Tibet students jailed for protest as language tensions rise

Eight Tibetan medical school students have been sentenced to five years in prison after a major protest involving more than 1,000 people was held in Chabcha in the Tsolho region of Qinghai province. Students demanded freedom of language and equality of ‘nationalities’ – a reference to China’s minority peoples, including Tibetans.

The students, sentenced on 5 December for their involvement in the protests, were named on Wednesday by the International Campaign for Tibet as: Rabten, Wangdue Tsering, Chamba Tsering, Choekyong, Tashi Kunsang, Dorjee Tsering, Sanggye Dundrup and Kunsang Bum.

Experts said such long jail sentences were unprecedented so soon after an incident and could signal a shift in government policy against students and others who protest against the dilution of Tibetan language and culture.

Many details of the incident that provoked the sentences are still unclear.

What has been verified via video footage and other information received by Tibetan exile groups is that on 26 November armed Chinese police used force to break up the student-led demonstration protesting against China’s language policies and freedoms in Tibet.

Many students were injured and almost two dozen students were hospitalised.

The Chinese authorities said the protests were led by students of Sirig Lobling Medical School in Chabcha, which is known as Gonghe in Chinese. The school teaches Chinese and Tibetan traditional medicine and other vocational courses.

Political booklet

The protests were sparked by a 10-point political questionnaire and the distribution to students of a government-issued political booklet for ‘patriotic education’ that criticised recent self-immolation protests in Tibet, and included disparaging remarks against the Tibetan religious leader the Dalai Lama.

According to another campaign group, the Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy, which issued a translation into English of the booklet Ten Ways of Looking at the Present Situation in Tsolho Prefecture, it included questions such as: “Will the bilingual education system weaken the language and letters of nationalities?”

Students were angry that they would be forced to answer highly political questions.

“These were clearly trap questions which required students to approve of bilingual education and condemn self-immolations. They were forced [to respond] as it would be a risk to them to do otherwise,” said Robert Barnett, director of the Modern Tibet Studies programme at Columbia University.

The Chinese government has said bilingual education, rather than teaching in the Tibetan mother tongue, will give Tibetan students better access to higher education and jobs.

However, tensions over language teaching in schools and universities in the region have erupted in recent years as the government sought to impose a rigid version of the policy. Language protests in Qinghai in 2010 led to a major crackdown and the virtual imposition of martial law in the region.

In cases where those who self-immolated – there have been more than 90 cases in Tibet since 2009 – have left statements, they have tended to be about Tibetan language and culture rather than politics, said Barnett.

He added that unlike the Lhasa area, where bilingual education has been imposed for decades, the Qinghai area of Tibet had been “spectacularly successful” in allowing Tibetan-medium education including at the tertiary level. But this was now being tightened up.

Unusual jail sentences

Although the release of the names of the students sentenced this month gives the reports some credence, Barnett was cautious, saying normally a jail sentence of five years is only handed down after a longer investigation lasting around three months.

“It is a long sentence for what could be seen as relatively minor events such as protesting without permission and burning booklets.”

“If the reports from Tibet are correct, it means something of significance has happened [in Chabcha], and a major shift in government policy could be [under way],” he said.

The involvement of students in the protests was an important development, as students are normally restrained and are seen as an elite, not wanting to jeopardise their job prospects, Barnett added.

“It also rare for students to be targeted by security forces and it is puzzling why any police violence was necessary.”

This month Tibet scholars from universities around the world wrote an open letter to China’s president-to-be, Xi Jinping, expressing “deep concern” about the state of the Tibetan language in Chinese Tibet.

They noted that the language was being “seemingly marginalised and devalued” in Tibet at a time when it is increasingly being taught and studied in universities around the world.

The group pointed out that in recent years the Chinese authorities have been trying to “institute new measures that eliminate or severely restrict the use of Tibetan as the language of instruction in Tibetan-speaking areas”.