Flame, shame and symbols

It couldn’t have been more symbolic. We all strained to see the Olympic flame, barely visible, ringed by a double band of Chinese security guards and British police as it approached Downing Street.

‘Just look at them!’ said a frail and elderly Londoner, balancing precariously on the wall next to me. ‘We’ve become a police state!’ she added as officers fell upon individual demonstrators who got over the barricades.

Inside No 10 Downing Street, Prime Minister Gordon Brown, was welcoming the Olympic torch – and prudently avoiding all physical contact with it. You’d have thought it was – well, not a torch but a bloodied torture baton. (See NI 408 Human Rights Olympics)

But, hang on! The Olympic Games are non-political – as leading politicians keep telling us. Then why are they talking about it so much? And why did they jump on that absurd torch relay PR bandwagon? Perhaps they know that it’s just not true. For the host country the Games are almost inevitably political. In China’s case this is especially so, as its leaders milk the opportunity for recognition of national clout – economic, political, military.

Ask the people living in occupied Tibet what that clout feels like. Ask those in the Darfur (see NI 401) region of Sudan or those in Burma what it feels like to live under an oppressive state backed by China. Ask human rights activists, environmentalists and exploited workers within China itself, about the consequences of lack of political freedom.

As the torch proceeds around the world, the symbolism will become even more poignant. It’s due to cross the Himalayas – a route taken by thousands of Tibetans each year as they flee their country to take refuge in Nepal. As a final slap in the face, in June the torch is due to be taken into Tibet itself. What is currently happening in the Tibetan region is, unfortunately, more than symbolism. The repression has increased since the March protests which exiled groups say resulted in 140 deaths.

The Free Tibet Campaign reports that last week police in Sichuan province fired on hundreds of Buddhist monks and residents, resulting in eight deaths. Meanwhile the Chinese authorities have launched a programme to ‘re-educate’ Tibetans. The international focus on China’s role in Tibet is greater than ever, creating a sense of possibility. ‘In Tibet too,’ one exile told me at the London demo, ‘our youth are chanting “Free Tibet” although it is very dangerous for them. If they get caught they are arrested and tortured.’

But asked to comment another Tibetan exile said: ‘I’m sorry. I can’t speak. I can’t talk to you about this. We have lost so much’That’s what cultural genocide is about: the systematic destruction of everything that matters to a people. And for Tibetans it’s been going on for almost six decades now. (See NI 274)

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