By Rahnuma Ahmed
Writer and translator Tarek Omar Chowdhury, a committed Maobadi and a dear friend, was deeply worried. `Of course I do not support what happened, although I must admit I look at it? differently.’ He was referring to the government’s pressure to close down ‘Into Exile Tibet 1949 – 2009,’ an exhibition organised by the Bangladeshi chapter of Students for a Free Tibet (SFT), in partnership with Drik, November 1. `I express my solidarity,’ said his e-mail.
At first it had been the cultural counsellor from the Chinese embassy in Dhaka. Turning up at Drik he told Shahidul Alam, its managing director, “We would like you to cancel the Tibet exhibition.” Tibet was a part of China. If the exhibition was held, the relationship between Bangladesh and China would be affected. Drik, he was politely told, was an independent gallery. They did not have the right to tell Drik what it could, or could not show. But other visits and phone calls soon began: Bangladeshi government officials, police, special branch, members of parliament. Using either intimidation or persuasion, they basically conveyed the same message. The show must be cancelled. Later, the police insisted that Drik needed official permission but were unable to produce any written document. On the 1st afternoon, police in riot gear entered Drik’s premises and locked it up.
A symbolic opening, inaugurated by professor Muzaffer Ahmed, was held on the street outside. Having registered its indignation, Drik decided to close down the exhibition the next day as a mark of protest.I am thinking of writing about it, said Tarek. But of course, you must, I said. His piece, `Tibboter odekha chobigulo onek kotha boley’ appeared in Samakal, 13 November. While highly critical of government interference and heavy-handedness, Tarek voiced suspicion about the SFT and its funding sources, whether the opening was timed to coincide with Dalai Lama’s Arunachal visit, to draw media attention, to vilify China by portraying it as an occupying force in Tibet. The US government, more particularly the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), wrote Tarek, has directly funded the Tibet movement from 1956 to 1972, and later, indirectly, through the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), an organisation best described in the words of its first acting president, Allen Weinstein, ‘A lot of what we [the NED] do today was done covertly 25 years ago by the CIA.’
What Tarek has written is amply supported in research conducted by many academicians and scholars. The NED was established in 1984 with both Republican and Democratic party’s support during president Reagan’s administration to ‘foster the infrastructure of democracy, the system of a free press, unions, political parties, universities around the world. Created by an act of Congress, it is funded primarily through annual allocations from the Congress. It operates through four core institutes: the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs (NDIIA), the International Republican Institute (IRI), the American Center for International Labor Solidarity (ACILS), and the Center for International Private Enterprise. The latter, CIPE, has in recent years awarded a grant to the Dhaka Chamber of Commerce and Industry, and more recently, it has supported an initiative undertaken by the Bangladesh Enterprise Institute (BEI). But I will write about that some other day. To return to Tibet and CIA connections: NED-funded organisations include SFT, which was founded in 1994 in New York. Together with five other organisations, the SFT in January 2008 proclaimed “the start of a ‘Tibetan people’s uprising” and co-founded a temporary office in charge of coordination and financing. Other published sources document how, in the USA, ‘the American Society for a Free Asia, a CIA front, energetically publicized the cause of Tibetan resistance, with the Dalai Lama’s eldest brother, Thubtan Norbu, playing an active role in that group. The Dalai Lama’s second-eldest brother, Gyalo Thondup, established an intelligence operation with the CIA in 1951 [although CIA aid was only formally established in 1956]. He later upgraded it into a CIA-trained guerrilla unit whose recruits parachuted back into Tibet. (Michael Barker, “Democratic Imperialism” ).
So, I asked Shahidul, what made you agree to co-hosting this exhibition? I thought it would be an interesting one, he replied. The public would have the opportunity to see rare photos. And I did tell the embassy officials that we would be happy to show a Chinese exhibition, if the quality was right. Our point is to open up the debate. And it’s nothing new, we have faced pressure before. From the British Council in Dhaka over the European Currency Unfolds show. From Bangladesh government officials over some images of 1971. And then, Dhaka’s Alliance Francaise had backed out from sponsoring my exhibition which was critical of Ershad’s military rule. So did the Art College. Intimidation, fear, exhortations to self-censorship, that too, by ‘progressive institutions’ these are not new. But of course, he added, this does not mean that we should not critically appraise ourselves. We are not above criticism. I invite it.
