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"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

Dissimilar response to Tibet and Burma

April 24, 2008

By Brahma Chellaney
The Deccan Chronicle
Wednesday, April 22, 2008

There are striking similarities between Tibet and Burma ­ both are
strategically located, endowed with rich natural resources, suffering
under long-standing repressive rule, resisting hard power with soft
power, and facing an influx of Han settlers. Yet the international
response to the brutal crackdown on monk-led protests in Tibet and Burma
has been a study in contrast.

When the Burmese crackdown on peaceful protesters in Rangoon last
September left at least 31 people dead ­ according to a UN special
rapporteur’s report ­ it ignited international indignation and a new
round of US-led sanctions. More than six months later, the tepid
international response to an ongoing harsh crackdown in Tibet by the
Burmese Junta’s closest ally, China, raises the question whether that
country has accumulated such power as to escape even censure over
actions that are far more repressive and extensive than what Burma
witnessed.

Tellingly, despite growing international appeals to Beijing to respect
Tibetans’ human rights and cultural identity and begin dialogue with the
Dalai Lama, there has been no call for any penal action, however mild,
against China. Even the leverage provided by the 2008 Beijing Olympics
is not being seized upon to pressure Beijing to end its repression in
the Tibetan region.

When the Burmese generals cracked down on monks and their pro-democracy
supporters, the outside world watched vivid images of brutality, thanks
to citizen reporters using the Internet. But China employs tens of
thousands of cyberpolice to censor websites, patrol cybercafes, monitor
text and video messages from cellular phones, and hunt down Internet
activists. As a result, the outside world has yet to see a single
haunting image of the Chinese use of brute force against Tibetans. The
only images released by Beijing are those that seek to show Tibetans in
bad light, as engaged in arson and other attacks.

The continuing arbitrary arrests of Tibetans through house-to-house
searches are a cause of serious concern, given the high incidence of
mock trials followed by quick executions in China. That country still
executes more people every year than all other nations combined, despite
its adoption of new rules requiring a review of death sentences.

The important parallels between Tibet and Burma begin with the fact that
Burma’s majority citizens ­ the ethnic Burmans ­ are of Tibetan stock.
It was China’s 1950 invasion of Tibet that opened a new Han entrance to
Burma. But now the Han demographic invasion of the Tibetan plateau is
spilling over into Burma, with Chinese presence conspicuous in Mandalay
city and the areas to the northeast.

Today, the resistance against repressive rule in both Tibet and Burma is
led by iconic Nobel laureates, one living in exile and the other under
house detention. In fact, the Dalai Lama and Aung San Suu Kyi received
the Nobel peace prize in quick succession for the same reason: For
leading a non-violent struggle. Each is a symbol of soft power, building
such moral authority as to command wide international respect and influence.

Yet another parallel is that heavy repression has failed to break the
resistance to autocratic rule in both Tibet and Burma. If anything,
growing authoritarianism has begun to backfire, as the popular monk-led
revolts in Tibet and Burma have highlighted.
Vantage location and rich natural resources underscore the importance of
Tibet and Burma. The Tibetan plateau makes up one-fourth of China’s
landmass.

Annexation has given China control over Tibet’s immense water resources
and mineral wealth, including boron, chromite, copper, iron ore, lead,
lithium, uranium and zinc. Most of Asia’s major rivers originate in the
Tibetan plateau, with their waters a lifeline to 47 per cent of the
global population living in South and Southeast Asia and China. Through
its control over Asia’s main source of freshwater and its building of
huge dams upstream, China holds out a latent threat to fashion water
into a political weapon.

Energy-rich Burma is a land bridge between the Indian subcontinent and
Southeast Asia. China, however, has succeeded in strategically
penetrating Burma, which it values as an entryway to the Bay of Bengal
and Indian Ocean. Beijing is now busy completing the Irrawaddy Corridor
through Burma involving road, river, rail, port and energy-transport links.

The key difference between Tibet and Burma is that the repression in the
former is by an occupying power. Months after the 1949 Communist
takeover in Beijing, China’s People’s Liberation Army entered what was
effectively a sovereign nation in full control of its own affairs.

At the root of the present Tibet crisis is China’s failure to grant the
autonomy it promised when it imposed on Tibetans a “17-Point Agreement
for the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet” in 1951. Instead of conceding
autonomy, Beijing has actually done the opposite: It has pursued
Machiavellian policies by breaking up Tibet as it existed before the
invasion, and by seeking to reduce Tibetans to a minority in their own
homeland through the state-supported relocation of millions of Han Chinese.

