News / Asia

Traces of Tibetan Plight Go Global

A chalk outline of a body is seen near the Golden Gate bridge in San Francisco.
A chalk outline of a body is seen near the Golden Gate bridge in San Francisco.

Pro-Tibet activists are holding a Global Day of Action Wednesday, but when the demonstrations are over, they're hoping another, quieter protest will continue to gain momentum online.

Chalk Tibet began in mid-October to draw international attention to the increasingly extreme calls for greater political and religious freedom in Tibet. At least 10 Buddhist monks and nuns have set themselves on fire in the past year, mostly in southwestern China. The most recent incident took place on October 25.

The concept behind Chalk Tibet is simple. One person lays down on a sidewalk or street in a busy or symbolic place while the other draws a chalk outline around them. They either tape a message or a name plate in the middle of the outline and take a photo, which can be uploaded to the website.

“[The chalk outlines] look like a crime scene, which we feel Tibet is,” said Jamyang Norbu, a Tibetan political activist and writer, who is the de facto spokesperson for the site.

In just over two weeks, the site, which was started by a Western activist who prefers to remain anonymous, has over 100 photos from several cities in Europe and the U.S., as well as Australia and Japan.

The site’s founder said in an email that he doesn't want to be named because he thinks it would be inappropriate to take credit, and, while he is critical of China, he isn’t always in agreement with the Tibetan exile community.

Originally, the idea was to get images of self-immolation that could be used for a poster or a movie clip, he wrote.

“I came across a photo taken after the body of a man had been removed from his self-immolation spot, where only black burns could be seen on the ground. It was particularly disturbing without being graphic," he wrote in the email. "However, although the visual impact would have been impressive, this would have been difficult to reproduce as fire crackers and small explosives needed for that are not always welcomed."

The chalk outlines, on the other hand, are easy to reproduce, don’t require handling dangerous materials and don’t destroy property.

Sustainability was another factor.

“Actual demonstrations can't go on for a long time,” said Norbu. “They're not tenable in the long run. There must be a way to keep it alive over a long period of time.”

Norbu said online actions like Chalk Tibet should not be seen as a substitute for taking part in other forms of protest such as the Global Day of Action, being held in Washington, DC and San Francisco, California as well as other cities in North America, India and Europe.

Tibetans have long sought greater freedom from Beijing's rule, with some seeking complete independence and others wanting greater autonomy within China.

The immolations that have taken place mark a dramatic escalation in the tactics opposing Beijing’s rule, and the Chinese government has been very critical of the actions.

“The terrifying immolation incidents are obviously the result of political instigation by Tibetan splittist forces, which are aimed to create trouble to attract international attention for the purpose of applying pressure on China and pushing forward the separatist activities," wrote Baodong Wang, a spokesman for the Chinese Embassy in Washington. “The instigators deserve to be strongly denounced, and their despicable attempts are deemed to failure.”

Supporters of Chalk Tibet are not deterred.

Elliot Sperling, an associate professor of Central Eurasian Studies and an expert on Tibetan history and Tibetan-Chinese relations at Indiana University, has helped spread the word about Chalk Tibet. He said it represents a departure from traditional forms of protest, which often require gathering a large group of people and considerable organization.

Furthermore, “it gets your attention,” he said.

Signs are it is starting to catch on. Sperling said his daughter was walking down the street in Washington, DC and randomly saw a pair of chalk outlines on the sidewalk. She took a picture of them for the site.

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