To Die With Dignity in Your Own Land: Tibet, China, and the Politics of Disaster

To Die With Dignity in Your Own Land: Tibet, China, and the Politics of Disaster
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The Tibetans that died in Jyekundo had the right to die as Tibetans, not as Chinese.

The tragic 6.9 magnitude earthquake that struck Jyekundo yesterday has been consistently labeled the "China Quake" by the mainstream media. It is worth noting, for many reasons, that Jyekundo is firmly planted in what was formerly Tibet and the vast majority of the victims are Tibetan.

Jyekundo is part of historic Tibet's Kham province. Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, control over Kham and the wide, sparsely populated region of Amdo vacillated between Chinese and Muslim warlords and the Tibetan government in Lhasa. Finally, after a period of Tibetan independence, Kham was invaded and occupied by the People's Liberation Army along with the rest of Tibet in 1950. The entire region was divided by the government of the People's Republic of China into its current provinces in 1965, but years of occupation and the migration of Han Chinese west into Tibetan provinces have not diminished this region's Tibetan identity. Even China refers to the area as a "Tibetan area," and the particular prefecture -- Yushu -- is 97% Tibetan.

When Chinese state media refers to "Qinghai province," the vast majority of what they are referring to -- outside of the city of Xining, which holds 66% of the provinces population -- is historically Tibet.

The people of this rugged, mountainous region have always been fiercely nationalistic. From the mid-1950s through the 1970s Kham-pas and Amdo-wa formed the brunt of resistance to Chinese rule. Contrary to the popular view of Tibetans as passives, the Chushi Gangdruk warriors were anything but. They fought a longstanding guerrilla war against the Chinese, only laying down their weapons when directly asked to by the Dalai Lama. Many of these warriors were executed along with their families; many more committed suicide rather than face Chinese rule; and many others escaped into exile, where they still live.

Most of this history is lost on or ignored by reporters and politicians. Both CNN and BBC coverage of the quake makes little or no mention of the victims as Tibetan. No media outlets have mentioned the region's historic independence. In most of the coverage, Tibetan names have been Sinocized and Xinhua, China's state propaganda apparatus, has been quoted as the primary source. Hillary Clinton, in a brief statement of condolence yesterday, made absolutely no mention of the word Tibet, stating instead that "our thoughts and prayers are with... all the people of China." By contrast, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a long time supporter of Tibetan rights, made sure to reference the victims as Tibetan.

A tragedy is, of course, a tragedy, beyond any political and historical squabbling. But the political and historical backdrop to this horrible quake is important, as it informs how events will take shape over the days to come. As Lindsey Hilsum reported on World News Blog, the fact that this disaster took place in historic Tibet makes it not just a disaster, but an issue of extreme political sensitivity for China. This is a region that does not look favorably on Chinese rule. It is a region that saw widespread independence protests in 2008, including the takeover a Chinese police station by Tibetan protesters mounted on horseback. And the last thing the Chinese government wants is to bring any international attention to this restive area or give the local people any further reason to protest.

Public gatherings are banned in this part of Tibet, and from all on the ground reports it is already clear that the Chinese soldiers that have been trucked in Jyekundo are there to serve two purposes. They are there to help remove victims from the rubble, and they are also there to make sure that Tibetans -- homeless and freezing and distraught -- do not begin to demonstrate or make political statements. Wen Jiaobao, when outlining the plan for disaster relief yesterday, made sure to mention that efforts were being made to "safeguard social stability." In other disaster areas, this would translate as preventing looting and crime. In Jyekundo, it means preventing the locals from political agitation. As of yesterday, Tibetan monks and PLA soldiers were unified in their efforts to rescue schoolchildren from the quake's rubble; but more monks are on the way from neighboring monasteries, and the more days go by in which Tibetans are forced by circumstance to live in miserable conditions under the watchful eye of the PLA soldiers whom they already despise, it is highly likely Jyekundo will turn into a powder keg. And that's when China will kill the switch on any shred of media openness.

A few international reporters made their way to the quake site early and have been allowed to report relatively unimpeded. But reports have already started that access is being limited. Minnie Chan from South China Morning Post stated that the PRC has issued a ban on reporters traveling to the region. And, as the New Yorker posted yesterday, the Chinese government propaganda apparatus has quickly sought to control exactly how the story of the Jyekundo quake is told, limiting results on the state-sanctioned search engine and continually and relentlessly referring to the the quake as the "China quake" and the victims as Chinese.

This amounts to a second tragedy to this tragedy -- the death of the true story. Quite simply, the people of Jyekundo are not Chinese. They are Tibetan. And the Tibetans that died in Jyekundo had the right to die as Tibetans and not Chinese. They had -- and have -- the right to have their story told correctly and justly. It is a story of a fiercely independent people, of nomads and warriors, herders and farmers, tradesmen and monks, and artisans and craftsmen. It is a story of a people invaded -- not liberated -- by an occupying force and of two generations under foreign occupation. It is a story of a people who struggled to maintain their Buddhist faith and their cultural traditions during the horror and mass starvation of the cultural revolution, who picked up arms and then were silenced, and who have borne the weight and humiliation of occupation with what can only be called grace. The victims of Jyekundo were and are a distinct people. They are not Chinese, they are Tibetan, and they had a right to die with dignity, in their own land.

Our responsibility, the responsibility of those who can -- with very little effort -- find the truth to this story, is to tell it.

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