Eternal Flame

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If ever there was a good time to live in Canberra (and I accept that most of the country does not believe that such a time could ever be, even if all the coastal cities were to be engulfed by tsunamis), then this is it.

Canberrans are experiencing a sudden and unfamiliar sense of relevance. First Sorry Day, then the 2020 Summit, and now the Olympic torch rally, with its attendant security, scuffles and arrests.

Canberrans may complain about the disruption to traffic, the heavy police presence and the general inconvenience, but deep down, we couldn’t be more thrilled.

The signs on the security fencing said: "THIS IS A DECLARED EVENT UNDER THE MAJOR EVENTS SECURITY ACT 2000. IT IS A CONDITION OF ENTRY THAT POLICE MAY SEARCH YOU OR YOUR PERSONAL PROPERTY AND REMOVE ANY PROHIBITED ITEMS." But Canberrans knew that they really meant: "YOU’RE PART OF THE BIG, WIDE, WORLD, JUST LIKE LONDON, PARIS AND SAN FRANCISCO!"

Mind you, the locals weren’t keen to get too close to the action. As one of the few Mum-and-Dad spectators outside Parliament House observed, "It’s just as well all the Tibetans and Chinese are here, otherwise there wouldn’t be much of a crowd".

In fact, the crowd was overwhelmingly Chinese – busloads and busloads of them, confronting a much smaller group that consisted not only of Tibetans and their supporters, but also groups carrying banners reading "Free Burma", "Freedom for East Turkistan", "Communist China Hands Off Vietnam’s Land and Sea", and general proclamations in support of human rights. There was a group of Chaser wannabes, carrying "Free Willy" signs and complaining that it was only the "white people" who weren’t finding them funny. (They didn’t really tickle my Scots-Pakistani funny bone, either.)

Samten, a Tibetan Buddhist monk, had come down from Sydney – not, he emphasised, to demonstrate against the Olympics, but to protest against cultural genocide and to urge his "Chinese brothers and sisters" not to believe Government propaganda. The Chinese Government, he said, was practising "divide and rule" by fueling racism against Tibetans. He saw the large pro-China crowd as another example of this propaganda, claiming that the Chinese supporters at the San Francisco torch relay had had their buses, food, and hotels paid for by the Chinese Government, as well as receiving cash payment.

Hattie, a Chinese student from Sydney, hotly denied having received any payment, claiming that she and her friends had organised and paid for their own bus. She had come "from the depths of my heart", motivated by "unfair media coverage" that had depicted the Chinese security forces as torturing Tibetan protesters when in fact they were "saving" them. "You could see the ambulances in the television footage – the authorities were saving them. Maybe they had fainted, or something."

But the scale and obvious expense of the Chinese protest, and the presence of older men who prompted the students in their responses to media questions, were all suggestive of official support. Nonetheless, many of the protesters were clearly on board with the message, chanting slogans, singing anthems, and screaming abuse at the Tibetan group.

Both sides grew more heated as the official motorcade drew into sight. A few Tibetan protesters darted forward and were swiftly arrested. A woman who collapsed onto the road was surrounded by a swarm of Federal Police, and an even larger swarm of cameramen. A female television presenter, camera crew in tow, ran through the crowd, demanding to know whether anyone knew where kd lang had gone. In all the commotion, I didn’t catch sight of the torch.

I spoke with Tenzin, a 13-year-old girl whose mother had just been wrestled to the ground and hauled away by the AFP right before her eyes. She was remarkably composed. But then, she didn’t expect that her mother, Dorma, would be detained for very long. Dorma had been arrested three or four times in Tibet, and had spent years in jail. "In Tibet, we would be arrested or killed for doing an interview like this." A tussle with the Federal Police as the torch rally passed in front of Parliament House was pretty tame by comparison.

Tenzin was born in India, after her parents had fled Tibet, and had lived in Australia for 10 years. She had visited Tibet only once, in 2003, an experience that she described as "half exciting, half scary". She did not think that her mother had planned to get arrested in Canberra – she had just become caught up in the emotion of the moment.

Some on the Chinese side got caught up in the emotion of the moment, too. Crossing the bridge back across Lake Burley Griffin, the police directed the Chinese demonstrators to march along one side, while the Tibetans and their supporters were to march along the other. A Chinese man who jumped the barricade and dashed towards the Tibetans was handcuffed and detained on a traffic island in the middle, where he clenched his flag between his teeth. The other Chinese demonstrators shouted their support. "Fucking stupid Australian police!" "He was just crossing the road! That’s not against the law!" "Fucking liars! The Dalai Lama is a fucking liar!"

In Exhibition Park, the two groups stood face to face, chanting slogans into each others faces. "Free Tibet!" "No way!"

The mood was ugly, and several pro-Tibet demonstrators described being harassed and intimidated by their opponents. Jacob Smit, a student from the Australian National University, said that he had been on his way to the event with a group of Tibetans and their supporters when they were surrounded by a much larger group of Chinese Government supporters, who seized their placards, hit them with their flags, and pulled the girls’ hair. Jacob believed that their attackers had been incited by one of the Chinese flame attendants, recognisable from his distinctive blue tracksuit. Their ordeal had only ended when the torch came into view, and their attackers moved on, leaving them shaken but unhurt.

If the success of the respective demonstrations is to be judged only by the numbers involved, then the Chinese won, hands down. However, they were less successful in conveying their stated message of supporting the Olympics, the flame, and the need for law and order. The behaviour of some of the pro-China demonstrators in fact reinforced the message of their opponents.

The morning provided much food for thought, but that will have to wait for later. Right now, I have to prepare for the Shannon Noll concert. Didn’t I tell you that Canberra was an exciting place to live?

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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