Claude Arpi is an expert on the history of Tibet, China and the subcontinent. He was born in Angoulême, France. After graduating from Bordeaux University in 1974, he decided to live in India and settled in the South where he is still staying with his Indian wife and young daughter. He is the author of numerous English and French books including ‘The Fate of Tibet,’ ‘La Politique Française de Nehru: 1947-1954,’ ‘Born in Sin: the Panchsheel Agreement’ and ‘India and Her Neighbourhood.’ He writes regularly on Tibet, China, India and Indo-French relations. In this exclusive column, he wonders if the latest killings in Lhasa are a repeat of the 1989 Tiananmen Square episode.The most important in life is not the triumph but the struggle’.
- Pierre de Coubertin
, Founder of the modern Olympic Games.
Monks burn incense on a hill above the Rongwu Monastery at Tongren, in China's Qinghai province Sunday March 16, 2008. Dozens of monks, defying a directive not to gather in groups, marched to a hill where they set off fireworks and burned incense in what one monk said was a protest. (Sify.com)
You may be under the impression that money can buy everything, but it is not entirely correct.
Yes, the US State Department agreed to remove China from the list of human rights violators because the US is doing good business with China.
Yes, in July 2001 when Beijing was awarded the hosting of the Games, the highest human ideals enunciated by the Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the Modern Games at the end of the 19th century, had long been forgotten.
Now, money reigns supreme over the organisation of this world event. You may regret that the Games which were meant to manifest mankind’s highest values has turned into a purely commercial venture only, but what can you do about it?
But over the past few days, thousands of Tibetans have shown the world that the ‘human spirit’ still has meaning and strength in this world of money and power. The peace-loving David has taken on the most powerful economic Goliath of the planet; and this just with the power of their aspiration for freedom.
With the world helplessly watching and heads of state weakly condemning it (when they are not supporting their Chinese business partner in Beijing), the repression has started on the Roof of the World. It is bound to be ferocious and ruthless and once the Breaking News period is over, once reader and viewer fatigue sets in, the courageous Tibetans will be left to their tormentors.
In many ways, the events in Lhasa during the last few days remind me of similar incidents on Beijing’s Tiananmen Square nineteen years ago.
It is not well-known but there was a rehearsal for the June 1989 massacre of students on the Square. It took place three months earlier on Lhasa’s Central Square.
Hundreds of peaceful Tibetan demonstrators were cornered by the People’s Armed Police (in China everything has to carry the name of the ‘people’, today even the brutal repression is called a ‘people’s war’); On March 6, 1989, some 380 defenseless demonstrators were mercilessly massacred. The person who ordered the killings was a certain Hu Jintao, then Communist Party Chief in Tibet and today President of the People’s Republic of China, whom the Tibetans remember as the “Butcher of Lhasa”.
On that day, Hu earned the esteem of the Elders in the Party who soon propelled him to the top.
Another similarity with the Tiananmen episode is that we will never know the exact number of casualties of the unrest in Tibet. Western Human Rights groups (and some courageous Chinese NGOs) have speculated that probably 3000 students were smashed by the PLA’s tanks in front of Mao’s mausoleum. The Chinese official figure was just a couple of hundreds. Similarly today, the Chinese tally is 10 or 12 dead while reliable sources speak of a least 100 and this before the real repression started.
A difference with the Tiananmen incident is that the Tibetan unrest is not limited to one place, it has spread across entire Tibet. Ironically, the negotiations between Beijing and the Dalai Lama have been stuck on one main bottleneck: Dharamsala wanted the discussion to include the entire traditional Tibet, while Beijing wanted to restrict the discussions to the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) corresponding to about one third of the former Tibet. Demonstrations have occurred (and are continuing as I write these lines) in all three provinces of Tibet.
According to the Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy (TCHRD), a Tibetan NGO dedicated to highlighting the human rights situation in Tibet: “Hundreds of Tibetans are arbitrarily arrested in the ongoing house-by-house raid by Chinese security forces in Lhasa beginning from 15 March 2008. All former political prisoners have already been rounded off and thrown into prisons by the security forces according to confirmed information.”
