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Jailed for protecting Tibetan language and culture

On the morning of May 22, the Yushu Intermediate Court in China’s Qinghai province, sentenced shopkeeper and Tibetan language advocate, Tashi Wangchuk (also known as Tashi Woeser), to five years in jail for inciting separatism.
Rights activists argued that hall he did was promote the cultural and linguistic rights of the Tibetan minority in China by asking the central government to adopt educational policies that incorporated rather United Nations human rights experts immediately condemned the ruling, which came five months after the court first heard the case.
The case dates back to 27 January 2016, when The New York Times released a documentary about a lawsuit brought by Tashi against the Chinese government in the Yushu Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture for failing to protect and promote Tibetan culture.
After the video was broadcast, he was arbitrarily detained and his case finally brought to trial on January 4 this year.
Officials from the embassies of the United States (US), Germany, Canada, the United Kingdom and the European Union were refused authorisation to travel from Beijing to Yushu to attend the trial.
Before the trial, Liang Xiaojun, one of Tashi’s defense lawyers, said, “Tashi argues that he has been only expressing his own opinions on the Yushu government’s measures and programmes in teaching the Tibetan language.” 
Liang pointed out that “He has not shown any intention or instigated any action to try and split the country. As such, we have filed a ‘not guilty’ plea and I think the court will listen carefully to our argument.”
He said, “Tashi is only exercising his rights as a citizen of the People’s Republic of China. Tibetans are also Chinese citizens.”
The international community expressed shock that such a request by an individual could possibly merit incarceration.
“This action by the Chinese government sends a chilling message meant to silence its critics,” said a spokesperson for the New York Times.
The US State Department also issued a statement expressing its “deep disappointment” when the verdict against Tashi was read out. It requested he be released immediately.
The Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy condemned the verdict as being “a great irony and mockery to China’s constitution and its law on regional national autonomy, both of which protect ethnic languages and cultures,” adding that, “Other Chinese laws and regulations let Tibetans use and learn their own language.” 
The centre also noted there was no basis for Beijing to consider the language rights of “ethnic minorities” as being in any way detrimental to national security or national unity.
Experts say one reason an ordinary Tibetan businessman was slapped with a five-year sentence simply for asking the authorities to implement language and cultural education policies in education, is because of an ingrained notion that those who belong to different ethnicities are of “a different heart.” 
Add to this the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) identifying Tibetan religious culture as a threat to national security under president, Xi Jinping, which is used to justify suppression and further crackdowns on Tibetan religion, culture and intellectuals.
Some would counter that this seems strange given that Beijing invests a considerable sum each year to protect Tibet’s religious culture. However, it protects an inauthentic, Sinicised version and when it comes to warping reality to better suit the their worldview, the government has shown it has no qualms.
Tashi’s case once again proves that Tibetans do not have the right to fully or freely express themselves.
As the CCP enforces what is effectively colonial rule in Tibet, the local culture is starting to serve as a tool for the ruling power, something that can be bent and exploited rather than protected and developed.
Monasteries, which rank among the chief storehouses of traditional culture, must be a constant eyesore for the CCP, especially as monks are responsible for inheriting and carrying forward Tibetan culture.
Authorities have expelled monks from monasteries, imposed restrictions on the number and age of monks that can reside in them, and introduced Communist Party organisations to manage temple affairs.
The Party policy appears to be to eliminate any notion that Tibet was once a separate nation. Successive Chinese governments have continued advancing toward this so-called “magnificent” goal.
This means that people like Tashi, who just want to protect their mother tongue and culture, are viewed as obstacles to be removed and severely punished.
Many young people worry about what tragic fate lies in store for Tibetan language and culture; Tashi’s case seems to crystallize all these fears.
Under such circumstances the outcome of any advocacy aimed at protecting Tibet’s religious culture can only mirror Tashi’s fate, spending five years locked in a cell for an trumped up crime he did not commit.
Such a tragic reality may be beyond the comprehension of many who live in countries that are governed by the rule of law, but for Tibetans, this is not the first case of its kind and it certainly will not be the last.
Song Jieja is a Tibetan writer, commentator and
former Chinese spokesperson of the exiled Tibetan government.
He is currently studying in Spain.