Wednesday, April 27, 2005
THE CEDAR REVOLUTIONARIES
n the day that the Syrian Baathist dictatorship finally withdrew the last of its military forces from Lebanon, it seems appropriate to once again take notice of the pro-democracy tent-city vigil which is continuing in Beirut's Martyrs' Square.
Surely most will remember the remarkable public display of solidarity among Lebanon's various ethnic and religious communities following the assassination of the former Prime Minister Hariri on Valentine's Day. In those early days of this new Lebanese freedom movement, the traditional media was certainly drawn into the story with its compelling scenes of joyful looking throngs beneath a sea of cedar tree flags, peacefully demanding their country back after almost 30 years of Syrian presence. Soon afterwards, the Syrians and their backers in Lebanon (Hezbollah et al.) organised a counter demo of even greater apparent numbers -- mainly due to the large number of Syrian expatriate workers who were ordered to attend, and the busing in of many people from Syria itself.
Well, the hunger for freedom by supporters of this nascent democracy movement wasn't about to be outshone by this Syrian reaction, so they shortly thereafter organised a counter-counter demo -- and put an end to speculation as to which group best represented Lebanon's generally modern and pluralistic society. The numbers this time were estimated at close to -- if not indeed surpassing -- one million people. Since that time, the media has pretty much lost interest until today's milestone of the completion of full withdrawal of Syrian forces.
But blogger Michael Totten reminds us that something very exciting is going on in Beirut now, and it has been going on throughout these last two and a half months. Michael has been in Beirut for some weeks already, blogging via a special Lebanon Blog on the progress of the Cedar Revolution. The activists (who seem to be originating from many different streams of society) have been living together, negotiating their strategies, working out their differences for the greater good, and a myriad of other activities, in a microcosm of their diverse society in that little tent-city in Beirut (inspired apparently by the same tactic used by the Ukrainian "Orange Revolution" freedom lovers in Kiev, just a short while before). Michael has some great pictures and insight on the new site, while a couple of very fine guest writers hold the fort at his home base. He has also decided to delay his return from Beirut for a few weeks, feeling that the situation was heating up and that it was important to stay in place a little while longer.
But now, we can also read a blog written cooperatively by some of the democracy activists, directly from the tent-city. While the world's media virtually ignores this important and growing movement in the Middle East, the blogosphere now allows the movement to speak directly to the world -- without any of that silly middle-man stuff, the mass media filter. Check out Pulse of Freedom for a taste of what's still going on in Beirut's tent-city, and the continuing "Cedar Revolution".
BRITISH BROADCORPING CASTRATION
hile partly on the subject of the mass media's self-ascribed role of information filter for us all, I just have to mention one more example of the depths of ridiculousness to which some have fallen. Last year sometime, early in the life of this blog, I noted that during some sort of anniversary for BBC news broadcasting, the network had aired some of its earliest broadcasts to give a flavour for the vastly different standards of the time. It was very early television and extremely low-tech -- which is cool in its own way -- but the striking thing for me was the very high standards which were to ensure complete impartiality. The newsreader's face was not to be seen, simply because any slight facial expression could hint at the newsreader's attitude, and thus could signify less than absolute impartiality. Props were used, like a map and a hand held pointer indicating places on the map while the newsreader spoke in a practiced monotone (so as not to imply anything through vocal inflection). This was the degree to which the BBC adhered to high standards in eliminating even the mere perception of any possible bias, back in the old days.
Yesterday -- I think I heard this on Radio Canada International (the shortwave service) -- came the news that a BBC producer had wired up some political hecklers with microphones, and sent them into a British Conservative Party meeting to scream abuse at Michael Howard (the Brits are in the middle of an election campaign, as we all know). Now, I'm sure Mr. Howard can handle stuff like this and I'm not a big fan of his anyway, however I'm not a Brit and it's not really my business to support anyone (although Tony is the only true statesman I see over there at the moment). But can anyone in their right mind see things like this incident as legitimate, impartial journalism? The BBC, once thought of as the most fair and unbiased worldwide news service (a reputation deriving largely from their Worldservice on shortwave more than anything else, I bet), has now become a sad parody of its original high principle. Rather than simply cover whatever was to happen at Michael Howard's public meeting, the "journalists" of the BBC basically made trouble in order to have something exiting to report.
The whole thing seemed so clumsy, that I wonder if it wasn't a double-back fake around play, with the BBC hoping to embarrass Tony Blair instead of Michael Howard. We all remember the confrontation between the Blair government and the BBC last year, the commission panel that found the BBC had reported improperly about all that "sexing up the intel report" nonsense, BBC reporter Gilligan quitting in disgrace and several of the BBC's high officers eventually doing the same. Seems to me some folks at the crown corporation might like to get even, and that sending hecklers to scream to the Opposition leader that he's a liar, and that Blair's a great man, might be intended to embarrass Blair rather than boost him. Who knows, but it seems like a stupid and childish thing to do, whatever the intended effect. The Beeb's producer said he was only doing an innocent little documentary on the "history and art of political heckling". Anyway, the fact that the hoax was revealed in short order means that it shouldn't have any political effect on the election in just a few days, and that the only entity suffering further damage to its credibility will be the BBC itself.
It's a shame to see them fall down so badly, I really did have a lot of trust in them once upon a time. And I still listen almost exclusively to Worldservice on shortwave when I travel, so I'm not quite ready to totally dump them yet.