“With streets filled with patrolling Chinese armed troops and tanks in Lhasa city, the security agencies comb each and every house in Lhasa and pick up all suspected Tibetans, especially youth, from their houses accompanied by severe beatings by the armed forces,” says the organisation which has the largest network inside Tibet.
But more than one thousand kilometers away, demonstrations were staged by monks of Tashikyil Monastery in Gansu province (formally the northeastern Tibetan area of Amdo). Later thousands of lay Tibetans are said to have joined them. They assembled in front of the county government's headquarters and marched to a place known as Choeten Karpo (White Stupa) where lay people and monks performed the traditional Incense Burning ritual.
Later when ‘pro-independence and ‘Long live the Dalai Lama’ slogans were raised, the People’s Armed Police (PAP) fired tear gas and live ammunition into the air to disperse the demonstrators. Repressions began immediately.
Similar incidents were reported from the south-eastern province of Kham. During a peaceful demonstration by thousands of people in Ngaba County, at least seven people are said to have been shot dead by the dreaded PAP. Most of the casualties belong to the Ngaba Kirti Monastery.
A Tibetan friend of mine received the news from a relative in Nepal that her father travelling from Shigatse to Tingri in Southern Tibet (not far from the Nepalese border) was arrested at a check post on the road and badly beaten by the Chinese police. He is said to be out of danger, but it shows how widespread and wild is the repression, even though it is denied by Beijing.
These events will first have serious repercussions in Tibet, where wild repression can only increase the deep-seated resentment against the Chinese ‘colonizers’. The scar of these events will take decades to erase, if they can ever go. Today, in China an entire generation has the stigma of the Cultural Revolution.
It will also have consequences on the leadership in China. The hard line (Hu Jintao) will probably prevail in the beginning, but those who believe in a softer approach are bound to have their say one day. In China too, millions are longing for democracy and a more open system.
The collateral will be seismic for the Indo-China relations. At the back of their minds, the Chinese Party bosses will always know that India possesses a tremendous card in her hand: the Dalai Lama and the Tibetans in Tibet. This could eventually counterbalance any strategic advantages China may have in term of infrastructure in the border areas (as well as the new Beijing-Lhasa railroad.).
But worse, China has already lost her bid to ensure that the Olympic Games extravaganza went off without a hitch and to get kudos from the rest of the world for her material achievements.
Let us not forget that Pierre de Coubertin’s first and foremost objective in reviving the ancient tradition of the Olympic Games was to ‘build men’. He considered Olympism as a religion which would “adhere to an ideal of superior life and aspire for perfection”. He spoke of the moral qualities of chivalry, of a quadrennial ‘human spring’.
Beijing has so far organisd an ‘inhuman spring’ only.
Courbertin was a great human being. One of his biographers described him thus: “Small in stature, with lively eyes and a high-pitched and reedy voice, smiling mischievously behind his large moustache, Coubertin was an idealist who succeeded in putting a great number of his ideas into action. His work as a whole, which contains between 12,000 and 15,000 printed pages, comprising of 1,350 to 1,400 books, brochures and articles, is completely overshadowed by his Olympic achievement.”
The French Baron selected the beautiful creed for the Games: “The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.”
It is difficult to predict what is going to happen now. In the best scenario for Beijing, we will have a repetition of the Burma unrest. In a few months from now, one will not hear anymore about the uprising in Tibet. Politicians would have given a few statements condemning the ‘excess of violence’ and asking for restrain and business will continue as usual.
In another scenario, the Olympics will be ‘disturbed’ by a few Bjorks (the Icelandic singer who sang Free Tibet in Shanghai) or a few courageous athletes who will pull out a Tibetan flag after getting their gold medals.
Whatever the future offers us, the ten of thousands Tibetans who ‘dared’ to come down in the streets of Lhasa or elsewhere in Tibet, will have shown the world, that the Spirit of the Games is alive on this planet and that the most important in life is not the triumph, but the struggle.
They may not conquer, but would certainly have fought well. The views expressed in the article are of the author’s and not of Sify.com.