“Technology Reaches Remote Tibetan Corners, Fanning Unrest”

A good piece from NYT about how technology and development are aiding the development of Tibetan nationalism and political consciousness, contrary to what Beijing expected:

“We may be living far away from big cities, but we are well connected to the rest of the world,” said the 34-year-old monk, who, like most Tibetans who speak to foreign journalists, asked for anonymity to avoid harsh punishment.

The technology revolution, though slow in coming here, has now penetrated the most far-flung corners of the Tibetan plateau, transforming ordinary life and playing an increasingly pivotal role in the spreading unrest over Chinese policies that many Tibetans describe as stifling.

Rising political consciousness has found expression through a campaign of self-immolations that the authorities have been unable to stamp out.

Many analysts say the contrast with the aftermath of unrest four years ago is striking, noting that it is still difficult to know exactly what happened during and after the 2008 rioting that started in Lhasa, the capital of the Tibet Autonomous Region. Tibetan advocacy groups say hundreds across the region died at the hands of the police. The government acknowledges only two dozen deaths, most of them of Han Chinese killed by rioters and several of Tibetans convicted and executed for their role in the violence.

“We have no idea how many Tibetans died in 2008, but within 24 hours we have received photos of everyone who died by self-immolation,” said Robert J. Barnett, the director of the modern Tibetan studies program at Columbia University.

Monks like Dorje, a 23-year-old at the Kumbum Monastery in Qinghai, are typical of an increasingly wired and worldly generation. His room is decorated with the acoustic guitar he sometimes fumbles with late at night, Kobe Bryant posters and images of a beloved reincarnate Lama.

His most prized possession, though, is the computer he uses to download Celine Dion ballads and news from Tibetan advocacy groups. “All of us know how to jump over the wall,” he said slyly, referring to software that circumvents Chinese Internet restrictions. “I think all of us are aware of our Tibetan identity more than ever.”

Such activity, however, can be perilous. Dorje said a fellow monk was taken away by the police in March, days after a friend in Sichuan Province called to report the latest self-immolation. The monk’s mistake, he said, was to share the news with too many people. “The police are everywhere,” Dorje said.

These days, the authorities require Tibetans who want to make photocopies of documents — from religious texts to farming manuals — to get permission from the local police, and Internet cafe customers must hand over their state-issued identification cards. After a self-immolation this year in Gansu Province, the police corralled witnesses inside a market, confiscated their cellphones and deleted photos of the episode, residents said.

At Labrang, an enormous monastery popular with tourists, monks said the temporary tower that looms over the temple complex can intercept cellphone chatter, or shut it down entirely. Security officials, they say, did just that last summer during the visit of the Panchen Lama, the top religious figure handpicked by Beijing, whom many Tibetans view as illegitimate. “For five days, all our phones were dead,” one monk said.

Losang, a high-ranking monk at Labrang, said such tactics were only briefly effective because the authorities must eventually restore service or risk crippling the local economy.

On a recent afternoon, Losang, a sharp-tongued man in his mid-40s, latched the door to his home and showed off the contents of his computer: video footage of a recent religious festival, scanned images of government directives and banned images of the Dalai Lama. After lingering on a photo of the 21-year-old monk whose self-immolation last year set off the most recent spate of suicides, he was asked whether he thought such imagery inspired copycats.

He shook his head and said government strictures, not photos of the dead, were prompting young people to take their own lives. “When you choke a person,” he said, “you should not be surprised when they kick back.”

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