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Thursday, March 27, 2008

Tibet and the advantages of weekly community journalism


During a week when half a dozen indigenous leaders have been jailed in Northern Ontario over a procedural dispute about a proposed platinum mine on their land, and the streets of Kosovo are alight with resistance, events in Tibet have once again exercised their hypnotic power over our media. It's a situation that offers a perfect opportunity to reflect on the benefits of weekly journalism.

In the traditional news daily, the editor cuts a story off the teletype machine, pastes it onto a sheet of 8 ½ by 11 and fires it off to the press room for typesetting and layout. All that is done digitally now, even faster and with less opportunity to reconsider.

Although old time weeklies like the Christian Science Monitor and the Guardian these days suffer from the same blurring of one edition into another just as dailies and monthlies do, nevertheless they retain a reflective and questioning style that originated in the slower pace of their hardcopy output. There is time between stories to thing.

Naming is strategic

The weekly format allows you to reconsider decisions that the hustling daily journalist has to take for granted. Take for instance the language. Some contend that all naming is strategic. So how do you name what is actually happening in Tibet? Is it a protest? Or a riot? A demonstration? Or an insurrection? Might it be something altogether different from any of these? As long as we accept uncritically the word choices that are handed to us, we will never know.

Listeners old enough to remember the events in Watts, a black suburb of Los Angeles, in August 1965 will understand why the choice of words in cases like this is not so simple as it seems.

On August 11, 1965, the arrest of a black motorist for drunk driving quickly tuned violent. By August 17, 1965, thirty-four people, 25 of them black, were dead and more than 600 buildings had been damaged or destroyed. The nation, which had but recently suffered the assassination of its president, was shocked.

Some saw those events as riots plain and simple, predictable violence by a racial underclass prone to criminality. Other saw them as a revolt against police brutality, exploitation and oppression, even as the beginning of a northern version of the civil rights movement. A similar distinction is at work in the reporting on Tibet.

JUAN GONZALEZ: The protests erupted last week when Buddhist monks took to the streets of Lhasa to mark the anniversary of the 1959 uprising against Chinese rule.

If you have quick ears, you will recognize Democracy Now's co-host, Juan Gonzalez. He chooses to portray that it “starts as a demonstration.” But Gonzalez is still searching for the right word when he interviews Lhakpa Kyiazom, a Tibetan activist living in Dharamsala, India where the exile community maintains a government-in-waiting. Waiting for what you might ask. She works at a Tibetan NGO called the Active Non-Violence Education Center. What is the right word?

JUAN GONZALEZ: I’d like to ask you, the Chinese government has released some video that shows some rioting or attacks on—or looting going on and also claiming attacks on Chinese residents in Tibet. Your response to that?

LHAKPA KYIZOM: Sorry, I didn’t hear you properly.

JUAN GONZALEZ: I said that the Chinese government has released some video showing looting or attacks—

LHAKPA KYIZOM: Yes, yes, yes.

JUAN GONZALEZ: —by protesters and also claiming attacks on Chinese who live in Tibet. Any response to that?

LHAKPA KYIZOM: Yes. I think it’s just the media, you know, the feed on media. The Xinhua News Agency is just a mouthpiece of the Chinese government. And that’s why His Holiness, in his press conference, said that. The international community and the media should really, you know, probe and do an investigation in Tibet what’s really happening in Tibet. I think that—we urge the international media to really—media and NGOs in the community to really find out the real facts of Tibet.

A good place to start cutting through the fog is with eyewitness testimony. James Miles is a journalist with the neo-liberal Economist magazine. He was in Lhasa, when the rioting began. Miles has been a journalist in China for 15 years. In an interview with CNN, he says this was the first time he had ever got approval to go to Tibet, and they evidently decided to let him stay even after the riots started. What he saw corroborates the official Chinese version.

“What I saw was calculated targeted violence against an ethnic group, or I should say two ethnic groups, primarily ethnic Han Chinese living in Lhasa, but also members of the Muslim Hui minority in Lhasa. And the Huis in Lhasa control much of the meat industry in the city. Those two groups were singled out by ethnic Tibetans.”

Robert Thurman is a professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist studies at Columbia University and president of Tibet House US, a cultural preservation nonprofit. He was interviewed by Juan Gonzalez and Amy Goodman on Democracy Now!

Thurman says there are no Tibetan shops in Lhasa.

THURMAN: They have no shops of their own in Lhasa. The Chinese have taken over all the commerce in Lhasa.

But Miles says, the rioters
“marked those businesses that they knew to be Tibetan owned with white traditional scarves. Those businesses were left intact. Almost every single other across a wide swathe of the city, not only in the old Tibetan quarter, but also beyond it in areas dominated by the ethnic Han Chinese. Almost every other business was either burned, looted, destroyed, smashed into, the property therein hauled out into the streets, piled up, burned. It was an extraordinary outpouring of ethnic violence of a most unpleasant nature to watch, which surprised some Tibetans watching it. So they themselves were taken aback at the extent of what they saw. And it was not just targeted against property either. Of course many ethnic Han Chinese and Huis fled as soon as this broke out. But those who were caught in the early stages of it were themselves targeted. Stones thrown at them. At one point, I saw them throwing stones at a boy of maybe around 10 years old perhaps cycling along the street. I in fact walked out in front of them and said stop. It was a remarkable explosion of simmering ethnic grievances in the city.”

