Agam's Gecko
Monday, January 31, 2005
Well, the event of the week is surely what took place yesterday in Iraq. Anytime that I have seen a population showing such enthusiasm to demonstrate their freedom and exercise self-determination after having had these long denied them (such as the massive voter turnout in Cambodia for its first fair election), I find the event incredibly inspiring. How much more so, when the population is acting under intimidation from nihilistic brutes who have demonstrated their ruthlessness in a most extreme fashion. To have seen the people of East Timor participating in their referendum in Sept. 1999 while thuggish militias were threatening their slaughter (and did their best to carry out the threat), and to know that more than 90% of eligible Timorese voted anyway, is to have seen the true power of freedom.

I also remember far fewer life and death issues or risks in my own voting life in Canada, indeed the act was always absolutely risk-free. Yet the knowledge that this is an act that people across the world have fought and died for -- that in too many places they continue to die for it -- always made the day take on somewhat of a sacred character for me. Yesterday's act of freedom in Iraq raises that to a new level.

I was not surprised at all by the large turnout, despite the bloodthirsty threats from al-Zarqawi and his ilk. In fact it was very good of the Jordanian butcher to lay things clearly on the line just a few days before election day, quite likely spurred to declare his hand by President Bush's own words just days before. While the think-tanks and experts and editorialists from the "newspapers of record" had been sneering for months and months over the President's assertion that the terrorists and Baathist fighters were simply fighting to forestall democracy, and that these thugs were simply opposed to freedom, their conventional wisdom was thrown on its ear and the sneering suddenly stoppped -- for the chief terrorist himself had declared that indeed, President Bush was correct. John F. Burns (the best journalist in Iraq, both during and after Saddam) in the New York Times quoted from Zarqawi's last scare tape:
"We have declared an all-out war on this evil principle of democracy and those who follow this wrong ideology ... Anyone who tries to help set up this system is part of it."


The man identified as Mr. Zarqawi, who has claimed responsibility for many of the insurgency's most brutal attacks, including dozens of bombings causing mass casualties as well as kidnappings and beheadings, railed against democracy, saying supplanting the rule of God with that of a popular majority was "infidelity itself." The fit punishment for any Muslim "apostates" joining in, he said, was death.
These people promised to bathe Iraq's streets and roads with voters' blood, for democracy was the enemy of God. As of this writing, it is estimated that three-quarters of eligible voters took their places in voting queues, as potential terrorist targets, thereby declaring People's victory over the forces of evil. That doesn't mean problems are over, far from it. But now all the cards are on the table, and the stakes are clearly delineated. That big majority of Iraqi citizens constitute the "Iraqi street" (or as the big media pundits love to refer to it, the "Arab street"). Zarqawi is not the "Iraqi street" (and how can he even be an "insurgent"? -- he isn't even an Iraqi). Michael Moore's freedom fighter, leader of the Iraqi Minutemen, as he called them, is revealed as one who feels called by God to slaughter every voting infidel in Iraq. Which means the more than 10 million Shias, Kurds, Sunnis, Assyrian Christians and other smaller minorities who joined in common purpose yesterday.

I just listened to Christopher Hitchens comment on this "Arab street" thing, pointing out that the thugs are not only far removed from Iraqi mainstreet, they aren't even an Iraqi back alley. They not only don't represent the street, they're not even the gutter in the back alley or even the sewer beneath that gutter. It took millions of Iraqis to bravely go out and queue up yesterday to drive that fact home -- and let's hope the mainstream Western media finally wakes up to that at last. Hitch was in fine form, participating late last night (Bangkok time) in an election day panel discussion with Iraqi radio host Ahmad Al-Rikaby. Ahmad founded Radio Dijla in Baghdad, and was hosting this program of discussion, phone-in callers from Iraq, comments from a studio audience and two in-studio bloggers, with the support of Spirit of America. Viewers heard callers from all across Iraq, telling of their experience of the day. The program was carried on C-SPAN.

By this time of course, voting was finished and it was already clear that the violent attacks of the day had not derailed the process, although about 30 people are thought to have been killed by Palestinian-style individual suicide bombers. One fellow from Mosul provided me with my headline, when he described a quiet morning with few visible voters out and about. Then, he said, at some point "the fear vanished" and people started to venture out, to do what they had in their hearts to do. Like Hitchens had said at another point, fear can be contagious, but courage can also be contagious. The program moderator asked the Mosul caller if he remembered what time it was when the "fear vanished", and he estimated it was around 11:00 am. "That's a good time," Ahmad quipped, "for fear to vanish -- just after breakfast." Another caller, this one from Kirkuk I think, expressed that "happy and joyful are words which are too small to describe Iraqis' mood today." The momentous quality of January 30, 2005 is something that non-Iraqis can probably only guess at, and I think there's plenty of evidence from yesterday's Iraqi street scenes for that. I'll remember one elderly woman in a wheelchair after voting, talking to a CNN camera with words whose eloquence echoed even through the translation. She conveyed the import, the determination to embrace freedom at any cost, and the unity of Shia, Sunni, Kurd etc. in an Iraqi identity -- and the line of men queued up some distance behind her erupted into applause.

