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Berlin protest sheds light on Tibetan plight

Tibet Initiative Deutschland talks with DW about the growing number of Tibetan self-immolations and its demonstration in Berlin ahead of German Chancellor Merkel's trip to Beijing for inter-governmental consultations.

DW: What can you tell us about the Tibet Initiative Deutschland's demonstration in Berlin?

Nadine Baumann: We staged a protest in front of the chancellor's office on Tuesday (August 28) ahead of Merkel's visit to Beijing for Sino-German consultations. Those talks with Chinese leaders are mostly about economic issues, but our protest is aimed at informing the public and shedding light on what is currently happening in Tibet. Before the protest we sent a letter to Ms. Merkel asking her to bring up the issue in her talks. She has done this repeatedly in the past and we are very thankful for that. Germany is very outspoken on this issue compared to many other countries, but of course it is still not enough to ensure sustainable improvements in the situation in Tibet. A lot more needs to happen.

In numerous circumstances Germany has addressed the situation of human rights in China, but some of Merkel's critics maintain that the chancellor of late has gone soft on the issue. Does your initiative share that view?

No, we do not see it that way. We have regular conversations with officials from the German foreign ministry and government representatives and we have been repeatedly assured that Merkel will address this issue in her meetings ... and we trust that she will. It must be said that she has done a lot.

Despite the human rights situation in China, Germany and China have very close relations. Are there any negative voices about that in your initiative? Or do you think Germany should continue close economic ties and use them to try and exercise some influence over the situation?

Nadine Baumann speaks with the press in Berlin

Nadine Baumann (right) says the self-immolations can no longer be seen as isolated incidents

You hit the nail on the head. Of course, we are not so naïve that we think that China, as a global player, should be boycotted or that trade relations should be stopped. That is not our intention or purpose. Quite the contrary: These relations can be used to influence the human rights situation and to seek agreement on certain legal standards and to demand their observance. And I think Germany's voice as a strong partner in the EU should not be underestimated. This is an opportunity to make a difference.

Turning to the self-immolations in Tibet: This is a very difficult issue because the figures cannot be confirmed as no journalists are allowed into the region. How do you see the situation, and the situation of the media in Tibet? And how do you find out about the self-immolations?

The situation in Tibet is anything but good. As you said, Tibet is off limits and even tourists, for the second time this year, are not allowed in. Journalists, of course, have had no access for a while now. We have been demanding for a long time that an independent, international commission be given access to investigate the incidents. But that has been blocked. We learn about the burnings from Tibetan sources in exile, who maintain contacts with people in Tibet. All of this is very difficult, but due to modern technology, it is a bit easier than it used to be. We carefully investigate the cases we hear about and verify their authenticity. This is not always easy, but it is possible.

It is quite apparent that the number of self-immolations has risen sharply, especially recently. Your website says that since March 2011 some 50 Tibetans have lit themselves on fire. Why this dramatic increase now?

Back in March, we were hoping that these cases were just random, isolated events. But now we see that this is not the case. The Chinese authorities argue that these are just isolated cases, but that is something that can no longer be claimed, especially when you look at the timeframe and the numbers. The number of people who have self-immolated has now reached 51, and of these, 38 people died as a result. What is the reason for this increase? At first we assumed that these were acts of desperation, but now we have come to the conclusion that this is a new form of political protest because the people of Tibet see no other way out. Most Tibetans are Buddhists and Buddhism does not condone suicide. That means these people are acting contrary to their religious traditions.

Chinese control of the region is nothing new, so again, the question has to be asked: why now?

(28.06.2011) in Berlin mit einer Tibet-Fahne gegenüber dem Bundeskanzleramt für ein freies Tibet. In Berlin fanden die ersten deutsch-chinesischen Regierungskonsultationen statt. Foto: Tobias Kleinschmidt dpa/lbn

Tibetans continue to protest Chinese rule

I think we need to realize that the oppression has been growing stronger. In daily life, everybody is being watched and is under surveillance. There is no freedom of expression. Their identity is being systematically destroyed, including their language. These offences are like small pin pricks, which have been going on for a long time, but now, they are increasing in number and intensity. And in reaction to the burnings, the Chinese authorities have again redoubled their clampdown. Tibet is essentially closed off to the outside world by the Chinese military. The last people to go there reported columns of troops and surveillance cameras everywhere. The atmosphere is one of fear and has become unbearable. I can't say 100 percent why it is happening now, but to me it can only be in connection with the growing pressure.

The Dalai Lama withdrew from politics as the representative of the Tibetans not that long ago. He had always argued for the peaceful path of political change. Since he ended his active role, the number of self-immolations has shot up. Is there any connection?

No, absolutely not. Quite the contrary: The Dalai Lama has also called on Tibetans not to set themselves on fire. He actively supported the Tibetan's exile democracy, which gave political power to a democratically elected leader, Lobsang Sangay, a Westernized Tibetan who taught at Harvard, who represents the interests of the Tibetan people abroad. He is a young, politically active person, who represents Tibetans politically, while the Dalai Lama remains the spiritual leader. Sangay supports the Middle Way Approach that the Dalai Lama began.

Of course, it must be said that among Tibetans, there are also different currents and that the longer the oppression in Tibet lasts, the more radical the resistance may become … But I do not think it has anything to do with the political retirement of the Dalai Lama.

The number of self-immolations could be interpreted as a certain type of protest movement. Would you say a concrete protest movement is forming in Tibet, and if so, what is it seeking from China and the international community?

We would need to pose this question to the people in Tibet themselves, but unfortunately, we have no access to them. We view the situation as a form of protest because of the sharp increase in people setting fire to themselves. Many people, while doing this, shouted for the return of the Dalai Lama, but under the current circumstances, this is not feasible. He is in exile and China has absolutely no interest in him returning to Tibet … All these acts are essentially a cry for attention from international governments - that they really look at Tibet. What is going on now is happening largely unnoticed by the international community. Tibetans apparently see no other chance but to sacrifice their lives - that is how desperate they are. It is incomprehensible that we are learning about this, but that nothing is being done about it.

Nadine Baumann is executive director of Tibet Initiative Deutschland.

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