A Tibetan poet and activist due to be presented with an international award for courage in the United States will not be able to receive the honour because Chinese authorities have denied her a passport.
Tsering Woeser was one of 10 women named for the International Women’s Day honour in Washington, in part for her efforts in documenting a wave of Tibetans who have doused themselves with petrol and then set themselves on fire in protest against Beijing’s rule.
Woeser said she started to track the self-immolations, posting photos and information on each one, on her blog so that she had clear sense of the scale of the protests.
She said in an interview from her home in Beijing: “When there were only a dozen of cases, many were omitted or forgotten. Self-immolating is such a tragic act and there is a reason if a group of people make that sort of decision. They should not be forgotten.”
The US State Department said Woeser’s website, poetry and non-fiction “have given voice to millions of ethnic Tibetans who are prevented from expressing themselves to the outside world due to government efforts to curtail the flow of information”.
The award drew criticism from China’s foreign ministry, which said today that Woeser “twists facts” about Tibet, attacks Beijing’s ethnic policies and “sabotages China’s national solidarity”.
“For America to award a prize to such a person is no different from publicly supporting her words intended to separate China,” said spokeswoman Hua Chunying.
She said Beijing has expressed its displeasure over the award to the United States and urged it to refrain from “interfering” in China’s internal affairs.
Woeser was to be one of 10 women honoured at a ceremony attended by US Secretary of State John Kerry and first lady Michelle Obama.
But Woeser said she would be unable to attend because her application last year for a passport was denied by police – as it has been for many years – and that she was told the reason was that she is deemed a threat to state security, presumably because of her activism.
Rights groups say China unfairly discriminates against Tibetans and the Turkic-speaking Uighurs of the far west in the issuing of passports.
Police in Beijing did not immediately respond to a faxed list of questions.
In a country where advocacy for Tibetan rights is often met with heavy reprisals, Woeser stands out because of her willingness to publicly criticise the Chinese government’s repressive policies in her Himalayan homeland.
She started blogging in 2005 about problems rarely discussed in Tibet: environmental damage, prostitution and a new rail line that critics said was flooding the region with Chinese migrants.
In 2008, tensions boiled over in Tibet, and deadly rioting broke out in the capital, Lhasa, and sparked an uprising across large swathes of ethnically Tibetan areas.
Security has since been smothering, and Tibetans started setting themselves on fire in protest – totalling more than a hundred since 2009, with most of the self-immolations taking place last year.
The government has blamed the self-immolations on the Tibetans’ beloved exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, saying he and other Tibetans based in Dharmsala, India, were instigating the protests.
In Beijing, officials from the Chinese-appointed Tibet autonomous region government repeated those accusations at a meeting on the sidelines of the annual legislative session.
Asked by reporters if Chinese authorities had evidence to back their claims, Padma Choling, chairman of the regional congress, said the evidence was there but “it was not convenient to reveal it right now”.
“Self-immolation is inhumane. Convincing others to commit such acts is even more inhumane,” Padma Choling said.
The Dalai Lama and representatives of the self-declared Tibetan government-in-exile in India say they oppose all violence.