Tibet: Australian ambassador pulls no punches on human rights concerns after rare visit


August 30, 2013 7:44 pm

By Philip Wen / China correspondent for Fairfax Media

[The Sydney Morning Herald]

Ambassador uses landmark visit to Tibet to “directly convey” Australia’s human rights concerns.

Paramilitary policemen guard the Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet. The June visit by US Ambassador Gary Locke was used an “opportunity” to replace them with uniformed police. Photo: Reuters

Beijing: Australia’s top diplomat in Beijing, Frances Adamson, has used a landmark visit to Tibet to “directly convey” the federal government’s human rights concerns in the politically-sensitive region.

In rare access granted by Chinese authorities, the Australian ambassador visited Tibet on a four-day trip last week, some 18 months after foreign minister Bob Carr first requested access to the region to “investigate the grievances” which he said had led to an “appalling” spate of self-immolations.

More than 120 are known to have set fire to themselves since 2009, in protest at restrictions on their religious freedom. Access to the region is routinely cut off to foreign travellers, especially journalists and diplomats.

Paramilitary policemen guard the Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet. The June visit by US Ambassador Gary Locke was used an “opportunity” to replace them with uniformed police. Photo: Reuters

“I clearly and directly conveyed the Australian government’s views on the human rights situation in Tibet,” Ms Adamson said in a statement on Friday. “I made the point that we wished to see open and regular access to the Tibetan Autonomous Region for the media, as well as for Australian diplomats.”

Ms Adamson’s visit comes at a time when China is pushing hard to reclaim the narrative and context with which Tibet is reported on by the world’s media.

Chinese authorities have carefully selected overseas diplomatic and journalist delegations to visit in a tightly-controlled manner. But it is understood access to particularly restive ethnic Tibetan areas in Sichuan, where most of the self-immolations have occurred, remain off-limits.

Australian Ambassador to China Frances Adamson: “I clearly and directly conveyed the Australian government’s views on the human rights situation in Tibet.” Photo: Sanghee Liu

Robbie Barnett, the director of modern Tibetan studies at Columbia University, said authorities were keen to highlight Tibet’s economic progress and tourism potential – and that tightly-controlled visits were one factor in the charm offensive.

The United States ambassador Gary Locke visited in June, and it is understood ambassadors from other western nations, including New Zealand and Canada have also either been, or are in the process of organising visits.

The visit by Mr Locke in June, Professor Barnett said, was used as an “opportunity” to replace the paramilitary forces that had patrolled the streets of Lhasa 24 hours a day with uniformed policce. He said it was a clear signal from new president Xi Jinping that he wanted to change the way the central government managed Tibet — though it was too early to confidently say it was for the better.

“It shows that after five years [since 2008], the new leadership is actually trying to lower the temperature a bit in Lhasa,” he said.

But rights groups warned Tibet remained under de facto martial law and the façade of relative openness was just a diversion, and journalists risked being used for propaganda purposes. “They are confident that they can control and stage-manage the visits, divert the attention [away] from self-immolations and divert the criticism from western governments,” said Kate Saunders, from the London-based International Campaign for Tibet.

In state-run reports following a recent visit by three Australian journalists, veteran reporter from The Australian Rowan Callick was quoted as saying he was surprised by what “a wonderful life” Tibetans were living. It is understood the comments were wrongly attributed to him and were made by another Australian on the trip, a producer filming a cooking show in China. Callick declined to comment.

In a similar stance to Mr Locke, Ms Adamson has declined to comment to journalists beyond her statement, highlighting the delicate balancing act diplomats have in highlighting their concerns while avoiding treading on the toes of the country’s most important trading partner.