Monday, 13 February 2012

Tibet: An Inconvenient Occupation

A group of passionate protestors chant slogans denouncing the autocratic regime seeking to suppress their freedom of speech, culture and religion. It could be Syria, Libya, or Egypt, and it would, if reported, rightly engender robust diplomatic rhetoric from western democracies, and pressure to secure an illusive United Nations resolution. But what are the chances of chastisement when the aggressor is a permanent member of the UN Security Council?

Chinese security forces have been amassing in western regions of the Sichuan Province, ahead of the Tibetan New Year which begins on February 22nd. So often a trigger for demonstrations against Chinese occupation, this year the protests are likely to be more potent than previously, with the pending 50 year anniversary of the Tibetan uprising in March. With state restrictions on the movement of foreigners, journalists in particular, it is hard to quantify the numbers involved, yet reports indicate that three Tibetans have set themselves on fire in as many days, making 15 such cases in the last year. The body of the most recent, a 42 year old monk called Sopa, was paraded through the streets, having been reluctantly released after protestors smashed the windows of the police station in Dari, to which he had been taken by officials.

This self-immolation, as it is called, is surely as shocking in nature as many of the routine human rights abuses in nations such as Iran, that elicit regular statements of indignation from whichever Home Secretary is manning the shop. The fact that this mutilation is self-imposed, a desperate act where other forms of expression are discouraged or actively suppressed, speaks to the impotence of a people whose voice has been regularly raised, yet rarely recognised.

China claims to have governed the region for centuries, which is partially true. Since the 7th century, you could say Tibet has often fallen under Chinese rule, however, it’s fairer to say it did not “fall”, it was pushed, and hard. There has always been an attempt to maintain a cultural and political independence, culminating in the failed Tibetan rebellion, beginning in 1959, that saw the Dalai Lama flee to establish an alternative government in exile. The systematic erosion of Tibetan culture and rights has continued, with violent suppression of resistance to Chinese occupation, notably to the unrest seen in 2008.

With western governments keen to secure trade links with China, as an emerging super-power, the plight of the Tibetan people is an inconvenience, and largely ignored. For such countries, that mask military deployment to safeguard commercial enterprise with claims of humanitarian rationale, the deaf ear turned to the east is to our lasting shame. Tibet will celebrate its New Year come what may, but whether it’s a “happy” one will largely depend on the rest of us.

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