Choosing favorites

A friend recently sent me an article on the current situation of China’s Uighurs. If you don’t know about the Uighurs, they’re an ethnic minority in China’s Xinjiang province. As the Financial Times states, who really cares?

Xinjiang is in a similar situation to Tibet. But it lacks the religious radiation provided by the Dalai Lama … It has no high-profile Hollywood star such as Richard Gere to emote for it; more people probably worry whether giant pandas mate than whether the Uighurs can survive as a culture and a people. If only they were Buddhists.

I took a little offense. Was my friend telling me that the media loves Tibet only because they’re Buddhist? I shot back an email: “Show me the Uighur Nobel Peace Laureates!”

This only got me thinking more about how I approach politics and religion. While I may see the status of Tibet as a chiefly political issue, I am always keeping an eye out to see if Tibetans are taking a “Buddhist approach” (whatever that means). The same goes for Burma. Tibet and Burma aren’t inherently Buddhist issues, so when a Buddhist blog such as the Tricycle Blog talks about them (and boy are they mentioned often), do these issues suddenly become religious? Are we distorting the Tibet and Burma issues by mixing religion and politics?

There are a number of ways that I tried to take this post.

On one hand, the Tibetan and Burmese causes are each very noble causes in their own right. It’s only natural for Buddhist readers and writers to have an interest in the welfare of Buddhists, even on the other side of the world. These are also two extremely relevant issues on the political scene — the recent widespread Tibetan protests (and riots) and the recent protest by monks in Burma — and so again it’s only natural for Buddhist reviews and readers to take an interest in major current events, especially when they occur with regard to societies that are majority Buddhist.

On the other hand, there are so many other causes, and especially Buddhists causes, which receive so little press. Why aren’t these stories covered? They’ve been completely eclipsed by stories on Tibet and Burma. This is what my friend reminded me of when she sent me her article. China and Burma are not the only countries with oppressive governments out there. I’d like to see more written about the collusion between the corrupt Cambodian government and the Cambodian Mahasangha, especially with regard to Tim Sakhorn (see more here). What about the freedom of religion for Buddhists in Bangladesh, Malaysia and Indonesia? What about religious repression in Vietnam? What about the rights of other Chinese minorities?

Of course these other topics don’t garner as much attention because they don’t make good press. After all, Tibet has its Nobel Peace Laureate in the Dalai Lama and Burma has Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, also a Nobel Peace Laureate. And the narrative of good versus evil is too good to resist. Maybe we just have to wait for a Uighur Nobel Laureate before we start seeing “Students for a Free East Turkmenistan”…

Still, no matter how much I support the movements for a Free Tibet and Free Burma, I can’t seem to identify myself with the these same movements on the Buddhist blogosphere. There are three points that worry me. First, there’s a strong tendency for people to polarize themselves over these topics, and thereby distancing themselves from realistic analysis and solutions. (Neither Tibetan independence nor a military invasion of Burma are realistic.) Second, there is a strong demonization of China, and by proxy the Chinese people (among which there are, by the way, 200 million Buddhists), which only feeds the aforementioned polarization, and which gets dangerously close to racism. Thirdly, the debate has focused on very narrow issues, at the expense of larger issues. We may all agree that monks should get involved in politics if they’re going to protest against a violent and oppressive military junta, but will we feel the same way when they protest regarding abortion rights?

Now having said this, I can’t bring myself to condemn the viewpoints that I don’t agree with. It may be the case that in order to have real change in Tibet or Burma, we need to have both extreme and moderates voices out there. Perhaps China will only accept Tibetan autonomy if it means knocking the wind out of the Tibetan independence movement.

But this all depends on more discussion from all sides of the debate.

3 Replies to “Choosing favorites”

  1. I completely agree with you on this one, and I am glad someone’s speaking out about it. I think the world sometimes suffers from a kind of Tibet-fatigue because we hear so much about it, and yet there’s lots of other issues in the world that don’t get as much attention, or don’t have high-profile representatives or hollywood celebs. I definitely agree with the demonization comment because I think there are a lot of great things about China, even if the government is dumb. I really appreciate what Chinese Buddhist teachers have taught me, and many of them are on par with lamas you’d find in Tibet.

    Then there’s cases where Buddhists persecute non-Buddhists like in Thailand or Sri Lanka’s nasty civil war.

    A real Buddhist needs to get beyond identity as a Buddhist and just help others (even when the religion is different) because they need help.

  2. Hi arunlikhati and Gerald,

    I’m a lifelong vegetarian and people often say to me “why bother about animals when there is so much human suffering in the world?”

    The answer is simple – you act upon what feels most right and vital and meaningful to you. And you leave other campaigns to those who feel the most strongly about those. How could it be otherwise?

    Are you really saying that people who support Tibetan freedom ought to stop their campaigning work? That people ought to do things they don’t feel naturally pulled towards?

    Sorry, but I don’t see the need to ‘knock the wind’ out of the movement for Tibetan freedom. The Chinese leadership does, and so do you, but I don’t see it myself.

    If you want to support the Muslims in China (and do bear in mind their use of terror to make their points) then that’s up to you. But to suggest that their cause ought to be championed by people who don’t feel drawn towards it and at the expense of other campaigns, seems hardly constuctive.

    Finally, Gerald, after four years living in Thailand and seven years married to a Thai, with two Thai children and a deep interest in the country, it is my experience that there is very little religious persecution in Thailand from the authorities.

    What persecution there is comes from the muslim insurgents who consider school teachers to be legitimate targets, who regularly behead people working for the government by the side of the road, and who have only recently broken the latest agreement to cease fighting.

    Too many points for one comment perhaps!

    All the best,


  3. Hi Marcus,

    Thanks for your comments! Never too many 🙂

    First off, I meant to talk about the press here. Sorry that this wasn’t clear. Campaigns are about more than writing, and Tricycle Blog is not an extension of the Free Tibet Campaign. I believe the same goes for most Buddhist media publications. I’d like for them to be the “inclusive” publications that they claim to be. I’d alternatively be happy if they just wrote these biases into their mission statement.

    (Forgive my copy/pasting)

    How could it be otherwise?
    There are so many issues I feel strongly about. I work on the ones where I feel I will make the biggest difference. (That’s one way it could be otherwise.)

    Are you really saying that people who support Tibetan freedom ought to stop their campaigning work?
    I’m not really saying that. I said that Tibetan independence is unrealistic. There are multiple campaigns for different types of Tibetan freedom, and independence is not necessarily freedom.

    That people ought to do things they don’t feel naturally pulled towards?
    I guess it depends on what you mean by naturally. Regardless, I guess I am indeed sort of saying that.

    In general, I’m inspired by evangelical Christian groups that raised millions of dollars for non-Christians, such as victims of the 2004 tsunami. On the other hand, the single mindedness of Buddhist publications on Tibet and Burma makes me feel as though a part of the Buddhist community is just full of itself. Hence frustration and venting into a blog. Maybe the community has an insecurity complex.

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