Tibetan man gets five years in prison for speaking about his native language

For the crime of talking to a western media outlet about his native tongue, Tashi Wangchuk has been sentenced to prison.

Back in 2015, Mr. Tashi spoke to the New York Times about his concerns that Tibetans were in danger of losing their native language. It was a problem that had been brewing for a while. Tibet declared independence from the much larger nation in 1913. They had their culture, their Dalai Lama and their territory. Things were good… for around 36 years. In 1949, Mao Zedong got China all hot and horny for Communism. Looking to regain the lands that they felt belonged to them, for political and defensive reasons, The People’s Republic of China invaded Tibet in 1950, invaded Tibet, scourging the nation’s culture, language and beliefs in an effort to bring it into line with China’s political doctrine.

China’s never relented its stranglehold on Tibet’s politics but, over time, it did come to allow a certain amount of levity for ethnic minorities, not just in Tibet, but in other Chinese territories (both traditionally recognized or taken by force). Diversity in custom and language were begrudgingly tolerated. In 1984, China went so far as to protect the right to the preservation of language and culture, so long as it didn’t get in the way of their political agenda, under the law. So, when Mr. Tashi chatted with The Grey Lady, he assumed that he and the Chinese government would be cool.

He couldn’t have been more wrong.

The most recent iteration of the Central People’s Government holds a more assimilationist approach to governance: One people, one language, yadda yadda. The law that should have protected Mr. Tashi was ignored by the Chinese government in favor of arresting him for "inciting separatism." That he was found guilty was a given: the Chinese Communist Party court that Mr. Tashi stood before generally gets its way. In this case, its way is that Tashi be sentenced to five years in prison. Including the time that he’d already served while waiting for his trial, he won’t be able to call himself a free man until 2021.

From The New York Times:

At his trial in January, Mr. Tashi, speaking in Chinese, rejected the idea that his efforts to rejuvenate the Tibetan language were a crime. He has said that he does not advocate independence for Tibet, but wants the rights for ethnic minorities that are promised by Chinese law, including the right to use their own language.

After Mr. Tashi’s trial, six experts advising the United Nations on rights said, “We condemn the continued detention of Mr. Wangchuk and the criminalization of his freedom of expression.”

They added: “Free exchange of views about state policies, including criticism against policies and actions that appear to have a negative impact on the lives of people, need to be protected.”

Mr. Tashi’s legal team is appealing the sentence, but with kangaroo courts being what they are, the likelihood of his getting out early is pretty slim.

Image via Flickr, courtesy of tiffany terry

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