Agam's Gecko
Friday, April 01, 2005
The news from Nias and Simileue Islands, now just over 3 days after the event, is thankfully not as bad as earlier feared. Aerial views of Nias' main town Gunung Sitoli showed substantial damage of course, but didn't look to me like the "80% of the town has been flattened" of first reports. Last night MetroTV showed scenes of the rescue of a young boy who had been buried under concrete building remains for 52 hours. Those who haven't been so fortunate are still being extracted from the rubble, but it's a big relief that loss of life will likely end up lower than first estimates. The Indonesia Help blog is now updating again, with a list of latest news stories.

I still have no contact with Tapaktuan, which is about the same distance from the epicentre as the southern coast of Nias. Many of the big media's "maps" are putting the quake off Nias' south or west coast, when in fact it was well north between it and Simileue -- almost directly under Kepulauan Banyak ("Many Islands Group"). There has been little information so far from the Banyaks, a popular destination for adventurous travellers, and for which Tapaktuan is the favoured port of embarkation. The map found on the USGS page for this quake shows the location amidst these islands quite well, with the Banyak Islands showing up right next to the quake marker. This map shows the Boxing Day quake location as well, and if you take a bearing directly east from that spot, along with a bearing directly north from the Monday night quake location, they would intersect with the Aceh coast very close to Tapaktuan. I haven't heard of damage or casualties as yet from towns along the Aceh or Sumatra coasts, so here's to hoping it stays that way.

Help has been rather slow getting into Nias Island. Damage to the airport means that heavy lift fixed wing aircraft are unable to land, and only helicopters and smaller aircraft can use it. The waiting is on for several Indonesian navy ships due to arrive today, as well as Australian and US ships which are now steaming to the area. Should it be any surprise that these countries are viewed in Indonesia much more favourably than just a few months ago? That some are surprised about this, and others cynical or suspecting trickery, is I suppose to be expected. I think there must be a simpler explanation: it's a fairly normal human response on the part of much of the Indonesian public toward those who stepped up to the plate immediately when it was needed. The word I was getting from people in Aceh up to last week, is that the people there want the international assistance (including the military ones) to continue, they have faith in them more than in their own government. And this while the government was trying to get these groups to wind down their operations in the week immediately preceding this latest disaster. Pictures like this might have something to do with that public perception.

The Electric Lamb Mission's Batavia and crew were in Sabang when the quake hit on Monday night (Sabang is the port on Pulau Weh, just offshore from Banda Aceh). They are updating their new improved website with latest information, and planning how best they can contribute to this new assistance effort. There is a wealth of photos and information on their activities in Aceh these past couple of months, and it sure seems that they've been busy and getting quite a bit accomplished. Check it out -- I've updated the sidebar link to the new site.

Yesterday's national election in Zimbabwe appears to have gone off with much less overt violence than last time, but still with much verified intimidation against opposition supporters, the use of food aid to benefit Robert Mugabe's ZANU-PF, and other measures to tilt the field in his favour. It's expected that the Movement for Democratic Change will do well in the polls, but Mugabe is virtually guaranteed to win in any case -- after the election he is empowered to appoint another 30 MP's of his own choice.

On things Zimbabwean, Norm Geras at NormBlog is always a good source to check, and he wrote the other day on Zimbabwe's hopes. Also, keep an eye on this Zimbabwean blog, Sokwanele. Wais to Cox & Forkum Editorial Cartoons for those two links, and be sure to dig the toon!

The recently re-elected Thai Prime Minister Taksin Shinawatra is making good on his drive to muzzle the Burmese pro-democracy opposition figures in this country. As of yesterday, any Burmese refugee in any "urban area" is now fair game for arrest, imprisonment and deportation back into the clutches of the military junta. Thailand is not a party to the UN Convention on Refugees, and this means that such people are at the mercy and whim of whoever happens to be in power here. During the government of Chuan Leekpai, democracy activists and NGO's advocating for change and reform in Burma and Cambodia were able to base themselves here, monitor their countries from close proximity, and maintain contacts both within their countries and freely communicate and network with the outside world. There were ups and downs to this tolerance over the years, but Khun Chuan and his Democrat Party were generally fairly sympathetic to the democracy movement in Burma.

Khun Taksin's policy toward Burma has always appeared to be driven by his own business interests there, in addition to the normal need for good relations with a neighbour sharing a long land border. However, Burma is set to become a fairly large embarrassment to ASEAN when it takes over chairmanship of the Association next year. Co-member Malaysia has lately been applying increased pressure within ASEAN to push Burma more firmly toward democratic reforms, and to release the National League for Democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi from her long period of house arrest. Philippines and Indonesia are two other member states with similar inclinations toward the fascist junta in recent years, and Thailand really should be taking a lead here as well -- but not under Taksin it seems. Only last week he made some sweet words about encouraging change in Burma, just before his deadline to emasculate the Burmese opposition.

Parts of this order by the Thai government clearly betray the actual intent. The UNHCR which assists refugees with small monetary subsidies and legitimises their refugee status with official recognition, is to be sidelined. Refugees had until yesterday to register either in Bangkok or in Mae Sot (next to the Burma border), and would not be allowed to return to their homes after registration -- they'd be "accommodated" in jail until transfer to the remote camps. They are not allowed to take their mobile phones if they have them, nor any other electrical appliances. Communications via internet will be strictly prohibited in the camps, and they may not leave these detention centres. They will be provided shelter, a sleeping mat, food and cooking utensils. Those who failed to register by yesterday will be arrested whenever found, held and then sent back to whatever mercy they might expect from their military oppressors. In customary international law, this is called refoulement, and Thailand should not be doing it. Nepal took a lot of well deserved international condemnation when they did the same to some groups of Tibetan refugees, handing them back for Chinese authorities to put into detention centres. Thailand should expect the same.

See a statement on the situation from Human Rights Watch, and a notice to Burmese "persons of concern" from UNHCR, on the Burma news site Mizzima. Wai to 2Bangkok for the link. Also check out the Daily Burma for more Burma-related happenings. And if you have time, read this excellent Victor Davis Hanson piece on why democracy is the wise and realistic policy, and why we must stand with its advocates.

I received my email update from the Tibet Justice Center (formerly International Committee of Lawyers for Tibet) recently. This is a group which has done much wonderful work on behalf of Tibetan refugees, as well as research on environmental and civil rights issues within occupied Tibet. The newsletter may be read online here, and their latest environment and development newsletter is here. TJC, along with International Campaign for Tibet also recently submitted a report to the UN regarding China's compliance with the Convention on the Rights of the Child, titled "Violence, Discrimination, and Neglect Towards Tibetan Children." (warning: PDF file)

With the Qinghai - Tibet railway nearing completion, along with its readiness to begin extracting Tibetan resources while injecting Han Chinese settlers seeking their fortunes, this major project is receiving more attention. The impact of this massive and difficult undertaking upon Tibet (and indeed, upon India's sense of security as well) cannot be underestimated. It has long been accepted, even by China's top leaders, that the rail line would not be economically viable for the forseeable future -- if ever. It is a political project intended to solidify China's hold on Tibet, dominance of her people and society, capability to move troops and military logistics quickly into the region and up to the Tibet - India border if necessary, all in addition to the desired mass population transfer and resource extraction tasks. The San Francisco Chronicle published a story on the Qinghai-Tibet railway at the end of February, to which Tibetans in the SF Bay area attempted to respond within its esteemed pages. The paper refused their request. So it seems only fair for the littlest Gecko to publish it in full here: pass it around, eh?
China-Tibet railway a "road to prosperity"?

The Bay Area Tibetan community - one of the largest communities of refugees who have fled Chinese-occupied Tibet outside of the main refugee enclaves in Northern India - read the recent article on China's new railway into Tibet ("Train heads for Tibet, carrying fears of change," February 24, A1) with great interest. Thousands of Bay Area Tibetans are now preparing to commemorate the 46th anniversary of the Tibetan uprising against the Chinese invasion on Thursday, March 10 with prayers, ceremonies, and protests in Berkeley and San Francisco. The uprising, in which at least 70,000 people were killed by the Chinese armed forces and which ultimately sent His Holiness the Dalai Lama into exile in India, is indeed an appropriate occasion to reflect on the Chinese government's current policies regarding the Tibetan people, especially the looming completion of the Qinghai-Tibet railway.

The article cites the government claim that economic returns of up to US $500 million on the railway could be expected before 2005 in the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) - a claim that is part of a larger strategy of selling the project, in the words of a 2003 Chinese government report, "as a way to improve the local people's material and cultural well-being." Proponents specifically argue that the railway will provide local Tibetans with expanded access to markets, services, and employment opportunities while generally enabling the greater economic development of Tibet as a region. In practice, extensive analysis done both by outside and Chinese experts contradicts the alleged benefits of the project for local Tibetan people.

In reality, there will be pronounced inequalities in who absorbs the economic benefits. As the International Campaign for Tibet (ICT) states in their study on the project, "Chinese investors, contractors, developers, and migrants, together with a minority of Tibetans are likely to capture a substantial portion of the railway's benefits while the socio-economic costs will fall disproportionately on the majority of Tibetans."

This pattern of development primarily benefiting migrant Chinese and further marginalizing Tibetans in their own country is nothing new, but the scale is becoming much larger under China's latest campaign to "develop the West," of which the Qinghai-Tibet railway is one component. The lack of participation by Tibetans in development projects in Tibet, fueled by the miniscule amount of resources China has put into Tibetan education and vocational training over the last 50 years, led UN development representative Arthur Holcombe to state that "Tibetans will continue to be hurt rather than helped by the expansion of Tibet's market economy, and the new railway will only intensify migratory trends, exacerbate ethnic income disparities and further marginalize Tibetans in traditional economic pursuits."

Also, with an official projected cost of US $3.2 billion - a figure many believe to be low due to the complexities of building what former premier Zhu Rongji called "an unprecedented project in the history of mankind" - the project is a poor investment from a purely economic standpoint. In contrast to the immense need China's coastal cities and industrial centers have for infrastructure development to meet the demands of an expanding economy, "the demand [for the Qinghai-Tibet railway] in the short and medium run will hardly justify the enormous capital outlay required," according to the ICT report.

Fortunately, one does not have to look hard to find the Chinese government's real motivations for the project. Jiang Zemin bluntly told the New York Times in 2001 that "some people told me not to go ahead with this project because it is not commercially viable. I said this is a political decision." Indeed, since the Chinese government's invasion and occupation of Tibet in 1949, economic measures designed by Beijing have been woven together tightly with the larger political and military goal of controlling Tibet's land and population. China's strategies of population transfer, military expansion, repression of political dissent, and Tibetan religious and cultural persecution, all share the underlying assumption that the best way to deal with Tibet is through coercion and control.

However, if the Chinese government is serious about bringing real and lasting economic, political, and social stability to the region, there are some concrete things it can do. First, it can choose to actually confront the roots of poverty in Tibet and invest in health care and education systems in the region. To put China's spending in this realm in context, the US $3.2 billion going into the railway is more than the combined amount China has invested in education and health care since it first annexed Tibet in 1949. Despite the economic growth in Tibetan urban areas in the past decade, according to China's own reports, the rural poverty rates have not decreased at all. In 2001, the average household income per person in the rural areas of the TAR was the lowest in China. Moreover, rates of illiteracy exceeded 67 percent for the TAR in 1999, and at least one study found 50 percent of children in the TAR were affected by stunted growth as the result of malnutrition.

In addition to focusing on the education and health care needs of the Tibetan people, China is also positioned to make headway on political fronts. Having hosted three visits in the past three years for envoys of the Dalai Lama, the Chinese government can and should step forward now and seriously engage the exile Tibetan leadership's proposal of a genuine autonomous arrangement for Tibet. For years, the Chinese government has conveyed the idea in the press that the Dalai Lama's insincere motivations have prevented negotiations, but analysis reveals that his position has been consistent for at least the last fifteen years. He desires genuine autonomous rule for the Tibetan people - autonomy that would give Tibetans the power to preserve their unique social, cultural, linguistic, and religious traditions, as well as the land and environment that gave rise to these traditions.

On the anniversary of this sad day in our history, with projects like the Qinghai-Tibet railway threatening our survival as a culturally distinct people, we hope that the Chinese government will move beyond ideological assertions and actually begin to address the real, systemic problems the Tibetan people currently face.

Chris McKenna
Tashi Tsering
Tibet Justice Center

Tashi Chodron
Bay Area Friends of Tibet

Topden Tsering
Tibetan Youth Congress

Tashi Sangyal
Tibetan Association of Northern California

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