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Raffique Shah


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A torch for Tibet...and Tobago

By Raffique Shah
April 13, 2008

BACK in the mid-1970s there was a very vocal minority of "Tobago secessionists" who ranted about the sister-isle being treated like a "bastard", and who demanded its independence. Dr Winston Murray, one of its two elected MPs, designed a Tobago flag which he proudly displayed on his desk in the Parliament chamber. The secessionist lobby argued, with some justification, that the island was starved of resources, its residents not treated fairly by the central government in Port of Spain.

The ruling PNM had ceded electoral control of the island to the DAC in 1976. Government eventually set up a Joint Select Committee of Parliament to look at new constitutional parameters and make recommendations. I was a member of that committee that gave birth to the Tobago House of Assembly and a semi-autonomous status for Tobago. The THA was conceived as being more powerful than other municipal authorities, hence its preferential treatment to this day.

But in the midst of the secessionists' verbal rampage, I boldly said that if Tobago wanted to go its own way then we in Trinidad should not prevent it. We should give its leaders a golden handshake of around $100 million (a lot of money at the time), say "It was nice knowing you," and let them be. That even as I remained a firm believer in broader integration among Caribbean countries, forever lamenting the collapse of the Federation in 1961. More than that, it was then that the EEC was cementing closer ties among European countries, later to emerge as the European Union.

I have drawn on the Trinidad-Tobago conflict of yesteryear in the light of the drama surrounding the Olympic torch that is now inextricably linked to Tibet's fate. Many of the thousands around the world who are clamouring for China to "free Tibet" have little understanding of the province's (yes, it's a province of China) history, its economy, its religion. Tibet was never an autonomous state, but China, beset by many problems during its post-war independence, did not bring it fully under Beijing's control until 1959. That was when the Dalai Lama, who ran a virtual feudal state-within-a-state, fled, taking with him thousands of those who worshipped him.

Before that, in 1950, Tibet had petitioned the UN to recognise it as an independent state: its only sponsor was El Salvador. The USA, the UK, countries in the Far East did not then, nor do they now, promote that notion. In fact, Britain, which fought a bloody 100-year war to contain Northern Ireland with the UK, would have been in an embarrassing position. The UK has also faced secessionists in Scotland and Wales. The Europeans who invaded America in the 15th Century almost wiped out its indigenous population in seizing their lands: Tibet's population today is over five million, two more than it was in 1959.

One might argue that Israel literally chased Britain out of its territory, bludgeoned the native Palestinians, and has been an independent state ever since. But at what price? Eternal war? India used tanks and its army to annex the Buddhist kingdom of Sikkim in 1975. Bangladesh broke away from Pakistan in 1971, backed by India's military. Kosovo recently proclaimed its independence from Serbia, and was given instant recognition by the US and many European countries.

Numerous are the examples of countries that have been balkanised by ethnic differences, religious conflicts, and in the case of Iraq, by an invader who was after its oil. Even as the benefits of integration (the EU, a resurging Russian Federation, ALBA, the embryonic Africa Union), others promote narrow self-interests to justify secession. How I wish Beijing would just let Tibet go its way! China would save billions of Yuans a year, can cut the recent rail link it spent a fortune on to bring this remote province into the modern age, and allow the Dalai Lama to return to his impoverished throne.

But I guess we'll never see that happen. Look, I condemned China's crackdown on the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989.

I often wonder why it still bothers with gadfly-Taiwan. I stood firmly against Russia's invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 and Afghanistan in 1980. So I have the moral authority to condemn America's brutal invasion and occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan. I also stand for the establishment of Palestine as an independent country, within its 1967 borders.

I don't know that those who are trying to embarrass China in its finest moment, the staging of the Olympic Games, have a similar record. Would they have stalked the torch if the Games were held in the US, to protest the million-plus-Iraqis killed since 1990? Where were these protestors when the US-backed military unseated democratically-elected governments in Chile and Argentina, and murdered tens of thousands of young people? Do they know of US-installed juntas in Central America committing atrocities against the people, as well as nuns, priests and bishops?

I guess not. Those who plan to boycott the opening of the Games should also withdraw their teams. Go for the whole hog, not just the ham.

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