The two bloggers in the Spirit of America studio were watching the blogosphere in two languages. An Iraqi student from Princeton was watching the Arabic language blogs and news sites like Jazeera and BBC Arabic, while the English language blog world was monitored by Michael J. Totten (who has long had a place in my bookmarks and sidebar). It was a pretty cool way to present a program like this, using a lot of different media for input. They even had some internet video sent from Iraqis showing some pretty enthusiastic looking street campaigning from the night before -- a busy downtown intersection full of traffic, placards waved from pickup trucks loaded with campaigners, and all honking horns like it was New Years Eve. Maybe it was.

And maybe today will also be the beginning of a 'new year' attitude from the quagmire brigade -- i.e. most of the mainstream media (MSM). I wasn't totally surprised by the massive turnout, simply because since 2003 I've been reading normal Iraqi people like Omar and Mohammed at Iraq the Model, their brother Ali now at his new blog Free Iraqi, Zeyad and Hammorabi and the Messopotamian, and lots more. If I wanted to know what regular Iraqis are concerned about, hoping for, or just their day to day lives, I could hear it directly from them, rather than the MSM. I had some idea that these people were closer to the mainstream of Iraqi society than the "MSM experts" were willing to admit. The ItM brothers were branded by some , er, radical progressives or something like that, of being American imperialist dupes if not CIA operatives simply because they were deemed not anti-American enough, and therefore inauthentic Iraqis. But of course, if one read them regularly, one would recognise these charges as just somebody's wishful thinking. I could think of few things more authentic than some of these freedom-loving Iraqi blogs.

The evidence has been out there for some time for a democratic heartbeat in that country, and perhaps yesterdays events will be enough to convince the doomsayers -- especially the incessant drumbeat of doom from the single-minded legacy media. Like Christopher Hitchens said last night, anyone who relied on that media alone for his or her picture of Iraq, would have been truly shocked by what happened on election day. Indeed, I saw some correspondents reporting from the opening of pollstations, almost gleefully recording the absence of voters. At the end of the day though, the citizens of Iraq have with their election, provided in Hitchens' words, "... a fantastic indictment of the Western press corps." Right on. The infamous Robert Fisk has apparently said (as quoted by Hitch) that, "Iraqis are looking forward to this election about as much as the German people looked forward to the bombing of Dresden." Ha. Hahahha. Hahahahohohohaha. People got to be idiots to fall for that schtick now.

This news came to me by email from the International Campaign for Tibet on Saturday, but due to a trip to Singapore last week and Petchaboon on the weekend, I haven't had the opportunity to post anything for almost a week. Tenzin Delek has had his death sentence commuted to life in prison. So while this news is a relief for the many Tibetans who admire and love the Rinpoche, especially in his home region of Lithang, Kham province, the struggle will go on to convince the Chinese government that their sham trial does not make the highly regarded monk into a terrorist. He has a reprieve from death, which for an innocent man is a welcome step, but far from the end of the story. I've written on this case before so I won't delve into it again here, but just felt that readers should get this piece of news if they haven't already. One pertinent additional info is that another monk who had worked on community projects with Tenzin Delek, Tashi Phuntsog was arrested just days after the Rinpoche, in 2002. Tashi was a healthy man in his early 40's when he went into prison then. He was released this month by the Chinese authorities, apparently having served only 3 years of his 7 year sentence. Upon release, Tashi Phuntsog was unable to walk, or to speak clearly. That's what 3 years in a Chinese prison will do to you, providing you are a Tibetan who retains his identity and pride.