TIBET'S STOLEN CHILD
esterday, April 25 was the 16th birthday of Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, the Eleventh Panchen Lama of Tibet. His whereabouts remain unknown on this day, which would normally be an important one to mark with celebration among Tibetan Buddhists. He was only 6 years old when he and his family were apprehended by the Chinese authorities, and spirited away to parts unknown. The Communist Party then named its own boy to sit at the second most important place in Tibetan Buddhism. Which is, you know, rather strange when you think of it. Communist Party members are required to not believe in religion of any kind, and yet this anti-religion organisation which strives openly to promote atheism in China, sees itself as the proper body to choose spiritual leaders.
The International Campaign for Tibet has some things we can do to help. Citizens of the US may have time to send an email to their congresscritters. Others may be able to join a real-world vigil in their own cities -- or for those located out in the back of beyond, a Virtual Vigil. Canadians might wish to visit Canada-Tibet Committee for more links to lobby your MP's and [ahem...] government ministers.
The International Campaign for Tibet summed it up very succinctly in yesterday's mail:
This outlaw abduction of a 6-year old child was clearly a violation of rights enshrined in international human rights covenants -- including to be educated in his religious faith -- many of which China is bound by law to honor.
And, when officials of the Chinese government named its own candidate to replace the 11th Panchen Lama, it became clear that the fate of Gedhun Choekyi Nyima was more than a violation of the rights of a child. His disappearance directly reflects China's efforts to suppress the Tibetan national identity and control the future of Tibet.
Over the past 10 years, China has stubbornly resisted international calls to report on the whereabouts and well-being of Gedhun Choekyi Nyima. Instead, Chinese authorities have punished any attempt by Tibetan Buddhists to conduct normal religious practices venerating him as the 11th Panchen Lama, while they have propagated the legitimacy of the boy they named. No doubt both boys are victims of China's plan to undermine the Tibetan people, religion and culture.
Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, Tibet's Stolen Child, must be allowed to live freely, according to the traditions embraced by his family and the Tibetan people.
round the same time as the Panchen Lama was kidnapped, a Tibetan refugee family was among the first to be settled in the US state of Utah. The family included an eight year old boy, Tenzin Choeku Dengkhim. They later moved to Fairfax, Virginia where Tenzin finished high school. He joined the US Marine Corps in 2003 with the goal of going to Iraq to help bring freedom, and with an eye to the future when he hoped to use his Marine training to help bring the same freedom to his own people.
Marine Lance Cpl. Tenzin Choeku Dengkhim had been on active duty for less than a month, when he was killed in a "hostile action" in al Anbar province. Early this month, I was watching the Lehrer News Hour, and I always pay attention whenever, at the end of the program, they show the photos and names, hometown and rank (in silence, and as the photos become available) of those killed in Iraq. So I saw Tenzin's death reported there first, but here is a good story about him, with more pictures. This is via the website of Radio Free Asia, the shortwave service with which, in fact, Tenzin's mother worked as a Tibetan language broadcaster. A good site with stories not found in the regular news sites.
Marine Lance Cpl. Tenzin Choeku Dengkhim was buried this month in Arlington National Cemetery -- the first Tibetan American to be laid to rest there, in a place reserved for American war heroes.
nother patriot's story on the RFA site was noticed by your humble correspondent -- this time regarding the marvelous Uyghur woman Rebiya Kadeer. I hadn't heard that she had been released, but this apparently happened sometime in March. Kadeer had spent over six years in a Xinjiang prison, for "endangering national security" -- which, like the charge of "revealing state secrets", can mean almost anything in today's China (and Chinese-ruled occupied territories). Rebiya Kadeer was a successful businesswoman in the once predominately Muslim city of Urumqi, but she got into trouble for sending newspaper clippings to her husband (who, as I remember, was doing academic studies in the US). So in China, and Chinese ruled territory, openly published newspaper articles (which as we know are virtually vetted by the Communist Party cadres), qualify as "national secrets".
Rebiya Kadeer's release coincided with the visit to Peking of US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and shortly ahead of the meeting of the UN Human Rights Commission (where some countries have been raising her case in past years). Read a little about this wonderful woman, unbowed after six years in a Chinese prison and determined to continue empowering her fellow Uyghur women, right here, and also a transcript of her radio interview with RFA over here.
END OF COLONIALISM?
eflecting on the Bandung Conference of 1955 and the commemoration just completed this week, India based writer Claude Arpi finds that the "live and let live" ethic proclaimed by the emerging non-aligned movement half a century ago, had more than a trace of irony to it. Arpi has long studied Indo - Chinese relations and conflicts -- a study which inevitably will involve their longtime buffer state, Tibet. And 1955 was of course, a crucial period for that country -- a point midway between the violent invasion and the eventual exile of the Dalai Lama, a period where he was meeting with the Communist leaders in Peking, still convinced that he could work with these people. The Khampas were in open rebellion in eastern Tibet, out of which the "Four Rivers, Six Ranges" resistance movement (Chu-zhi Gang-drung) would soon be constituted. There is some very interesting historical context in this Claude Arpi piece, which I found reprinted on the Office of Tibet, New York website. Soon after this great, idealistic coming together of the Asia-Africa Conference at Bandung, a country which had been independent for 2000 years began to truly lose its autonomy to its new overlords, one of the leading members of this new, idealistic and anti-colonial movement -- the Chinese "People's" Republic.
