Mangosuthu Buthelezi’s Online Letter
My dear friends and fellow South Africans,
Last week I was in the Eternal City to attend the 5th World Parliamentarians’ Convention on Tibet. The city was bathed in the golden light of winter sunshine as we gathered from the four corners of the earth to consider the question of the mountain Kingdom of Tibet. We last met in Edinburgh in 2005 and, to be candid, precious little has been achieved since then for the plight of the Tibetan people. Thus it was a poignant and sober gathering which convened at the elegantly appointed House of Deputies; 2009 is the 50th anniversary of China’s annexation of Tibet. His Holiness, The Dalai Lama’s envoy to South Africa, Mr Sonam Tenzing, was a baby when he was smuggled out of Tibet when the spiritual leader of Tibet crossed the border into India after an epic 15-day journey on foot from the Tibetan capital, Lhasa, over the Himalayan mountains. To this day, neither Sonam nor the Dalai Lama has returned to their motherland.
For the benefit of younger readers, the Dalai Lama left Lhasa on 17 March 1959 with an entourage of 20 men, including six Cabinet ministers. Many thought he had been killed in the fierce Chinese crackdown that followed the Tibetan uprising earlier that month. The Dalai Lama had to navigate the 500-yard wide Brahmaputra river, and endure the harsh climate and extreme heights of the Himalayas, travelling at night to avoid the Chinese sentry guards. He finally crossed the Indian border at the Khenzimana Pass, before resting at the Towang Monastery, 50 miles inside the Indian border. It was not known if the Indian Government would offer him asylum. The government of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru was been heavily criticised internationally for failing to condemn the Chinese crackdown. India, we now know, proved to be a noble and generous host to the Tibetan government-in-exile in keeping with that nation’s generous spirit and democracy.
It is estimated that 2,000 people died during the three days of fighting between the Tibetans and the Chinese army. In the worst single incident, the Chinese army fired about 800 artillery shells into the Dalai Lama’s Summer Palace, razing the ancient building to the ground. The area contained over 300 houses, and thousands of civilians died and were injured in the inferno.
The tragedy marked the end of the uprising in Lhasa. All fighting-age men who had survived the revolt were deported, and those fleeing the scene reported that Chinese troops burned corpses in the city for 12 hours. China then announced in an order signed by leader Chou En-lai that a large-scale rebellion had been crushed in Lhasa, although it said the revolt was still continuing outside the capital. China announced that the Tibetan governing body had been dissolved under martial law, and said the Dalai Lama had been replaced by the Panchen Lama, his pro-Chinese rival, as the nominal head of a committee to set up a Tibetan Autonomous Region within the Chinese People’s Republic (Source: BBC online).
Today, When His Holiness the Dalai Lama speaks to Tibetans in India or in other countries he frequently repeats the words tsenjoli (exile) and tsenjolpa (an exile), and the deep impression left by these two words has become a significant identifier of the Tibetan people-post 1959. In the English session which I chaired, South Africa’s leader of the opposition, Athol Trollip, made the pithy observation that the Tibetan Diaspora was much longer than the black liberation exile of thirty years or so. Just before I left for Italy, I received a memorandum from the Consul General of Durban which received widespread publicity at home and abroad. The Consul General wrote to me:
‘On 23 October I met with Rev. Musa Zondi and other colleagues from IFP, and we had a frank and smooth talk on promoting China-South Africa friendly exchanges, as well as the Tibet and Dalai Lama issue. I sincerely hope this meeting will enhance the understanding of the leaders of the IFP on the essence of the so-called "Tibetan issue", to correctly deal with the Tibetan issue, which concerns China’s core interests.
It is reported that, under Dalai Lama’s persuasion, the so-called "World Parliament Members Conference on Tibetan Issue" will be hosted in Italy on 18th November 2009, which bears the motivation of interfering in China’s internal affairs and supporting Tibetan independence to support Dalai Lama’s intervention of separating Tibet from China under Dalai Lama’s pretext of "High-level Autonomy". As far as we know, an invitation to the above mentioned conference has been sent to the President of IFP, His Excellency Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi.
China and South Africa have always shared a friendly relationship.
Although Inkatha Freedom Party is an opposition party, it should also cherish the China-South African friendship and respect the international community’s consensus. We sincerely wish the leaders of IFP can identify the nature of the conference, proceed from the overall situation of China-South Africa friendship, and not take any action which will interfere in China’s internal affairs and hurt Chinese people’s feelings. We sincerely hope Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi make the right decision, and not attend the above mentioned conference in Italy’.
I read this with a heavy heart because, of course, the last thing I would ever want to do is hurt the feelings of the Chinese people. Last year I travelled to this great and ancient civilisation and marvelled at her progress. I think my exchange with the Consul General (I politely, but firmly, stated that I would not be deterred from my support of the Dalai Lama or from travelling to Rome), touched upon the thorniest issue in this dispute: the tendency on both sides – like here often – to demonise the other protagonist. As I listened and carefully weighed the delicate arguments in Rome one is deeply aware that this question is located in the ‘most important conversation in the world’: the survival of planet earth.
Glaciers high in the Himalayas, we heard, are dwindling faster than anyone thought, putting nearly a billion people living in South Asia in peril of losing their water supply. Fresh water supplies are the gold rush of the twenty-first century. Throughout India, China, and Nepal, some 15,000 glaciers speckle the Tibetan Plateau, some of the highest land in the world. There, perched in thin, frigid air up to 7,200 meters (23,622 feet) above sea level, the ice might seem secluded from the effects of global warming. But just the opposite is proving true, according to the latest scientific research. The Tibetan plateau is suffering from soil erosion, melting permafrost, shrinking glaciers, grassland degradation and declining biodiversity as a result of increasing human activity and climate change. Since 1961, temperatures have risen 0.32C every 10 years, one of the fastest rates of warming in the world, leading ice fields on the "third pole" to melt faster than anywhere else in China’s territory. The population has almost tripled in the same period as a result of an influx of migrants from China’s dominant Han ethnic majority.
China produces some of the most eminent scientists in the world and many of them are convinced that Tibetan nomads possess vital ‘know-how’ to manage Tibet’s biodiversity as they have done for centuries. Now this just a thought: imagine for one moment if the biggest challenge of our time – our planet’s very survival – was to draw Chinese scientists and Tibetan nomads together in a common endeavour. When one looks around the world’s conflict hotspots from here to Northern Ireland to the Middle East one becomes aware that differences often fall away when local communities grasp that they share many of the same goals of their neighbours. Yesterday, we learnt, the Chinese prime minister, Wen Jiabao, will attend the Copenhagen climate talks next month as it unveiled firm targets for curbing the world’s biggest carbon footprint for the first time. China announced that it would cut emissions of carbon relative to economic growth by 40% to 45% by 2020 compared with 2005 levels. Here China has taken a lead. History will judge The Middle Kingdom fairly if she demonstrates the same clarity of vision and leadership by working with, and not against, the grain of Tibetan culture.
Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi MP