A torch for Tibet…and Tobago

By Raffique Shah
Sunday, April 13th 2008

MonksBACK 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.

4 Responses to “A torch for Tibet…and Tobago”


  • Points well made, Raffique. I stand with the people of Tibet, because their cause is similar to that of the African indigenous people in South Africa, under aparthied. The isolation of South African sportsmen, and the Sullivan Principles of doing business in Africa, were major factors in bringing aparthied to its knees, and its end.

    One can make a claim for all of Euroasia, from the Iberian Peninsula to Kamchatka, being one contiguous country, and to avoid Balkanization, they should have one ruler, but who to put? Same may be true for Africa and North and South America.
    The recognition by the US of various places as independent is only about business. Notice the indecent haste with which Panama was recognized around 1900, because of the need to build the Panama Canal. Panama was part of Columbia previously. the same is true of New Mexico and Texas, in the 1830’s, and Kosovo recently. Its politics. Those then, who say the Olympics should not be politicized, are forgetting the Moscow boycott, and other bans put on people for political action with regard to sport.Tibet is listed in my antique atlas(Oxford Press, 1951) as having an area of 430,000 square miles, and a population of 3,000,000. At that time, it qualified for status as an independent country much more than any of our Caribbean rocks did, including Cuba. It still does. The fact that it has no coastline, and must depend on passing through other people’s places, should not blind us to its need to be an independent country. As such it has as much claim as any of the stans, except Pakistan, which has a coastline. After all, Qatar is a country!Nepal has an area of 54,000square miles, and Liberia, forcefully carved out by the US in Africa, has an area of 43,000square miles. Who fooling who?

  • Again Raffique is talking without knowing the background of a situation. Seems to me he reads something online like on Wikipedia and thinks that is the gospel (Wiki is a collection of information posted by people like the rest of us and moderated by a few so there will be incorrect information at times as is true for the rest of the Internet).

    What is hilarious to me is that Raffique is complaining about the the thousands around the world who are clamoring for China to “free Tibet” have little understanding of the province’s (yes, it’s a province of China) history, its economy, its religion. but right after that statement he makes the inaccurate declaration that Tibet was never an autonomous state

    Tibet was a kingdom, a proctorate of the Chinese Empire, part of the Mongol Empire, then declared it’s independence and fought several skirmishes with China until the 1950’s.

    Sikkim was not invaded by India as Raffiue says. Indian forces were requested by the Sikkim royalty to stop riots. If Indian forces did not enter Sikkim, it would have been part of China today as China viewed Sikkim as part of Tibet.

    Bringing up Tobago further demonstrates that this man doesn’t know what he is talking about. The two situations have completely different histories and are alike as saying a man and dog are similar because they are both mammals.

    The history of this region is not as simple as Raffique makes it out to be.

    What is worse is that he has such a myopic view that he asks why the same people don’t protest the war in Iraq or political events in Chile & Argentina. News flash for Raffique, the people protesting for Tibet’s freedom are mostly Tibetans living outside and a smaller percentage are sympathizers. Does he expect them to protest for other people’s rights and freedom when they don’t have their own?

    He insults the entire region of Tibet and makes the Chinese Gov’t appear to be some sort of saviors from the “impoverished region.” He sounds just like former colonists who use the same excuse to justify invading countries – the rail-link to bring Tibet into the “Modern Age?” No – It’s one of the first steps to bringing the oil fields West of Tibet closer to China. The average Tibetan may not own a car or have a personal computer in their home but does that make them impoverished? I am sure the average Tibetan is more content than the average Trinidadian.

  • Dear Raffique,
    Why are you talking about hogs and ham, as a moslem don’t you know this is harram.

  • Seems Raffique is all over the road without a map and what about that Riaz Ali guy who knocks the United States. Get off our backs please. I hope if you do decide to come to the United States we’ll throw you out before you leave the plane

Comments are currently closed.