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Western Media Miss the Real Tibet Story
Michael Backman
theage.com.au


Beyond China, there are many vested interests wanting a stake in the future of Tibetan rule.

After several years of highlighting wrongdoers in Asia in these pages and providing viewpoints that run counter to prevailing wisdom, I've at last received my first death threat.

Probably not that serious (it came anonymously by email) but something of a career milestone, nonetheless. It came from someone who claims to be a Tibetan refugee in India and a follower of the Dalai Lama.

My correspondent informed me that the next time I visit India I will be killed (eaten, he said) and my family will never find my body.

What annoyed my correspondent was a column I wrote last year for The Age in which I highlighted some aspects of the Dalai Lama that most media reports ignore: the fact that in running his government in exile, he has been extraordinarily nepotistic by appointing many relatives to senior positions, and that during the 1950s, '60s and into the '70s he was personally on the CIA's payroll, for example.

Last week, the column was reproduced without permission on a North American website and, in the context of the problems in Tibet, it added to the already fraught emotions of those who care strongly about this issue.

The original column was written to coincide with the Dalai Lama's visit to Australia last year. It was written to counterbalance the huge, uncritical media coverage given to the Dalai Lama in the Australian media at that time.

I have always felt that the coverage accorded to the Dalai Lama in the Western media has been excessively favourable and uncritical, just as the media coverage in China of the Dalai Lama is appallingly biased but in the negative.

Clearly, in the past few weeks, ethnic Tibetans have been killed by the Chinese military. This has been widely reported.

But it is also clear that ethnic Chinese have been murdered by ethnic Tibetans in racially based attacks. This has not been made as clear in the Western media. And yet, the Western media were rightly appalled in 1998 when ethnic Chinese were raped and murdered in Jakarta for similar reasons- perceived excessive economic control at the expense of non-Chinese locals.

In Lhasa, four Chinese girls and one Tibetan girl were burned alive when a clothing store in which they worked was set alight by Tibetan protesters. But the rampage against the Chinese was not as simple as an attack on Han Chinese. Ethnic Chinese Muslim traders were also rounded on. Muslim traders have a centuries-old presence in Lhasa, a legacy of the ancient Silk Road. But in the unrest two weeks ago, the main mosque in Lhasa's old quarter was also burned down.

Beyond China, there are many vested interests wanting a stake in the future of Tibetan rule.

AFTER several years of highlighting wrongdoers in Asia in these pages and providing viewpoints that run counter to prevailing wisdom, I've at last received my first death threat.

Probably not that serious (it came anonymously by email) but something of a career milestone, nonetheless. It came from someone who claims to be a Tibetan refugee in India and a follower of the Dalai Lama.

My correspondent informed me that the next time I visit India I will be killed (eaten, he said) and my family will never find my body.

What annoyed my correspondent was a column I wrote last year for The Age in which I highlighted some aspects of the Dalai Lama that most media reports ignore: the fact that in running his government in exile, he has been extraordinarily nepotistic by appointing many relatives to senior positions, and that during the 1950s, '60s and into the '70s he was personally on the CIA's payroll, for example.

Last week, the column was reproduced without permission on a North American website and, in the context of the problems in Tibet, it added to the already fraught emotions of those who care strongly about this issue.

The original column was written to coincide with the Dalai Lama's visit to Australia last year. It was written to counterbalance the huge, uncritical media coverage given to the Dalai Lama in the Australian media at that time.

I have always felt that the coverage accorded to the Dalai Lama in the Western media has been excessively favourable and uncritical, just as the media coverage in China of the Dalai Lama is appallingly biased but in the negative.

Clearly, in the past few weeks, ethnic Tibetans have been killed by the Chinese military. This has been widely reported.

But it is also clear that ethnic Chinese have been murdered by ethnic Tibetans in racially based attacks. This has not been made as clear in the Western media. And yet, the Western media were rightly appalled in 1998 when ethnic Chinese were raped and murdered in Jakarta for similar reasons - perceived excessive economic control at the expense of non-Chinese locals.

