What has alarmed the Chinese authorities is that the protest movement which started spontaneously is now showing signs of being co-ordinated through the Internet and text messages. Despite the arrests of about 30 Tibetan students in the Qinghai province, the protest movement continues to spread.
The latest protest demonstrations were reported on October 24, 2010, from high schools in the Chentsa (in Chinese, Jianzha) county, in Qinghai's Malho (in Chinese, Huangnan) Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture. For the first time, local Tibetan teachers, many of whom have been replaced by Han teachers because they cannot teach in Mandarin, joined the students in their demonstrations. Local monks also participated.
On October 25, police reinforcements were rushed to the affected areas from the Sichuan province and deployed outside all educational institutions. They have been directed not to allow any more demonstrations.
It has been reported by Tibetan exile sources that a group of elderly, retired, and respected Tibetans associated with education matters in Qinghai sent a letter to the provincial Department of Education on October 24 calling for an independent panel of education experts to study the language policy.
The letter reportedly said: "We would like to appeal to make sure that the issue of Tibetan language may not be used as a political tool to undermine the harmonious relationship among the nationalities and compromise the security of China. The illegal practice of imparting education to Tibetan students by using only the Chinese language should be stopped.”
The letter called for a "deep, healthy relationship between Chinese and Tibetans" and sought respect for and implementation of "the charter of autonomy for minorities and the Constitution of China."
Separately, about 300 teachers in Qinghai have sent a letter to the authorities appealing to stop the implementation of the introduction of Mandarin as the medium of instruction. The teachers pointed out that Article 4 of the Chinese Constitution guarantees to all ethnic groups the freedom to use and develop their own spoken and written languages and to preserve or reform their own culture and customs.
Radio Free Asia has quoted Beijing-based Tibetan writer Woeser as saying that she had heard that hundreds of Tibetan students had once more taken to the streets in Qinghai at the weekend. She said: "I know about [Saturday's] protest. It's not that they are against being taught Mandarin; Mandarin is the main language now. But they are against Tibetan being relegated to second-class status. Perhaps fewer and fewer people in future will speak Tibetan. So the students want to come out in support of Tibetan, and of more rights for the Tibetan language. The campaign in support of the Tibetan language is similar to that mounted in the southern province of Guangdong in support of Cantonese. It would be unfair of the Government to take reprisals against any students because of their involvement in these demonstrations.”
In his first comments on the students’ unrest over the language policy, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, who is now on a visit to Canada, said on October 23 that the Tibetan language is vital for the survival of Tibetan Buddhist culture which has a strong following in China . He asked China to learn from the Indian experience where preservation and promotion of India’s linguistic diversity is being done without that being seen as posing the risk of separatism.
To love and cherish one’s mother tongue is not separatism or splittism. This is the message that the protesting Tibetan students are spreading across the Tibetan-inhabited areas of China. They are not against Mandarin as a language, but they are against Mandarin being imposed by the state to replace Tibetan as the unifying language of the Tibetan people. The new language policy is one more step taken by the Government and the Communist Party of China in the Han colonization of the Tibetan areas.
B. Raman is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai.