Moral high ground

Posted by Ed Douglas on 04/10/2006
Cho Oyu from Base Camp. Photo: John Eames.

Chinese Police recently shot and killed a 17-year-old Tibetan nun in full view of Cho Oyu Base Camp. Should mountaineers care? Ed Douglas thinks so.

It is shocking footage. A line of people is shuffling up a shallow snow-slope from left to right. They are trying to hurry, and you can almost hear their panicked breathing in the thin air at 19,000ft. One of the black shapes is out in front, moving a little faster than the others. Then it drops like a stone.

It is around 8am on 30 September. The figure in the snow isn’t moving. When the footage is shown on television, it is edited to suggest the figure will never move again. But it does move, whoever it is, and struggles on, essentially in the direction of freedom.

But another of the ant-sized people does not get up when she falls. Her name was Kelsang Namtso, a 17-year-old Tibetan nun from Nagchu prefecture, an area of vast grasslands 250km to the north of Lhasa. She had been, according to some reports, helping the large number of children travelling with the group of around 70 Tibetans attempting to reach Nepal, across the Nangpa La to the west of Cho Oyu.

The route from Tibet into Nepal and India via the Nangpa La is popular with refugees. The Chinese news network Xinhua has in the past described it as “a golden route”, because of the great difficulty the authorities have in stamping their authority on this wild country. During an ‘anti-crime’ campaign dubbed Strike Hard five years ago, the People’s Armed Police, which patrols this sensitive border, found the forbidding terrain a major hurdle in controlling the numbers of Tibetans reaching the pass.

So the authorities built a road from the PAP garrison town of Tragmar, some 25km from the Nangpa La, to the tiny encampment of stone shelters at Gyaplung, used for centuries by yak caravans trading into Nepal, just six kilometres from the pass. Since the road opened in 2003, security on the Nangpa La has tightened. It takes refugees two to three days to reach the Nangpa La from Tragmar, often travelling by night to avoid detection. (The presence of trucks can be a hazard for mountaineers; a runaway truck almost squashed some Italian climbers this autumn and did for their base camp, ending their expedition.)

But alongside these mechanisms of control, the business of China’s tourist industry continues, conducted on the slopes of Cho Oyu to the east of the Nangpa La, the most popular of the 8000m peaks. Hundreds of western climbers and Sherpas gather here each autumn, converging in roughly the same area as the refugees but for very different reasons.

From Advance Base Camp, on 30 September, dozens of those climbers had an unrestricted but distant view of the line of refugees, and of the PAP scampering along the moraine from where they fired their Type 81 assault rifles, a Chinese version of the ubiquitous AK47. Watching people being gunned down during the middle of their holiday was profoundly shocking for many of those who witnessed the event.

Just after Kelsang fell, the cameraman who shot the footage of her death, Romanian mountaineer Sergiu Matei, can be heard on the film’s soundtrack saying: “They are shooting them like dogs.” A second death from among those injured in the shooting could still be confirmed. Steve Lawes, a British climber and police officer, was also among the witnesses. He reported that about half an hour after the refugees came under fire, a group of around 10 to 12 children were marched into ABC by three armed border guards, some of those the PAP managed to capture. (Forty-one more made it across the border to Nepal where they were assisted to Kathmandu by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees.)

“The children were in single file, about six feet away from me,” Lawes told the International Campaign for Tibet. “They didn’t see us. They weren’t looking around, the way kids normally would. They were too frightened. By that time, Advance Base Camp was crawling with soldiers. They had pretty much taken over, and the atmosphere was very intimidating. We were doing our best not to do anything that might spark off more violence.”

One American witness described the guards as being young and unsure of what to do. That might explain what was essentially thoughtless violence. A British climber reported seeing a small group of traders descending with their yaks from the Nangpa La soon after Kelsang’s body was abandoned on the glacier. The yaks were chest deep in snow and moving only with great difficulty. With more thought, the PAP could have arrested the refugees and the incident would have warranted a paragraph in a human rights report. This wasn’t the first time climbers had witnessed refugees being shot on the border with Nepal. But the presence of so many Westerners, one of whom captured the killing on a video camera, ensured that this incident was publicised around the world.

Unusually for this kind of incident, authorities in Beijing issued a statement through Xinhua claiming police had fired in self-defence after being attacked by a group of refugees. The lie compounded the crime. Matei’s footage of Kelsang being shot in the back by someone too distant to be included in the frame exposed Xinhua’s report as abject fabrication. (The story was possibly built on truth. In a previous incident in 2002, witnessed by an American and a New Zealand climber, a group of refugees did overpower border guards. The climbers watched as one of the guards, who had detained a group of 20 refugees, fired a round into a 30-year-old Tibetan woman. The scene exploded into violence and the Tibetans disarmed the guards, who were also Tibetan, before escaping down the valley with their weapons.)

