By Tenzin Sangmo
Members of Students for a Free Tibet , the largest grassroots Tibet support group in the world, protested outside the Chinese consulate in New York on January 26 to call for the release of a 31-year-old Tibetan shopkeeper who was arrested after The New York Times quoted him.
The shopkeeper, Tashi Wangchuk, a bilingual education activist in the Tibet was arrested a year ago for advocating for the use of the Tibetan language in school as the Chinese language is permeating the daily lives of Tibetans inside Tibet.
The small group of protestors led by the interim executive director of the student group, Pema Yoko, included members of the local Tibetan community. They chanted, “Release Tashi Wangchuk” and “Teaching Tibetan is Not a Crime,” as they stood on the pavement across the street from the Chinese Consulate on 11th avenue from noon to 2:30 p.m. on Thursday.
The Times documentary, A Tibetan’s Journey for Justice, by Jonah M. Kessel, traces Wangchuk’s failed attempt to file a lawsuit in Chinese court in Beijing against officials in his home town for curbing the use of Tibetan language. In 2010, thousands of Tibetan students joined the protest against the Chinese government official order that textbooks should be in Chinese in primary schools by 2015. In fact, a Chinese math book has already been introduced in primary schools.
Sonamtso, the U.S. grassroots director of the Tibetan student group who goes by only one name, said that the constitution of China states that Tibetans and minorities have the right to practice their language, and yet Wangchuk was charged with inciting separatism.
It is the same charge that a Uighur journalist, Ilham Tohti, faced before being jailed for advocating for the rights of Uighurs, a minority in China. As they did with Tohti, international rights agencies like Amnesty International and PEN America condemned the arrest and called for Wangchuk’s release.
Urgyen Badheytsang, the campaign director of the student group pointed out that Jan. 27th marks a year since Wangchuk’s arrest for “simply advocating for the rights of Tibetans to learn and speak Tibetan” and that the goal of the protest on Thursday was to send the message that what Wangchuk did was not a crime as “Language Rights are Human Rights.” He faces up to 15 years in jail.