By the way, just to show how much attitudes have advanced in 50 years, Indonesian authorities yesterday arrested a number of Falun Gong meditation practitioners while they peacefully breathed, to the displeasure of the Chinese embassy, Jakarta. Well ok, not just breathed, there were some gentle hand motions also. Two practitioners indulged in a bit of street theatre (in various Indonesian protests these last few years, it's a popular component known locally as "happening art"), with one portraying a practitioner in China being beaten with a cane, and the other, the uniformed beater. Hu Jintao was in town, you see, and we can't have that. Heh, Wen Jiaobao was in Bangalore and Delhi the other day, and same deal with Tibetans there. Except the Indian police were considerably rougher (probably they got mad because the Tibetans embarrassed them by draping a "Free Tibet" banner and dropping leaflets from a tower at the exact place Wen was to be protected from seeing them).
hile browsing the Office of Tibet site, I found a long article which I'd been hearing about for some time, but had never found a full translation. I have mentioned the Chinese scholar Wang Lixiong in past writings here, and also the case of the Tibetan writer Osser (sometimes written in English transliterated from the Chinese version of her name, as Woeser). Wang had done a study of her case, an unusual one of a Tibetan writer who writes in fluent Chinese for a wider accessibility to her essays, short stories and poetry. She evidently wrote very true to her own heart, touching many other people's hearts, but displeasing certain Party cadres. The result was the deprivation of virtually everything the Party could take away from her -- her position with a Tibetan writers' association, her income, her medical and retirement insurance, confiscation of her housing and prevention of leaving the country. Wang Lixiong is probably the single Chinese intellectual with the best genuine understanding of Tibetans and their situation, having written many articles and several books on the subject (and having been imprisoned for a time for his own works).
Wang, like Arpi, reflects on colonialism and imperialism, but this time on a cultural and personal level as well as the overt expressions of them by the State. Few and far between are those who can not only recognise, but honestly explore such attitudes not only of their own society, but even in themselves. Wang Lixiong is one such person, and reading this article gave me hope that the intellectual tradition of honest investigation may yet live in the PRC.
Maybe one day, when the Chinese government decides that Japan has apologised and grovelled enough to suit them; when they eventually accept these repeated statements of remorse and apology over World War II (did the Japanese leaders ever officially apologise for Pearl Harbour, and does any American care?); maybe then, when it's time for China to take a close look at her own (officially state-produced) textbooks, the (hopefully democratic) government of the day might put a person like Wang Lixiong in a position to supervise the "de-colonisation" and "de-imperialisation" within.
THE CHANGING OF THE MIND
still sometimes ponder on the changes in my own beliefs and attitudes over the past four years or so. I put that time frame to it, because I'm pretty sure that it was triggered by the September 11, 2001 event. For some period after that, I kept feeling very strongly that the world wasn't the same -- somehow, fundamentally, the world had changed forever within a period of just that mere 90 minutes or so until the second tower came down. The world just looked different, felt different, like there was suddenly a new dimension which I hadn't ever noticed before -- but that now seemed to dominate. I don't recall exactly how long this sense persisted, that the world had changed and would never be the same. In this period I felt the need to try and communicate to others close to me (but far away, planetarily speaking), somehow to describe how I thought the world, things, out there, was different now. It gradually came into focus, that I was different now, not reality.
The phenomenon, which came naturally, was my own stopping of the old ideological defence mechanism: "Oh, I could never listen to that person," and "Jeez, if I read this opinion, I'm gonna feel all icky afterwards." Somebody had fact-checked Noam Chomsky with a strong, fact-based refutation? Man, I wouldn't be caught dead reading something like that! It was nothing less than shielding my own belief system from reality. Can't do that anymore. So I realised I'd not be contaminated with an un-progressive sickness simply by reading Victor Davis Hanson or Charles Krauthammer once in a while. [aside: that reminds me -- it was inadvertently seeing a speech by him, carried on C-SPAN, that was an early event in my "hey, this ain't so bad after all" period.... (rummage, rummage)..... yeah, still have the link....it's long, and deep too] It was essentially a matter of un-closing my mind.
I remember more than a few times back then, needing to insert expressions into my emails along the lines of "hey, don't think that I've crossed over to the Dark Side, but..." and also "I'm not turning into one of those crazy neo-cons, I promise, but..."
Just like most journalists still, I had no clear idea what the term actually meant. Except that it was definitely super-icky -- 'cause the neocons are like the most extreme crazy far-far-far over of the sick right, right? Either that or it was some kind of fakeness prefix, like a neo-fascist was just sort of a pretend one that pranced around in his tatoos, so neo-liberals might be fake progressives or something. Then I learned that it's much more simple. Neo means new. The neo-conservative term was associated with people like Norman Podhoretz, Krauthammer (who was a Jimmy Carter speechwriter, once), Wolfowitz for sure (a former Demcrat), not sure if Cheney qualifies. People who were once perceived as liberals, progressives, Democrats like these and others, who changed their minds... in certain areas. Properly defined, the neocons are liberals who have decided to join the traditional conservatives on foreign policy / defence issues, and are very big on the concept of freedom for the children of all nations. That's too simplified, but something close to that. Many people of the so-called "left" (some of them writing great blogs which I've linked on the roll) actually feel that it is they who have remained true to liberal principles, and "the left" which has left them for pastures unknown.
