Human Rights in Tibet - are climbers turning a blind eye?

by Billy Briggs
The Big Issue in the North 7-13 November 2011

A human rights group has condemned mountaineers for implicitly condoning the Chinese occupation of Tibet by holding a conference this month that "airbrushes" Tibetan peaks from contested lands.

As unrest continues in eastern districts of Tibet, Scotland Against Criminalising Communities (SACC) has criticised the Alpine Club over a symposium to be held in Cumbria on 26 November.

Chris Bonnington and the famous Scottish climber Bruce Normand – who lives in Beijing – are expected to attend.

The event will focus on “China”, although SACC says mountains to be discussed are within an area claimed as Tibet by the exiled Tibetan administration in India.

Recent unrest

The north face of Siguniang, in the Aba Tibetan and Qiang Autonomous Prefecture, was first climbed in 2002 by Paul Ramsden and Mick Fowler, president of the Alpine Club. The ascent will be the subject of a talk but the words “Tibet” and “Tibetan” do not appear anywhere in the programme.

Another highlight will be a presentation of the ascent last year by climbers Kyle Dempster and Bruce Normand of the notoriously dangerous east face of Mt Edgar in the Gongga Shan mountains of Ganzi (Kardze, in Tibetan), Autonomous Prefecture of Sichuan Province. This area has been the scene of recent Tibetan unrest.

Richard Haley, chair of SACC, said: “The Chinese government would probably like to airbrush the eastern parts of Tibet out of Tibet altogether. The Alpine Club isn’t just helping them – it’s carrying the re-branding even further than the Chinese authorities themselves take it.

Monk on fire

“Tibet’s political difficulties won’t be solved unless they are properly understood around the world. Tourism of all kinds – including mountaineering – is growing rapidly in western China and eastern Tibet. The resulting exchange of ideas and experience could be of great benefit to everyone. That won’t happen if visitors censor themselves and spread misunderstanding.

“Climbing expeditions that report misleadingly on where they have been and what’s happening there are part of the problem, not part of the solution. The Alpine Club isn’t alone in promoting a misleading picture of eastern Tibet. The same gaps are to be found in many reports of climbing expeditions to the area. Climbers, their sponsors and the climbing media need to sharpen their act up.”

SACC’S criticism came days after a young Tibetan monk from Kirti monastery set fire to himself in the eastern Tibetan town of Aba (Ngaba in Tibetan). Norbu Damdul became the eighth Tibetan this year to set fire to himself. Like most of the others, he had until recently been a monk at Kirti monastery in Ngaba, a town in north west Sichuan province, part of the former Tibetan region of Amdo.

According to the International Campaign for Tibet, Norbu Damdul shouted “We need freedom and independence for Tibet” before setting himself alight. His condition is unknown.

Dalai Lama meeting

Fabian Hamilton, MP for Leeds North East, and chair of the All- Party Group for Tibet, is just back from a visit to Daramsala where he met the Dalai Lama and discussed the recent immolations. In a letter of support to SACC he wrote: “I am grateful to you for writing to the British Alpine Club to make them aware of their false assumptions about Tibet and to inform them of the real situation that faces so many Tibetans inside China itself.”

The Alpine Club was asked to comment but had not replied by the time The Big Issue in the North went to press.

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