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A Story about Tibet, and Norfolk Island

Thursday, February 14, 2019

Dear Editor,

Many Australians newly resident on Norfolk Island find it hard to understand why many Pitcairners and other long-term residents of Norfolk Island are not impressed by the transformation of the island that has been imposed by the Australian Government since July 2016. Or so it seems to me. Understanding is, I believe, the foundation of tolerance and acceptance of difference, if not, perhaps, of agreement. So let me try to contribute a little to this understanding.

This is a story about Tibet. Tibet was invaded by the communist People's Republic of China (PRC) in 1950. In recent times China has put forward a number of arguments in favour of their position on Tibet. The organisation Free Tibet - the major NGO in exile opposed to China's actions – has enumerated China's arguments, and also provided their own opposing views.(1) Here is a summary of the arguments put from the Chinese side and the responses from the Tibetan side - in the words of Free Tibet itself.

¨         Tibet is part of China

China says Tibet was absorbed into China around 800 years ago during the Yuan Dynasty. Free Tibet says Tibet was not ruled by the Chinese government prior to the 1950 invasion, and that in 1912 the then Dalai Lama issued a proclamation reaffirming Tibet's independence, with the country maintaining its own national flag, currency, stamps, passports and army.

¨         Old Tibet was backward and needed China to liberate it

China claims that from 1950-59 China peacefully liberated and democratically reformed Tibet, ending its old feudal ways. Free Tibet claims that with 40,000 Chinese troops in the country they had little alternative but to submit, and that the destruction of the monasteries and the deaths of many Tibetans tells a different story.  

¨         Tibet already has autonomy

China claims that Tibet already has autonomy as it is included in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) of the People's Republic of China, and that Tibetan traditions are protected. Tibetans on the other hand point out that Tibet is only a part of the TAR, the official language is Chinese, the senior political position has always been occupied by a Chinese, and monasteries are subject to monitoring and control.

¨         Tibetans are prosperous and happy under China's rule

China claims that in Tibet there is almost no poverty, disease or hunger; that life expectancy has doubled, and literacy increased substantially; and that there have been huge investments in infrastructure and jobs. Free Tibet claims Tibetans have been disadvantaged in their own country: that many infrastructure projects have benefitted the Chinese military and the mass migration of Chinese workers, and China's access to Tibet's resources; and that Tibetan nomads have been forced from their lands.

¨         The Dalai Lama wants power, not peace

China claims that the Dalai Lama is the latest in a line of "God King Dictators" – a politician in monk's clothing whose agenda is to secure and independent Tibet which he can again rule. Free Tibet claims that in exile the Dalai Lama has devolved his political power to a democratic institution and is a consistent advocate of friendship with the Chinese people and dialogue with the Chinese government. He does not seek an independent Tibet but a "Middle Way" approach which seeks greater freedom for Tibetans without independence.

¨         Free Tibet supporters are anti-China

China claims that the Free Tibet movement is supported by Western and anti-China forces, and that human rights are China's internal affair. Free Tibet claims that is has no argument with the Chinese people, but that they see Tibetans as victims of the undemocratic Chinese government and see Tibetans' struggle for freedom as a just cause.

Over the years China has poured money and resources into Tibet, which have no doubt benefitted the country in some ways. So why does the resistance to Chinese occupation remain so fierce after more than half a century? A substantial part of the answer to that question can be found, I believe, in the Memorandum on Genuine Autonomy for the Tibetan People published by the Tibetan government in exile in Dharamshala (India), in 2008. It attests:

The Tibetan people’s culture and identity can only be preserved and promoted by the Tibetans themselves and not by any others.  Therefore, Tibetans should be capable of self-help, self-development and self-government, and an optimal balance needs to be found between this and the necessary and welcome guidance and assistance for Tibet from the Central Government and other provinces and regions of the PRC. (2)

The centre of the Tibetan claim is one based on the integrity of culture and identity (written and spoken language, religion, political system, music, art, architecture). There is also here an implicit claim to Tibetan pride, dignity and self-reliance.

Excepting the issue of physical violence, and given the necessary changes from the Tibetan situation, the arguments put forward by the Australian Government in justification of their actions on Norfolk Island, and the opposing arguments presented by groups on Norfolk Island such as the Norfolk Island People for Democracy, are remarkably similar. There is nothing untoward or eccentric about the arguments put forward on Norfolk Island in opposition to what has happened on the island in recent years.

And on the Norfolk side it can be claimed historically that Norfolk Island was created as a "distinct and separate settlement" by the British Government, for people from the eastern Pacific, over 40 years prior to the existence of Australia and almost sixty years before being transferred as an external territory into the guardianship of Australia; and that politically the Australian Government's proposed impositions were roundly rejected at a legally constituted referendum on the island in 2015.

In December 2018 a submission was made to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCHR) on behalf of a Norfolk Island resident and Pitcairn descendant, claiming a breach of human rights by the Australian Government. The acceptance by the UNHCHR of the submission, and the request from the UN that the Australian Government respond to the claim within six months, demonstrate that in the international arena, the matter is non-trivial.

In the cases of both Tibet and Norfolk Island the issues are multidimensional, complex and by no means black or white. How the various political processes dealing with these issues will evolve and work themselves out, remains to be seen. Is there a "middle way" for Norfolk Island? Surely it is not be beyond the whit of humankind to find one.

Yours sincerely, Chris Nobbs.

(1) Free Tibet, "What is China's argument on Tibet?": (accessed 6/2/2019)

(2) Central Tibetan Administration, 2008. Memorandum on Genuine Autonomy for the Tibetan People, November. (accessed 7/2/2019).

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