MEDIA: Olympics Draw Harvest of Online Protestsby kenneth ( )
BANGKOK, Aug 11 (IPS/Asia Media Forum) — Say goodbye to the usual slogan-shouting and banner-carrying protest actions, because one does not even have to be anywhere near China to push a mix of causes -- from Tibet and Burma to Darfur. Online creativity is the name of the game.
While the spectacular 2008 Beijing Olympics opening ceremonies got underway, many groups are finding and using innovative ways online in which to express their displeasure about China's socio-political and economic policies.
One such group is the Candle4Tibet.org (www.Candle4Tibet.org), an online campaign that encouraged people to light a candle for Tibet in homes or in public places on Aug. 7 at 9 p.m. The campaign began in India and went around the world until the evening of Aug. 8, the opening of the Beijing Olympics.
Organiser David Califa said, in a telephone interview from Israel, where he is based, that there were more than 500,000 responses to the call. More than 3,900 people have also registered for Candle4Tibet's social networking site (www.Candle4Tibet.ning.com), an online support group for members.
These are the same people, Califa said, who invited "more than 100,000,000 to join the vigil worldwide".
"All this started from zero. It's not an organised campaign and we have no funds to speak of. This is really a people's protest, because it's from the people themselves, which makes it all the more special," the retired investment banker said in a phone interview.
About four months ago, Califa was just one among the 75 million members of the popular social networking site Facebook. Then, Califa thought of rallying people to support the call of freedom for Tibet, which the Chinese state has occupied since 1951 despite campaigns for autonomy or independence.
From a sprinkling of fellow Facebook contacts, word got out quickly and spread even outside Facebook. Califa then worked on creating a dedicated website for this campaign.
More than 150 countries are represented on the site, mainly the United States, India, Britain, France, Germany, Canada, Australia and South America. A quick check of the site also reveals a sprinkling of members from Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam, Thailand, and a few more from Taiwan and Japan.
Asked about the seemingly small number of Asian countries figuring on the site, Califa said, "It could be a language problem, Internet access, or the circles of social network are not big enough."
There is, however, a Japanese group in the network that helped out in translating all materials into Japanese.
"I think one of the reasons why not a lot of Asians seem to be paying attention to this campaign is because China is a 'big brother' of sorts in this region," said a Thai activist who gave her name as Arsure. Open opposition to China would be to invite 'economic disaster' for any country, she added.
Human rights advocates have criticised other countries' seeming inaction and unwillingness to question China's policies on Darfur, Burma and Tibet.
Two other websites that have also launched protests against the Chinese government are the French-based Reporters Without Borders’ (www.rsf.org) and Darfur Olympics (www.darfurolympics.org/).
A few hours before the start of the Olympics, RSF launched a virtual demonstration site complete with a choice of placards. This, the group said, is to protest against the repression of press freedom and to demand the release of around 100 journalists, cyber dissidents and bloggers. As of Aug 9, cyber-demonstrators numbered to more than 13,500.
A person who decides to participate in virtual protest is taken to an image of China's famed Bird's Nest Olympic stadium online, and invited add his protest with the aid of slogans such as 'Yes to sport, no to oppression', 'No Olympic Games without freedom', and 'I boycott the Olympic opening ceremony!'
The Darfur Olympics site, meanwhile, is a week-long protest that is aimed at keeping the Darfur issue afloat during the Games. Its call is simple: for China to "stop sponsoring the genocide in Darfur".
More than 400,000 people have been killed and more than 2.5 million have been displaced by Sudan, which enjoys close trade relations with China. Critics have continuously condemned China's oil purchases, the earnings of which, they say, are used to fund the Janjaweed militia and buy weapons again from China.
Among the site's features is an alternative opening ceremony to the Beijing Olympics featuring images of Darfur's children in refugee camps, a week-long webcast by leading Darfur activist and Dream-for-Darfur chair Mia Farrow. It appeals to Olympic viewers to change channels whenever they broadcast commercials by the 15 corporate Olympic sponsors that refused to speak up about the Darfur situation.
"I hope people will watch our daily broadcasts to hear from the people of Darfur who have suffered for so long," said Farrow in a statement.
In a slightly different take on the protest actions, the global web movement Avaaz.org launched yet another campaign for peace and freedom through its 'Olympics Handshake' online campaign.
Echoing the constant message of the 14th Dalai Lama about meaningful dialogue, Avaaz -- which means 'voice' in many Asian, Middle Eastern and Eastern European languages -- goes a step further by encouraging people to virtually shake hands with everyone worldwide.
Inspired by the handshake that the Dalai Lama gave to every person he met during one of his visits to London, the handshake campaign now has more than 94,900 supporters, only two days after it was posted.
The campaign's goal is for the Beijing Olympics to encourage China to open a meaningful dialogue on Tibet, as well as to deal with the Burma and Darfur issues. They also want to emphasise that these ongoing campaigns are not 'anti-Chinese', something that Califa also agrees with.
"We are not against the people of China and the Olympics. Some of us even have compassion for the leaders of China," said Califa.
For Califa and other protesters, it is all about the very basic right of freedom, including freedom from fear. "There are a lot of people in the free world who are afraid of China. A lot of companies are afraid of China. They put profit first before values, and it's absurd," he said. "But we are not afraid and this is just the beginning."
(*This story was written for the Asia Media Forum coordinated by IPS Asia-Pacific)