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Tibet: Waiting on the West

May 30, 2008

Despite being the harbinger of democracy, the West has been strangely
silent over the ongoing turmoil in Tibet, writes Harsh V Pant.
by Harsh V Pant
International Relations and Security Network (ISN)
March 17, 2008)

History was moving along nicely, it seemed, toward its end, with the
most powerful capitalist-authoritarian regime ready to showcase its
economic might by hosting the event of all events - the Olympic
Games. But unfortunately for the communist apparatchiks in Beijing,
some prickly Tibetan monks have gotten in the way.

 From India to Greece, from the UK to Nepal, standing athwart
history, these monks have yelled "Stop!." But is anyone listening? In
a news cycle dominated by Iraq, Afghanistan and the turmoil in
financial markets, who has time for a bunch of robed priests in the
foothills of the Himalayas trying to preserve their way of life -
especially when their adversary is the economic behemoth of China,
the center of global attention today?

Still, as reports emerge of one of the largest protests in nearly two
decades by Buddhist monks in Tibet and elsewhere in China, the
western world will be confronted with some difficult choices. After
having promptly recognized Kosovo's independence from Serbia, many
otherwise lazy eyes will be on the West's reaction to the present
turmoil in the Middle Kingdom. So far, the West has been
disappointingly silent.

The Tibetan monks have been driven to the brink by the uncompromising
attitude of the Chinese authorities who have refused to meet even the
most basic of their demands. The negotiations that have been going on
for the last five years have failed to yield any substantive results
even though the Dalai Lama, the leader of the Tibetan
government-in-exile, has openly acknowledged that independence is no
longer an option for the Tibetans.

Though he has attracted some criticism for taking this position from
grass-roots Tibetan activities, it is merely recognition of the stark
political realities on the ground. He has been asking for autonomy
for his people within the framework of the Chinese constitution.

Apparently even this is too much to ask for as not only have his
demands been rejected but he has been viscerally attacked by the
Chinese governmental machinery. Indeed, for the government the Dalai
Lama is merely an irritant surrounding an issue that, for Beijing, no
longer exists. What the Chinese government calls "minor criminal
elements" are freedom fighters to the Tibetans and much of the rest
of the world.

The protests by the Buddhist monks in Burma last year seem to have
energized the Tibetan rank and file across the globe. Although
brutally suppressed by the military junta, the demonstrations forced
the international community to recognize the political repression in
Burma, and there are signs, however weak, that global pressure is
having some impact. For the Tibetans, the summer Olympics presented a
window of opportunity to put their own plight before the world.

The Chinese authorities want the Olympics to be their coming-of-age
party, an economic and political global power confident to engage
with the rest of the world. Instead, the attention now seems to be on
China's human rights record.

First, it was the Chinese foreign policy in Sudan that came under
attack, and now it seems that Tibet will come under scrutiny. But
unless western governments speak out, it will all be for naught. And
it seems no one is prepared to annoy the Chinese.

The Bush administration's gung-ho democracy agenda somehow seems to
falter as it reaches the shores of China (as well as other
strategically significant locales). The EU's liberal post-modern
worldview apparently can co-exist side-by-side with the Chinese model
so long as the Chinese market is available.

It would be a huge folly, however, for the West to ignore the growing
discord in Tibet for a number of reasons.

First, as societies that uphold liberal humanist values, it is the
moral duty of the West to speak out for the Tibetans whose entire
cultural identity is under threat.

Second, Tibet's struggle for independence (autonomy now) is perhaps
one of its kind in the contemporary world, a non-violent movement
inspired by Mahatma Gandhi's ideals and the Dalai Lama's leadership.

At a time when it is in vogue to take up arms and use violent means
to attain political objectives, supporting the Tibetan struggle sends
a strong signal that the West is ready to be a part of those
struggles striving for political goals through peaceful means.

Third, tensions in Tibet bode ill for regional stability in Asia as
Tibet is at the core of Sino-Indian relations. Though clearly
Sino-Indian ties today are multi-faceted, problems in Tibet can
easily spill over and lead to broader tensions between the two. It is
not in the world's interest to have tense ties between two of the
leading global economic powers.

Finally, the entire western approach towards China for the last
several years has been premised on the notion of engagement. It is
time for the West to re-evaluate its position and to see how far its
policy has actually worked.

Given China's strict control over information, it is hard to verify
if the death toll in Lhasa, where the protests are taking place, is
close to 10 as suggested by the Chinese authorities or closer to 30
as reported by some non-governmental organizations.

It is difficult to see the West reacting to the Tibetan protests the
way it reacted to Burma's crisis last year. Power politics, after
all, still trumps all other considerations in international
relations. But by not taking a more forceful stance on Tibet, the
West will end up not only weakening its credibility but also the
liberal order it has so painstakingly built since the end of World War II.

Harsh V Pant teaches at King's College London.
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