December 20, 2002


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The Rediff Special/Claude Arpi

A spokesperson for Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders), winner of the 1999 Nobel Peace Prize, recently announced that the 'MSF flag will no longer be flying in Lhasa in January.' The communiqué makes ominous reading.

MSF is a private, international organization created in 1971 by Bernard Kouchner, a charismatic former French minister. Most members are doctors, though several other professionals contribute regularly to MSF operations -- assisting victims of natural or man-made disasters and armed conflict. While doing so, MSF maintains complete independence from all political, economic, and religious powers.

Yet, acting according to universal medical ethics and the right to humanitarian assistance is not an easy task. MSF has experienced this for more than a decade in China. To maintain complete independence from the authorities is another problem. An MSF annual report noted the situation in China: 'While a Western lifestyle is catching on in the big cities, economic reforms have resulted in drastic reductions in funding for health, welfare, and education that have particularly affected the rural areas. Here, the public health system has collapsed… an estimated 500 million people have no access to safe drinking water.'

MSF says it wants to be more involved in treating AIDS patients. It might face a problem. As the media sought to highlight the AIDS problem in China in recent months, the Chinese government has been slow to react. To hide a problem rather than tackle it is an old habit of the Chinese Communist Party. In tackling AIDS, China has a problem akin to what it faced during the Great Leap Forward though nobody is ready to admit the facts.

After Bill Gates decided to invest $100 million to fight AIDS in India, Patrick Smith, author of Japan: A Reinterpretation, wrote, 'In New Delhi, Gates discussed the threat of an AIDS epidemic with Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Then he was publicly greeted at a hospice for those suffering from the disease. You can't help thinking of China, can you? China is where AIDS is a near-certain catastrophe already, where the government doesn't want to talk about it, where physicians fighting the disease are arrested, not assisted. Smith rightly asks: 'The response to the AIDS crisis in Beijing and New Delhi suggests it's time to look again and ask new questions: Which nation is on the better course? Which is sturdier, which more prone to tipping over?'

In Tibet, the situation is much worse and one can imagine the difficulties that MSF and other NGOs face in seeking to operate among a population termed 'a marginalized minority.'

The main problem affecting China are today HIV, sexually transmitted diseases, tuberculosis and malnutrition. Further, drug users, prostitutes and the poor do not have access to health care services and education. In Tibet, these ills are aggravated by the immigration policy undertaken by Beijing to make the 'minorities of China' minorities in their homelands.

The MSF program in Tibet was not subversive. The MSF was mainly involved in training doctors and physiotherapists in treating the kashin-beck (big bone) disease in Lhasa, Lhoka, and Shigatse and in researching this at present incurable disease. It was also teaching local doctors and medical supervisors how to use essential drugs, treat respiratory tract infections and diarrhoea, and improve hygiene in clinics.

But in working exclusively for the 'minorities,' they were not going in the same direction as Beijing. Christopher Stokes, an MSF director, diplomatically commented: 'We're closing our operation in Tibet for operational and human resources reasons but we want to keep the door open to possibly go back. Tibet is a hard environment to work in an MSF-style way.'

The official reason put forth for pulling out of Tibet was a reshuffle of MSF operational strategy in the area.

The fact is that for a long time, relations between the MSF and the Chinese authorities in Tibet were no smooth. In June 1997, two members of the MSF team were sent back. According to Chinese officials they had lived for too long in Tibet. Today, if they want to continue their good work in other parts of China, MSF cannot openly say they constantly had to face conflicting Chinese policies, corrupt officials, and bureaucratic hurdles in Tibet.

The increased difficulties that signal a hardening of the Chinese position vis-à-vis Tibet have contributed the most to the charity outfit's decision to leave Tibet. Some other facts also reveal Beijing's stiffer stance at the Roof of the World.

Hopes were raised when in early September, for the first time in nine years, Beijing received two of the Dalai Lama's envoys. It appears nothing tangible came of the visit, except for the fact that the Tibetan government-in-exile requested their sympathizers not to demonstrate during President Jiang Zemin's 'last' visit to the United States. For some reasons, Jiang hates demonstrations. I was given an eyewitness account of how, after some Swiss citizens demonstrated for 'a free Tibet' during a visit the Chinese leader made to Switzerland, he refused to eat at the official banquet and finally declared: 'Today, you have lost a friend.'