In Lhasa, four Chinese girls and one Tibetan girl were burned alive when a clothing store in which they worked was set alight by Tibetan protesters. But the rampage against the Chinese was not as simple as an attack on Han Chinese. Ethnic Chinese Muslim traders were also rounded on. Muslim traders have a centuries-old presence in Lhasa, a legacy of the ancient Silk Road. But in the unrest two weeks ago, the main mosque in Lhasa's old quarter was also burned down.

The apparent swamping of Tibetan culture by Chinese migrants is a tragedy. But the killing of ethnic Chinese small-business people, or indeed anyone else, is also wrong and no doubt one of the reasons why the Dalai Lama has threatened to resign.

But again, the treatment of this seems to suggest the Western media have their own bias when it comes to reporting on Tibet. Unfortunately, this blunts criticism that can be made of China when it comes to its own propagandising.

With regards to China and Tibet, unequivocal right does not reside on either side. Both sides point to sound historical arguments to bolster their case. China genuinely believes that Tibet has long been a part of China. The Tibetans genuinely believe the opposite.

Ordinary Chinese in China regard the Tibetans as thankless and selfish. On my last visit to Beijing, one young Chinese described them as aggressive and unappreciative of all the development that China has provided them. I told him that their main concern is that they are being swamped by Chinese migrants seemingly as a calculated attempt at cultural genocide. A look of surprise flashed across his face. He'd not heard this argument before and yet its logic clearly appealed to him. He'd never heard it because the Chinese media have never reported it.

Nationalism has been rising in China, so it is unlikely that such a view will get a hearing in China. Many Western investors will probably find their passage in China eased if they make clear statements in favour of China on the issue too.

Potentially, China did do ordinary Tibetans a great service when it overthrew the rule of the Dalai Lama, the rich monasteries and a coterie of wealthy aristocratic families whose members typically were so laden with Sicilian coral, Iranian turquoise and Burmese rubies that they could barely move. The overthrow has its parallel in King Henry VIII's dissolution of the monasteries of England that had developed a stranglehold over the land and the lives of the peasants.

Unfortunately, in Tibet's case, what replaced theocratic, self-serving rule was scarcely much better - the Chinese Communist Party. The local despots were replaced by foreign ones.

The first Starbucks in Lhasa is probably only one or two years away. This is a tragedy, too, particularly for the many rich Western travellers who would rather Tibet stay stuck in the Middle Ages for their own personal enjoyment, much in the same way economic sanctions have preserved Burma as the world's largest living museum.

The vested interests that surround the Tibet issue are many and make it a great deal more complicated than simple slogans such as "Free Tibet" suggest. If China is ever going to neutralise this issue, it is going to have to learn to act with a level of sophistication, maturity and self-confidence that it now lacks. Apologising to Tibetans for their suffering under Chinese rule will need to be part of the package. But obviously such a degree of enlightenment is years off.

http://www.michaelbackman.com

 



Behind Dalai Lama's Holy Cloak
Michael Backman


The Dalai Lama show is set to roll into Australia again next month and again Australian politicians are getting themselves in a twist as to whether they should meet him.

Rarely do journalists challenge the Dalai Lama.

Partly it is because he is so charming and engaging. Most published accounts of him breeze on as airily as the subject, for whom a good giggle and a quaint parable are substitutes for hard answers. But this is the man who advocates greater autonomy for millions of people who are currently Chinese citizens, presumably with him as head of their government. So, why not hold him accountable as a political figure?

No mere spiritual leader, he was the head of Tibet's government when he went into exile in 1959. It was a state apparatus run by aristocratic, nepotistic monks that collected taxes, jailed and tortured dissenters and engaged in all the usual political intrigues. (The Dalai Lama's own father was almost certainly murdered in 1946, the consequence of a coup plot.)