My attention turned to something Barker had written. NED’s funding issue, he says, is clearly problematic for Tibetan (or foreign) activists campaigning for Tibetan freedom. Progressive activists should first and foremost cast a critical eye over the antidemocratic funders of Tibetan groups. Only then can progressive solutions for restoring democratic governance to Tibet be generated by concerned activists. Or else, he says, we get what William I Robinson terms polyarchy, or “low-intensity democracy” which mitigates the “social and political tensions produced by elite-based and undemocratic status quos” and suppresses “popular and mass aspirations for more thoroughgoing democratisation of social life in the twenty-first century international order. As I read, I was reminded of Mairead Corrigan Maguire, who received the Nobel Peace prize (1976) in recognition of her determined attempts to peacefully resolve the troubles in Northern Ireland. Maguire had gone to Israel in 2004 to welcome Mordechai Vanunu, on his release from prison after serving an 18-year prison sentence for disclosing Israel’s nuclear secrets. She was hit by a rubber-coated bullet in 2007, while participating in a protest against the construction of Israel’s security fence outside the Arab settlement of Bil’in. She was taken into custody by the Israeli military this year for being on board a small ferry carrying humanitarian aid to the Gaza Strip. Recently (October 2009), Mairead was one of three Nobel Peace laureates to launch a major `Thank You Tibet!’ Campaign to commemorate Tibetan peoples 50 years in exile. The Campaign statement extends support to “His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the people of Tibet.” It says, ‘They are a model for all of us: despite the attack on their people and the displacement of their culture they preach and practice compassion and respect for the dignity of every person’. Compassion and respect for all? Some may not agree. Recently (October 2009), when asked about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, His Holiness had replied, “I think too early to say.”
To return to Tarek. I did tell him, I don’t agree with everything that you say. One area of contention is an old one, centering on whether Tibet is better or worse off, under Chinese communism. As Michael Parenti, severely critical of the Hollywood `Shangri-La’ myth puts it, old Tibet, in reality, was not a Paradise Lost. But if Tibet’s future is to be positioned somewhere within China’s emerging free market paradise with its deepening gulf between rich and poor, the risk of losing jobs, being beaten and imprisoned if workers try to form unions in corporate dominated “business zones,” the pollution resulting from billions of tons of industrial emissions and untreated human waste dumped into its rivers and lakes the old Tibet, he says, may start looking better than it actually was.
The other point has to do with recent news reports of the presence of Chinese interrogators at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, who had gone to grill Uighurs (a Muslim minority from the autonomous region Xinjiang, in western China). Chinese officials were actively assisted by US military personnel to soften up the Uighurs for interrogation: sleep deprivation, freezing temperatures, isolation, holding up their head by the hair and beard so that Chinese officials could take facial photographs. According to them, it was “their lowest point” at Guantanamo. This active assistance was extended, while Washington reportedly continues to support secessionist movements in Xinjiang by supporting several Islamist organizations through CIA-ISI (Pakistani military intelligence) liaison.
Another friend, a keen political analyst, predicted that the US officialdom stationed in Dhaka would soon enough overcome its prolonged misgivings about Drik, as expressed in an e-mail from the USIA director John Kincannon, `Given what I’m reading in Meghbarta and your apparent active opposition to President Clinton’s visit to Bangladesh, it seems odd that you would expect USIS would have much interest in cooperating with Drik on anything’ (March 16, 2000). My friend was right. An invitation extended by the US ambassador himself arrived, sooner than predicted, for Shahidul.
Published in New Age 23rd November 2009.
Further analysis by Omar Tarek Chowdhury