It's sometimes disappointing to realise just how accepted is the Chinese Communist Party line on happy singing Tibetans enjoying their autonomous and quaint lifestyle under the wise leadership of the guardians of the people's contentment (or however the Party rhetoric goes, these days). While in Changi Airport last week, I took advantage of the new, free internet stations located throughout the terminal, and used this page to check in on some of my favourite bookmarks (that's one handy use for a blog for sure). So even while away from home, I knew that Jakartass had some questions for me, and that Simon World had put up a short piece on Tibet's Panchen Lama, drawn from what sounds to be a sugary-sweet and heartwarming report of his domestic life in The People's Daily -- which is of course the Communist Party's official mouthpiece, or Party organ, or the Party's official mouth organ, whatever... to the English speaking world. So the 11th Panchen Lama eats breakfast like other mortals, goes to take his lessons in English and scripture, plays on his laptop computer where he also does his homework, and so on and so forth. Just a normal boy, except that he's put forth as the 11th in the lineage of the Panchen Lama, which to the Party's official political mouthpiece writers, somehow makes him Buddha, or God or something.

Except for one small thing: Tibetans have never accepted this Chinese-appointed "reincarnated Lama". The boy has only seen his traditional place at Tashilunpo Monastery a few times, and each time he was taken there it was under extremely heavy security, with snipers on rooftops, opaque-windowed motorcades and the whole nine yards. Very few people of Shigatse even got a glimpse of him, he was whisked in and out for political show purposes, not because the people of that region had any need for him to visit. The monks of Tashilunpo and people of the Shigatse area accept the boy who was selected in the traditional way, the one which went through all the prescribed processes conducted by a council of monastery representatives as a search team. This process was conducted a couple of years following the 10th Panchen Lama's death, with the acceptance of the Chinese government. The leader of the search team, Tashilunpo abbot Chadrel Rinpoche, had assurance from the authorities that he could conduct this exercise according to traditional practice, and was also told that there should be no problem with his contacting the Dalai Lama in exile, with regard to this process. The search proceeded.

And the search succeeded. Whether one believes in this sort of thing or not, Tibetans have a lot of experience in finding their reincarnated teachers. It's often narrowed down to a couple of candidates after much arduous travel through the country, often in disguise, by the search teams. Boys of appropriate age are considered, any unusual stories surrounding their birth or their young lives are given due attention. Physical signs or birthmarks sometimes give an indication, recognition of a predecessor's objects, or any other unusual abilities a child might have, are taken note of. Meditations are done, particulary in conjuction with searching the vista of a sacred lake for dreams or visions to guide the way to the reborn Tulku. Once the team feels they've found the true reincarnation, they will ask through several methods of divination for a confirmation. If that comes up wrong, they'll start all over again. Once past all these proceedures, in the case of the Panchen Lama's spiritual inheritor, the choice will be presented to Dalai Lama for his counsel. In the case of Dalai Lama's reincarnation, the Panchen Lama would be similarly consulted, and would make the final confirmation. In this way, Dalai and Panchen are responsible for recognising each other.

Abbot Chadrel Rinpoche was sure that they'd found the 11th Panchen after a long search, and from what I've read about it, whoever were the Chinese handlers who were supposed to care about such things, they didn't take much interest at the time. Chadrel Rinpoche sent his findings to Dalai Lama in India, and after some days of meditating on it, he replied with his consent. Dalai did not pick the boy, but simply gave his consent as per tradition, to the findings of the Tashilunpo abbot and his team of monastic searchers.

As soon as this became public, the Chinese government denounced everyone involved, arrested most of the monks involved in the "plot", apprehended the young Panchen Lama (his name is Gedhun Choekyi Nyima) who, along with his parents, have not been seen publicly again. The Chinese government quickly installed their own choice as 11th Panchen Lama (which is quite a feat for avowed atheists indeed), and this is the individual written about in such glowing, wholesome and patriotic stories in People's Daily as "A Day in the Life of a Panchen Lama".

One of the remarkable things about the whole fiasco, is that the Tibetans evidently had some well-founded beliefs that the CCP would allow them to conduct their own cultural practices. Only a year or two earlier, the 17th Karmapa was located in Tibet (the 16th had died in exile) according to Tibetan traditions of the Kagyu school. The boy, Urgen Trinley Dorje was enthroned without any interference by the Chinese government, in that the choice was confirmed by Dalai Lama, and the CCP leaders of the time consented without fuss. The Tibetans trusted that they had established their rights in these cultural and religious matters. But they learned with the Panchen experience, that when there are nosy Chinese communist party member atheists who are convinced of their own ability to pick religious leaders, nothing is certain. Chadrel Rinpoche had the next 9 years in solitary confinement to ponder that problem. He was released from prison last year, well past the time his sentence had expired. He is in frail health (sound familiar?) and under house arrest now. The above mentioned Karmapa later bristled at Chinese control and at age 14, escaped into India in the first days of 2000.

