"When President Obama Spoke of 'Certain Fundamental Rights'" by Woeser

Left: Kunga Tsayang, Right: Kunchok Tsephel

Woeser’s commentary on President Obama’s China visit was written for Radio Free Asia on November 19, 2009 and posted on her blog on November 27, 2009. This translated article first appeared online in Norwegian on the website Ny Tid (New Time) where Woeser is a guest columnist as part of their initiative “Voices Without Borders” – a weekly column where some of the world?s leading advocates for freedom of expression write for Ny Tid.

“When President Obama Spoke of
‘Certain Fundamental Rights'”
by Woeser

On November 17, for many people all over the world, the most important news was US President Obama’s arrival in Beijing. The international focus rested upon his sunny smile, upon him and the deadpan Chinese head of state, Hu Jintao, speaking to the globe’s most important media; it also rested upon him finally mentioning that “all men and women possess certain fundamental rights, […] which are universal rights and all people, ethnic and religious minority groups should be able to obtain these fundamental rights”. Yes, he even mentioned the Dalai Lama, who, as Zhu Weiqun, an official from the United Front Department of the Party Central Committee, recently said, “always makes China unhappy”. The day before, when he spoke to a carefully selected and trained group of Chinese male and female youths, he also mentioned freedom of speech saying that “freedom of speech, freedom of belief, freedom of information and freedom of political participation are everybody’s rights”.

But at the exact same time, on this extremely cold winter’s day, there were a few minority people, whose voices are not heard and who do not possess the power to change things, who had to find out in a state of shock about what happened to two young Tibetan writers, Kunchok Tsephel and Kunga Tsangyang. Because of their opinion and speech, they were sentenced harshly on Tibetan soil which is tightly controlled, and hence lost all those “fundamental rights, which all men and women possess”.

There are a few foreign journalists who have asked me questions like “what did you make of Obama’s visit to China? Did he fulfill your expectations?” In my answer I always had to admit that I had already prepared myself. From Hilary Clinton’s China visit last year when she avoided any questions concerning human rights up to Obama’s arrival in China now, although they claim that the subject of human rights has been of some concern, President Obama in his natural and unaffected demeanour, like a star coming on stage, still seemed to place too little emphasis on them. Thus, although I wouldn’t say that I am greatly disappointed about this, I am able even to view all this with a certain degree of indifference because I have expected the situation to be like this. Yet, I did feel moved when, facing the head of state of the world’s greatest totalitarian system, President Obama still said that “all men and women possess certain fundamental rights”. But I did not understand why he was not able to clearly state what those “certain fundamental rights” really are. Is the term “human rights” that difficult to pronounce? Perhaps President Obama is more poetically inclined and needs to make use of embellished and indirect language to refer to human rights, so if he bluntly spoke out the two words, it would probably sound a bit crude.

Kunchok Tsephel and Kunga Tsayang are two well-known authors who publish in Tibetan. During last year’s “Tibet incident”, they themselves witnessed how their fellow countrymen of their hometown determinedly took to the streets and voiced their opposition. The two writers revealed their aspirations and discussed facts on the internet, which then unexpectedly became the reason for them becoming criminals accused of jeopardising “state security” and revealing “state secrets”. In other words, one could say that the country’s action of using its power to suppress the violent behaviour of the opposing masses belongs to the category of secret which is often practiced but never spoken of. Whoever dares to reveal the secret, he or she will become the country’s enemy and be confronted with harsh and merciless punishment.

Kunchok Tsephel was arrested on February 26 this year and was recently sentenced to 15 years of imprisonment by the local government; Kunga Tsayang was arrested on March 17 this year and was recently sentenced to 5 years of imprisonment by the local government. Moreover, before the judgment was passed, none of their family members knew anything about their whereabouts. In fact, these kinds of situations are very common in Tibet, many families don’t know if their relatives have been arrested or had much worse accidents, and they don’t even know where to go and look for them. The law has turned into mere scraps of paper and the outcomes of these black-box operations can hardly be called impartial. What really worries people is that judging from the known cases, in the near future there will probably be more and more Tibetans who might be faced with, or have already been faced with, heavy prison sentences because of the lack of impartiality and the black-box operations of the judiciary. This also means that there are and will be more and more Tibetans who have already lost what President Obama called “certain fundamental rights, which all men and women possess”.

There exists an increasing amount of suppression; this is the reality in Tibet. But to be honest, it is already very difficult for us to believe that those important world leaders, who are unable to speak out the two words “human rights”, will maintain a firm humanitarian stand.

Beijing, November 19, 2009

Related blogpost on High Peaks Pure Earth: Remembering the Honourable Gangnyi La
Related blogpost on High Peaks Pure Earth: A Letter to President Obama by A Tibetan Blogger
Related blogpost on High Peaks Pure Earth: More Poems to Obama by Tibetan Bloggers

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *