Trouble in Tibet

Posted January 3, 2008

Categories: Articles

In 1935, the People’s Liberation Army swept through Tibet on the Long March to evade Chiang Kai-Shek’s Nationalists. It was a grim time. Harassed by snipers, Mao’s armies faced a much greater challenge: cold and hunger. In the grassland plateaus of Tibet, the Communists died by the thousands.

The wandering soldiers were not the only ones to suffer. The grasslands could barely support the Tibetans who lived there. The Long March was like a plague of locusts. “It must have been desperately bad,” writes Sun Shuyun in her new and fascinating book The Long March, based on interviews with survivors of the trek. “It was the only time Mao acknowledged any of the Red Army’s depredations, out of all the places and people they took from, all the confiscations and ransom. Events here seem to have penetrated his normally steely conscience – perhaps because they were taking from the very poor, ten months from their next harvest.”

At the end of the Long March, Mao was even moved to apologize to the Tibetans for grabbing food from people who had so little. “It was our only foreign debt,” he told journalist Edgar Snow. “One day, we must return to the Tibetans what we had to take from them.”

From Beijing’s perspective, the debt to Tibet has been paid back. The Communists have brought modernity to the poor, traditional lands: better education, rapid expansion of the economy, and a modern rail connection. What the Communists took in 1935, they have more than repaid.

Many Tibetans think differently. Much of the development has benefited not Tibetans but the Han Chinese who have moved into the province. The indigenous culture is under threat–not in the temple-destroying ways of the Cultural Revolution but in a more subtle, assimilating manner. It’s not that the Tibetans romanticize the nomadic life. The younger generation in particular wants the benefits of modernity. But they want more say over key questions: the what, how, and for whom.

Behind the recent uprising in Tibet lie two very different strategies to address these questions. The Dalai Lama urges negotiations with Beijing over greater autonomy for Tibet. The younger and more radical members of the Tibetan Youth Congress and similar organizations want an independent Tibet.

These splits – within the opposition and between Beijing and the protesters – require great delicacy. In Tibet’s Dangerous Game, FPIF contributor Van Jackson argues that the United States should balance concerns for human rights and regional stability. “Declaring unabashed support for the protestors would only inflame China, embolden the protestors, and ensure that violence will continue,” he writes. “By contrast, the best chance for the violence to end resides in reestablishing unanimity within the Tibetan independence movement. A unified Tibet will, at a minimum, provide China with a coherent negotiating partner and a common voice on Tibetan issues.”

At the same time, the United States does not exactly have clean hands when it comes to the matter. In the 1950s, as FPIF contributor Ross Gearllach writes in Approaching Tibet, the CIA trained and equipped Tibetan farmers to take on the Communists. Today, Gearllach continues, “instead of lecturing the Chinese, the United States should first acknowledge that the Chinese have sovereign right to Tibet, a fact that the Dalai Lama no longer disputes. Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd recently did an excellent job of supporting the Tibetan people while acknowledging that the Chinese do possess a valid claim to Tibet and the right to have a say in its future. The United States should then quietly encourage the Chinese to deal with the Dalai Lama now, rather than attempting to wait him out.”

Bush’s Legacy

In an attempt to patch up his foreign policy record, President George W. Bush has been on quite the world tour in his last months in office. Recently he visited Europe to twist a few last arms and get the Europeans on board with a mini-surge in Afghanistan, the new missile defense bases in Poland and the Czech Republic, and NATO membership for Georgia and Ukraine. He won on the first two, FPIF columnist Frida Berrigan explains in Bush Woos Europe, but lost on the third. “Europe spurned his calls and conferred the sought-after access only to Albania and Croatia,” she writes. “In this decision, NATO opted not to further antagonize a Russia that vowed to put Kiev and Tbilisi in the cross hairs of its nuclear missiles targets.”

Also last week, General David Petraeus went before the Senate Armed Services Committee to put the best gloss on the situation in Iraq. Violence is down, he reported. The surge is working.

Not so, reports FPIF contributor Aaron Glantz. “The sad reality of daily life in Iraq is that in many areas ethnic cleansing has now become so complete that there are literally no minorities left to kill in formerly diverse neighborhoods of major cities like Baghdad, Mosul, and Kirkuk,” he writes in Petraeus’ Testimony. “As a journalist who reported from inside Iraq from 2003 to 2005, I can say that most of my Iraqi friends and sources have either been killed or fled their homes. The lucky ones with resources have left the country. Others have simply left their jobs in the city for their family’s ethnically mixed homes in the countryside.”

Fighting continues between the U.S.-backed Iraqi government of Nuri al-Maliki and militia leader Moqtada al-Sadr. “Al-Sadr, despite this aggressive move against his organization by the government of Iraq and U.S. forces, is still calling for peaceful and political means to resolve these issues,” writes Adil Shamoo in Freedom, Democracy, and Death in Iraq. “It’s true that some elements of al-Sadr’s army are criminal, but encouraging political dialogue with him has been fruitful in the past.”

50 Years of Peace?

No, the last 50 years have not been very peaceful at all. However, the peace sign is celebrating its 50th birthday this year. It was in 1958 that Gerald Holtom designed the famous symbol for a British anti-nuclear demonstration.

As FPIF contributor Barry Miles recounts, Holtom brought a long banner to a meeting of what would later become the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. “He explained to the meeting that it was the semaphore for the initials ND, Nuclear Disarmament, but that the broken cross could also mean the death of man, whereas the circle symbolized the unborn child,” Miles writes in A Sign of the Times, an excerpt from his new book Peace: 50 Years of Protest. “In combination it represented the terrible threat nuclear weapons posed to humanity, including the unborn.”

Amid all the war and destruction in the world, there was a hopeful indication last week of the power of peace. In the world’s last divided capital of Nicosia, on the island of Cyprus, a new gate was opened in the wall dividing the Greek and Turkish parts of the city. “The symbolic gesture of opening the Ledra Street gate has made many people optimistic about the new government’s commitment to solving the Cyprus problem,” writes FPIF contributor Joanne Esch in Postcard from…Nicosia. “On the other hand, many see the symbolic gesture as just that; it by no means indicates that a solution is imminent.”

Also in our Fiesta! section on the intersection of art and foreign policy, FPIF interviewer E. Ethelbert Miller talks to literary scholar R. Victoria Arana about new black literature in Britain and its take on empire. “As colony after colony declared independence after World War II,” she explains, “many creative people from the former British Empire gravitated to England and Scotland to continue their educations or because they imagined that they might have brighter economic futures there than in the Caribbean or in their (often strife-torn) homelands – and because, having been educated in the British system in their birthplaces, they felt greater intellectual kinship to Britain than to other places, more cultural affinity (let’s say) to London than to Washington, D.C.”

Tying in to our strategic focus on the U.S. military footprint, poet Frances Payne Adler reflects in Possibility on life after the closure of California military base Fort Ord:

And the grass grew long and quickly took over the fields,
thousands of soldiers marching down Inter-Garrison road
dwindled down to twelve then none

Climate Change and the World Bank

A lovely image: the soldiers dwindle, the grass grows long. Perhaps in this age of climate change, we will manage to beat the world’s swords not into ploughshares or lawn mower blades but something more environmentally benign.

But don’t expect the World Bank to be part of the solution. As FPIF contributor Janet Redman explains in the The World Bank’s Carbon Deals, “the Bank is supporting some of the most polluting industries in Southern countries, while advancing little toward its goal of “reach[ing] and benefit[ing] the poorest communities of the developing world” in its carbon market work.”

FPIF, April 14, 2008

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