of Tibetan language; Tibetan language is being illegally suppressed and is involved in a life and death struggle. Where will this issue be after ten years? After fifteen years? After twenty years?
(Published on Khabdha in Tibetan October 24, 2010)