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Another empty chair

posted Mar 26, 2013, 10:48 AM by The Tibetan Political Review

By John N, March 13, 2013

  Secretary John Kerry introduces Tsering Woeser as a winner of the International Women of Courage Awards

Last week Secretary of State John Kerry and First Lady Michelle Obama took to the stage in Washington, DC to honor the winners of the 2013 International Women of Courage awards. The group seated behind them was diverse, composed in part of an Afghani training to be the first woman officer in the elite Narcotics Interdiction Unit, a doctor who has been arrested 17 times for participation in the Nigerian Campaign for Democracy, and a Honduran who has worked tirelessly since the 2009 coup d’état in pursuit of human rights protections. The outspoken Tibetan critic of the Chinese government, Tsering Woeser, however, was unable to be there in person. A prominent writer already familiar to many Tibet supporters and referred to by Secretary Kerry as a “clarion voice” of the Tibetan people, Woeser has documented the situation in Tibet at the cost of her freedom. While the State Department honored her, she sat under house arrest in Beijing.

China has been haunted by empty chairs lately. Sometimes, like during the International Women of Courage awards, the chair is figurative. Other times it is very real, as was the case during the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize ceremony. While an empty chair stood in for Liu Xiaobo, the man who was being honored for his “long and non-violent struggle for fundamental human rights in China,” he was kept in prison. His wife, Liu Xia, has been kept under house arrest since that time as well, guilty of having married an intellectual with a passion for human rights in the People’s Republic of China (PRC). The artist Ai Weiwei was originally slated to preside over the opening of his exhibition in Washington, but the government prevented him from leaving. And just last month the Uyghur scholar Ilham Tohti was prevented from leaving China when authorities detained him at the Beijing airport. He had been given a seat as a visiting scholar at Indiana University, and the United States government had already issued him a visa, but he has been kept under close surveillance since then.

Some of the empty chairs are inside the PRC. The family of Mongolian activist Hada, for example, recently marked another New Year passed in his absence, which began when he was arrested in 1995. For Tibetans, the number of empty chairs is difficult to count. Religious figures from every region of Tibet have been forced into exile, the most notable being the Dalai Lama. His prolonged absence may be one of the biggest motivators driving the self-immolation protests in Tibet. Religious leaders who stayed in Tibet face other challenges. Tashilhunpo monastery in Shigatse has been the traditional seat of the Panchen Lamas for hundreds of years, but for more than two decades it has been relegated to a nominal status. The Panchen Lama recognized by Tibetans has been held incommunicado by the Chinese government for almost 18 years, and even the Chinese choice, Gyaltsen Norbu, is kept on a tight leash in Beijing and rarely visits Tibet.

The chairs kept empty by Beijing have their own kind of diversity, like the ones filled in Washington last week. They include bloggers, poets, lecturers, artists, bookstore owners, devoted wives, and beloved lamas. One thread that ties them together is their willingness to speak the truth despite the steep price Beijing extracts from them. In a piece denouncing the award given to Woeser, the state-run website China Tibet Online claimed that Woeser doesn’t speak for ordinary Tibetans. But if this were so, they would have no reason to spend so much time trying to contain her. It is precisely because of the fact that her voice resonates with Tibetans, and strengthens their voices in turn, that she has been put under house arrest and subjected to surveillance and threats from the authorities. In the hours that followed the presentation she was highly active on Twitter, and her blogging about current events in Tibet has continued unabated. We can take comfort in knowing that she will continue to give a voice to Tibetans while the Chinese government tries to silence them, and that, in the words of Secretary Kerry, “she has vowed to never give up or compromise.” 

Reprinted by permission. Originally published at

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