So now it's amazing and funny every time I hear or read the term "neocon" used as if it were the most vile epithet denoting far "right" extremism surpassing even Genghis Khan, but with a cabalist twist (and sobering, because I used to do it!). Among other things of course, a neocon is somebody who has changed his mind on some fairly weighty issues.
But what if one is just not comfortable with bearing this particular pigeon-hole? Those fore-running neocons changed their minds a long while back... what about if you just changed your mind last month? Ah, those might be the neo-neocons. So maybe it would be folks who say, "I used to despise those neo-cons, but now I are one." This particular one is a very thoughtful woman writer of the generation which came of age in the late '60's, social working background, liberal, eh? -- and mugged by reality. She found her mind changing. She asked questions about that. And she is presently and deeply into a multi-part series, A mind is a difficult thing to change. Following that, are Part 2, Part 3, Interlude, Part 4A, Part 4B. Check the most recent for the link to the final section of Part 4 (not posted yet as I write), and there's more to come.
have to confess that I've read only the latest section, and won't have time to read the rest before heading out in a few hours to spend a week with my Tapaktuan family, particularly Mother who came down to Jakarta from South Aceh with Father only a few weeks before he passed away in hospital. So I'll be offline again for the next week or so while I visit with Ibu. And I'm definitely intending to read neo-neocon's thesis on changing the mind, because it looks like she's shining some light on some of the things that I seem to be continually grappling with, trying to find the words, and often missing the mark.
Wednesday, April 20, 2005
BACK IN THE MANGO AGAIN
es it was a nice, long break for us over Songkran -- a chance to have more than a few days up on the homestead and out of the Big Smokey Mango, the Great City of the Angels, Krung Thep Maha Nakorn... etc. And I'm a little slow at getting back into the swing of things after a week of living on country time. No computers or internet there, but it's nice to be without those sometimes, too. I wasn't isolated from worldly happenings however -- the homestead is equipped with satellite reception, and I do like to monitor C-SPAN (which is available on VOA Worldnet, AsiaSat2, through most of Saturdays and Sundays) for interesting events.
And, was it hot, I can hear you ask? Why yes indeed it was -- Songkran always seems to be the absolutely hottest time of the year, without fail. How hot was it Bruce, I hear you ask again? Well it was bloody hot, but even that isn't descriptive enough. In fact Bruce, it was hot enough to boil a monkey's bum. "That's a strange expression, Bruce." Yes it is, Bruce, and as I was just telling Bruce #3 this morning, I've heard the Prime Minister using it. "It's hot enough in here to boil a monkey's bum, Your Majesty," he said. And she smiled quietly to herself. "She's not a bad sheila, Bruce. And not at all stuck up." [All Bruces stand at the table, each holding a sprig of wattle.] "This here's the wattle, the emblem of our land. You can stick it in a bottle, you can hold it in your hand. Amen!"
Cheers to the Aussies and Kiwis in advance for ANZAC Day on the 25th, while my Flying Circus seizure passes. I extend my belated condolences for Australia's recent losses a few weeks back, when six members of the Royal Australian Navy and three members of the Royal Australian Air Force (including two service women) were killed when their helicopter crashed while engaged in providing humanitarian aid to Nias Islanders following the major earthquake last month.
DO AS I SAY, NOT AS I DO
can't take credit for that headline, as I read the old saying recently in relation to the China - Japan kerfuffle, I forget now just where it was. But it sums up my feelings about the actions of the angry Chinese nationalists these last few weeks. In a country where the authorities tolerate public demonstrations only when they favour them, and stomp down hard on those they do not favour, it seems obvious to me that there is manipulation going on -- most likely related to the possibility of Japan gaining a seat on the UN Security Council. The ruling Party clique ought to be careful playing with this fire, as it may not take much to have all these inflamed passions turned against them at some point in the future.
But the hypocrisy is breathtaking. The few times I noticed a microphone being held up for a demonstrator to vent through, it went something like, "I hate Japanese!" and "Japan get out!" Pretty deep analysis going on there, for sure. Doesn't their "government" tell its people how many millions of dollars worth of assistance and development aid Japan has contributed to China over the years? Not to mention the huge amount of direct investment from Japanese companies, or the fact that both countries are each other's biggest trading partner?
In contrast to the empty headed political convictions of the Chinese patriots, I saw a news piece on Jim Lehrer's News Hour (PBS) last week, looking into the attitudes of Japanese high school students who are supposedly being brainwashed into not knowing Japan's war history. Students were interviewed, and without exception they were well aware of Japan's militaristic aggression against her Asian neighbours, particularly China. They were actually discussing the controversial textbook which apparently "hurt the feelings of the Chinese people" (the Chinese government's phrase), which is not being used as a learning source in their class. The report said that very few schools are using it, but due to the current Chinese anger, they were examining and discussing it. The students and teachers were very thoughful and not arrogant about these issues -- the precise opposite of the violent Chinese students who have been making the news every night.
