A lack of communication leaves fear and doubt: Kellan Lutz
The quote above summarizes the world within itself. This world of ours has really shrunk in terms of time and space, casting an immediate effect on everybody’s thinking and relations. Nation/ states are also not immune to this unique phenomenon getting unfolded every other day. Events in a remote corner of this globe will affect which community and in what manner is difficult to predict.
Exactly that is what is happening with the “forgotten community” of Tibetan diaspora living in India, Nepal, Bhutan and countless other countries owing to the Galwan skirmish ,consequent to GOI banning about 59 Chinese applications in June this year and 118 more apps of the same kind recently as a counter.
“WE CHAT” the famous Chinese multimedia messaging ,social and mobile payment application developed by Tencent of China along with Xioami ,Oppo, vivo ,Realmeand oneplus controlled about 80% market share in India as of early 2020.“WE CHAT” together with “TikTok” had been included in the country’s Ministry of Electronics and information technology banned list that it said were engaged in activities prejudicial to sovereignty and integrity of India, defence of India/security of state and public order etc.
There areon line and off line protests in India encouraging the ban on these Chinese companies from applications to smart phones ,after the Indian army and the Chinese PLA fought each other in a deadly clash along disputed Himalayan border.
Unwittingly, the Tibetan diaspora living in India ,Nepal, Bhutan ,US,Canadaand score of other countries have become the ‘Proverbial Grass ‘ which gets trampled when two giants fight . By banning of “WE CHAT” a Chinesemedia application by the GOI, this community has been torn asunder by a deafening silence creeping into their daily lives, since most of Tibetan refugees were dependent upon this Chinese media platform for remaining in contact with their near and dear ones living in Tibet.
“WE CHAT” application, for the last so many years (2011) was in fact a life line for this cursed community. To most of the 1.5 lakh Tibetan community, living at scattered places in the Indian subcontinent and neighbouring countries “WE CHAT” was like a bioscope to peep inside the hearts and minds of Tibetans living in Tibet. For the last 09 years or so since the inception of “WE CHAT” as a mobile application, Tibetans all over the world were very comfortable with the gizmo often bridging the emotional and cultural divide caused by their migration to distant lands of the world.
My amazement knew no bounds ,when I found that almost the entire society of Tibetans be it old, infirm, boys, girls, ladies, youth etc were the most active members on this media platform, when I happened to go to Badrinath via Nainital and had a brief halt at the Tibetan market of Nainital. It was a fascinating sight to behold in the Tibetan market where I saw scores of old males and females chatting on the “WE CHAT” on their mobiles while doing shopping as also selling a raft of wares.
“WE CHAT” a messaging service released in 2011 by the Chinese conglomerate Tencent was the most important social media platform among the 90000 Tibetan refugees living in India. It had become a rare means of communication with people in Tibet ,one of the most isolated regions of the world, where American technical companies like Facebook, Google etc are blocked by the Chinese government.
Most of the Tibetans worldwide credit “WE CHAT” with helping them remain in touch with their relatives, parents etc living on the other side of Himalayan border. But although the application has helped open up communication with those living in exile and over here in India and elsewhere, its perceived closeness to the Chinese government and it’s potential to be used as a surveillance tool have been a cause of concern particularly for the Tibetan activists who have long been targeted with cyber attacks.
Since “WE CHAT” is based in China, it is bound to disclose info to the Chinese government, according to the country’s cyber security laws.
The above means, that Tibetans using the above mentioned application are bound to be censored and read by the Chinese officials a not so healthy situation. It is no secret that “WE CHAT” engages in censorship at the behest of Chinese authorities and that it flags off accounts found to be sharing information deemed to be anti Chinese.
The TAI (Tibet action institute ) one of the frontline organizations engaged in “Free Tibet” campaign ,has faced numerous cyber attacks from the Chinese in the past and have issued advisories dime a dozen for the fellow Tibetans to exercise discretion while engaging on this platform.
