A Lone Tibetan Voice, Intent on Speaking Out

Woeser, 41, lives in Beijing and is the world's best-known contemporary Tibetan writer.
Woeser, 41, lives in Beijing and is the world's best-known contemporary Tibetan writer. (Photo: Wang Lixiong)
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By Jill Drew
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, May 6, 2008

BEIJING -- Each morning, it is the same. She rises and heads to her computer to write, to pierce the silence that otherwise shrouds events these days in Tibet, her homeland.

Woeser, a 41-year-old writer who uses only one name in the Tibetan tradition, knows she risks arrest. Hers is one of the only Tibetan voices within China that still reaches the outside world, now that the Chinese government has arrested hundreds and essentially blacked out most communication from Tibetan-inhabited areas.

Though she lives in Beijing, Woeser still has contacts across the Tibetan plateau, and she has been using them to funnel information onto her blog since the deadly March 14 riots in the region's capital, Lhasa. The government has said that the riots and the unrest that followed were caused by violent separatists. Woeser is constructing an alternative narrative -- one of protest sparked by long-festering resentments against Chinese repression of Tibetan culture and the Buddhist religion.

It has not been easy. Late last month, hackers attacked Woeser's site and locked her out. Previously, security officials had put her under house arrest. A policeman had warned her to stop writing about Tibet.

"I told him, 'Apart from Tibet, I have no interest in writing,' " said Woeser, the world's best-known contemporary Tibetan writer. "I want to record all of the history and be a witness to what is happening now."

Government Control

As Olympic torchbearers prepare to scale the Tibetan side of Mount Everest and envoys of the Dalai Lama have begun informal talks with their Chinese counterparts over the current crisis in Tibet, a global battle rages over how to interpret what is happening in the remote Himalayan region. But almost entirely absent from the discussion are voices of Tibetans living within Tibet, the people who can describe everyday life and let others judge whether they are being wronged.

"The main voice is hers," said Robbie Barnett, director of modern Tibetan studies at Columbia University in New York. "She is one of the very, very few Tibetans who have been able to put their name to the discussion and have managed to stay afloat."

Woeser's writing finds no favor in the Chinese government. Her books are banned here and three different blogs she maintained on Chinese servers have been shut down in the past two years -- on government orders, a friend at one of the Internet companies told her. Her current blog, http://woeser.middle-way.net, is hosted on a computer server in the United States, but even that one temporarily succumbed to an attack April 26.

"It's not only me. Many scholars do not have freedom of speech. Their blogs and Web sites are also blocked," Woeser said in a telephone interview from her 20th-floor apartment in China's capital. Although her house arrest has been lifted, officials from the local security bureau keep watch at her building, and she says she is often followed.

"This reflects the Chinese government's strict control over speech," she said. "They don't want me to leave this kind of record, to talk about what happened in Tibet in a real way. This voice is what the government does not want to hear."

Another Tibetan writer and researcher, Jamyang Kyi, was arrested April 1 at her office in the state-owned television station in Xining, capital of Qinghai province. A well-known singer and television presenter, Jamyang Kyi wrote about women's rights. She once wrote a poem to Woeser, praising her for her work.

With the living words spread forth from your heart

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