So while the protestors in Beijing and Shanghai were decrying Japan as a racist and aggressive nation, they merely demonstrated those qualities in themselves as they attacked embassies and consulates, as well as Japanese restaurants and businesses (while police mainly watched). Meanwhile back in Lhasa (Tibet) or Urumqi (East Turkestan, or "Xinjiang"), should any single Tibetan or Uyghur in the public square utter so much as an unapproved phrase about their national identity, they would be (and have been many times) pounced on by plainclothes police and whisked off to some windowless torture room before bystanders would even be aware that anything had happened.
While the patriotic Chinese defenders of "truth" are demanding revisions in other people's textbooks, perhaps it's about time for some of them to ask the same of their own. Any guesses what these students are taught about their own history, and its impact on others? If there is any state in this world which indulges in more pathetic revising of history than in the state school system of China, I'd like to hear about it. These angry people are hungry for truth, as long as it isn't truth about the "peaceful" liberation (annexation) of Tibet, or whether the ancient Turkic people, the Uyghurs really have "always been Chinese." What about the wholesale slaughter in "Inner Mongolia"? And let's leave alone the legacy of Mao, the father of their "people's republic", and the tens of millions who died from his experiments -- known as "Great Leap Forward" and "Cultural Revolution". Expecting truth there is perhaps asking too much.
When China attains something closer to an open society, where various views and opinions are tolerated and those expressing dissent do not need to worry about disappearing into re-education camps, then I will take them seriously when they wish to complain about "having their feelings hurt."
Saturday, April 09, 2005
HAPPY NEW YEAR
The Songkran Festival begins next week, marking the traditional Thai New Year. So we will be going upcountry this afternoon, and likely won't be back in the Big Mango until next weekend. In Bangkok, the "water festival" has become more like a city-wide water-pistol shootout..... hmm, what am I saying.... let's say it's more like water M-16's and cannons than pistols. In the countryside, it still tends more to the traditional splashing and pouring over each other, but the abundance of H2O is generally welcome in either case during this hottest period of the year. Wrap up your wallet, handphone, camera and whatever else shouldn't get soaked, before joining the fray!
The Canadian Liberal Party sponsorship / money laundering / kickback scandal, dubbed by one commentator last year (either Andrew Coyne or Paul Wells) as "Adscam", has broken out to a new level. Now that the publication ban on testimony at the Gomery Commission has been lifted, the news media can report on it fully -- and none too soon either. For the past week, Canadians who wanted to know what was coming out in testimony regarding the biggest political corruption scandal in Canadian history, needed to visit American blog sites to read about it. Ed Morrisey at Captain's Quarters broke the story, and followed it up with daily updates from a source at the inquiry. Canadian contributor Joe Katzman on the Winds of Change collaborative blog, explained a lot of the background for non-Canucks. And Kate out in Saskatoon writing on small dead animals, despite the restrictions limiting what Canadian publications could report, has been all over the story.
Now let's see the news media pick it up from here, as they should have been allowed to do all along. I wrote about this last year before the federal election, and I won't say I warned y'all, but, ahem. The interesting thing about all this, is that the Liberals supposedly needed to pour all these millions into Quebec advertising firms, in order to "keep the country together". Not only did the Liberal Party allegedly benefit from kickbacks from these firms, but so did the Parti Quebecois -- the very separatists that the Libs were supposedly saving Canada from. A lot of the Adscam details were known before the election, and yet still Canadians returned the Liberal Party to power (albeit as a minority government). What's with the mindset that we have a "natural ruling party" in our country? That is certainly dangerous, no matter where it occurs.
FROM THE FREEDOM LOVERS, AND THOSE WHO DON'T
Tucked into one of Wretchard's usual thoughtful and thought provoking essays recently, broadly about the nature of good and evil in our world (and not particularly related to Iraq), was this little nugget -- a quote from one of my fellow countrypersons:
I hate to say this to Iraqis, but I pray for chaos and civil war: it's the only way to stop Bush's policies and show that peace can never come through force. If Iraq gets peace, Bush wins credibility. It cannot be allowed to happen.The comment comes from reader feedback on the BBC site, a feature called Talking Point. Sadly, I think this attitude is all too common in my country, though I've also noted many American writers expressing much the same sentiments.
Nina, Toronto Canada
Arthur Chrenkoff has a go at a "liberal" columnist's condescension toward an American soldier's on-the-ground experiences and perceptions, as he "crawls inside" the soldier's brain and decides that those nowhere near Iraq know the situation more accurately:
Army Spc. Paul Schlicher of Fort Lewis says the Iraq he has come to know isn't the same place most Americans keep hearing about.This is the one thing that I would tend to describe in a different way. Seeds of democracy are not being planted, so much as the soil in which the tree must grow is in need of cleansing of toxic elements, enrichment with nutrients, in order that the local native species of the democracy tree can grow well. Working the soil, not planting the seed -- for the seed there is different from the tree grown in Thailand, or Indonesia, or anywhere else. It will be a unique and indigenous Iraqi species, and it must be suitable to the climate and conditions there.
I crawled inside his brain to see the situation as he sees it.
Spates of violence, from random gunfire to suicide bombs to assassinations, still keep Iraqis on edge. But here is the amazing thing: The joy of the people goes on. Their resilience inspires. They may not have much materially and they may have seen horrible things, yet they remain happy, deriving pleasure from their families, their newfound freedom and life itself.
They are grateful for the presence of U.S. soldiers who are planting seeds of democracy in challenging terrain. Their gratitude makes a soldier's job worth it.
