Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Retour au Tibet

Les Grandes Reportages, a daily Quebec based documentary news show last night featured a program entitled Retour au Tibet. 
It was a remarkable story. An ex-pat journalist smuggles a film camera and captures footage of the tense state of affairs following the recent military crack down in Tibet, complete with interviews with Tibetans whom, apart from one exception, only speak with concealed identities.
It's a tale of systematic repression. In the regions outlying the capital, Lhasa, where many Tibetans have always lived a nomadic lifestyle, the communist government has forcibly moved them into constructed towns. They appear in the report like prisons with no schools or health care centers. Many Tibetans - Unemployed, living in poverty, cut off from the land ( it's one of the repeated complaints - " we have no land")-have turned to alcohol. The situation echoes the marginalized state of Aboriginal populations in Canada, the US and Australia.
The film maker speaks to a woman sterilized against her will. She claims the practice is pushed by authorities, initially with offers of money and then if that fails as a direct ultimatum with no option to refuse. This may be another unspoken directive of the state to change the demographic make up of the country, a family at a time. She says that it has happened to thousands of Tibetan women. Her description of the procedure has a brutal aspect, one where none of the normal protocols of medical care have been observed, no anesthesia, no medications and no follow-up care. " They did not even give me aspirin for the pain" she says. She complains that she was in good health before but now suffers from chronic bouts of abdominal pain.

In the capital the police are constant presence. The ratio is one policeman to every 20 Tibetans, many multiples higher than in China. The film shows images of baton wielding policemen chasing down and beating unarmed monks at the time of the uprising- startling violence carried out with vengeance. The fear of that violence keeps everyone in check.Only one man is willing to talk without covering his face. He describes how he spent " the best years of his life from 23 to 37 in prison" but adds that he will continue to express his views openly. Another man who does not feel so brave says that "I am no longer the man I used to be because of the torture". Beating with batons, electrocution, and solitary confinement in the dark are the commonly described methods.

Tibetans are afraid of
constant intrusion of the police. Images from the riots, the shattered upscale store front windows of the Han in migrants highlight the socioeconomic divide that separates the newcomers from the poverty of the Tibetans.The violent reactions against the Han and their businesses  have a desperate quality. The Tibetans like Brazilian street children who wreak havoc in Rio De Janeiro's upscale plazas from a spilled over dormant rage.

China makes historical claims on Tibet. China's leaders recall with remembered hostility the humiliations of the colonial age and this has always been the tenor of the Communist movement there, not so much class based as a reaction to foreign conquest. However,there are other reasons, more immediate ones. The Tibetan Plateau is the at the source of eight great rivers the
Yangtze, the Yellow , the Indus , the Mekong, the Brahmaputra the Ganges, the Salween and the Yarlung Tsangpo. Water is a vital resource for an arid Chinese landscape. What lies below ground is equally valued.Tibet holds what has been estimated at 4 trillion dollars in oil and mineral reserves. Considering this wealth and China's appetites no-one should expect it's government will give in to any demands for Tibetan independence.

All's not hopeless for the Tibetans, though it's certainly bleak. China's
State policies are no more representative of its people than the natural generosity of Americans to their current administration. A recent nation wide outpouring of support for the victims of the earthquakes that hit central China and have claimed so far over 65, 000 causalities has been met with surprise in the Western media. This oversight of a civilization that has been been built on a Confucian ethical framework for over two and a half thousand years is only an example of a cultural myopia that has no doubt rankled the country's leaders in the past. This ignorance underscores their defiance  to any intrusion in their domestic affairs and underlines their desire for acknowledgement on their own terms.

Historical grievances have played a role in the nation's antipathy toward the Western protests against the Olympic games and ultimately toward the Tibetans. But there is also a reactionary quality to the sentiment, true of both sides of the conflict. The controlled Chinese media has framed the story strictly in terms of the violence against the Han. Many Westerners have reported the story exclusively as a struggle for freedom by the Tibetans. Both sides have succeeded in polarizing their audiences. While the protests against the games have been useful in forcing China to recognize to some degree the authority of the Dalai Lama they're also sanctimonious. Western nations have many skeletons in their closets, some hidden in plain sight such as the deplorable treatment of their aboriginal populations. The protests should go on, and the exposes of the real story in Tibet but also  a way to win over the real agents of change, the Chinese people.

Those improvements that have occurred in the conditions of aboriginal peoples in the West have occurred in the context of a public understanding and appreciation of old wrongs. They have occurred in the context of a civil society with an open press. The hope for an improvement in the Tibetans situation lies in the free dissemination of information. That's not possible yet but if it were to take place there is cause for optimism. The events in the aftermath of recent natural disasters have shown that the Chinese people are no less stricken by conscience than those in the West.

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