The murder of Kelsang Namtso, a young nun shepherding a group of children, captures the sour reality of human rights in modern China for those who saw the footage of her death. Beyond cursory protests from ambassadors in Beijing, her death will have created barely a ripple of concern. In 1980, the United States boycotted the Moscow Olympics in protest at the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. With the US now embroiled both in Afghanistan and Iraq, it’s unlikely that China’s human rights record will prompt much official protest in the run-up to the Beijing games. But a Czech climber called Josef Simunek, who also witnessed Kelsang’s death, told ICT: “We felt as though it was 20 years ago in our country in the communist time, when Czech soldiers killed Czech citizens in their escape over the Iron Curtain.”

What, if anything, does this have to do with climbing? Quite a lot, if you accept that you are the same moral creature on holiday as you are at home. Some witnesses expressed their disgust at other climbers on Cho Oyu who didn’t seem to be as affected as they were by what had happened. Sergiu Mate’s fellow climber Alex Gavan went much further, claiming in a web report from the mountain that, “Big expedition outfitters will never speak about [the shooting]. Otherwise they will be banned from the Tibetan side of the Himalayas. And this will mean no more bucks for them anymore. And they don’t want that, of course. It has indeed nothing to do with the spirit of mountaineering, which has been lost in those commercial outfits, but with basic human values.”

Accusing commercial expedition organisers of attempting a cover-up of Chinese state murder and oppression to keep their businesses sweet is a serious charge. Is there any truth in it? ICT does say that climbers they contacted were reluctant to go on the record in describing what they saw, confirmed by journalists in Kathmandu covering the story.

But then, as The Independent reported on 11 October, officials from the Chinese embassy in Kathmandu sought out climbers, presumably with the intention of warning them to keep quiet if they planned on coming back to Tibet. Commercial outfits employ large numbers of Sherpas and local Tibetans, offering good wages in a poor corner of the world. Nepalese agents in Kathmandu are acutely sensitive to the mood of Chinese authorities and Western guides are reluctant to antagonise their business partners. Most of all, commercial guides say they are anxious for the security of their staff, especially Tibetan workers who have to remain behind after Westerners take their moral outrage home.

As it happens, one of the very first reports of Kelsang Namtso’s death came from a guide outraged by what had happened. He chose to remain anonymous, anxious not to jeopardise working in Tibet again, but the information was quickly corroborated by the accounts of others who felt no such pressure and were happy to be identified.

British guide Victor Saunders was climbing up to Camp 2 on 20 September with clients, and so saw nothing of events on the Nangpa La, but was happy to condemn the shooting: “What happened was wrong on so many levels,” he told me. “And if they ban me for saying that, then they ban me. But can you imagine what could happen if there were no climbers there?”

Simply bearing witness can be a powerful contribution. That’s why, in contrast to the boycott of Burma, the Dalai Lama encourages tourists to visit Tibet, to see for themsleves the Chinese suppression of Tibetan culture and freedoms. The reality is murkier; some tourists aren’t interested in the Tibetan cause and don’t look very hard. Even well informed climbers on Cho Oyu could miss the complexity of the situation that surrounds the thousands of refugees crossing the Nangpa La. But their presence is a powerful influence.

Tibetans leave their homeland for all kinds of reasons – for pilgrimage, for education, for economic reasons. Tibetan children are routinely sent abroad to be educated in Tibetan-medium schools in India, since schools in Tibet teach in Chinese after primary level. Since the Chinese authorities make it so difficult for Tibetans in the Tibet Autonomous Region to get papers, many choose to cross illegally. Many of those refugees will eventually return.

Local traders are permitted to cross routinely by border police willing to take a cut of the profits. There are also guides on hand to take refugees unfamiliar with the route over the pass to Nepal. Some guides are genuine and want to help. Others exploit the refugees, demanding astronomical sums. China is a country suffused with corruption. Confrontations between border guards and refugees can erupt if an agreed bribe isn’t paid. Frequent visitors to the Nangpa La told me that the group Kelsang joined was unusually large. It’s possible the 17-year-old died not from China’s ideological disgust with the Dalai Lama, but by corrupt policemen insufficiently rewarded.

So what responsibilities do we have as climbers travelling to Tibet? John Ackerly is director of the International Campaign for Tibet based in Washington DC. He is also a climber, who counts Conrad Anker and acclaimed film-maker David Breashears among his friends. “I can understand the difficulty for a guide who is doing a lot of business in Tibet,” he says, “but I would say in a situation like this there should be a moral pressure from guides on their clients to talk.”

