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"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

China says she protests too much

September 2, 2008

Simon Freeman, sfreeman@thenational.ae
The National (UAE)
August 30, 2008

The Free Tibet protester Amanda 'Mandie' McKeown arrives at Heathrow
Airport in London after being released from detention in Beijing.
David Cole / PA Photos

Amanda McKeown does not seem the sort of person who could annoy one
of the most powerful governments in the world.

But that is exactly what Ms McKeown, known as Mandie to her friends,
did. With a few dozen others, from North America, Europe, Australia
and New Zealand, she took on the Chinese government during the
Olympics by waving flags and unfurling banners demanding that Tibet
should be given its freedom from Beijing.

Ms McKeown, 41, is the mother of two young children who lives quietly
in Bristol, in the south-west of England, with her husband, Don Cary.
She has spent her life working for good causes, such as a charity
that helps street children in developing countries. Her husband works
for a charity for disabled children.

For making what was, by Western standards, a low-key protest, Ms
McKeown, who describes herself as "incredibly law-abiding," was
arrested, sworn at, sentenced to 10 days' detention and interrogated
for 23 hours. In two sessions, lasting four and seven hours, police
filmed her to show, she says, she was not being mistreated. In a
third session lasting 12 hours, she says she was strapped to a metal
chair. The police did not film this, she says.

She then spent two and a half days in a prison cell with 11 other
foreign women. She spent her time walking from wall to wall, playing
cards, looking forward to small meals of rice, and making sure she
filled a bottle with water when the supply was turned on for just 15
minutes every day.

None of this ranks alongside the horrors experienced, for example, by
Iraqis who crossed Saddam Hussein, but Ms McKeown admits she was "terrified."

Finally, thanks to the intervention of Gordon Brown, the British
prime minister, who was in the city to watch the closing ceremony of
the Olympic Games, and because of an international outcry, she was
deported, along with a German and eight Americans who had also been
detained by the Chinese for demonstrating about Tibet.

This weekend, back in Bristol with her son, Hamish, aged five, and
daughter, Niamh, three, Ms McKeown says her detention was probably
the best thing that could have happened because it meant the Free
Tibet campaign won widespread media coverage. The detention also
showed, says Ms McKeown, that China's pre-Games pledge that it would
allow peaceful protests were, in fact, worthless.

Until her group was arrested, the Chinese had simply deported Free
Tibet campaigners -- 42 in all – who had waved flags and hung
banners. After a brief flurry of publicity, the media lost interest.
Most of the 5,000 or so foreign journalists in China were there to
cover sport, not politics.

Journalists based permanently in Beijing were more sympathetic to the
campaigners, but there was little appetite, amid the sporting dramas
in the Bird's Nest and other stadiums, for stories about the military
clampdown in Tibet, the disappearance of more than 1,000 people since
violent protests in March or the obliteration of Tibetan culture.

One British journalist, John Ray, who reports from Beijing for ITV
News, managed to broadcast a story that was not about British medal
winners after he was arrested and manhandled by police when he was
filming a flag-waving demonstration.

But that was an exception.

The 10-day sentence handed out to Ms McKeown changed all that.
Suddenly Tibet, ruled by China since 1950, was back in the news.

The US government said it was "disappointed" by China. Even the
International Olympic Committee (IOC), which had always insisted that
China's style of government was not its concern, was unsettled.

Ms McKeown says: "Looking back, it was great for the campaign because
it kept Tibet on the news agenda. But it was terrible at the time. I
have never had any trouble with the police. I think I once had a
speeding ticket for doing 36mph in a 30mph zone.

After all those interrogations, I was delirious with fatigue. I had
not slept [for] 52 hours. When they put me in the cell at 9am, I just
wanted to go to sleep. But they shouted at me, 'No sleeping. You must
wait until night.' I had to sit up straight and stay awake."

It is estimated there are 120,000 Tibetans in exile in India. There
are 8,000 in the US and small groups scattered around the world.
There are many organisations, run by Tibetans and sympathisers,
dedicated to raising awareness of what is happening in Tibet.

These groups have slightly different agendas -- some focus on
lobbying politicians, others on arranging protests, others on helping
Tibetans in distress -- but all are impoverished. What they lack in
money, however, they compensate with enthusiasm.

The Free Tibet groups had tried to persuade the IOC that it would be
wrong to award the Games to Beijing since they feared the Chinese
would turn the Olympics into a propaganda tool.

But once that decision had been made, these groups decided it would
be pointless, and probably counterproductive, to campaign for a
boycott. This was the 21st century and the tit-for-tat boycotts of
the 1970s and 1980s, when the Cold War power blocs battled through
sport, were over.

The ostracism of apartheid South Africa by international sport could
not be repeated. Anne Holmes, campaign manager for the Free Tibet
Campaign, says: "We knew that the days of boycotts had gone. We did
not want to try and stop young athletes, who train so hard, going to
the Olympics. But we wanted to have a presence in China, to remind
the world [of] what was happening in Tibet."

