The tragic news broke this morning that an eighth Tibetan had self-immolated in protest against the repressive policies of the occupying Chinese authorities. Such acts, previously unprecedented in Tibet, underscore not only the desperation and hopelessness that Tibetans are now feeling, but also the extent to which they have been consistently failed by governments around the world.
Unlike dealings with South Africa under apartheid, Zimbabwe under Mugabe or Burma under the military junta, issues of human rights abuses, supressed freedoms and violent crackdowns have never been anywhere near central to other states’ dialogue with China. Of course they have been raised; as recently as this year UK Foreign Secretary William Hague was praised for speaking out during his visit to China, whilst US President Barak Obama refused to bow to Beijing’s pressure and met with the Dalai Lama. Yet such gestures remain dangerously close to tokenism and almost invariably futile when they only ever take place on the periphery, or as window dressing for the real focus of trade and economics.
Unarguably, it would be futile to expect governments to focus on Tibet first and trade second when dealing with the state so often dubbed “the worlds next superpower” – that would run completely against the realpolitikal grain of international relations. But still, the fact that China occupies a nation the size of Western Europe, regularly subjecting its people to disappearances, massacres and a litany of other abuses, should merit far greater attention than tick-box statements and meaningless expressions of concern.
The consistent lack of any serious diplomatic pressure on the Chinese government thus far, has given it an almost free hand in tyrannising the Tibetan people. Notably, had the current succession of self-immolations not occurred, the Tibet movement would almost certainly have been focussing on the second anniversary of the execution of two Tibetan protestors, the first in more than half a decade, following rigged and politically charged trials. That these came just eleven months after the UK’s Labour government recognised Chinese sovereignty over Tibet, in order to win Beijing’s favour, was a telling sign. Then Foreign Secretary David Miliband had claimed that the move would strengthen external influence over the Chinese government on issues of human rights; in reality it did exactly the opposite by sending a clear signal that the UK, like its allies in Europe and North America, was willing to side-line and sell-out the Tibetan people, in order to progress its own economic goals.
It is hardly surprising then, that with peaceful protest routinely supressed through the barrel of a gun and appeals to foreign governments consistently falling on deaf ears, some Tibetans have eventually begun to see no option left open to them other than expressing defiance by sacrificing their own lives.
Now – with eight young men dead in the Ngaba region, a harsh security crackdown there exacerbating tensions further by the day, and the nation on the brink of crisis, it is time for foreign governments to step up and make Tibet one of the central issues in their dealings with China.
Activist groups around the world are rapidly coordinating global action calling for urgent diplomatic intervention to save Tibetan lives. Their countries’ leaders must listen if the current tragic situation is not to spiral further out of control. A strong global call, through unilateral channels or at the upcoming G20 meeting in France, for the Chinese government to cease its crackdown in Ngaba, account for the whereabouts and wellbeing of those thought to have survived their self-immolation protests, and release all monks arrested in response to the incidents, is nothing short of essential if the international community is the avoid failing Tibet once more.
Time and time again Tibetans have suffered and died because of global political inaction. This time around must be different.