Supping with the Devil in Tibet and Syria

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You need a long spoon to sup with the Devil. The Devil knows that you know that. So when he invites you to dinner he makes sure to provide you with a nice long spoon. And, if he can, he makes sure that it's not quite long enough to keep your soul safe.

At the moment no one is seated more precariously at the Devil's table than the people of Tibet and Syria.

In Syria, people are desperate for support against a government that is waging war on them. Some of them are willing and even eager to accept help from the US, though they must know that the US Government's aspirations for Syria are very different from the aspirations of most Syrians.

In Tibet, two people set fire to themselves on Monday in protest against Chinese rule. One of them, a 20 year old monk called Lungtok, is said to have died from his injuries. The condition of the other man, a 21 year old laymen called Tashi, isn't known. Tashi and Lungtok set fire to themselves near Kirti Monastery in eastern Tibet, now part of Ngaba (Chinese: Aba) Tibetan and Qiang Autonomous Prefecture in China's Szichuan Province.

There have been unconfirmed reports of a third self-immolation in the same area on Monday. Tibetans who took to the streets in solidarity with Tashi and Lungtok and were brutally beaten by Chinese security personnel and one man is said to have died from his injuries.

The two - or three - self-immolations on Monday follow a week in which three other Tibetans set fire to themselves. Two are known to have died from their injuries. One of the dead was a 26 year old mother of two called Dolker Tsu.

Monday's two confirmed self-immolations bring to 49 the number of people who have set fire to themselves in a wave of protests that began in February 2009. This year there have on average been 5 self-immolations every month.

China is unlikely to lessen the political and cultural repression that led to these actions unless people around the world show solidarity with the people of Tibet. But anyone trying to build that sort of solidarity has somehow to reckon with the rulers, parliamentarians and media bosses who set themselves up as gatekeepers of political discourse. Few of them want to irritate China while China has its hands on the world's purse strings.

Last Friday US Congressmen James P McGovern and Frank R Wolf sent an open letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urging "stronger, more coordinated, visible international diplomatic steps with regards to the People’s Republic of China’s policies and practices towards Tibetans." The congressmen suggest that the US could host an international conference on Tibet, or "consider periodic, public meetings with a handful of other governments." They describe the situation in Tibet as a "human rights crisis."

Clinton's human rights credentials are no better than those of her predecessors Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice. The Obama Administration's programme of drone assassinations has opened up a new kind of state terrorism that even the neo-cons might once have baulked at. But one of the two signatories to the open letter - James P McGovern - is just about as progressive a political animal as can be found in the US two-party system.

McGovern is a Democrat. He consistently opposed the Iraq war. He initially supported the war in Afghanistan, but said last year:

"Enough is enough. It's long past time to bring our troops home."

He has campaigned against human rights abuses by the traditional allies of the US right in Colombia and El Salvador. He has voted against anti-immigration legislation. So McGovern's support for Tibetans may go some way towards undoing the toxic symbolism of the Dalai Lama's spectacular public meeting with President George W Bush in 2007 - the year of Bush's blood-soaked "surge" in Iraq and of the events recorded in the Collateral Murder video.

The problem confronting Tibetans isn't only that the rulers of the world would rather not hear their cries. Much more seriously, many otherwise progressive people around the world keep their distance from the Tibetan struggle because they believe that Tibetans are little more than tools of US imperialism and/or of an irredeemably reactionary Tibetan elite. They are apt to forget that history is replete with revolutionary and national liberation movements that have tried their very best to elicit support from the US and from other imperialist powers before it, and have sometimes succeeded.

Oppositionists in Syria, if they are to keep fighting, can hardly avoid accepting arms that come with the blessing of the US or of other states with unhelpful agendas. Syria is at risk of becoming a gaming table. International players make their guesses, slap down their chips, choose their faction and play for "leverage" in tomorrow's Syria. Leaders of opposition factions make their guesses, choose their foreign backers, and play for their own "leverage."

This is no way to spread and deepen a revolution. Despite the claims made by Mao Zedong, Che Guevara and various mujahideen, war isn't particularly propitious for political transformation. All the same, desperate Syrians dreaming of outside military help to end their troubles are not the enemies of progress and they are not naive fools. They are merely people in a tight corner who have been forced into making a tactical mistake.

The problem of how to respond to the tangled situation in Syria has produced sharp debates in both Muslim and socialist circles. It would be nice to able to call the debates lively, but they are quite a lot rougher than that. Possibly this is better than the mixture of disengagement, ill-informed abuse and patronising romanticism that lies in wait for Tibetans looking for international solidarity.

Tibetans are living in circumstances quite different from those prevailing in Syria. The Syrian revolt is part of a regional uprising that has already forced from power the rulers of four countries and 120 million people, and has touched the lives of tens of millions more. The Tibetan unrest is limited to the 6 million Tibetans living on the Chinese-controlled Tibetan plateau, augmented by perhaps a handful of sympathetic Tibetans living elsewhere in China, like Beijing-based poet and blogger Woesar. Adding the neighbouring Uighurs - another people chafing under Chinese rule - to the count would still bring the total to only around 14 million. People from China's Han majority have so far shown virtually no inclination to support the Tibetans. A lot of water will have to flow under the bridge in China as well as Tibet before serious change becomes possible.

Tibet's plight is an outcome of the strong element of nationalism that marked Mao's revolution and continues to shape Chinese attitudes. The Communist Party came to power in 1949 with a Tibet policy that was hardly distinguishable from the policy of the Guomindang (though the Guomindang had never been strong enough to give practical effect to their policy). Chinese Communists made, and still make, free use of the language of nationalism, with frequent references to the "motherland." This is a strange vocabulary for Marxist revolutionaries. Communist officials' own views of what they were doing in Tibet might perhaps be characterised as nation-building. For the built-upon, there is precious little difference between nation-building and colonialism. Mao condemned "Han chauvinism." But the Tibetan experience of Chinese rule has overwhelmingly been an experience of colonialism.

US policy towards Tibet began to take shape in the year that elapsed between the Communist accession to power in Beijing and the Chinese invasion of Tibet. Like Britain and newly-independent India, the US would not countenance Tibetan aspirations to UN membership. After the Red Army moved into eastern Tibet, the US declined to take the initiative in putting a resolution on the matter before the UN. When El Salvador drafted a resolution, the US joined with Britain and India in pressing - successfully - for discussion of the resolution to be postponed.

The US seems to have feared that any attempt to muster international opposition to the Chinese invasion would backfire against efforts to obtain support for its own position over Korea. India, on the other hand, seems to have believed that silence over Tibet would leave it free to play a historic role as midwife to a peaceful resolution of the Korean crisis. Britain had privately concluded that Tibet "must be regarded as a state to which Article 35(2) of the UN Charter applies," had taken care not to share its conclusion with India, and had ruled out recognising Tibet's independence. It feared that international diplomatic intervention over Tibet without the recognition that it had decided to withhold could set a precedent for intervention in its own colonial affairs. All these manoeuvres are documented in Tsering Shakya's history of modern Tibet.

The year that followed the Chinese invasion was crucial to Tibet's future diplomatic status. The Tibetan Government's representative in the east had signed the "17 Point Agreement" acknowledging Tibet as part of the "big family of the Motherland the People's Republic of China." The Tibetan Government and the Dalai Lama had yet to declare their views on the agreement. The Red Army had yet to arrive in Lhasa. The US sent a series of secret messages to the teenage Dalai Lama urging him to repudiate the agreement and flee Tibet, and promising in that event to provide "light arms" and "loans of money." The great Tibetan monasteries favoured acceptance of the agreement, seeing in it the best hope for peace and the continuation of their own prestige and wealth. In the end, Tibet's National Assembly advised acceptance of the agreement, and the Dalai Lama telegrammed his acceptance to Mao on 24 October 1951.

The agreement held until 1959, when the Lhasa Uprising against Chinese rule resulted in the flight of the Dalai Lama to India. By that time fighting had been going on for several years between Chinese forces and eastern Tibetans - Khampas - and had already spread to parts of central Tibet. The US does not appear to have played any part in instigating the Khampa uprising, but it did provide material support for the Khampas from about 1957. A few of them received US training, and some arms drops were made during 1958 and 1959. Tsering Shakya provides a well-researched account of this episode in his history of modern Tibet. His work suggests that some earlier accounts had greatly exaggerated the US involvement in Tibet during this period.

Two of the US-trained men - Khampas named Athar and Lotse - were in a group of fighters who escorted the Dalai Lama's escape party along part of their route to India. Athar radioed the Americans with news of the Dalai Lama's plans. This was the first real contact that the US had been able to make with the Dalai Lama. It may have been Athar's radio message that prepared the Indian Government to expect the Dalai Lama, and it was through Athar's radio that the Dalai Lama received confirmation that he would be granted asylum in India. The Dalai Lama was given 200,000 Indian rupees from CIA funds held by Athar and Lotse, who in return were given all the Tibetan money (virtually worthless outside Tibet) that the Dalai Lama's party had brought with them. Aside from this, the US appears to have played no part in the Dalai Lama's flight.

Once settled in India, the Dalai Lama finally renounced the 17 Point Agreement, as the US had advised him to do 9 years earlier. But this time, he was reflecting the demands of the People's Assembly that had gathered during the Lhasa uprising. It has a fair claim to being the closest thing to mass, self-organised political action that Tibet has ever seen.

CIA support for the Tibetan resistance escalated after 1959. In 1960 the Tibetans established a guerilla base in Nepal's Mustang region, with CIA support (and also, from 1963, with Indian support). Fighters operating from Mustang made raids into Tibet. Ann Frechette, in her book Tibetans in Nepal, puts the number of Tibetans involved at around 4,000.

US interest in the Tibetan force declined after the mid-sixties, and funding for the Mustang base was wound down. India took many of the guerillas into its army, and they participated in the 1971 India-Pakistan war. President Nixon made his historic visit to Beijing the following year. Nepal grew tired of its guests and in 1974 a recorded message from the Dalai Lama was passed around the camps urging the Tibetans to surrender to Nepalese forces.

Civil resistance in Tibet hasn't been so easy to wind down. There was a Tibet-wide uprising in 2008. The repression that followed it has generated the present wave of self-immolations and protests. Expressions of concern from Capitol Hill and other seats of global power won't win self-determination for the Tibetans. That has never been Washington's aim. But without some expressions of concern, the space opening up - just possibly - for political activity in Tibet is likely to close down.

What to do? Well, a start could be to sign the Stand Up for Tibet Pledge supported by the International Tibet Network. Ken Loach, Radiohead and Desmond Tutu have signed. Why not you?