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As the Olympic torch moves along its 137,000 kilometer journey, it leaves a smoky trail of pro-Tibetan and other human rights related protests. The celebrities and athletes carrying the torch hidden behind a phalanx of Chinese flame attendants and police officers on bikes. There’s still four months to go but the Olympic consumer brand looks tarnished.
Recently, the Chinese president, Hu Jintao insisted that Beijing’s handling of the upheaval was its own affair while the Chinese Ambassador to the UK accused the Western media of demonizing China. At the same time the International Olympic Committee (IOC) reiterated that it will not intervene to pressure China on Tibet or any other political issue.
There is a risk that the perceptions of the West and people in China are drifting in opposite directions. I have witnessed a number of passionate debates between my pro-Tibetan and Chinese friends. The same issues always reoccur: ‘have you been to Tibet?’ ‘why didn’t you raise this before the Olympics?’ and Tibet has been part of China for the last x hundred years. But the outrage should not be targeted against the Chinese people but against the destruction of a way of life by the Chinese state.
The Chinese authorities promised the IOC and the international community concrete improvements in human rights to win the 2008 Olympics for Beijing but nothing much has happened and the recent jailing of human rights activist Hu Jia reflects the hardening stance towards dissent. Sophie Richardson, Asia Advocacy Director of Human Rights Watch, declared that ‘Hu Jia’s sentence shows that you can’t defend human rights in China without becoming a case yourself … His arrest was unjustified, his trial unfair and his sentence unwarranted.’ Furthermore, Chinese security forces are still struggling to stamp out flaring violence in areas of Tibetan China.
The Tibetan revolt of 2008, like those in 1987 and 1959 will be crushed by the overwhelming might of the Chinese military. The current protests are unlikely to result in anything more than the temporary re-imposition of military rule and further repression. As Hu Jintao reiterated the aspirations of greater autonomy, independence or even political unity of the Tibetan areas is extremely threatening to the Chinese state. The Chinese regard Tibet as historically part of China and consider the Dalai Lama, and his followers, as doctrinaire reactionaries opposing the social and economic progress that China brings to what they consider a backward province.
So why do the Tibetans oppose Chinese tutelage and the economic and social progress they have brought? Firstly, many Tibetans feel excluded from the development and money that China pours into their homeland. Chinese migrants are resented by Tibetans, who argue that they take the best jobs. The Dalai Lama has accused China of ‘cultural genocide,’ that this influx has been devastating and with China gaining political, economic and military control in Tibet. The Tibetans have slowly become marginalised and a minority in their own land. China’s consistently uses excessive military force to stifle dissent has resulted in widespread human rights abuses, including political imprisonment, torture and execution. At least 60 deaths have been documented by human rights groups since 1987 and the names of over 700 Tibetan political prisoners have been confirmed. Many are detained without charge or trial under ‘reeducation through labour’ administrative regulations.
China’s crackdown on the monk-led rallies in Lhasa is part of a long history of the Chinese state’s control of the monasteries and Buddhist orders. This started almost as soon as the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) marched into Tibet in 1950. Following the invasion, Tibet’s culture was suppressed and more than 6000 monasteries, temples and historic buildings were destroyed.
China’s grip on the Buddhist order became very visible in 1995, when the Dalai Lama named the new reincarnation of the Panchen Lama (second only to the Dalai Lama in terms of spiritual seniority). The selected six-year-old Gedhun Choekyi Nyima and his immediate family disappeared within days and his whereabouts remain unknown. The Tibetan government in exile claims he continues to be the youngest political prisoner in the world while the Chinese government asserts he is leading a normal life somewhere in China, his whereabouts secret to protect him. Soon after his disappearance, the Chinese government announced that it had found the real Panchen Lama, a six-year-old who happened to be the son of two Tibetan Communist Party workers. Most monks regard him as a false lama, though he is venerated by ordinary Tibetans.
The Chinese and other Olympic supporters argue that the games are about sports and not politics. The promotion of the Olympic spirit, however, includes upholding ethics in sports and encouraging respect for human rights. The games are a sporting event, but nonetheless involve international norms and shared values. The Chinese accuse the Dalai Lama of trying to boycott the games and ignore his repeated statements that he wants the Olympic Games to go ahead. He states that while the Chinese deserve the Games, activists are entitled to nonviolent protests.
Protests and boycotts are part of the Olympics. To mention two examples, in 1908 Irish athletes, angered at the refusal of Britain to give Ireland its independence boycotted the London Games and the 1956 Melbourne Games were boycotted by Egypt, Iraq and Lebanon because of the Suez invasion by Britain and France. The biggest boycott took place in 1980 when 62 countries led by the United States stayed away from Moscow following the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan the previous year.
It is still unclear what affect the crisis in Tibet will have in the long-term. The options for Tibetans are changing, many are increasingly frustrated as they see little sign of progress after decades of waiting. Young Tibetans are becoming increasingly impatient with the Dalai Lama’s peaceful means. Although they remain loyal, they believe that confrontation might be more effective for securing their rights. While the spotlight is still on China, it cannot afford to crack down too hard on the Tibetan people. During the last upheaval in 1987, very few in the West knew where Tibet was, let alone its tragic history. The Chinese government responded with executions, arbitrary arrests and torture. China was still a relatively isolated country and did not need international opinion on their side. Nineteen years on, much has changed, The Dalai Lama has raised Tibet’s profile and China has ‘opened up.’ Admitted to the WTO, secured billions in corporate capital and is hosting the 2008 Olympics, nonetheless, as the Burmese can testify, public and media attention can shift very quickly. Many of those protesting in Tibet know they might die in one of the many secret prison cells. When the world is no longer watching, they might be killed along with those that risked all to get the focus of the world.
Carole Reckinger is a freelance writer, more of her articles can be read at http://1000forgottenstories.wordpress.com/