On Tuesday March 20, Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights (SPHR) McGill hosted a workshop comparing the contemporary colonialisms of Tibet and Palestine, presented by Khando Langri, a Tibetan-Canadian member of SPHR McGill and an activist for the liberation of Tibet. The workshop was held in conjunction with other events as part of Israeli Apartheid Week in Montreal.
Langri began the presentation by explaining the need to recognize Palestine and Canada as both occupied territories.
“In order to resist colonization abroad, we must first address how we are complicit in the continuous colonial process in Montreal,” explained Langri.
She established that although there is a “universal perception within university settings that we have entered the age of postcolonialism […] colonialism is not only alive but is thriving in the modern age” as exemplified by the occupation of both Palestine and Tibet.
The NGO Freedom House, which according to its website is “an annual comparative assessment of political rights and civil liberties,” ranks the political rights and civils rights of the occupied territory of Tibet at -2/40 and 3/60, those of the occupied West Bank at 6/40 and 24/60, and those for the occupied Gaza Strip at 3/40 and 9/60, respectively. In comparison, Canada is ranked at 40/40 for its political rights and 59/60 for its civil rights.
Portrayal of child prisoners
Langri compared the occupations of Tibet and Palestine first in terms of child prisoners held in both regions. The eleventh Panchen Lama, Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, a “high reincarnate Lama,” an important religious leader in Tibet, was recognized by the Dalai Lama on May 15, 1995 and was subsequently rejected by the Chinese government which “abducted both [the Panchen Lama] and his family,” explained Langri. Neither him nor his family have been heard of or seen since and no charges have been exposed nor have any trials have been held.
“[The Panchen Lama] was […] removed from Canada’s list of prisoners last year” which is a list of different prisoners compiled by Canada used in order to lobby against certain countries, stated Langri. “The list that was […] for China […] omitted the Panchen Lama so clearly China’s winning here since [Canada doesn’t] remember him anymore.”
This example was juxtaposed with the situation of Ahed Tamimi, a sixteen-year old child prisoner facing eight months in prison after slapping an Israeli soldier who trespassed onto her home in the occupied West Bank, and consequently is being tried in an Israeli military court.
“Because Tammi is portrayed as an adult in mass media and […] the Panchen Lama’s identity as a tuku […] a high reincarnate Lama […] are the forefront of any discussion involving these two people they are not allowed to exist as children in the popular psyche,” elaborated Langri.
“It’s important to talk about them even if they’re politicized so we can’t let the fact that […] many are perceived as being […] very controversial figure[s] […] to stop us from talking about them because this politicization does not [take away from] their childhood.”
Ecology of occupied land
Langri also discussed the concept of China’s “greenwashing” of the occupation in Tibet. Greenwashing is “the act of packaging something to make it seem eco-friendly and thus more acceptable to mainstream media,” she explained. This concept is part of China’s “Ecological Migration Scheme” which displaces Tibetan nomadic families and relocates them to “ghettos called ‘Socialist New Villages’.” These nomadic inhabitants do not have skills for the labor market, are not offered education, and face an increased living cost, Langri explained.
“What’s ironic is that […] the Food and Agricultural Organization of the U.N. has recognized the role that pastoralists play in preserving the environment so in terms of Tibet the nomads […] were very crucial in maintaining […] soil carbon because the animal’s waste added nutrients to the soil […] maintaining fertility and also the hooves would aerate the soil by pressing in seeds and trampling dead plants.”
This concept of ecological manifestation of colonialist occupation is also present in Palestine. Langri used the example of the establishment of the “South Africa Forest,” a tree-planting initiative by the Jewish National Fund in the destroyed Palestinian village of Lubya published in article by Heidi Grunebaum.
“By using nature against indigenous people we can […] erase their narratives,” said Langri.
“Changing the land [of native peoples] physically […] translates into […] [a change in the] conception of national homelands.”
Apoliticism of traditional symbols
Langri explained how “we as a consumer culture really enjoy indigenous aesthetics but that means on the one hand as we consume them we render them apolitical.” She explained how in the case of Tibet, “Tibetan struggles [are] consistently erased from news struggles and has been substituted with this fascination for the Dalai Lama [the spiritual leader of Tibet] as a media personality.”
“As a society we are charmed by him but we don’t want to engage in Tibetan issues because they’re not very savory.”
For example, the use of Tibetan prayer flags, flags which contain mantras which are believed to blow in the wind and spread compassion and peace and the usage of the keffiyeh, a symbol of Palestinian nationalism and protest against Israeli occupation, as decoration and fashionable pieces is testament to a “love for Tibetan and Palestinian aesthetics but [a lack of] […] love for the people themselves.”
Tourism as a “tool of occupation”
In terms of tourism, Langri discussed how “tourism is in fact the tool of occupation.” She explained how in the case of Palestine, Birthright trips to Israel which are offered to Jewish young adults ages 18-32 “erase all traces of the land’s original […] inhabitants.” These trips represent an “unequal spreading of […] touristic resources” because Palestinian refugees cannot return to their homeland in the regions of the occupied West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
Israel’s prevention of Palestinians from returning to their homeland is parallel to China’s prohibition of movement for Tibetans even though China advocates for tourism within Tibet. All Tibetan passports have been confiscated by the Chinese government and only government-affiliated individuals are offered “semi-official public affairs passports,” Langri explained. Additionally, traditional Tibetan “sky burials,” a religious and sacred Tibetan custom, are being advertised as a tourist attraction and are being photographed and recorded.
Anna* a student who attended the workshop explained that “Tibet has now officially stopped requesting to be an independent nation and now wants […] political recognition […] these rights are inscribed in the Chinese constitutions and so it’s simply asking that China now respect these rights to autonomy […] but they’re not [upholding these rights] […] [and] in fact nothing is really being respected on paper.”
“That’s […] the political way that we could mobilize,” Anna continued. “Canada for example hasn’t taken a stance […] with regards to recognizing Tibet’s desire to […] have these autonomy rights respected and that’s something that the [Canada Tibet Committee] tries to do […] to [get] the Canadian government to take a stance.”