April 3, 2006

Tibet: Secrecy Clouds Envoy's Trip to Tibet

For the first time in nine years, Canada is quietly sending its ambassador to China, Robert Wright, on a tour of Tibet. His agenda appears to give business priority over human rights, but is that really the case? The embassy is silent

For the first time in nine years, Canada is quietly sending an ambassador on a tour of Tibet, armed with an agenda that seems to give business a higher priority than human rights.

The visit to Tibet by Robert Wright, the Canadian ambassador to China, is shrouded by an unusual level of secrecy. The Canadian embassy in Beijing has refused to allow any interviews with him on the eve of his mission. Nor will it disclose any details of when he is arriving in Tibet or how long he will spend in the politically sensitive region.

Sources who have seen his itinerary, however, say that Mr. Wright will arrive in Lhasa today and will spend eight days in Tibet. He is scheduled to have extensive meetings with a mining company, Continental Minerals Corp. of Vancouver, which is exploring a gold and copper property about 240 kilometres southwest of Lhasa.

Asked about the ambassador's Tibet agenda, an embassy spokesman said the visit will focus on a four-point list of subjects, including meetings with Canadian businesses to discuss the local market.

Several Canadian companies have become heavily involved in Tibet in recent years, making Canada one of the most active investors in Tibet today.

Companies such as Bombardier Inc. and Nortel Networks Corp. are supplying equipment for a major new railway between Tibet and the rest of China, while several Canadian mining companies are exploring for minerals in Tibet and neighbouring regions.

The ambassador's four-point agenda, as provided by the Canadian embassy, makes no reference to human rights or religious freedom, although the spokesman later said that those issues will be raised within the larger context of “good governance and public policy.”

Tibetan activists in Canada say they are alarmed that the agenda seems to give a higher priority to business and trade than to human rights. In 1997, during the last Canadian ambassadorial visit to Tibet, former ambassador Howard Balloch met with Buddhist monks and visited the notorious Drapchi Prison, where many political prisoners and religious leaders are jailed. He also wrote a report on conditions at the prison, and he gave a press conference at the end of his visit to discuss his findings.

This time, however, the embassy is refusing to say whether Mr. Wright will visit the prison. It also refused to comment on any other human-rights issues that the ambassador might raise, including the question of Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, chosen by the Dalai Lama to be the second-highest leader of Tibetan Buddhism, who has been missing and presumed to be in Chinese custody since 1995.

The embassy says the ambassador will travel to two Tibetan cities — Lhasa and Shigatze — and will focus on four issues: technical co-operation, including a human-needs project financed by Canada; meetings with Canadian businesses in Tibet, meetings with senior political leaders to discuss “issues related to good governance and public policy” and environmental issues.
“Ambassador Wright's first trip to Tibet will provide him with an occasion to meet with local leaders, to learn about the work of Canadians in the region, the challenges faced by local authorities, and the opportunities for future Canadian co-operation,” said embassy spokesman Ian Burchett.

Tenzin Dargyal, national co-ordinator of the Canada Tibet Committee, said he is troubled by the absence of any mention of human rights in the embassy's four-point summary of the ambassador's agenda. “Such a response feeds the skeptics that Canada will continue to appease China in the interests of trade,” he said.

Many other countries, including European countries and Australia and the United States, have been much more outspoken than Canada on human-rights issues in Tibet without suffering any damage to their trade relations with China, he said.

“Canada shouldn't be so afraid to raise these issues,” he said. “The Canadian officials are constantly worried about how this could offend China and damage Canadian trade relations with China. Now is not the time for Canada to be silent.”

Source: The Globe and Mail

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