In Tibet, particularly in eastern Tibet, one can see a tightening of State control over religious activities. The best-known case is the arrest of a very charismatic Tibetan Lama, Tulku Tenzin Deleg, who was detained in April on suspicion of being involved in bomb explosions. At that time, a source had told the reliable Tibetan Information Network: 'The authorities' accusations seem to be very vague -- they are not saying that he planted the bombs, but that he was involved in some sort of conspiracy.'

What probably was troubling the authorities was that in the 1990s, Tenzin Deleg had supported the local people in reconstruction various small monasteries and a nunnery. He was actively involved in activities to provide homes and education for children from poor local families. In Lithang, Sichuan province, he opened a school for up to 130 Tibetan and Chinese children, mostly orphans, providing education in Tibetan, Chinese, mathematics and music. This was without the permission of the local Chinese officials.

He had been detained in 1998 for having established new monasteries 'in a private capacity by holding aloft the banner of Lamaism without approval of the state government,' and because he had 'violated the established policies of the State.' Because of his social work, the Chinese suspected him to be the secret leader of a popular protest against deforestation in the area by a Chinese timber company.

After the September 11, 2001 attacks, the Chinese government stance hardened and even a mild protest in favour of the environment have been branded terrorism. The Chinese Criminal Law was amended in December 2001 for those who 'organise or lead a terrorist organisation' and imprisonment was increased from 10 years to life. This would be fair if the term 'terrorist organisation' was defined.

According to media reports, on December 2, a court hearing was held at the Karze Intermediate People's Court. Tulku Tenzin and one of his assistants were charged with alleged involvement in a bomb blast incident in April 2002 in Chengdu and with "engaging in splitist activities." The hearings were held in camera with no lawyer to defend the accused.

The Chinese authorities in Kardze are known to have been concerned about Tulku Tenzin Deleg's influence in the area and his connections with the Dalai Lama. Deleg first came under close political scrutiny after a five-year stay in India from 1982 to 1987, when he studied at a monastery in Karnataka.

Several human rights organizations have asked for an open retrial with the Tibetans being represented by a lawyer. So far, there has been no answer from the Chinese government, even though the matter must have come up for review during the recent meeting between representatives of China and the United States that just concluded on the sensitive issue of human rights in China, Tibet and Xinjiang. Beijing had hailed the outcome of the meeting as 'constructive' and 'fruitful,' saying differences had been narrowed and understanding enhanced.

However there is no indication that Lorne Craner, the US assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labour affairs, got any assurance regarding a fair retrial of Tulku Tenzin and his assistant.

Amazingly, Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman Liu Jianchao said, 'Both sides introduced their own human rights situation and held in-depth exchange of views on judicial reforms, religious freedom, and beliefs and exchanges between the two sides in the human rights field and other issues of common interest.'

It is not clear what picture Craner gave of his country's human rights. However, it is certain that the Bush Administration has today more pressing issues than human rights to tackle, especially when Washington badly needs Beijing's support in the Security Council for its Baghdad adventure.

As for China, many human rights groups have alleged that China has imposed repressive laws in Tibet and Xinjiang in the name of fighting separatism. China responds that Muslim separatists in northwest China's Xinjiang have colluded with Osama bin Laden's network to separate the oil-rich region from China and establish East Turkistan. There might be some truth in this, but why connect it with Tibet?

All this does not sound good for the Tibetans. The arrival of Hu Jintao at the helm of China, with his known aversion for Tibet, as well the confused situation in Xinjiang and the departure of a prestigious NGO like MSF, does not augur well for the Roof of the World. However, the more and more nervous reactions of the Chinese State show its deep insecurity.

Postscript: It was heartening to hear that Hollywood actor Richard Gere, chairman of the International Campaign for Tibet, has presented the 'Light of Truth Award' to the People of India 'in recognition of their critical assistance to Tibetan people for more than four decades.' Gere declared, 'No nation has helped the Tibetans more than India. Its contribution remains unparalleled as the displaced people have not only been able to rebuild their monastic institutions but have also prospered materially.'

One regrets that Gere had to present the award to former Lok Sabha Speaker Rabi Ray, and not to President A P J Abdul Kalam or Prime Minister A B Vajpayee.

Hu Jintao: From Roof of the World to Top of the Party
Envoy in Tibet
American Dichotomy
Fear Over Tibet
While the Wise Men of India Talk and Sleep
The Land of Passes
True friendship begins by getting to the bottom of yesterday's problems

Image: Rahil Shaikh

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