It has gerrymandered Tibet by making Amdo (the present Dalai Lama’s
birthplace) Qinghai province and merging eastern Kham into the Han
provinces of Sichuan, Yunnan and Gansu. More recently, Chongqing
province was carved out of Sichuan.

The traditional Tibetan region is a distinct cultural and economic
entity. But with large, heavily Tibetan areas having been severed from
Tibet, what is left is just the 1965 creation ­ the Tibet Autonomous
Region (TAR), the central plateau comprising Ü-Tsang and western Kham,
or roughly half of the Tibetan plateau. Yet China has changed even the
demographic composition of TAR, where they were hardly any Han settlers
before the Chinese annexation.

TAR, home to barely 40 per cent of the 6.5 million Tibetans in China,
was the last “autonomous region” created by the Chinese Communists, the
others being Inner Mongolia (1947), Xinjiang (1955), Guangxi Zhuang
(1958) and Ningxia (1958). In addition, China has 30 “autonomous
prefectures,” 120 “autonomous counties” and 1,256 “autonomous townships.”

All of the so-called autonomous areas are in minority homelands, which
historically were ruled from Beijing only when China itself had been
conquered by foreigners ­ first by the Mongols, and then the Manchu.
Today, these areas are “autonomous” only in name, with that tag designed
to package a fiction to the ethnic minorities. Apart from not enforcing
its one-child norm in these sparsely populated but vast regions (which
make up three-fifths of China’s landmass), Beijing grants them no
meaningful autonomy. In Tibet, what the ravages of the Cultural
Revolution left incomplete, forced “political education” since has
sought to accomplish.

China grants local autonomy just to two areas, both Han ­ Hong Kong and
Macao. In the talks it has held with the Dalai Lama’s envoys since 2002,
Beijing has flatly refused to consider the idea of making Tibet a
Special Administrative Region like Hong Kong and Macao. It has also
rebuffed the idea of restoring Tibet, under continued Chinese rule, to
the shape and size it existed in 1950.

Instead it has sought to malign the Dalai Lama for seeking “Greater
Tibet” and pressed a maximalist historical position vis-à-vis him. Not
content with the Dalai Lama’s far-reaching 1987 concession to forsake
Tibetan independence, Beijing insists that he also affirm that Tibet was
always part of China. But as the Dalai Lama said in a recent Newsweek
interview, “Even if I make that statement, many people would just laugh.
And my statement will not change past history.”

Contrary to China’s claim that its present national political structure
is unalterable to accommodate Tibetan aspirations, the fact is that its
constitutional arrangements have continued to change, as underscored by
the creation of 47 new supposedly “autonomous” municipalities or
counties in minority homelands just between 1984 and 1994, according to
the work of Harvard scholar Lobsang Sangay.

Until the latest uprising, Beijing believed its weapon of repression was
working well and thus saw no need to bring Tibetans together under one
administrative unit, as they demand, or to grant Tibet a status
equivalent to Hong Kong and Macao. President Hu Jintao, who regards
Tibet as his core political base from the time he was the party boss
there, has ruled out any compromise that would allow the Dalai Lama to
return home from his long exile in India. Following the uprising, Hu’s
line on Tibet is likely to further harden, unless effective
international pressure is brought to bear.

The contrasting international response to the repression in Tibet and
Burma brings out an inconvenient truth: The principle that engagement is
better than punitive action to help change state behaviour is applied
only to powerful autocratic countries, while sanctions are a favoured
tool to try and tame the weak. Sanctions against China are also
precluded by the fact that the West has a huge commercial stake in that
country.

But Burma, where its interests are trifling, is a soft target. So, while
an impoverished Burma reels under widening sanctions, a booming China
openly mocks the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Even the 1989
Tiananmen Square massacre of countless hundreds of students did not
trigger lasting international trade sanctions against Beijing.

No one today is suggesting trade sanctions. But given that Beijing
secured the right to host the 2008 Olympics on the promise to improve
its human rights record, the free world has a duty to demand that it end
its repression in Tibet or face an international boycott, if not of the
Games, at least of the opening ceremony, to which world leaders have
been invited. By making the success of this summer’s Olympics a prestige
issue, China has handed the world valuable leverage that today is
begging to be exercised. This rare opportunity must not be frittered away.
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