Karmapa and the Cranes

After his dramatic escape from Tibet in December 1999, the young Gyalwa Karmapa became an immediate celebrity in the exile community — in a reverential Tibetan sort of way, of course. A group of students from the Tibetan Children’s Village decided to dedicate their class environmental project — on saving the Tibetan crane — to the boy lama. Whether intended or not the symbolism was rather apt, the threatened life, the flight from Tibet to the south and so on. The children had printed a small book on their project and asked one of Karmapa’s entourage to present it to him. When this person (my informant) gave the book to Gyalwa Karmapa, I was told that he looked at the cover in his characteristically intense way, and read the title aloud “Save the Cranes … Hmm … Save the Cranes … but who will save the people?” (tung-tung la sungkyap … me la sue sunkyap chigi ray).

I am sure the 14-year-old lama was neither putting down the commendable initiative of the TCV children nor being uncaring about the plight of Tibetan cranes. He was perhaps making an observation on the inability of exile Tibetans to suitably prioritize their concerns. I am not crediting the young Karmapa with any undue political wisdom here. I don’t know him well enough to say one thing or another on this. But he was a boy who had just made a dangerous and frightening escape from a country occupied by a brutal totalitarian regime, and I think it would have been perfectly natural for him to regard his own personal safety and the lives and welfare of the people he had left behind to come before any other concern, no matter how politically correct.

Right now, people inside Tibet are living in terror. The whole country is in lockdown and the blockade has been frighteningly effective. All we have outside are rumours of draconian reprisals, intensive “patriotic” education, mandatory public denunciations of the Dalai Lama, midnight arrests, mass imprisonment, beatings, torture, even executions. In many places people are too scared to go out to buy food. Even in areas where there have been no protests, people are being arrested for having traveled to India or Nepal in the past.

Then there were the Lhasa show trials. Defendants did not have lawyers nor were they allowed to make statements. The prosecution took about five minutes each to charge the prisoners and the judge made a long speech in Chinese. Not since Stalin’s Moscow show-trials have we had anything so openly cynical and so contemptuously a gob-spit on the face of civilized jurisprudence. Woeser wrote about it in her Tibet Update 4, but there has not been a single word of condemnation in the world media.

Not only has the international media been completely shut out of Tibet, but also NGOs, academics, Christian missionaries, and even some businesses. Where members of such organizations or professions are presently in Tibet, they have been effectively neutered. I use this word instead of “neutralized” in a deliberate way. It is difficult, if not impossible to think of any other conflict area in the world, in Gaza or Darfur, where the ruling regime’s control has been so total. Even the Burmese junta is opening up the country a little to aid organizations. One would reasonably assume that our immediate concern and whatever we have in the way of funds or resources or energy would be concentrated on relieving the plight of the Tibetans inside Tibet.

But the Tibetan cabinet, the kashag, has instead decided that “… In order to express our solidarity with the great natural disaster that befell on China [sic] Tibetans across the world should shun staging demonstrations in front of the Chinese embassies in the respective host countries they live in at least for until about the end of May, this year. And write a letter, or send a message, to the concerned that they are doing so in solidarity with the quake victims — we should initiate solidarity actions by organizing prayer meetings and raising donations — explore the possibilities of establishing Sino-Tibetan Friendship Associations through such programmes.”

I also saw another official letter sent to Tibetan associations and communities asking them to pray for the welfare of “our Chinese brothers and sisters” (gyarik punda) and to conduct prayer vigils and collect donations for the victims.

The Chinese Communist security and military forces, of course, remain unmoved by such fraternal outreach efforts, and, in spite of the earthquake disaster, have not let up in their crackdown campaign in Tibet. I have no doubt that the sorrow, the fear and the uncertainty in the lives of Tibetans are the same as that of the earthquake victims, if not more intense and wounding because they result from the intentional cruelty of evil men, and not from an accident of nature. Furthermore, Tibetans are now cut off, very deliberately, from the attention of the world in a far more extreme and effective way than earthquake victims in the most remote part of Sichuan province — who are receiving unprecedented worldwide media attention.

There was a substantial degree of cold calculation in Beijing’s decision to allow the world media access to Sichuan. Simon Jenkins of the Guardian in his article “The World and its Media are Playing the Dictator’s Game” says “Inviting the media to the scene was fairly low risk. An earthquake is one big bang and, with the entire Red Army available, a rescue is a rescue. The world has fallen in love with trapped Chinese, tearful Chinese, heroic Chinese, efficient Chinese. Tibet and the torch have been forgotten and the Olympics shifted from obscene accolade to worthy reward. China is overnight OK. It leads the news.”

Dharamshala’s spiritually-inspired relief effort for the earthquake victims is reinforcing this perception in the eyes of the world. The situation inside Tibet can’t be all that bad, John Q. Public concludes, if the Dalai Lama and the exile Tibetans appear more concerned about Chinese earthquake victims than their own people. Once again we are playing right into Beijing’s hands.

Simon Jenkins also mentions “Poor little Burma. Its disaster is far greater and its deaths possibly four times worse than China’s… In China, a few more lucky souls may be pulled from the rubble. In Burma, tens of thousands continue to teeter between salvation and death. The Burmese victims need help to a degree that Chinese does not … The world and its media are playing the dictator’s game. They are doing exactly what the Chinese regime wants, and exactly what the Burmese regime wants. They are giving inordinate coverage to every crushed Sichuan school-child and ignoring two million Burmese.”

If Tibetans feel the need to do more than just help fellow Tibetans, then at least contribute to the Burmese relief effort. For compelling reasons to do so read my previous article/blog “Thinking About Burma”. Please note that the Burmese junta has just renewed Aung San Suu Kyi‘s house arrest.

The fact that many of the earthquake victims were Tibetans, Khampas from the region of Gyalrong (which has been divided and incorporated into Ngaba autonomous prefecture and Kandze autonomous prefecture) is something that requires a separate discussion.

In conclusion I ask those readers who share my dislike of institutionalized BS to help me drive a stake through the heart of the belief (that Tibetans hold so dear) that if we are good, or more precisely, if we demonstrate to the world our spiritual goodness and passivity, then somehow the world would respond by supporting our cause. That perhaps even the Chinese leadership would come around, eventually, to acknowledging our point of view — all because of our goodness. As a national policy this is not only mistaken, but ridiculous to the point of insanity.

Tibetans need to ask why the Palestinian issue and the conflict in Afghanistan, with their fanatics, suicide bombers, terrorists, warlords, mullahs, jihadists, and just plain murdering lunatics, receive far more attention and support than the Tibetan issue ever has? Is it possible that violence, or even the threat of violence, is what actually motivates the world and organizations as the United Nations to take an issue seriously? Could it be that if your struggle is a declaredly non-violent one, then it can be quite safely put on the back burner, or even completely forgotten, without any problem?

Don’t get me wrong. I am not advocating terrorism. I am all for people being peace-loving and compassionate. But if we want to be like that, we should be so out of genuine moral conviction, not as a roundabout way to ingratiate ourselves with the Chinese Communist dictators (who are anyway much too cynical to fall for anything as feeble as that) or to entice sponsors in the West, where, more often than not, it has worked — up to now.

In the meantime Gyalwa Karmapa‘s question remains unanswered “Who will save the people?”


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