That's about where it stands today. Diplomats ask about the welfare of Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, officials tell them he is studying well in some undisclosed place. Once, a few years back, they got to see a photo. The Chinese-picked Panchen lives in Beijing, studying well. Tibetans have no use for him. His portraits should be adorning Tashilunpo; however the people would rather use Gedhun Choekyi Nyima's picture, which of course is highly forbidden. So they leave his throne empty, and continue to pay respects to the previous Panchen. This is the extent of political expression in Tibet today.

I couldn't tell from Simon's article, if this glowing puff piece from People's Daily is presented completely seriously or not. Kind of like, what does a "living god" like to eat for breakfast sort of stuff, one wonders if there's any sarcasm there. Anyway the good old MSM doesn't have much to say about any of this, so people can understandably be only getting one side of things. With People's Daily, of course one is guaranteed to be getting the CCP line, and nothing else. But just one thing I wish to set right in Simon's short comments, and it was nice that he included a quote from the mouth-organ as an example for me. Chinese media always translate the title of Tulku or Rinpoche (both are used for reincarnated lamas, holders of lineage titles) into Living Buddha (and presumably whatever the Chinese equivalent is). This is totally wrong, or at least it's wrong enough that it constantly gets misinterpreted to be wrong. "The Living Buddha enjoys high tech gadgets, and Rice Crispies for breakfast," and things to that effect. Simon relays this official People's Daily construction, as "China's officially approved re-incarnation of Buddha". Tibetans do not consider their very highly numerous reincarnated lamas, as "Living Buddhas" or "living gods", and I think that any Buddhist -- Tibetan, Thai, Khmer, Lao, Burmese, Sri Lankan etc. -- would positively cringe at the idea that a bunch of CCP party hacks had correctly found the official reincarnation of Buddha! The Maitreya has come? And he's what? A patriotic Marxist?

Similar misapprehensions frequently and similarly cling to Dalai Lama. He's not a living god, as he has probably explained to journalists and anyone who'll pay attention several thousand times in recent years. Yet the so-called reliable media are not much better than People's Daily, and usually refer to him with this living god business, or at least remarking that Tibetans believe him to be a living god. Complete nonsense! They certainly revere him in a very intense way, but they don't think he's God. He also, like Panchen, is not the reincarnation of Buddha himself. Buddha was also not a living god, but a human being. No Buddhist I've ever met thinks of him a god. Now if one understands what a Boddhisatva is, one could say that Dalai Lamas are traditionally (that is, all of them and not just this current 14th) believed to be manifestations of Avalokiteshvara, known as the Boddhisatva of Compassion.

But just be careful; the New York Times hears you talking like that, and suddenly Dalai Lama is the Buddha of Compassion, then the next thing you know, he's the Buddha reincarnated. Then it wouldn't surprise me if the next iteration was a feature in NYT weekend magazine on The Buddha - Reloaded, or worse.

Anyone interested in reading deeper into the Panchen Lama controversy is encouraged to go through the archives of the Tibet Information Network (link on the sidebar). They even have a translation of the previous Panchen's famous 70,000 character letter to the Chinese politburo just prior to his mysterious death, a letter known as the "Poisoned Arrow" (if I recall correctly, it was Mao himself that dubbed it with such power - "a poisoned arrow aimed at the heart of the Party"). TIN is not affiliated with any activist organisation or political group, it is truly an "information network" in the best sense of the words.

Just a few things I want to get into this before posting it. I'm getting way behind here, with more stuff I wanted to write about that I'll just keep for next time. Fellow blogger in Jakarta, who goes by the name of Jakartass, wonders just how, and by what magic incantations Agam in Bangkok is able to view Indonesian television, and what's more, get better reception than he does! Well I suspect that if he suspects my reception is better than his, then he probably knows that I get it from a bird in the sky. Or rather two birds, named Palapa and Telkom. And since a few years back when the networks all went digital (I originally used to watch them with an analog receiver), picture quality is great. Even TVRI is digital now.

Jakartass has also made a discovery regarding the venerable public affairs network, MetroTV, and which I can confirm. Indeed, just after reading a bit of his blog last Friday in Changi airport, that evening I noticed a newsreader finishing his program with an invitation to write to him, with an email address "at" metrotvnews.com. This is obviously something quite new, and the website itself (which I checked out at the airport too) looks much like a placeholder while the site is being built. I had also looked for some MetroTV web presence during this past tsunami month, and started from Media Indonesia Online, since both Media Indonesia and MetroTV are part of the Media Group of Surya Paloh. Surely if there was a MetroTV website, there would be a link -- but the only thing is an online feature to send SMS messages to Metro programmes. So J, good catch! You probably caught it just after the placeholder page went up. Patience, man! Here's hoping their web presence will do justice to their good name.

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