Free Tibet movement goes high-tech

Saransh Sehgal, VIENNA: Frustrated by the fact that their Free Tibet movement is increasingly losing its international attractiveness in the real world, many young exiled Tibetan activists are turning to the virtual world by making use of social media to seek support and advocate their cause for Rangzen (a fully independent Tibet).

But critics doubt the effectiveness of their new strategy, saying indulgence in the virtual world without real action could eventually turn the Free Tibet movement into a virtual one of self-consolation.
It is a fact in the real world today that many governments want to maintain good relations with China, the world's second-largest economy. As such, they no longer highlight the human-rights issue when dealing with Beijing. As a result, the Tibet issue becomes less and less significant in major powers' policies toward China. Particularly after the political retirement this year of the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, the Tibet issue seems to be increasingly fading from the international arena.

Nowadays, campaigns for solidarity, candlelight vigils and protests organized by exiled Tibetans and their supporters outside Chinese embassies and at international events or even self-immolations by Tibetans inside China hardly make headlines in international mainstream media.

Fearing that the Free Tibet movement will soon be forgotten, many frustrated exiled Tibetan activists
and their supporters now resort to the virtual world in hopes that they can keep the momentum of their cause by spreading information through social media. Even inside China, despite Beijing's tough controls on the Internet, some Tibetans risk their freedom and even their lives to send out information via virtual private networks and Internet proxies, such as photos and videos of self-immolations and protests against the central government's repressive policies.

But it is in Dharamsala, the capital of the exiled Tibetan community in the Indian Himalayas, from where a byte of information uploaded on the Internet can spread globally within seconds to reach Free Tibet sympathizers and supporters. Many young Tibetans in exile and their supporters can then quickly relay the information through social media, hoping that it can spread worldwide and even penetrate China itself to arouse the attention of concerned people.

The exiles believe that in this way they can make the sufferings of Tibetans inside China known worldwide, to awaken the consciences of those who still care about human rights in Tibet.

Although they have little direct contact with the 6 million Tibetans still in their homeland, the exiles maintain good connections and communication with their supporters around the world through social networks such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. Tragic videos of monks and nuns setting themselves on fire have a shocking impression on viewers. Many exiled Tibetans believe that such a modern approach can more effectively let the world see the grim reality inside Tibet and arouse sympathy.

"As a Tibetan working for the [Free Tibet] cause, I see social media not just as an intermediary to relay news stories but also as an important and effective tool to directly connect individuals together and mobilize the overseas Tibetan diaspora community, and to awaken global awareness on the Tibet issue. Social media also give an opportunity for exiled Tibetans to build a link with Tibetans inside Tibet despite China's great firewall," says Dharamsala-based Tsering Choedup, the Asia regional coordinator at International Tibet Network, a non-governmental organization aimed at maximizing the effectiveness of the worldwide Tibet movement.

The development of social media within the exiled Tibetan community started during the Beijing Olympics in 2008 and grew rapidly during the exile community's general elections in 2011.

Beijing also understands the power of the new technology and has recently announced plans to strengthen control on the Internet further and scan micro-blogging sites frequently used by Tibetans. However, news stories about troubles in Tibet still manage to be sent out. The Chinese government constantly blames the Dalai Lama and overseas Tibetans for making trouble inside the region.

A good example of Beijing's cyber-control is how it deals with Tsering Woeser, a Tibetan poet, writer and blogger currently living in Beijing who supports human rights inside Tibet. Woeser keeps updating news on her weblog Invisible Tibet. As a result, Chinese authorities keep a close watch on her and often put her under house arrest.

Leading activist groups such as the Tibetan Youth Congress, Students for a Free Tibet, the Tibetan Women's Association and various others have fomed social media groups and conduct online campaigning. Interestingly, many young radical Tibetans have Rangzen as their middle names on Facebook and other social websites.

Shibayan Raha, an Indian online organizer and firm supporter of the Free Tibet movement, says: "Social media are changing the [methods] and the face of the movement. Since 2008, Tibetans inside Tibet have used social media on a daily basis to communicate with the outside world, especially exiled activists from the movement.

"At the same time we can see how Tibetans inside Tibet are remarkably using these very same services on a proxy server and sending out information. Most of the self-immolation pictures, news [and] videos have come through social media websites.

"China surely has tried hard to curb these activities, but it apparently [has failed] miserably. The news is being carried all over the world."

The Tibetan diaspora is paradoxically claimed as the most successful refugee community in the world, and the Internet has become increasingly important in the lives of many refugees, often termed "the digital diaspora". Online anti-China campaigns run on social-media platforms have proliferated within Tibetan exile communities across the world and among their overseas friends. Tibetan monks and nuns, despite their strict monastic lifestyle, too have started embracing social-media technology, and thousands of them are seen sharing information and commenting on Facebook. Many informative websites have also come up with Chinese-language versions to reach out to the Chinese public.

Many exiled Tibetan intellectuals consider social media to have transformed the Free Tibet movement, so expect it to continue.

Phurbu Thinley, a well-known Tibetan journalist based in Dharamsala, believes that "for Tibetans, it is the way forward to resort to all kinds of peaceful approaches ... Social media have become a convenient alternative source and vehicle of information for the scattered exiled Tibetan community and their supporters around the world. They also make such information open to more open-minded Chinese people in China and abroad.

"Social media, when used effectively, [constitute] a powerful tool to promote activism and change, and even to ignite large unprecedented public events. Tibetans are aware of this. Tibetans are aware of the role played by social networks during the uprisings in the Arab world," Thinley adds.

But not all campaigners believe this is going in the right direction. Joe Hamilton, a German supporter of the Free Tibet movement, says: "Of course people do get the chance to access videos and information. However, this is all about communication. It is not as strong as participating in protests; with a click people [think] they have contributed. The outcome won't be as strong as listening to a Tibetan monk or nun telling their story. The only tool is the street; hit the streets and change will come."

Dibyesh Anand, associate professor in international relations at the University of Westminster, who recently hosted the Dalai Lama's talk on "Values of Democracy and Tibet" at the London institution, says: "Social media no doubt facilitate dissemination of information and mobilization of activists by reducing the time and cost of doing so. However, they do not make revolutions, nor do they bring meaningful change. It is people on the street alone who can force a significant change in states' policies.

"If we take the example of the use of social media by Tibetans and their supporters, my impression is that the circle within which the images and stories circulate remains confined. That is, very few non-supporters are converted to the cause. Social media allow us to live in a bubble of active cyber-citizenry.

"But this should not give a false illusion that there are more supporters for the Tibetan cause due to social media than there were without it. Social media are especifically insignificant when it comes to the Tibetan issue because they face severe restrictions in Chinese-controlled Tibet, where most Tibetans live. That Tibetans in diaspora use them extensively and thus create a cyber-nation is an interesting phenomenon, but nowhere as important as protests and resistance inside Tibet. So a cautionary tale of social media and Tibet is better than a celebratory one."

However, while the exiled Tibetans remain in an imbroglio over how to carry on their movement and find a possible solution to win freedom for their homeland so that they can go back together with the Dalai Lama, many believe tech-savvy work will help their struggle and raise publicity for their cause.

Saransh Sehgal is a contributor based in Dharamsala, India, who currently is pursuing further study in Vienna, Austria. He can be reached at

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