The columnist ponders the optimistic and the pessimistic angles, and concludes:
So, which is the real Iraq? The country described in bleak terms by the United Nations? Or the land of optimism that inhabits soldier Schlicher's mind?Arthur follows up with the same question I would have of this guy (the columnist, not the soldier):
I'm leaning toward the sobering report over the upbeat point of view as seen through one soldier's eyes.
Why?He considers then, whether there would be any point to attempt to "crawl inside the liberal columnist's brain," to get a glimpse of "the situation as he sees it." Scary, indeed too scary to contemplate.
No answer. End of the column.
Because the negative view always sounds more believable? Because 140,000 American soldiers on the ground in Iraq are too close to the action, too caught up in it all to offer a sober, objective assessment, while the United Nations with hardly any personnel inside Iraq can take a broader, less biased view? Because the "international community" has no agendas, while soldier do? Because the United Nations, which embodies the collective view and wisdom of the whole humanity is naturally more credible than mere individuals?
One of Chrenkoff's Iraqi correspondents has translated a recent poll from Iraq:
Once again, thanks to our special correspondent and translator Haider Ajina, this one was conducted by the school of political science at the Najaf University, polling 790 people between the ages 18-65 of both sexes and of different educational and socioeconomic backgrounds (and published in yesterday's edition of "Almendhar"):Since then of course, the newly elected Iraqi parliament has selected a Kurdish president (who would ever have thought?), with Sunni and Shia vice presidents, and more recently this presidential council has selected the country's new Prime Minister, Jalal Talabani (a longtime dissent against Saddam's tyranny). Iraqi officials made sure that Saddam and his gang of thugs in custody had the opportunity to watch a tape of these parliamentary votes and selections, and it's said that the former president-for-life became rather depressed. He knows now that it's finally over for sure, his cohorts know the same, and the Iraqi people also know it.62% of those polled said they wanted Islam to be one of the sources of the constitution.As Haider reminds us, Najaf is the most religiously conservative city in Iraq, the home of Ayatollah Sistani and the Shia establishment. It's encouraging that even here, then, the popular opinion is a lot more moderate than all the talk about the "coming theocracy" would suggest.
38% wanted Islam to be the only source for the Iraqi constitution.
49% support a federal government.
50% support allowing those who boycotted the election to have input in writing the constitution.
63% support the multi national forces staying in Iraq for the current time.
85% expect the new transitional government to succeed in its goals.
78% expect the new national assembly to successfully write a constitution by the dead line.
1% said they expect civil war to break out.
Friday, April 08, 2005
MUSICAL OFFICES AGAIN
I had planned to write something this week about the passing of John Paul II, but since last Friday I've been moving office again. After about 6 months in "the broomcloset", the plush but tastefully appointed editing suites of Agam's Gecko are now located high above the public office of our "front" operation, with panoramic views over the River of Kings.
Well ok, not quite, but relatively speaking we now edit in complete opulence. I may even entice The Gecko to begin writing again -- he boycotted his namesake after the last move from our previous expansive but modest quarters next door, and into the closet next to the service entrance. It seems like all we've been doing for the past year is moving. This one was occasioned by myself and S. moving last month into an actual house in the neighbourhood, thus vacating the two rooms where we'd been living for these six months. That in itself was a major lifestyle change, going from having an entire 4 story shophouse to live in, and squeezing it all into these two rooms.
Well, now I can actually see outside in two directions, one being the endlessly fascinating street scene in front of our public "front" operation. Now, to go "home" entails not simply climbing a single flight of stairs, but about a 10 minute bike ride (with the newest addition to the family, "Bear" nestled in a backpack worn on my front). Heck, I've even got air-con now -- luxury, I tell ya! Anyway, that's what I've been doing all week (and it ain't finished yet).
REST IN PEACE, GOOD AND FAITHFUL SERVANT
The passing of Karol Wojtila last weekend is clearly a major world event, and in a few hours his funeral is expected to be the largest funeral service in world history. I am not a Catholic, but I can certainly recognise a great and good man when I see one. Yes, he was a conservative on moral and religious issues, but he was also a courageous advocate for human freedom and dignity -- especially in the face of brutal totalitarian communism. He gave his strength and courage to the budding movement for freedom and democracy in his native country, and the result was the growth and moral force of the Solidarnosc movement that emerged from the shipyards of Gdansk, and what would be the beginning of the end for Soviet tyranny over Poland, and the rest of Eastern Europe. As a young man, he studied at an underground seminary in Nazi-occupied Poland, in much the same way Roman Catholics today must meet in secret underground churches in communist-ruled China. After liberation from Nazi totalitarianism, he continued (along with so many of his countrymen) to resist Soviet totalitarianism before and after becoming John Paul II. With this background of his unstinting support for freedom and human rights, it is distressing to hear that the Vatican may be considering to withdraw it's recognition of Taiwan in favour of the freedom-denying regime in Peking.
There has been a lot written about this life over the past week, but for some of the most poignant remembrances, see some of Arthur Chrenkoff's writings of his boyhood in Poland, his personal and family experiences of the Bishop of Kracow, and what John Paul II (soon to be known by Catholics as "John Paul the Great", I've heard) meant for his country's freedom, for Europe and the world. This eulogy by Charles Krauthammer is also a very powerful piece which says it much better than I could.
