OM COMMUNICATION

You gotta fight for your right to freedom

by Pierre Fuller

Adam Yauch, MCA of the Beastie Boys, has come a long way since 1986′s “License to Ill,” the obnoxious, wildly juvenile album that launched the careers of the punk-turned-hip-hop trio from New York. And not just musically. He’s become one of the voices of a worldwide political movement, one heard in Tokyo for the second time last Sunday with the staging of the eighth Tibetan Freedom Concert.

Adam Yauch talking about saving Tibet and its culture

On a 1992 trek in the Himalayas, Yauch witnessed firsthand the hardships of the Tibetan people under Chinese occupation and learned of their nonviolent struggle for freedom spearheaded by their beloved leader-in-exile, the Dalai Lama. Yauch, whose rap lyrics have at times expressed the same spirit of nonviolence and compassion, was moved by their steadfastness and decided to act. He soon established the Milarepa Fund, the New York-based lobbying and activist organization that forms the heart of the American movement for a Tibet free of Chinese or foreign rule.

Eight benefit concerts followed, beginning in San Francisco in 1996 and culminating in four shows on the same day two years ago — in Amsterdam, Sydney, Chicago and here in Tokyo. (Next stop? Possibly London this fall.)

With Yauch’s pull in the music world, Milarepa manages to assemble incredibly varied lineups for its benefit shows, with artists ranging from Rage Against the Machine and Run DMC to Herbie Hancock and Yoko Ono. Proceeds are donated to groups working to further the Tibetan cause and promote nonviolence.

The Beastie Boys used samples of Tibetan chants on their 1994 album “Ill Communication,” not to mention a track, “Bodhisattva Vow,” devoted to Buddhist thought. They’ve also performed at several of the benefit shows, and (in a near whisper, with hardly a hint of his stage voice) Yauch says King Ad-Rock and Mike D remain “supportive.” But this is clearly MCA’s show.

Beijing considers Tibet to be a part of China — its medieval, impoverished backyard that it’s now helping to modernize — but Yauch maintains the Chinese are there for completely different reasons. He says they “illegally invaded” in 1949 to pillage resources (uranium deposits, timber and monastic gold reserves), “expand their map a bit” to the strategic summits of Asia, and ease overpopulation and (today) the burgeoning number of laid-off workers.

The eighth Tibetan Freedom Conert was held last week in Tokyo.

The environmental toll of Chinese industry — what Beijing might call the growing pains of development — is seen by many Tibetans as the death throes of their once-pristine, sacred environment. And, since everywhere in Asia is downriver from the “roof of the world,” Yauch points out, the clear-cutting of Tibet’s forests is affecting all major rivers, including, ironically, China’s own beloved Yellow and Yangtze rivers.

Without its nonviolent course, Tibet “would just be another struggle going on in a Central Asian country,” concedes Andrew Bryson, executive director of Milarepa. The Tibetans have instead attracted supporters from all around the world, including Japan. Milarepa, who opened a Tokyo office after the fund’s first gig here in 1999, put Sunday’s attendance at Tokyo Bay NK Hall at a near-capacity 6,500. UA and Thee Michelle Gun Elephant performed as well as Brahman, Buffalo Daughter and the Tibetan group Chaksampa, who’d appeared at previous Freedom shows, which have together raised over $2.5 million for various Tibet-related causes.

The show was both a celebration of the Tibetan spirit — with arts and crafts on sale as well as Tibetan music — and a springboard for activism — videos, speeches by Tibetan monks and petition campaigns accompanied the acts. Both petitions — one calling on the Japanese government to support the cause, the other against awarding the 2008 Olympics to Beijing — were signed by over 80 percent of attendees, according to Milarepa.

The Tibetan freedom movement has at times been charged with painting an idyllic picture of pre-’49 Tibet. “For thousands of years, Tibet enjoyed freedom on the roof of the world . . .” reads a Free Tibet poster distributed by Milarepa. Tibet, like any place, was no stranger to war, and how much freedom a Tibetan serf enjoyed, especially in one of the harshest climates on Earth, is a question the Beijing camp would be first to raise.

Yauch responds by turning the question around. “If China’s doing so much to help Tibet,” he says, “why won’t they give press free reign to visit to talk with people? . . . Why are they arresting people . . . for going and videotaping traditional dance? If they’re doing so much to help Tibet, what are they afraid of?”

The Milarepa Fund is as much a political lobbying group — pressuring multinationals and governments — as it is a fundraiser. Milarepa had a hand in the World Bank’s decision to drop a plan to fund a program to resettle Han and Chinese Muslims on Tibetan lands. Now Milarepa seeks to dissuade BP-Amoco from assisting Petrochina in the construction of an oil pipeline through China’s Qinghai Province, which borders Tibet to the northeast and whose population is largely ethnic Tibetan. Why? Because the environmental destruction and social dislocation caused by such projects harm more than help the Tibetans themselves, the group argues.

The movement isn’t against economic progress for Tibet, says Bryson, but against “bad development” or what he calls the “baggage” that inevitably comes with Beijing’s projects, such as the railroad it plans to complete to the Tibetan capital, Lhasa, in seven years, which it fears will open the floodgates to settlers and troops. “Horrible,” Yauch calls it, “. . . incredibly destructive.”

The train project, Bryson says, “is a good excuse to pour troops into (Tibet), and once they finish the projects they end up staying. . . . There won’t be Tibetans working on the projects . . . they’ll bring in migrant workers. . . . These projects are another smoke screen for increased militarization and population transfer.”

It’s oddly fitting that a 19th-century technology — the railroad — could end up being what Yauch calls “a nail in the coffin” for Tibetan culture. The parallels with the United States’ own “Go West, young man” expansion of the 1800s are not lost on Beijing, which, according to Bryson, draws “a lot of lessons” from the American experience, a textbook it uses to form settlement policy in its own non-Han western extremities.

But, should Americans be faulting China today when the United States was created with much the same treatment of native populations?

“Just because people stood by in the past and let things like that happen doesn’t necessarily mean that they should now,” Bryson responds.

Vagrancy, liquor stores and rural ghettos euphemized as “reservations” are hardly the advanced civilization white men promised Native Americans. Today the Han make their own promises to the Tibetans. While the Native Americans’ cultural decimation is no positive precedent for the Tibetan movement, it is a call to action:

“There’s still a chance,” Yauch says.

Sunday’s show may well have planted the seeds for securing that chance one day — or at least slowing the destruction of the Tibetan way of life.