Bill Weinberg

The Case For Tibet

With the crisis in Tibet, the left in the U.S. finds itself once again at risk of losing precious moral credibility with the American people by apologizing for atrocities. If "Free Tibet" has become an unthinking bandwagon for many, so too has a kneejerk reaction from sectors of the radical left against the Tibetan struggle.

Over the past two months since the March 10th uprising, the Chinese security forces have carried out sweeps and "disappearances," occupied monasteries and villages, and opened fire on unarmed protesters. When such actions are carried out by U.S. allies such as Israel or Colombia -- or in occupied Iraq and Afghanistan -- we don't have to ask ourselves whose side we are on. Like the Palestinians, the Tibetans have been pushed into exile, denied self-government in their homeland, and overwhelmed with settlers sent by the occupying power. We have a greater responsibility of solidarity to the Palestinians, because our government funds their oppression. But the fact that U.S. imperialism is attempting to exploit their struggle does not mean we have no responsibilities to the Tibetans.

Tibet will especially need solidarity from anti-imperialists in the West if it is to avoid becoming a pawn in the Great Game for control of Asia. The U.S. exploits the Tibetan movement for moral leverage against China (which has as its ultimate aims market penetration and military domestication, not Tibetan freedom), but is not going to risk a complete break with Beijing by supporting Tibet to the ultimate consequences. The CIA backed a small Tibetan insurgency in the '50s -- then did nothing as it was brutally crushed. The worst of the repression was in 1956 -- the same year the Hungarian workers learned a similarly bitter lesson. The Iraqi Kurds would also learn it in the aftermath of Desert Storm.

Today, the National Endowment for Democracy provides funds for Tibetan human-rights groups in exile, and the Dalai Lama has met with Bush and received the Congressional Medal of Honor. It pains us to see the Dalai Lama cozying up to Washington -- just as it should pain us to see Evo Morales and Hugo Chávez cozying up to Beijing. However, there are reasons behind such alliances. Bolivia and Venezuela need a non-U.S. market for their hydrocarbons if they are to break free of the U.S. orbit. The Tibetans perceive that they need powerful allies if they are to recover their homeland and right of self-determination. Leftist betrayal of the Tibetan struggle will only entrench whatever illusions the Tibetan exile leadership harbor about U.S. intentions.

The Dalai Lama is not demanding independence for Tibet. He wants autonomy for Tibet within a unified People's Republic of China. His demand is essentially the same as that of the Zapatistas, who demand local Maya autonomy within Mexico. He calls for coexistence with Han Chinese. Hardliners in the exile community in India -- especially in the Tibetan Youth Congress -- are rapidly losing patience with such tolerant positions, as Beijing remains intransigent. Again, a betrayal of Tibetan solidarity by progressives in the West will only validate the hardline stance.

We must also realize that the U.S.-China tensions are about imperial rivalry only (and especially the scramble for Africa's oil) -- not ideology. China is not communist in anything other than name. Some of the most savage capitalism on earth prevails in the so-called "People's Republic." The lands of peasants are expropriated in sleazy deals for industrial projects and the vulgar mansions of the nouveau riche -- leading to a wave of harsh repression against peasant communities over the past few years. Especially in the industrial heartland around Fujian, peasants have taken up farm implements against police in militant protests over the enclosure and pollution of their village lands. The state has struck back with sweeps, "disappearances" and programs of forced sterilization -- the same tactics U.S. client states use in Latin America. In "illegal" factories -- which do not exist on paper but are encouraged by corrupt authorities -- workers don't even have the minimum social security or wages, and labor in virtual servitude. Shantytowns have sprung up around the industrial cities of the northeast. The fruits of this hyper-exploitation are sold to U.S. consumers at WalMart.

Despite the recent tensions, the Beijing bureaucracy has embraced the methods and ideology of the U.S. "war on terror," and joined Washington in demonizing the Uighur self-determination struggle in China's far western Xinjiang province, known to the Muslim Uighurs as East Turkestan. The U.S. added the East Turkestan Islamic Movement to the "Foreign Terrorist Organizations" list in a bid to win China's connivance with military action against Iraq at the UN in 2002. In March of this year, with the world's eyes on Tibet, China also put down a wave of Uighur protests in Xinjiang -- while the U.S. holds Uighur militants at Guantanamo.