But the man I'm thinking of mostly this week, was another good and faithful servant of his God, and one that I will miss dearly. I wrote recently that Agam's Acehnese Mother and Father were brought back from Tapaktuan by their eldest son, to stay in Jakarta, and that they would be there at least until after next Ramadan. I had wanted to go down and visit with them soon, but hadn't yet been able to make a plan as to when I could go. Bapak Abdul Aziz took ill and passed away last week, which is the other part of why Agam hasn't felt much like writing here.
Pak Aziz really was like a second father to me, and we met on my first visit to Tapaktuan in 1990, a little more than five years after my own father died. I'd reached the town not knowing anything about it, and having no plans either for staying, or where to go next. After spending the first night sharing a room at Losmen Jambu with my Austrian friend Rudi, I headed back to the bus station to find info for onward travel. Besieged by virtually everyone in the little terminal with 10,000 questions (actually, 10,000 versions of the standard 8 questions), I sought quiet sanctuary within a coffee shop in the terminal. Soon enough, my brother-to-be Uddin entered the shop with a few friends, spotted me, and feeling sorry for anybody drinking coffee alone, they naturally joined me at my table. Uddin's companions were most of the staff of the local FM radio staion NUZULA, located just across from the terminal. Having only been in Indonesia less than two weeks, my language ability was still quite rudimentary. But we were able to exchange basic information (one learns how to respond to the standard 8 questions fairly quickly), and then Uddin offered to take me on his motorbike down to the bookstore so we could get an English-Indonesian dictionary, and thus facilitate communication.
I'm sure that either on the way to the bookstore, or on the way back to NUZULA, we stopped in at his home to meet his family. Bapak Abdul Aziz and Ibu Ramyas were obviously very kind and gentle folk, and so openly welcoming toward this foreigner. They both made me promise not to leave Tapaktuan too soon, and to come back and see them as often as I could. Then Uddin, and he who was about to be named Agam, were off again in a cloud of dust and small stones. Back to Radio NUZULA, to drink some more of the best coffee on earth, chat with friends in the control room, and meet the prime time DJ, Yan. Yan spoke a bit of English, which of course helped the rest of us out considerably, but already I could tell that this was the beginning of something special. The unqualified acceptance of a stranger into their circle, was something that impressed me a lot -- I'd not experienced that to such an extent in any other Asian country. For the first time, I felt that I wasn't seen as an "other" or as something strange, but just simply as a brother human who happened to have a different language, and to originate from farther away than usual.
That evening, my second in Tapaktuan, I was interviewed live on-air by Yan in NUZULA's studio. I'd had some preparation from Uddin and others, teaching me some simple phrases to answer Yan's questions, for the interview would be conducted in Indonesian. Yes, it was incredible to be accepted and taken in on equal terms, but I suppose I was also somewhat newsworthy for the little town, having come from Canada and having visited a few Asian countries already. I was nervous as hell to go on live radio, using a language I was just getting familiar with. But it went alright -- though I'm sure listeners could have heard me leafing feverishly through my dictionary while trying to keep up with Yan. After the interview we went outside to relax and smoke etc., and several people who'd been listening had already come down to the station to meet me!
In these first few days, my travelling companion Rudi (we had decided to travel together for a bit -- the only time during that year that I did so -- just a short while earlier in Medan, when he told me what he knew about Aceh and I agreed it sounded good... i.e. very few tourists) also made a good friend in Uddin's best friend Azir. So for the duration of our stay in Tapaktuan, Rudi rode with Azir and I rode with Uddin, to some of the most amazingly beautiful places I'd ever seen. Quiet clean bays, spectacular waterfalls, caves, forests, fabulous little coastal towns, every single day. Amidst all this coming and going on adventures up and down the South Aceh coast, were many stops in to Uddin's home, and more time getting acquainted with his mother and father. After a few days, Uddin told me his family wanted me to move out of the losmen (something like a cross between a boarding house and a small hotel, often used by travelling salesmen and the like), and to stay in their home.
Azir's family had made the same offer to Rudi, but he felt more comfortable keeping a bit of privacy for himself, so he stayed at Losmen Jambu. I decided that I may as well leap in with both feet, the whole Tapaktuan experience being just so amazing that I couldn't refuse. Plus, I really wanted to spend more time getting to know Uddin's mum and dad with my rapidly improving language capability. It was difficult at times to be completely immersed in this new language environment, for the first time to have no one around to speak my own language with. Uddin and I would spend hours sitting on the floor in his room, while he patiently taught me how his language worked and we thumbed through the Indonesian - English kamus. At times my head would spin, but it was worth it, and I became closer every day with Ibu and Bapak.
There was no way I wanted to go anywhere else, Tapaktuan was as close to heaven as I thought might exist on this earth. So many good friends met, so many wonderful places to adventure. I stayed with them as long as I dared, leaving just enough time to make my way out of the country before my 2 month visa expired. Rudi left before me, by bus. I took a passage on a small cargo vessel to Padang, thence by bus to Pekanbaru to board a big old ferryboat to Tanjung Pinang, from where I could catch a fast boat to Singapore. By this time I was known as Agam -- the name bequeathed by our friend Yose Rizal because so many people had trouble with my name, and because they wanted me to become an Acehnese (and I think, to come and live there forever -- which certainly was a temptation).
Pak Aziz and I had a special connection or affinity, which I can't really properly describe. We were much alike I think. There was so much I wanted to learn from him, and he seemed to feel the same way. On that first visit and every subsequent visit, we spent increasing amount of time together, just the two of us. I would go up the mountain with him to help with his nutmeg trees, carrying the fruits down to home where the whole family would sit on the floor of their little house and process the valuable spices, which were the main product of this area.
Nutmeg fruits are about the size of large apricots, and one slices around the fruit to open it and take out the seed. The fruit is very bitter, but people make it into a variety of dried sweets (with lots of sugar!). The nutmeg itself is partly enveloped by a strange looking pink or mauve growth with a rubbery texture, which is referred to as the bunga, or flower (though of course it isn't a flower at all). These are separated off the nut with a knife and collected in a basket -- these bunga are the most valuable part, and is what we know as mace. The nutmegs -- what my friend Rudi always humourously called "megnuts" -- are packed in bushel bags and sold to traders who sell them on for further processing. Nutmeg oil is also made. One will see the mace "flowers" drying on mats along roadsides and driveways, as well as the nutmegs, coffee, coconut and other local products. Riding around Tapaktuan was always an amazing olifactory experience!
Pak Aziz was quite interested in knowing about current and world events, politics and such, as of course I am also. He would tell me about life in Aceh during the Japanese occupation, and during the indpendence struggle. He had been a member of Masyumi before it was banned by Suharto. After the supposedly attempted coup d'etat in the mid 60's and subsequent violent elimination of the PKI (Indonesian Communist Party) that took hundreds of thousands of lives, all remaining political parties were merged. Secular / nationalist parties were merged by Suharto into the Indonesian Democratic Party (PDI), and Muslim parties like Masyumi were merged into the Development Unity Party (PPP). The smiling general compiled his "functional groups" of society into GOLKAR, which was his vehicle to power for the next 30 years. I felt privileged to be able to converse with Pak Aziz about these times, and even the pre-war Dutch colonial era.
As I became more capable with Indonesian conversation, our talks could reach to deeper subjects, and we would sit for hours outside on his porch watching the world go by, talking about religions and philosophic subjects, world politics and basically everything. I will cherish these memories forever. He taught me much about his religion and world view, what it meant for him to be a good man. Through these times with him, and with Ibu also I must add, I came to know what the true soul of Islam is. The last time I saw him, we spoke a lot about the already apparent growth of fundamentalist, intolerant streams within his religion. Although he and his wife were certainly very devout Muslims, this type of intolerance was completely foreign to them. Here they had a non-Muslim living in their home, interested to talk with me about my own beliefs and to fully respect them, to accept me for all those years as a true member of their family with such generosity and love.
When it was time to pray, if he didn't go to the masjid, Bapak would excuse himself from our conversation in the sitting room, and I would sit and feel so peaceful listening to both of them in their room, softly singing and saying prayers. Then he would return, and we'd just pick up where we left off. What was the latest news from Jakarta that I'd heard via my little shortwave radio? It was April 1998, the students were agitating for Suharto to resign (which he would the following month). I felt good that I could be a conduit for information, the only thing available otherwise was TVRI the state run broadcaster.
Bapak and Ibu suffered the loss of their youngest son, my brother Uddin, the following year. He had been abducted by an unknown group on the day of a province-wide mass demonstration for a referendum in Aceh. From what I understand, the idea of a referendum had almost universal support -- this was before the crackdown on independence supporters and the activities of the armed separatist movement became more like open warfare, as it did two years later. Uddin was taken to another town that afternoon (after having ridden with the massive convoy to Banda Aceh and back), and killed. Some say it was because he refused to join GAM, others say because he refused to rat out on GAM. Maybe someday we'll know who and why, but his body was never found -- and this was the most difficult thing for his mother and father. But mother most especially. She suffered a mental breakdown after this, and Bapak cared for her in very difficult circumstances.
Bapak Abdul Aziz was, in his quiet and humble way, also a great and good man, a faithful servant of his God. To be a faithful servant of God meant being a kind and compassionate man, a man with integrity. He was also a man of good humour. He had one of those infectious laughs -- always with a bright sparkle in his eyes -- that one will never forget. Even long after I'd left them, usually tearfully but less so with each visit because of the knowledge that I'd return, I could hear his voice and his laughter in my mind long afterwards. I can hear it now, clear as if he were here with me. Go well, Bapak, until we meet again. Selamat Jalan, and sampai ketemu lagi. It was an honour to be considered as your son.
I though I'd feel like writing a bit more on some newsy stuff I collected this week, if only to pass on the links before they get too old. Maybe tomorrow. It just doesn't seem right to opine about anything else right now. Just a couple of things about Adscam (Canadians know) and Iraq. Later. Oh, I'm hoping to go down and see Ibu soon in Jakarta and give her some support. I just wish I could have done it last month....
LATE UPDATE: Blogger has been having hiccups today, lots of strange responses and weird redirections, and I've been trying to get this post accepted for hours.
Friday, April 01, 2005
NIAS - SIMILEUE QUAKE
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!
TAKSIN MOVES TO HELP BURMA'S RULING THUGS
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.
REPLY TO THE CHRONICLE
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.
Tibet Justice Center
Bay Area Friends of Tibet
Tibetan Youth Congress
Tibetan Association of Northern California