Tibet and Burma:
While a booming China
openly mocks the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and escapes even
international censure, an impoverished Burma reels under widening
sanctions despite smaller-scale repression.
Asian Age, April 5, 2008
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 protestors 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 U.S.-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,
Even the leverage provided by the 2008 Beijing
Olympics is not being seized upon to
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 Web sites, 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
If anything, growing authoritarianism has begun to backfire, as the popular
monk-led revolts in Tibet and
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 percent 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
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
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),
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
under continued Chinese rule, to the shape and size it existed in
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
is likely to further harden, unless effective international pressure is brought
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.
© Asian Age, 2008.