Citing a Swiss tourist, Los Angeles Times staff writer Barbara Demick reports that quote “protesters in Lhasa randomly beat and killed ethnic Chinese, and troops fired live ammunition into mostly defenseless crowds.”

She goes on to say

“during three crucial hours on March 14, woefully unprepared police fled, allowing rioters to burn and smash much of Lhasa's commercial center.

"Tibetans randomly beat and killed Chinese solely on the basis of their ethnicity: a young motorcyclist bludgeoned in the head with paving stones and probably killed; a teenage boy in school uniform being dragged by a mob. When authorities did regroup, paramilitary troops fired live ammunition into the crowds. Witnesses did not see protesters armed with anything other than stones, bottles of gasoline or a few traditional Tibetan knives.”

Though they are armed with stones, knives and Molotov cocktails and act with lethal force, Demick plays it down and calls them "protesters.”

It's clear that the so-called “protests” entail substantial ethnic vandalism that may not have been directed by the Dalai Lama and that many would not embrace under their definition of nonviolence.

Unity of the Free Tibet movement

ROBERT THURMAN: So when they say—the Chinese—the Dalai Lama clique and that they have a life-and-death struggle with the Dalai Lama clique, what they’re saying is they have a life-and-death struggle against all Tibetans, because there’s no clique. It’s just all of the Tibetans. So, in a way, they’re openly proclaiming their intention and their practice of trying to commit cultural genocide on the Tibetans, as the Dalai Lama said.

Canadians hearing the charge of “cultural genocide” may be reminded that this was exactly the charge of indigenous Canadians taken from their families and put in residential schools where they were abused and prevented from speaking their mother tongue. If we focus on the Tibetan people and not the machinations of a well-healed and secretive exile community, what stands out is that these too are another indigenous people facing yet another onslaught of colonialism, tourism, racism, relocation, loss of land and culture all under the beneficent rubric of modernization.

Beyond that the notion that the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan people are one is on the face of it unlikely. Thurman contradicts his own extreme assertion that “there is no clique it's just all of the Tibetans” when he describes the march to the border.

ROBERT THURMAN: ...everyone was kind of focused on the march from Dharamsala, the nonviolent march to Delhi and then to the Tibetan border that the young Tibetan activists were doing. And His Holiness was quite worried about that. Also, he did not call for that, either. That’s something they did on their own initiative...

The New York Times cautiously suggests there is more at work than just an internal inconsistency on Thurman's part. Some Tibetans are calling for a lot more than a march to the China-India border.

What the Times calls
“a handful of radical Tibetan exile groups have said angrily that the 'middle way' has achieved nothing in nearly 30 years.” They have called for an Olympic Games boycott, burned Chinese flags and refused to call off a march from [Dharamsala all the way] to Lhasa, Tibet’s capital. The Dalai Lama has rejected the action as impractical.

“So the question arises,” the Times suggests, “of whether the Dalai Lama, who has spent the last 49 years here in India and built one of the most powerful exile movements in the world, is out of touch with his own people.”

The direction that will be taken cannot easily be predicted by supposing that “there is no clique it's just all of the Tibetans” or by entertaining the fantasy that the Tibetan people are supernaturally nonviolent.

Although Tibet proclaimed its independence from China in 1911, long before the revolution, "at no time did any western power come out in favor of its independence or grant it diplomatic recognition.” (Virtual Tibet: Searching for Shangri-La from the Himalayas to Hollywood, cited in Wikipedia Tibet) The People's Republic of China, citing historical records and agreements signed by the Tibetan government, claims nearly all of Tibet as a part of China. At the present time, every country in the world recognizes China's sovereignty over Tibet. The Dalai Lama, who in addition to being a spiritual leader, is the head of the Tibetan government-in-waiting, accepts China’s sovereignty over Tibet: He is widely reported as saying “Tibet wants autonomy, not independence.”

With the signing of the Seventeen Point Agreement in 1951, Tibet was officially incorporated into China. Before 1951, according to anthropologists, a vast majority of the people of Tibet often bound to land owned by monasteries and aristocrats like serfs. Most lands were taken away from noblemen and monasteries and re-distributed to serfs. As a result, a rebellion led by noblemen and monasteries broke out in Amdo and eastern Kham in June 1956. The insurrection, supported by the CIA, eventually spread to Lhasa.

Originally, Camp Hale, Colorado, was built to train the 10th Mountain Division of the US Army in mountain climbing, skiing and cold-weather survival. From 1959 to 1964, Tibetan guerrillas were secretly trained at Camp Hale by the CIA. The site was chosen because of similarities between the Rocky Mountains and the Himalayan Plateau. The Tibetan project, codenamed ST Circus, was similar to the CIA operation that trained dissident Cubans in what later became the Bay of Pigs Invasion.

In all, some 259 Tibetans were trained at Camp Hale. One group were parachuted back into Tibet to link up with local resistance groups; others were sent overland on intelligence gathering missions; still others set up a CIA-funded Tibetan resistance force in northern Nepal.

To be continued...

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