In Tibet they’d die for a hung parliament

While we in peaceful democratic Australia have been conducting our political battles at public meetings and settling our disputes at the ballot box, in less fortunate places politics is being conducted by other means.

Tibetan protestors in India

In Tibet, where the Chinese authorities have launched a new crackdown, these include arrests in the night, secret trials, long prison sentences on spurious charges, and beatings and other forms of violence.

In early August He Guoqiang, a member of the Chinese Communist Party Politburo and head of its Central Commission for Discipline, visited Tibet. Apparently he was not pleased by what he found, despite the intensive repression that has taken place in Tibet since the riots in 2008 in which at least 200 people were killed. He ordered a fresh crackdown on Tibetan “separatists” and intellectuals, particularly the Buddhist monks and nuns who have been at the forefront of the protests against Chinese rule over the past few years.

A notable aspect of this crackdown has been the focus on Buddhist monasteries. The Chinese Constitution guarantees freedom of religion, and the Chinese government claims that Tibetans are free to follow their particular form of Buddhism, with its emphasis on monastic life. But following He Guoqiang’s visit, Party officials have launched demands for tighter political control of the monasteries.

Du Qinglin, head of the United Front Work Department of the Party’s Central Committee, has demanded “democratic management” in the monasteries. “Monks and nuns who are politically reliable, learned and respected should be selected to monastery management committees,” he said. In
China “democratic management” is usually a code expression for “control by the Communist Party.”

In a letter to me last month, the exiled Tibetan leader, the Dalai Lama, reported that hundreds of monks and nuns are being expelled from monasteries, leaving only a few as guides for tourists. “The Chinese plan to turn the monasteries into mere showcases like museums, manned by only a few monks as caretakers. Such plans represent a systematic, long-term strategy to eliminate all remaining vestiges of Tibetan identity and cultural heritage,” he wrote.

The Chinese authorities remain extremely sensitive about the influence of the Dalai Lama and other exiled Buddhist leaders. Recently they banned photos of the 17th Gyalwang Karmapa, who escaped from Tibet in 1999 and now lives in India. The Karmapa is 25 and is seen by some as the Dalai Lama’s eventual heir as Tibet’s spiritual leader. He is also a strong campaigner on environmental issues including climate change, and has been critical of the degradation of Tibet’s environment by mining companies under Chinese government patronage.

The Chinese government refers to all those in Tibet who oppose its rule as “separatists.” In fact most Tibetan leaders, including the Dalai Lama, are opposed to separatism. The Dalai Lama asks only that the Chinese implement their own Constitution, which says that Tibet should be an autonomous region, not a Chinese colony. He asks that the Tibetan language and Tibet’s religious, cultural and environmental heritage should be respected, not trampled on as at present. For over a decade now he has been trying to have serious negotiations about these issues with Beijing.

The Dalai Lama wrote to me last month: “We need a comprehensive solution to the Tibetan issue. Despite nine rounds of talks between Chinese officials and my envoys, there have been no tangible results. Indeed, it seems unlikely that a result will be achieved any time soon. Nevertheless, our commitment to finding a mutually beneficial solution to the Tibetan issue remains unchanged.”

I hope that Australians who care about human rights, and particularly my fellow parliamentarians from all parties, will continue to speak up on behalf of people who don’t have political and religious freedom we take for granted, such as the people of Tibet.

Michael Danby is Labor MP for Melbourne Ports and Convenor of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Tibet