Tibet: Whats behind the protests?

As preparations pick up steam for this summer’s Beijing Olympics, the world has looked with growing dismay at the violence associated with protests seeking independence for Tibet.

While casualty figures are conflicting, it is tragic that deaths have occurred both among demonstrators for independence and among victims of violent protest actions that reportedly included torching of public buildings and homes in Tibet’s capital, Lhasa. It is urgent to end the loss of life.

The protesters acknowledge they are motivated by the publicity surrounding the Olympic Games. The head of the Tibetan Youth League, a major exile organization calling for independence, told the Chicago Tribune that with the spotlight on the Chinese, “We want to test them. We want them to show their true colors. That’s why we’re pushing this.”

The U.S. has consistently backed supporters of Tibet’s independence from China. Tellingly, the Voice of America — a notorious instigator of opposition in socialist countries during the cold war — said this week it is stepping up its broadcasts into Tibet.

Tibet, closely linked with China long before the 1949 revolution, has gained much, both economically and socially, from being an autonomous region within People’s China. While much remains to be done, the region has come from being an abysmally poor backwater to being an area where more and more people, both ethnic Tibetans and migrants from elsewhere in China, can access health care, education, and jobs in a modernizing economy.

Undoubtedly Tibetan culture could also use more support. But some western observers point out that over 90 percent of Tibetans speak Tibetan as their first language, and report that both Buddhism and the arts are doing well there.

The current situation should also be seen in the context of Washington’s longstanding campaign to break up socialist countries, including the USSR and Yugoslavia, with dire economic and social consequences for their populations. Most recently independence for Kosovo has held the spotlight.

A look at the bigger picture suggests it is important to end cross-border efforts to dismantle countries whose social policies Washington doesn’t like, as well as to end the loss of life in Lhasa.