Contrasting responses to crackdowns in Tibet and Burma

by Brahma Chellaney

NEW DELHI — There are striking similarities between Tibet and Burma — both are strategically located, endowed with rich natural resources, suffering under long-standing repressive rule, resisting hard power with soft power and facing an influx of Han settlers. Yet the international response to the brutal crackdown on monk-led protests in Tibet and Burma has been a study in contrast.

When the Burmese crackdown on peaceful protesters in Yangon last September left at least 31 people dead — according to a U.N. special rapporteur’s report — it ignited international indignation and a new round of U.S.-led sanctions. More than six months later, the tepid international response to an ongoing harsh crackdown in Tibet by the Burmese junta’s closest ally, China, raises the question whether that country has accumulated such power as to escape even censure over actions that are far more repressive and extensive than what Burma witnessed.

Despite growing international appeals to Beijing to respect Tibetans’ human rights and cultural identity, and to begin dialogue with the Dalai Lama, there has been no call for any penal action, however mild, against China. Even the leverage provided by the 2008 Beijing Olympics is not being seized upon to help end the repression in the Tibetan region.

When the Burmese generals cracked down on monks and their prodemocracy supporters, the outside world watched vivid images of brutality, thanks to citizen reporters using the Internet. But China employs tens of thousands of cyberpolice to censor Web sites, patrol cybercafes, monitor text and video messages from cellular phones, and hunt down Internet activists. As a result, the outside world has yet to see a single haunting image of the Chinese use of brute force against Tibetans. The only images released by Beijing are those that seek to show Tibetans in bad light, as engaged in arson and other attacks.

The continuing arbitrary arrests of Tibetans through house-to-house searches are a cause of serious concern, given the high incidence of mock trials followed by quick executions in China. That country still executes more people every year than all other nations combined, despite its adoption of new rules requiring a review of death sentences.

The important parallels between Tibet and Burma begin with the fact that Burma’s majority citizens — the ethnic Burmans — are of Tibetan stock. It was China’s 1950 invasion of Tibet that opened a new Han entrance to Burma.

But now the Han demographic invasion of the Tibetan plateau is spilling over into Burma, with Chinese presence conspicuous in Mandalay city and the areas to the northeast.

Today, the resistance against repressive rule in both Tibet and Burma is led by iconic Nobel laureates, one living in exile and the other under house detention. In fact, the Dalai Lama and Aung San Suu Kyi received the Nobel peace prize in quick succession for the same reason: For leading a non-violent struggle.

Each is a symbol of soft power, building such moral authority as to command wide international respect and influence.

Yet another parallel is that heavy repression has failed to break the resistance to autocratic rule in both Tibet and Burma. If anything, growing authoritarianism has begun to backfire, as the popular monk-led revolts in Tibet and Burma have highlighted.

Vantage location and rich natural resources underscore the importance of Tibet and Burma. The Tibetan plateau makes up one-fourth of China’s landmass. Annexation has given China control over Tibet’s immense water resources and mineral wealth, including boron, chromite, copper, iron ore, lead, lithium, uranium and zinc. Most of Asia’s major rivers originate in the Tibetan plateau, with their waters a lifeline to 47 percent of the global population living in South and Southeast Asia and China. Through its control over Asia’s main source of freshwater and its building of huge dams upstream, China holds out a latent threat to fashion water into a political weapon.

Energy-rich Burma is a land bridge between the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia. China, however, has succeeded in strategically penetrating Burma, which it values as an entryway to the Bay of Bengal and Indian Ocean. Beijing is now busy completing the Irrawaddy Corridor through Burma involving road, river, rail, port and energy-transport links.

The key difference between Tibet and Burma is that the repression in the former is by an occupying power. Months after the 1949 communist takeover in Beijing, China’s People’s Liberation Army entered what was effectively a sovereign nation in full control of its own affairs.

At the root of the present Tibet crisis is China’s failure to grant the autonomy it promised when it imposed on Tibetans a “17-Point Agreement for the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet” in 1951. Instead of agreeing to autonomy, Beijing has actually done the opposite: It has pursued Machiavellian policies by breaking up Tibet as it existed before the invasion, and by seeking to reduce Tibetans to a minority in their own homeland through the state-supported relocation of millions of Han Chinese.