For the next seven years, these groups debated and planned their
protests. They knew it would not be easy for activists to get visas
to China. They also feared that demonstrations would be broken up
within minutes. They said security was vital, so protesters would
have to operate in small groups. Protests had to be visually
striking, to appeal to the media.

They opted for flag waving and banner unfurling. They decided to
target very tall buildings in Beijing, so that it would take time for
the police to climb and dismantle the offending symbols. The sight of
Chinese police clambering up poles and towers would also appeal to the media.

Ms McKeown is a graduate of London's prestigious School of Oriental
and African Studies, SOAS. She could probably have had a successful
and lucrative career in business or the media, but instead opted for
charity work. In 1999, she became a full-time campaigner for Tibet, a
country and a people she had fallen in love with when she was at SOAS.

The group organising the protests was Students for Free Tibet, which
is based in New York. Set up in 1994, it has about 50,000 members,
concentrated in the US and Europe, where, it says, "social activism"
is well established.

Ms McKeown was invited to help the group to organise its protests. It
would pay her air fare and help with her accommodation, but otherwise
she would not receive any money.

She was surprised when China gave her a visa. She also expected to be
turned back at the airport and thinks she got into China because she
is known within the Tibet protest movement as "Mandie," while her
passport gives her full name, Amanda. Many others, she says, were not
so lucky and were turned back at the Beijing airport. Still, by the
start of the Games, about 70 Free Tibet campaigners were in place in China.

Under pressure from the IOC, and urged by its public relations
advisers in New York to make a gesture to show they understood the
right of protest, Beijing said it would establish three sites where
demonstrations could take place during the Games. But only Chinese
nationals could apply for permission.

Ms McKeown says the movement wanted no part of this. They could not
ask a Chinese to apply on their behalf since it would have unpleasant
consequences for that person. And, anyway, Ms McKeown says, peaceful
protests should not require licences.

"We were right to be suspicious," she says. "There were 77
applications to stage protests and all were refused. Two elderly
Chinese ladies who wanted to protest that their homes had been
confiscated without compensation to make way for Olympic building
were arrested."

She says she was careful in Beijing. "We all had our separate roles
and did not communicate unless it was necessary. We had teams. There
were the flag and banner teams. We had people who filmed, usually in
groups of two. I handled the media, I told journalists when and where
we would be protesting."

Everything was fine, she says, until the middle of the second week.
"If we just got a flag out and waved it the police would be on us in
seconds. But we had more luck when we had a big climb. It took them
time to deal with that."

About midnight on the night of Wednesday, Aug 20, the Chinese decided
they had had enough of these irritating visitors. With three men, a
Tibetan-German and two Americans, Ms McKeown prepared to unfurl their
usual Free Tibet flag near the Bird's Nest stadium. "We didn't even
get to raise the flag. The police were there too fast," she says.

Having been sworn at by the police, who knew enough English to make
it clear they did not think much of the activists, the four were
taken to a disused university building. There, they were questioned separately.

"The first session lasted for four hours. There were five of them.
They filmed me," says Ms McKeown. "They didn't even give me a glass
of water. They wanted to know everything: names, e-mail addresses. I
decided to tell them anything that was in the public domain, that
they could find out using the internet."

The second session lasted seven hours. She was offered burgers,
chicken nuggets and a Chinese egg roll. As a vegetarian she only ate the roll.

She still thought, she says, she would be deported immediately and
was looking forward to seeing her children. Then they told her she
would be detained for 10 days.

"I was very upset," - she says. "I was scared."

The four were taken to a detention centre, where Ms McKeown was
questioned again. For 12 hours, she says, she was strapped to a chair
and interrogated. "It was really heavy stuff. I just wanted to go home."

At 9am on Friday, Aug 22, she was escorted to a cell, where 11
foreign women, being held on a variety of visa and passport charges,
were being held.

"There was a Burmese girl who had been there for five months. She did
not have a passport. There was a Mongolian who said she had been
there for three years," she says.

But there were no more questions. By now, although she did not know
it, the Chinese government had realised it had blundered and given
the faltering Free Tibet campaign a huge publicity boost.

Ms McKeown spent Friday, Saturday and much of Sunday walking up and
down the cell, playing cards and sipping water from her small bottle.

Late on Sunday afternoon, the police said they would deport her. But
first, she had to buy a plane ticket for £1,400 (Dh9,330). "They had
a machine and I gave them my credit card. I also bought a ticket for
one of the guys."

There was a surreal twist at the airport. "The plane wasn't leaving
until the early hours, so they brought in a television so I could
watch the closing ceremony," she says.

This weekend, the Free Tibet movement is considering how it can build
on this unexpected public relations success. "We have to sit down and
think carefully about new campaigns," says Ms Holmes. "Our only
regret is that the Chinese people think the Games were a triumph, a
coming-out party for their country."
CTC National Office 1425 René-Lévesque Blvd West, 3rd Floor, Montréal, Québec, Canada, H3G 1T7
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