“Is this a portal to another world?” a man wearing only scruffy leggings asked, looking at the four gateways a team of us had just erected in the middle of a Monmouthshire field. “If you’re trying to access Tibet then this is about as good as it gets,” someone responded.
Anywhere else and this might sound a bit odd – but the UK festival season was now in full swing and at the Green Gathering event normal gets re-defined pretty quickly.
The four two-metre high Free Tibet ‘portals’ invited lots of attention – as much from people intrigued by its design and manufacture as its content – and the team had a whole series of discussions fuelled by the structures which were inspired by actual Tibetan spiritual gateways. Inside the gateways several panels outlining the situation in Tibet created a weatherproof museum … as well as a climbing frame for some younger festival-goers!
The interactions with hundreds of people over the course of several days were valuable, but the discussion would invariably return to a set of key questions: Given the Chinese government’s overwhelming political and economic power how can the Tibetan movement ever hope to win? How long can the Tibetan struggle be expected to sustain itself? How can we seriously bring about change?
As someone with experience as a writer and journalist I am intrigued by the power of communication. There are, no doubt, multiple aspects that contribute to the success of social justice movements, but sharing that vision with as many people as possible and helping to build a discourse around the issue feels to me like a crucial part of the process.
I have now been at Free Tibet for just over six months and I have found myself marking this moment alongside the 30th anniversary of the foundation of Free Tibet – and the 1987 Lhasa protests that prompted the formation of the organisation.
As part of Free Tibet’s drive to mark its three decade-long milestone, we attended four popular UK-based festivals, as well as hosting our very own two-day "Tibetfest" in London. These events have offered a real chance to reach out. The fact that so many festival-goers had the same set of questions has already taught us that communicating the situation that exists on the ground for Tibetans in Tibet is vital.
However, part of continuing to answer these questions involves articulating our message through platforms that offer the chance to share our message with wider audiences. While it is true that many social justice movements will never have the resources available to governments or corporations we do have a compelling story to share and that is arguably more powerful.
So, as well as getting out and speaking to people in person throughout the year, we have also been focused on ensuring coverage through a wide range of media outlets as well as penning the occasional opinion piece to remind the public of the key realities that underpin life for many living in Tibet – a nation widely-regarded as akin to living in a vast open-air prison.
Let me share with you some of the more significant pieces we have written (or contributed to) and had placed in the media since the beginning of 2017:
Tibetan languages face heavy government pressure whilst modernity threatens neglected dialects
Freedom’s struggle at the roof of the world
Just in time for the 58th anniversary of the Tibetan Uprising we secured a double-page spread in the bi-weekly UK national newspaper The New European. Read it here (PDF)
In Larung Gar, Beijing's silent repression
Following close communication with the prestigious French national title Le Monde, Free Tibet was extensively quoted in this piece about continued demolitions at Larung Gar. Le Monde also made a video in which they borrowed heavily from one of our campaign videos which also addressed the ongoing situation in Larung Gar (imitation is the greatest form of flattery). Read it here (French)
Free Tibet – for the dignity of Tibetan People
The campaigning organisation ProMosaik contacted Free Tibet and requested that we share our vision through their website. This was the result. Read it here
Preventing the killing of Tibet’s mother tongue
February 21 was UNESCO International Mother Language Day and we used this to bring poignancy to the issue of threats to Tibetan languages in a piece for the May edition of New Internationalist magazine. Read it here
‘A hierarchy of suffering’: China’s minorities all suffer at the hands of an out-of-touch governing elite
With all eyes on Hong Kong for the 20th 'handover' anniversary we took the chance to draw comparisons between those living in the city with their counterparts in Tibet. Again, this content was shared through the excellent Hong Kong Free Press platform. Read it here
China is accused of ‘Highland Clearances’ with Tibet park bid
We penned this piece on China's vast Tibetan National Park application bid to UNESCO (recently given the go-ahead) for the national Scottish title The Daily Herald (please note our editorial at the foot of the article). Read it here
How flags and emojis can be powerful symbols of independence movements
Most recently we wrote this piece for Scottish newspaper The National. Coming off the back of the news that the Saltire has gained official status as an emoji, we discuss the power of flags within independence movements and some of the controversies surrounding Tibet's flag. Read it here
Many festival-goers reminded us that India – marking 70 years of independence this year – lived under the choking yoke of the immensely rich British Empire for hundreds of years, but eventually it realised the dream of self-determination. Arguably it was an irrepressible call for meaningful existence free of outside rule that resonated with the world and helped secure India’s path to freedom.
The Chinese government does have immense wealth and a growing global power base, but this alone does not buy influence. Our work – the work which supporters help to sustain – ensures that the voices of Tibet’s tenacious campaigners remains part of a wider global discourse. Indeed, Tibetan political prisoners often remark that a key fear they have is not further torture but instead being forgotten by the world. Talking about Tibet is a critical weapon in the armoury of this defiantly non-violent struggle, a struggle we can win one conversation at a time.
About the author: Sam Wylde is a media and communications officer at Free Tibet, having joined in January of this year. With a background in newspapers and documentaries Sam has lived and worked in several countries worldwide - including Hong Kong - over the past 20 years. He was drawn to the Tibetan cause in the mid-1990s as a student and is now able to combine his media background and experience with his political support for the people of Tibet.