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The official motto of the Beijing Olympic Games is "One World One Dream". But even the Beijing Olympic Committee must have foreseen that much of the world would take exception to harmony imposed at gunpoint in Tibet. And they could hardly have been surprised when so many people chose to protest the hijacking of one of the world's most cherished symbols, the Olympic torch. In London the concentric circles of security officials and police - blue, yellow and black - seemed a surrogate symbol for the Beijing Games, representing perfectly the theme of oppression, paranoia and back-handed complicity. In London and Paris the torch relay was more like a besieged police marathon than any sort of celebration. From any point of view, the Olympic torch relay to date must be considered a public relations nightmare.
Why are so many people so passionate about protesting the Olympic torch relay? In part, the strong outpouring of emotion is a result of the recent brutal repression of what started out on 10 March, 2008, as a non-violent protest by Buddhist monks in Tibet's capital, Lhasa, and quickly escalated into an uprising spread over an area as big as Western Europe. In part, it's simply an indication of how strongly Tibet supporters feel about China's occupation of Tibet, which has dragged on now for more than half a century. But, I suspect, the driving force of the current protests is the frustration many people feel with their own governments, with business interests and with the news media. Getting anyone to pay much attention to human rights issues often feels like rolling a very large stone up a very steep hill. The Beijing Games is seen as a golden opportunity to make a clear and unequivocal statement about Tibet and, more generally, about human rights in China. But even while heads of state are performing ethical somersaults to show how committed they are to human rights (as a general principle), trade delegations sponsored by various levels of government are preparing to jet off to Beijing . Anyone with strong feelings about Tibet must surely feel frustrated enough to spit at a sacred flame.
Isn't it rather sad to bring politics into the Olympic Games? Well, yes. It is very sad to sully something that might well be considered ever so slightly less than sacred (actually sacred if you happen to be a greek model). But from the point of view of a Tibet campaigner, the games of 2008 were sullied the instant that they were given to a country with such an appalling record of curtailing the rights of Chinese people and trampling rough-shod over the hope of basic human rights of Tibetans, whose homeland has been forcibly gathered into the arms of the Chinese Motherland, and who have lived in an orwellian state of terror ever since. China has made a very deliberate effort to use the games to show the world how firmly and irretrievably Tibet is stuck in the Motherland's bone-crushing embrace. The torch relay is to pass through Lhasa and up Mount Everest (Chomolungma), turning Tibetan icons into a celebration of Chinese nationalism along the way. China has even chosen a Tibetan antelope, once abundant on the Tibetan Plateau and now endangered, as an official mascot of the games - Named "YingYing" by the Beijing Games Committee, the plucky antelope has defected, according to Students for a Free Tibet, and now uses her Tibetan name Yingsel.
To boycott or not to boycott, is that the question? No one has seriously threatened to withdraw the participation of a national delegation from the Beijing Games, although the question has become a popular plaything of chat show hosts and others with far less at stake in the games than the Olympic athletes from around the world. It is very frustrating that the natural reluctance of Olympic committees and governments to place the burden of conscience on the athletes by boycotting the games is used as an excuse to do nothing at all. The athletes have invested years of their lives preparing for this chance to compete; many will have no other opportunity. So it is unfair, even cruel, to suggest that a meaningful response to the mass arrests now taking place in Tibet depends entirely on sacrificing the athletes. How much easier it would be for heads of state and dignitaries of every stripe to forego the Olympic party, to "just say no", in the words of Nancy Reagan, to the opening ceremonies and all the attendant hooplah. The people who are invited to this sort of thing are never short of a social engagement anyway; something would certainly open up in Monaco or Biarritz. In short, it would be so simple for the people with influence to influence events simply by going somewhere else and having a nice time there. Sadly, very few such people seem willing to make even so small a sacrfice for human rights.
Lest we forget: the people who are making the real sacrifice for human rights are the brave Tibetans, who took their protest to the streets of the so-called Tibet Autonomous Region and the Tibetan lands which have been annexed by neighbouring Chinese states. Police in London and Paris made a couple of dozen arrests and roughed up a few protestors for good measure. By comparison, the most recent reports filtering out of Tibet indicate that, as of 5 April, more than 2,300 people have been rounded up in house-to-house raids and taken away to any of the many prisons which dot the Tibetan landscape. Also on 5 April, 2008, at least 8 people were reported to have been shot dead when police fired live ammunition into a crowd of monks and lay people.
In other recent news:
"Two monks commit suicide at Ngaba Kirti Monastery"
"Nuns hold prayer session for those killed in recent crackdown"
"China arrests 572 monks in two-day raid"
"Elderly woman brutally beaten at Township meeting"
"Middle school student shot dead"
and on and on...
Since the People's Liberation Army of China "peacefully liberated" Tibet, an estimated 1.2 million Tibetans, or one fifth of the total population of Tibet, have died untimely and often horrible deaths. If you had the chance to do something, would you?
For more information please see:
Bod Rangzen! Free Tibet!