Ackerly believes that the caution climbers showed in being named was based on a misconception about visa blacklists. “People think that China holds a much more rigorous list than they do. If they did, people like David Breashears and Conrad Anker would never get visas. Breashears has his name plastered all over our website, he’s even on our letterhead because he’s the co-chair on our advisory board, and he speaks at our events in Washington, and he continues to have a close relationship with the Tibet Mountaineering Association, and has never been refused a visa.”

So does Ackerly believe that climbers should talk about what happens in Tibet? “I do. You can even compare it to their responsibility to help an injured fellow climber on the mountain. It’s a basic human concern for another individual. Obviously there are choices and things you need to balance. It’s not an easy decision all the time, but sometimes, as in this instance, it’s no skin off anyone’s back to speak out.”

Mountaineering differs from other sports by involving itself heavily in landscapes. Football has Wembley, or it will have, but our theatre of dreams is among the wildest places on Earth. Some climbers find the cultural and political complexities of functioning in the Himalaya or Africa, say, a distraction. Others revel in all that chaos and drama. Most of us fall somewhere in between. Several climbers I spoke to who were on Cho Oyu thought some of the statements of moral outrage amounted to posturing by people excited by their involvement in one of the world’s great tragedies. What is happening there is not laid on as added interest for a climbing lecture.

Nevertheless, mountaineers and explorers have always had a fascination with Tibet, like Marco Pallis and Heinrich Harrer. (Both men wound up in Kalimpong after the war, where Pallis told the English Buddhist monk Sangharakshita that he regarded Harrer as “a better type of Nazi”. Sangharakshita certainly thought the author of Seven Years in Tibet would make a poor type of Buddhist.) Perhaps there is something in Buddhist philosophy that matches the ascetic rigours of Himalayan climbing, although the colossal egos of many current and former stars would suggest there is some way to go to enlightenment. But at the very least, mountaineers should recognise that travelling in many parts of the world can make awkward moral demands, as John Ackerly suggests:

“I think your first responsibility as a climber is to learn a little about the place where you’re going. And to appreciate the culture that you’ll be interacting with. At the very least you should do no harm, either culturally or environmentally. But then I think you also have a responsibility to have a positive effect, especially when a flagrant, egregious human rights violation happens right in front of you. You become a participant whether you want to or not, simply by witnessing it.”

Essential info: Tibet

In 1949-50, Tibet was invaded by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, and since then the Tibetan people have lived under an often brutal Communist Party regime. In 1959, thousands of Tibetans rose up against the Chinese, resulting in the deaths of thousands of Tibetans, and the imprisonment of thousands more. Many others fled with their leader, the Dalai Lama, into exile in India.

During the Chinese occupation, more than 6000 Tibetan Buddhist monasteries and nunneries have been destroyed, and a wide-ranging ‘patriotic education’ campaign forces monks and nuns to denounce their spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama. Both the Tibetan flag and pictures of the Dalai Lama are banned, and Tibetans possessing either are at risk of torture and imprisonment. Because of the strong link between Tibetan Buddhism and Tibetan national identity, monks and nuns account for the majority of political prisoners in Tibet.

The 21st century has brought a new threat to the survival of the unique Tibetan cultural and religious heritage. Tibet’s precious high-altitude environment is increasingly endangered by China’s policies, which do not take into account local needs and the fragile ecosystem. This matters to the rest of Asia and the world.  Five of Asia’s great rivers have their headwaters in Tibet and nearly half the world’s population lives downstream. Deforestation in Tibet has already been linked to severe floods in the lower reaches of the Yangtze in China.

 The high plains, forests and mountains of Tibet are home to rare and endangered wildlife such as the snow leopard, blue sheep and Tibetan chiru (antelope). Due to extensive resource extraction, poaching and unsustainable development, these ecosystems and many of their species are now endangered. The enforced settlement of nomads is wiping out a unique way of life, increasing poverty and contributing to grassland degradation.

Over the past 50 years, Tibetans have expressed their resistance to Chinese rule through the assertion of their cultural and religious identity. Following the Cultural Revolution, they rebuilt monasteries and temples as centres of influence in Tibetan communities. Today, Tibetans worship at secret shrines to the Dalai Lama, express their dissent through pop music or poetry and protect their Tibetan identity by keeping their language and traditions alive.

 The International Campaign for Tibet (ICT) works to promote human rights and democratic freedoms for the people of Tibet. Founded in 1988, ICT is a non-profit membership organisation with offices in Washington D.C., Amsterdam, Berlin and Brussels.
See www.savetibet.org for more information.



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