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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."

To Die With Dignity in Your Own Land: Tibet, China, and the Politics of Disaster

April 16, 2010

Hufington Post [Thursday, April 15, 2010 21:45]
By Josh Schrei

Marketing Director, Strategist, Producer, Writer, Critic, Activist


The Tibetans that died in Jyekundo had the right to die as Tibetans, not
as Chinese.


The tragic 6.9 magnitude earthquake that struck Jyekundo yesterday has
been consistently labeled the "China Quake" by the mainstream media. It
is worth noting, for many reasons, that Jyekundo is firmly planted in
what was formerly independent Tibet and the vast majority of the victims
are Tibetan.

Jyekundo is part of historic Tibet's Kham province. Throughout the 18th
and 19th centuries, control over Kham and the wide, sparsely populated
region of Amdo vacillated between Chinese and Muslim warlords and the
Tibetan government in Lhasa. Finally, after a period of Tibetan
independence the area was invaded and occupied by the People's
Liberation Army along with the rest of eastern Tibet in 1950. The entire
region was divided by the government of the People's Republic of China
into its current provinces in 1965, but years of occupation and the
migration of Han Chinese west into Tibetan provinces have not diminished
this region's Tibetan identity. Even China refers to the area as a
"Tibetan area," and the particular prefecture -- Yushu -- is 97% Tibetan.

When Chinese state media refers to "Qinghai province," the vast majority
of what they are referring to -- outside of the city of Xining, which
holds 66% of the provinces population -- is historically Tibet.

The people of this rugged, mountainous region have always been fiercely
nationalistic. From the mid-1950s through the 1970s Kham-pas and Amdo-wa
formed the brunt of resistance to Chinese rule. Contrary to the popular
view of Tibetans as passives, the Chushi Gangdruk warriors were anything
but. They fought a longstanding guerrilla war against the Chinese, only
laying down their weapons when directly asked to by the Dalai Lama. Many
of these warriors were executed along with their families; many more
committed suicide rather than face Chinese rule; and many others escaped
into exile, where they still live.

Most of this history is lost on or ignored by reporters and politicians.
Both CNN and BBC coverage of the quake makes little or no mention of the
victims as Tibetan. No media outlets have mentioned the region's
historic independence. In most of the coverage, Tibetan names have been
Sinocized and Xinhua, China's state propaganda apparatus, has been
quoted as the primary source. Hillary Clinton, in a brief statement of
condolence yesterday, made absolutely no mention of the word Tibet,
stating instead that "our thoughts and prayers are with... all the
people of China." By contrast, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a long time
supporter of Tibetan rights, made sure to reference the victims as Tibetan.

A tragedy is, of course, a tragedy, beyond any political and historical
squabbling. But the political and historical backdrop to this horrible
quake is important, as it informs how events will take shape over the
days to come. As Lindsey Hilsum reported on World News Blog, the fact
that this disaster took place in historic Tibet makes it not just a
disaster, but an issue of extreme political sensitivity for China. This
is a region that does not look favorably on Chinese rule. It is a region
that saw widespread independence protests in 2008, including the
takeover a Chinese police station by Tibetan protesters mounted on
horseback. And the last thing the Chinese government wants is to bring
any international attention to this restive area or give the local
people any further reason to protest.

Public gatherings are banned in this part of Tibet, and from all on the
ground reports it is already clear that the Chinese soldiers that have
been trucked in Jyekundo are there to serve two purposes. They are there
to help remove victims from the rubble, and they are also there to make
sure that Tibetans -- homeless and freezing and distraught -- do not
begin to demonstrate or make political statements. Wen Jiaobao, when
outlining the plan for disaster relief yesterday, made sure to mention
that efforts were being made to "safeguard social stability." In other
disaster areas, this would translate as preventing looting and crime. In
Jyekundo, it means preventing the locals from political agitation. As of
yesterday, Tibetan monks and PLA soldiers were unified in their efforts
to rescue schoolchildren from the quake's rubble; but more monks are on
the way from neighboring monasteries, and the more days go by in which
Tibetans are forced by circumstance to live in miserable conditions
under the watchful eye of the PLA soldiers whom they already despise, it
is highly likely Jyekundo will turn into a powder keg. And that's when
China will kill the switch on any shred of media openness.

A few international reporters made their way to the quake site early and
have been allowed to report relatively unimpeded. But reports have
already started that access is being limited. Minnie Chan from South
China Morning Post stated that the PRC has issued a ban on reporters
traveling to the region. And, as the New Yorker posted yesterday, the
Chinese government propaganda apparatus has quickly sought to control
exactly how the story of the Jyekundo quake is told, limiting results on
the state-sanctioned search engine and continually and relentlessly
referring to the the quake as the "China quake" and the victims as Chinese.

This amounts to a second tragedy to this tragedy -- the death of the
true story. Quite simply, the people of Jyekundo are not Chinese. They
are Tibetan. And the Tibetans that died in Jyekundo had the right to die
as Tibetans and not Chinese. They had -- and have -- the right to have
their story told correctly and justly. It is a story of a fiercely
independent people, of nomads and warriors, herders and farmers,
tradesmen and monks, and artisans and craftsmen. It is a story of a
people invaded -- not liberated -- by an occupying force and of two
generations under foreign occupation. It is a story of a people who
struggled to maintain their Buddhist faith and their cultural traditions
during the horror and mass starvation of the cultural revolution, who
picked up arms and then were silenced, and who have borne the weight and
humiliation of occupation with what can only be called grace. The
victims of Jyekundo were and are a distinct people. They are not
Chinese, they are Tibetan, and they had a right to die with dignity, in
their own land.

Our responsibility, the responsibility of those who can -- with very
little effort -- find the truth to this story, is to tell it.

Follow Josh on www.twitter.com/brooklynjosh
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