Whatever we thought about Chinese communism, it is long gone. Mao is being de-emphasized in the school textbooks -- and he is chiefly celebrated for giving China the nuclear bomb, not for leading a peasants' revolution. The Beijing bureaucracy may rule in the name of a Chinese Communist Party, but it arguably has more in common with Pinochet's model than Mao's. If under Mao, Han chauvinism was linked to an ultra-left ideology, today it is linked to ultra-capitalism. Tibet is turned into a Disney-fied Tibetland for the international tourism trade -- even as journalists are barred, and the inhabitants are relocated into government-controlled (and Orwellianly-named) "socialist villages."

A March 18th AP shot by photographer Ng Han Guan said it all: Wen Jiabao's giant face spews forth anti-Tibet invective from a screen overlooking a Beijing mall -- directly above a McDonald's golden-arches symbol.

Tibet could explode again during the Beijing Olympics, and progressives in the West will have to determine whose side they are on. It is important that we not be drawn into an ethnic divide-and-conquer strategy. One reason China's rulers are so intransigent on Tibet could be the potential for an alliance between the Tibetans and Han Chinese workers and peasants against the Beijing bureaucracy.

Indigenous peoples around the world instinctively understand the Tibetan struggle. They see in Tibet their own struggles for recovery of land and autonomy. When Chilean president Michelle Bachelet opposed a measure by her congress in support of Tibet, a solidarity website for Chile's Mapuche people commented: "The government of Bachelet … know that they have their own Mapcuhe Tibet." First Nations leaders in Canada have threatened to launch a Tibet-style protest campaign around the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. "We find the Tibetan situation compelling," said Phil Fontaine, chief of Canada's Assembly of First Nations.

If we are going to speak up on these and other such struggles in our own hemisphere, tactical considerations as well as moral imperatives demand that we not remain silent now about Tibet -- or loan comfort to its oppressors and occupiers.

Colombian Quagmire

The Western Hemisphere's longest, bloodiest war has become an invisible one, pushed from the headlines by the ongoing crisis in Iraq. But Washington's involvement in Colombia – which the United Nations calls the worst humanitarian disaster in the Americas, and one of the worst in the world after Congo and Darfur – is rapidly escalating.

The United States has plowed $3.3 billion in mostly military aid into Colombia since "Plan Colombia" was passed in 2000 – making it the third-greatest recipient of Washington's largesse after Israel and Egypt. Since 9/11 the focus of Plan Colombia has quietly shifted from a counternarcotics campaign to a crusade against "terrorism." And now the number of U.S. forces on the ground is set to double.

On Oct. 10 Congress voted to raise the cap on U.S. military advisers in Colombia to 800, and raise that on the number of U.S. civilian contract agents – pilots, intelligence analysts, security personnel – from 400 to 600. The measure, a little-noted part of the 2005 Defense Department authorization act, was a defeat for human rights groups, which had been pushing for a lower cap. The new 800/600 cap is exactly what the White House asked for. An earlier House version would have established a 500 cap for military personnel and kept the cap for civilians at 400, but this was rejected in joint committee. A Senate proposal establishing these lower caps – known as the Byrd amendment, for Sen. Robert Byrd – was defeated in June by a vote of 58 to 40. Among the two senators who abstained was John Kerry.

The bill says the measure is aimed at helping the Colombian government fight "against narcotics trafficking and against activities by organizations designated as terrorists," such as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC). But rights groups point to a long record of collaboration between Colombia's armed forces and the AUC, a rightist paramilitary group.

"This amounts to authorization of increased involvement by U.S. troops in an internal armed conflict in Colombia," says Kimberly Stanton, deputy director of the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA). "And it was passed without significant public debate. We are sliding into a protracted civil war in Colombia."

The vote comes just as Colombia's hard-line President Álvaro Uribe is pursuing a new offensive against the FARC guerrillas in the south of the country. While US soldiers are ostensibly barred from combat missions, there have already been reports in the Colombian press that U.S. troops are leading "scorched earth" campaigns in the southern Amazon region.