The government set up in exile in India and, at least until the 1970s, received $US1.7 million a year from the CIA.

The money was to pay for guerilla operations against the Chinese, notwithstanding the Dalai Lama's public stance in support of non-violence, for which he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989.

The Dalai Lama himself was on the CIA's payroll from the late 1950s until 1974, reportedly receiving $US15,000 a month ($US180,000 a year).

The funds were paid to him personally, but he used all or most of them for Tibetan government-in-exile activities, principally to fund offices in New York and Geneva, and to lobby internationally.

Details of the government-in-exile's funding today are far from clear. Structurally, it comprises seven departments and several other special offices. There have also been charitable trusts, a publishing company, hotels in India and Nepal, and a handicrafts distribution company in the US and in Australia, all grouped under the government-in-exile's Department of Finance.

The government was involved in running 24 businesses in all, but decided in 2003 that it would withdraw from these because such commercial involvement was not appropriate.

Several years ago, I asked the Dalai Lama's Department of Finance for details of its budget. In response, it claimed then to have annual revenue of about $US22 million, which it spent on various health, education, religious and cultural programs.

The biggest item was for politically related expenditure, at $US7 million. The next biggest was administration, which ran to $US4.5 million. Almost $US2 million was allocated to running the government-in-exile's overseas offices.

For all that the government-in-exile claims to do, these sums seemed remarkably low.

It is not clear how donations enter its budgeting. These are likely to run to many millions annually, but the Dalai Lama's Department of Finance provided no explicit acknowledgment of them or of their sources.

Certainly, there are plenty of rumours among expatriate Tibetans of endemic corruption and misuse of monies collected in the name of the Dalai Lama.

Many donations are channelled through the New York-based Tibet Fund, set up in 1981 by Tibetan refugees and US citizens. It has grown into a multimillion-dollar organisation that disburses $US3 million each year to its various programs.

Part of its funding comes from the US State Department's Bureau for Refugee Programs.

Like many Asian politicians, the Dalai Lama has been remarkably nepotistic, appointing members of his family to many positions of prominence. In recent years, three of the six members of the Kashag, or cabinet, the highest executive branch of the Tibetan government-in-exile, have been close relatives of the Dalai Lama.

An older brother served as chairman of the Kashag and as the minister of security. He also headed the CIA-backed Tibetan contra movement in the 1960s.

A sister-in-law served as head of the government-in-exile's planning council and its Department of Health.

A younger sister served as health and education minister and her husband served as head of the government-in-exile's Department of Information and International Relations.

Their daughter was made a member of the Tibetan parliament in exile. A younger brother has served as a senior member of the private office of the Dalai Lama and his wife has served as education minister.

The second wife of a brother-in-law serves as the representative of the Tibetan government-in-exile for northern Europe and head of international relations for the government-in-exile. All these positions give the Dalai Lama's family access to millions of dollars collected on behalf of the government-in-exile.

The Dalai Lama might now be well-known but few really know much about him. For example, contrary to widespread belief, he is not a vegetarian. He eats meat. He has done so (he claims) on a doctor's advice following liver complications from hepatitis. I have checked with several doctors but none agrees that meat consumption is necessary or even desirable for a damaged liver.

What has the Dalai Lama actually achieved for Tibetans inside Tibet?

If his goal has been independence for Tibet or, more recently, greater autonomy, then he has been a miserable failure.

He has kept Tibet on the front pages around the world, but to what end? The main achievement seems to have been to become a celebrity. Possibly, had he stayed quiet, fewer Tibetans might have been tortured, killed and generally suppressed by China.

In any event, the current Dalai Lama is 72 years old. His successor- a reincarnation - will be appointed as a child and it will be many years before he plays a meaningful role. As far as China is concerned, that is one problem that will take care of itself, irrespective of whether or not John Howard or Kevin Rudd meet the current Dalai Lama
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