“The Body Count”

Elliot Sperling has a pretty chilling post about the mass killings that took place in Tibet during the two decades immediately following the Chinese invasion. The recent discovery of mass graves has brought this topic back into the light, although it’s still completely denied by the Chinese government:

In May, just a few months ago, preparations were made for the start of a building project in Nang-chen county in the modern Yushu Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in Qinghai Province, part of what was once the old kingdom of Nang-chen in Upper Kham. This is also the site of some of the instances of self-immolation, the act of protest that has been repeated again and again across Tibet and in exile over the last several years. As the ground was turned to start the construction of a house, something horrid—unexpected and uninvited—suddenly materialized. Human bones began emerging from below the soil. Lots of them, it was said.

The images are clear, the local explanations were whispered: it was where monks and laypeople had been massacred in 1958, a bloody, terrible year in Eastern Tibet.

Elsewhere in Yushu, in the grasslands near Dpal-thang, the commencement of another construction project for houses brought more of the same: three mass burial pits filled with human remains. But not everything had decomposed, it was said. There were remnants of the clothes that the victims were wearing when they were thrown in: both lay clothing and monastic robes. The long hair of some of the dead was also still there. According to elders these pits were from 1958 too, with bodies added as a result of later famine deaths around 1960. Several trucks were needed to take the remains away.

In place of intense criticism or condemnation of the Chinese authorities, who have for decades refused to open up records relating to what took place in Tibet (let alone of those whom the records would likely implicate in the savagery), there is a sort of indulgence that one might call the Chinese dispensation: the actions of China are to be seen as something akin to natural phenomena for which little or no moral judgment or critique is imaginable. It is the other actors who should be judged. This can involve the selective use of available (and problematic) Chinese statistics as well as the ascription of much, if not most, of the population loss in Tibet to migration and exile. And there is also the common, droning refrain that accounts from Tibetan exiles are exaggerated and can’t be trusted. Instead of seeking to work through exaggerations to find underlying truths, this rhetorical device is deployed to dismiss, tout court, testimony from those who have fled Tibet. Hence this sentence (from the pen of Barry Sautman): “The [1.2 million] figure is not based on eyewitness accounts or access to state statistics, and refugee reports have often been skewed to please exile authorities.” Well, at least it implies the existence of Chinese records on the subject. Still, if passed over too quickly a reader might not fully take in that the criticism contained in it is directed not at China for preventing access to those records but at Tibetans for not using them: records to which neither they nor any serious researchers are allowed access! And then there’s the schizophrenia of: a) removing from consideration any accounts (including those by eyewitnesses) reported in exile because they are ‘skewed’ and then, having done so; b) saying Tibetans don’t have “eyewitness” accounts… Of course, the utter unreliability of the 1.2 million figure is not an issue of real contention among serious observers: Human Rights Watch already in 1988 termed it unverifiable. But this is not the same as dismissing (as Sautman does) the fact of mass killings in Tibet in the first decades of rule by the PRC.

Do read the rest, although be warned: the topic itself is grim enough, and there are pictures from one of the mass graves found recently.

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Filed under ethnic conflict, Tibet, violence

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