It has gerrymandered Tibet by making Amdo (the present Dalai Lama’s birthplace) Qinghai province and merging eastern Kham into the Han provinces of Sichuan, Yunnan and Gansu. More recently, Chongqing province was carved out of Sichuan.

The traditional Tibetan region is a distinct cultural and economic entity. But with large, heavily Tibetan areas having been severed from Tibet, what is left is just the 1965 creation — the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), the central plateau comprising U-Tsang and western Kham, or roughly half of the Tibetan plateau. Yet China has changed even the demographic composition of TAR, where there were hardly any Han settlers before the Chinese annexation.

TAR, home to barely 40 percent of the 6.5 million Tibetans in China, was the last “autonomous region” created by the Chinese communists, the others being Inner Mongolia (1947), Xinjiang (1955), Guangxi Zhuang (1958) and Ningxia (1958). In addition, China has 30 “autonomous prefectures,” 120 “autonomous counties” and 1,256 “autonomous townships.”

All of the so-called autonomous areas are in minority homelands, which historically were ruled from Beijing only when China itself had been conquered by foreigners — first by the Mongols, and then the Manchu. Today, these areas are autonomous only in name, with that tag designed to package a fiction to the ethnic minorities. Apart from not enforcing its one-child norm in these sparsely populated but vast regions (which make up three-fifths of China’s landmass), Beijing grants them no meaningful autonomy. In Tibet, what the ravages of the Cultural Revolution left incomplete, forced “political education” since has sought to accomplish.

China grants local autonomy just to two areas, both Han — Hong Kong and Macau. In the talks it has held with the Dalai Lama’s envoys since 2002, Beijing has flatly refused to consider the idea of making Tibet a Special Administrative Region like Hong Kong and Macau. It has also rebuffed the idea of restoring Tibet, under continued Chinese rule, to the shape and size it existed in 1950.

Instead it has sought to malign the Dalai Lama for seeking “Greater Tibet” and pressed a maximalist historical position. Not content with the Dalai Lama’s 1987 concession in publicly forsaking Tibetan independence, Beijing insists that he also affirm that Tibet was always part of China. But as the Dalai Lama said in a recent interview, “Even if I make that statement, many people would just laugh. And my statement will not change past history.”

Contrary to China’s claim that its present national political structure is unalterable to accommodate Tibetan aspirations, the fact is that its constitutional arrangements have continued to change, as underscored by the creation of 47 new supposedly “autonomous” municipalities or counties in minority homelands just between 1984 and 1994, according to the work of Harvard scholar Lobsang Sangay.

Until the latest uprising, Beijing believed its weapon of repression was working well and thus saw no need to bring Tibetans together under one administrative unit, as they demand, or to grant Tibet a status equivalent to Hong Kong and Macau. President Hu Jintao, who regards Tibet as his core political base from the time he was the party boss there, has ruled out any compromise that would allow the Dalai Lama to return home from his long exile in India.

Following the uprising, Hu’s line on Tibet is likely to further harden, unless effective international pressure is brought to bear.

The contrasting international response to the repression in Tibet and Burma brings out an inconvenient truth: The principle that engagement is better than punitive action to help change state behavior is applied only to powerful autocratic countries, while sanctions are a favored tool to try and tame the weak. Sanctions against China are also precluded by the fact that the West has a huge commercial stake in that country. But Burma, where its interests are trifling, is a soft target.

So, while an impoverished Burma reels under widening sanctions, a booming China openly mocks the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Even the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre of countless hundreds of students did not trigger lasting international trade sanctions against Beijing.

No one today is suggesting trade sanctions. But given that Beijing secured the right to host the 2008 Olympics on the promise to improve its human-rights record, the free world has a duty to demand that it end its repression in Tibet or face an international boycott, if not of the Games, at least of the opening ceremony, to which world leaders have been invited. By making the success of this summer’s Olympics a prestige issue, China has handed the world valuable leverage that today is begging to be exercised.

This rare opportunity must not be frittered away.

Brahma Chellaney, a professor of strategic studies at the privately funded Center for Policy Research in New Delhi, is a regular contributor to The Japan Times.