According to one of the researchers “The citizen lab” at university of Toronto “WE CHAT” platform uses censorship on accounts that uses key words like “Free Tibet”, “Tibetan freedom movement” etc.
Depending upon key words being used your entire conversation may be censored or your account may be flagged for surveillance. According to a 2016 “ Amnesty international” report on user privacy ,Tencent scored a zero out of 100 points for failure to declare government requests for users personnel information and for not deploying end to end encryption of messages.
As if this was not enough “WE CHAT” was the only company out of 11 analysed that had failed to state publicly, that they will not grant government requests to backdoor encryptions on their messaging services. This has privacy and safety implications for the platform’s 1.1 billion users, about 100 million of whom are based outside of china.
“WE CHAT” censors’ content before it reaches its users through a remote server, which readers of this article may not be even aware of. A highly deplorable action on the part of Chinese officials. This makes it difficult to know which keywords are blocked on the platform, and for this reason texters are forced to resort to self censorship in order to get their communication through.
This has further aggravated the problems for the Tibetan refugees living in India. After the ban announcement in June 2020, these applications were removed from Google’s play store and application play store immediately. About two months back or so all these applications stopped working all together.
According to some Tibetan users here in India, Nepal and Bhutan it is virtually impossible to circumvent this ban, since by using VPN (Virtual private network) only the IP addresses are masked but the ban being based on device’s ID is the real problem and difficult to achieve a break through.
Since each new technological innovation comes with its pros and cons “WE CHAT” is also no exception to this thumb rule. The flip side of “WE CHAT” being that China has virtually clipped the wings of many Tibetan dissenters operating on this platform. If we take past instances into consideration then about 30 odd Tibetans were arrested or detained in connection to their “WE CHAT” posts between 2014 and 2019.
In July last year a Tibetan from Sichuan province was detained for sharing the photographs of Dalai Lama and similarly in December 2019, again in July 2019, an environmental campaigner was sentenced to 7 years in prison after reports by “WE CHAT” for creating nuisance and public disorder and quarrels by accounts maintained in Golog province in inner Tibet.
In a similar fashion 2 top Tibetan musicians were detained and jailed for 7 years for dedicating a song to his holiness Dalai Lama and shared on “WE CHAT” platform. Tibetan refugees in India as also elsewhere used code words and phrases to disguise their content while speaking to their relatives in Tibet.
As an example which shows their ingenuity while conversing, a Tibetan may use words and phrases like “How’s the weather in Tibet?”to find out the political atmosphere there. If the reply is not good, it means the situation is tense in Tibet and to lie low for a few days etc. As per a Tibetan activist operating from Dharamshala in HP, he uses the word Uncle for Dalai Lama and neighbours for the Chinese officials on the “WE CHAT” platform.
The “WE CHAT” platform has increasingly used ‘Artificial intelligence’ to scan and delete images that were deemed to be of banned nature as per an American watch dog organization. The “TYC”(Tibetan Youth congress) an apex organization working in the realm of championing Free Tibet cause has in fact appreciated the ban action initiated by the GOI on “WE CHAT” platform and are trying to reinvigorate its ‘Boycott made in China’ campaign.
Notwithstanding its ban “WE CHAT” as a platform of social media was in the forefront of usage and proved its worth in the 2016 general elections for the “CTA”(Central Tibetan administration) as a political tool to ramp up the process of electioneering of the candidates at Dharamshala in HP.
But now with the recent ban on “WE CHAT” by the GOI more or less permanent in nature with its revocation being a remote likelihood, the immediate concern for the vast Tibetan diaspora scattered around the world is to find out a much more reliable source of communication to remain in touch with their relatives in faraway Tibet.
By virtue of having served with this community for more than three years while in army, I have a shared bondage of humanity based on mutual trust, confidence and admiration for their sterling qualities of head and heart. Hence this piece of article as an ode to this fearless tribe of people which the world has almost forgotten and put it on the fringes of its memory which is a disservice to their above mentioned qualities.