SOME of you might still remember ‘Chimes of Freedom’ by Bob Dylan. In the song Dylan pays tribute to the dispossessed, the lonely, and the lost.
The chimes of freedom toll for silent seekers of truth and love, and for each un-harmful gentle soul misplaced inside a jail.
That song is still relevant today as it was during the 20th century because there are still people around the world who are dispossessed and who are seeking truth and love and, I would add, people who are yearning for self determination. The 21st century didn’t quite live up to its promise. It was to be a great new century that would usher in greater freedom, equality, liberty, fraternity and, above all, justice.
Many people around the world still have to experience those values even in countries that have been independent for decades or even countries that were never colonised at all. And this has to do with the kind of political and economic systems that have been put in place. My immediate concern here is about people who in one way or the other still have to endure the wrath of powerful states – the colonisers who can’t let go. I have in mind here the cases of Tibet and Palestine.
Tibet is a territory that has always been contested between India and China. However, China incorporated Tibet in 1950 and negotiated the Seventeen Point Agreement with the newly installed Dalai Lama’s government, affirming the People’s Republic of China’s sovereignty but granting the area some autonomy. But the Dalai Lama completely repudiated the agreement, which led to the Dalai Lama to flee into exile in 1959 to India.
It is estimated that during the Great Leap Forward between 200,000 and 1,000,000 Tibetans died at the hands of the Chinese government and approximately 6,000 monasteries were destroyed around the Cultural Revolution.
However, analogously to the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, monks started protesting for Tibetan independence and China started a fierce anti-separatist campaign just as they cracked down on those, mainly young, protesters at Tiananmen Square. Human rights groups have been critical of the Beijing approach to human rights in the region when cracking down on separatist outbursts that have occurred around monasteries and cities.
But most governments, especially in Africa, have been quiet on China’s own human rights record but above all China continuing occupation of Tibet. For many, what counts are the business deals they have with China and the hand-outs they get in bribe money. A case in point here is the South African government’s refusal to grant the exiled Dalai Lama a visa on two different occasions. I was surprised that a person like Nelson Mandela did not even intervene there. With Namibia, don’t even try because China is said to be a Swapo ‘super-friend’. Thus many leaders in Africa would conveniently drag China’s human rights record and its continuing occupation of Tibet under their state house carpets.
But nothing would parallel the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands. The brutality there has been unrelenting. It doesn’t even come close to apartheid South Africa’s occupation of Namibia or even the brutality that used to be unleashed against black South Africans in their country.
Israel is at the same time an occupying force and also at war with the Palestinians judging by the amount of excessive force that is unleashed on Palestinian towns and settlements almost on a daily basis. They have used bulldozers, fighter planes and even missiles to destroy homes and kill people. What the Israeli government wants is more of the Palestinian land for Israeli settlements.
But the Palestinians aren’t just resisting and fighting the Israelis; they are also indirectly fighting the most powerful country in the world – the United States of America. The USA is the main supplier of weapons and money to the Israeli government. And just as in the case of Tibet many people around the world have decided to basically take the Palestinian cause lightly. Let me be parochial here. My own government and that of South Africa maintain diplomatic relations with the state of Israel. We have simply forgotten that Israel helped apartheid South Africa to develop their nuclear weapons capacity. We also have forgotten that we used to campaign so vigorously to de-list companies that used to do business with South Africa at that time.
Thus, what we are doing now is celebrating apartheid in Palestine that we said we were fighting against in our countries. The two cases that we are dealing with here might be intractable but are not necessarily un-resolvable. The international community has to think laterally and see how the shame of the 21st century can be resolved. The promise of the new great century must be realised. The chimes of freedom, in Bob Dylan’s words, must ring out now. My country, even as a small nation on the international platform, can still stand up and speak out on behalf of the oppressed. It is time we speak up on the issue of Tibet and Palestine.