On March 14th, a Tibetan friend emailed me with this inscrutable message: “Here I meet many problem. Maybe you hear that. I can’t say for you in the mail.” March 14th seems to have been the most furious day of protests in Lhasa. That I had heard, but couldn’t be sure it was the ‘that’ my friend was talking about.
A long silence, then I heard from him again: “Everywhere kill many Tibet here … Kill me no problem. I am not afraid anymore.” When I finally spoke to him on the phone, I asked him if it was safe to talk about what was happening: “at this time I think that is dangerous” he muttered. Another ‘that’.
I suspect it won’t be until I see him in person that his evasive pronoun will ever become anything more. Nor can he be more than a pronoun himself in this article – not until the Chinese regime stops imprisoning outspoken Tibetans. Before that time (which will come, perhaps, in the Year of the Flying Pig) phones will be tapped, emails will be intercepted, and articles on the web will be filtered for mention of Tibet, or indeed T!bet.
The metamorphosis of my friend’s voice from a guarded assurance he’s OK to the attributed story of his experiences will have to wait. Tibet is in a news cocoon, impenetrable in many respects to journalists. It’s a cocoon with an unhappy butterfly inside: the stories of Tibetan grievances which illustrate in human detail why protests erupted now as in 1989 and ’59.
My friend lives in an ethnically Tibetan part of Qinghai, where I lived last summer. Qinghai is one of the four Chinese provinces (the others are Sichuan, Gansu and Yunnan) outside of the Tibetan Autonomous Region which together hold roughly half of Tibet’s population, and the historical Tibetan regions of Amdo and Kham.
I’ve since learnt that his home area, which has been a hot spot of rioting, is under close surveillance.