The New York Times story on the raising of the troop cap (at the bottom of page nine) claimed that "Under Mr. Uribe's administration, violence has ebbed in Colombia." But human rights groups in Colombia say that state-sponsored terror has only increased since Uribe took office in 2002.

Yenly Angelica Mendez of the group Humanidad Vigente, which works closely with peasant groups in militarized rural areas, claims that assassinations and arbitrary imprisonment have doubled under Uribe, especially in the conflicted eastern department of Arauca, which she calls "a laboratory for the so-called Democratic Security policy of the current Colombian administration."

In an interview with the independent Colombian press agency ANNCOL, Mendez said: "Since the start of the present administration human rights violations in Arauca have risen about 100 percent. The primary victims have been the social movements, who at the moment have more than ten leaders jailed, primarily those with a record of uncompromising and dedicated protest against human rights violations, and of promoting a model of alternative development."

Just four days before the Congressional vote, the body of Pedro Jaime Mosquera Cosme, an Afro-Colombian leader of the Campesino Association of Arauca, was found near the Venezuelan border, with what the group called "clear signs of torture."

The Congressional vote also coincided with the release of a new Amnesty International report on sexual violence in Colombia's war. The report, "Colombia: Scarred Bodies, Hidden Crimes," finds that rape and other sexual crimes – including genital mutilation – are frequently used by both the paramilitaries and the official security forces against communities accused of collaborating with the guerrillas.

"Women and girls are raped, sexually abused and even killed because they behave in ways deemed as unacceptable to the combatants, or because women may have challenged the authority of armed groups, or simply because women are viewed as a useful target on which to inflict humiliation on the enemy," said Susan Lee, director of Amnesty's Americas program.

The vote also came in spite of the recent release of a U.S. government document linking Uribe to the drug trade. The 1991 Defense Intelligence Agency report was released under the Freedom of Information Act to a DC-based research group, the National Security Archive. It asserts that Uribe, then a senator from the department of Antioquia, was "dedicated to collaboration with the Medellin cartel at high government levels." It named him as a "close personal friend" of cartel kingpin Pablo Escobar, and claimed he helped Escobar secure his seat as an auxiliary congressman.

Most ironic of all, the vote comes just as a vocal civil movement is emerging in Colombia to demand an end to the military option. Some 1.4 million public-sector workers walked off their jobs and took to the streets for a one-day strike Oct. 12. Organized by major trade unions as well as civil organizations, the strike demanded an end both to the rights abuses and atrocities associated with the government's counterguerrilla war and to President Uribe's push to join Bush's Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA).

Bogotá's central square, Bolívar Plaza, was filled with some 300,000 – Colombia's largest protest in recent memory. Business was also paralyzed in Medellín, Cali, Barranquilla, Bucaramanga and Cartagena, and traffic was blocked on the Panamerican Highway. In addition to protesting the war and FTAA plans, the strikers also opposed Uribe's scheme to alter the Constitution to allow himself to seek another term in office. Uribe, Bush's closest ally in South America, has refused to talk with the FARC, and a negotiated settlement to the conflict was among the strikers' demands.

Also part of this general movement for peace are indigenous communities now standing up to demand that all armed groups in the war respect their constitutionally recognized right to autonomy. After marching four days from their communities in Colombia's heavily indigenous southern department of Cauca, some 60,000 Nasa Indians and their supporters arrived in the city of Cali on Sept. 17 for a massive rally at the city's stadium. The unprecedented march was held in defiance of threats and intimidation by paramilitaries, guerrillas and official armed forces alike – including the abduction of indigenous leaders.

Rights advocates fear that in next year's Defense Department authorization act, the White House will again push to get the cap on U.S. troop levels raised – or done away with altogether, as is proposed by California Rep. Duncan Hunter.

"The American people are not aware that we are increasingly involved, with all attention focused on Iraq," says WOLA's Stanton. And to the extent that Colombia now garners any media attention at all in the United States, it certainly doesn't include the new civil movement, which is demanding an end to precisely the policy that Washington is directing and abetting.

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