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"As long as human rights are violated, there can be no foundation for peace. How can peace grow where speaking the truth is itself a crime?"

Football, Robben Island & the Relativism of Political Cruelty

July 19, 2010

Jamyang Norbu

Shadow Tibet
July 17, 2010

Well, the World Cup's over and the teams and
visitors have all gone home, but the afterglow of
achievement hasn't entirely faded for South
Africans. The people of this struggling "rainbow
nation", especially its new president Jacob Zuma,
can be deservedly proud of having successfully
hosted this tremendous international sporting
event. Over forty years ago Zuma was a player
himself, in fact the captain of the Rangers club,
one of the teams that made up the Makana Football
Association, organized by the prisoners of South
Africa's notorious Robben Island state prison.

An article in the New York Times mentioned that
in Robben Island "... soccer brought relief from
the exhausting life of breaking rocks in a
quarry. It conferred dignity on prisoners
subjected to beatings and humiliating body
searches." An inmate, Lizo Sitoto who was
imprisoned on Robben island from 1963 until 1978,
claimed that "football saved many of us. When you
were outside playing, you felt free, as if you were at home."

Nelson Mandela was kept in an isolation unit and
not allowed to play football, but it appears that
he somehow managed to keep himself physically
fit. On Thursday February 11, 1990, when he was
released from Robben island and the whole world
celebrated his freedom, some observers noticed
how spry and energetic he looked in spite of his
27 years behind bars.  His physical and mental
fitness, was of course, in great part, the
product of his own discipline, political focus and iron will.

But that same year I read an article in The
Independent which described how the South African
government was very careful with the health of
prisoners on Robben Island. As brutal as life
could be for the inmates, their diet was adequate
and nutritious enough (though reportedly stodgy
and unappetizing) and overseen by a government
appointed dietician. The prisoners also had
regular exercise routines and periodic medical check-ups.

I have interviewed or just talked to hundreds of
Tibetans who had been incarcerated in Chinese
prisons  and labor camp, and no one has yet told
me of playing football, basketball, or even
taking part in any kind of basic recreational
activity. The reason for this sedentariness was
profoundly simple. The amount of food a Tibetan
prisoner was allotted just about enabled breath
to be kept in the body. But prisoners were also
expected perform hard labor for twelve to
fourteen hour daily, and after that to attend
political re-education classes late into the
evening. Of course, most of them quickly wasted away and died.

Many hundreds of thousand of Tibetans and
millions of Chinese in prison and labor camps
(laogai) were quite deliberately starved to
death. This was an actual policy of the Chinese
government. The death of many Tibetans through
starvation, especially in the labour camps, did
not happen because of natural events like crop
failure or famines (though such catastrophes
certainly made the situation worse) but were
rather the result of a cold and calculated policy
of the Chinese authorities to control prisoners
and their productivity through slow starvation.

According to Jean Pasqualini (Bao Ruo Wang), who
wrote the classic account on China's labour
camps, Prisoner of Mao, the Chinese authorities
had developed the system to such a degree of
efficiency and sophistication that Stalinist
gulags and Nazi concentration camps were crude
and unproductive by comparison. The Chinese did
not have to resort to such primitive and wasteful
ways of getting rid of people, like gas-chambers
or bullets. Instead they simply starved a man to
death, and during the time it took him to die,
used the powerful incentives of slight variations
in the wretched farce of a daily ration to
extract the maximum amount of labour and
submission out of him. It is probably as horrible
a way to die as being gassed to death - and it
takes a much longer time for a person to actually die.

Think about it. In the USA condemned criminals
are regularly executed by gas or lethal
injection, and a majority of the population
doesn't seem to have any problem with it. But if
a prison warden deliberately starved a condemned
man to death, don't you think there would be a
national outcry, even from hardcore death penalty advocates?

To relieve hunger pangs, prisoners in laogai
camps drank so much hot water that their limbs
and bellies swelled up with oedema and many died
of the condition.  Because of the shortage (and
often complete absence) of tea or butter
throughout the country even those Tibetans not in
prison had to adopt the Chinese practice of
drinking hot water (kai shui). Lhasa folks, in
their mildly sarcastic way, dubbed it "socialist
butter-tea" (chizo-ringlu nyakpa). The term
nyakpa is used in particular to describe a
full-flavoured tea with plenty of butter.

One Tibetan prisoner told me of picking
undigested or partially digested grain from
animal dung to flesh out his daily ration. Ama
Adhe of Kanze told me of the giant labour camp
she was sent to at Yakraphug in the high
mountains of the baron of Gothan, north of
Dhartsedo. The prisoners, about few thousand of
them, were supposed to be mining lead, but when
Ama Adhe got there most of the inmates were so
weak with hunger that they only managed to crawl
around the camp looking for scraps of anything
edible on the ground. Those slightly healthier,
and there weren't too many of them, hobbled
about, supporting themselves on sticks. Ama Adhe
herself became so weak with hunger that the
guards thought she was finished and they put her
in a large pit with the dead bodies. But somehow
she hung on to life. At one point, she tried to
chew on a dried human corpse by her side but only
hurt her teeth biting on the hard desiccated limb.

Even now prisoners in Tibet and in Chinese appear
to be routinely underfed, though starving a
person to break or eliminate him doesn't appear
to be the current policy of the penal system. But
they have other methods, one being to lock you up
in a cell with terminal TB cases, and keeping you
there till your lungs show up a nice solid black
on the X-ray machine. Your family is then
contacted to take you away. The onus on the state
of you dying in prison is hence neutralized.  A
more modern, even scientific way of breaking you
is the subject of a whole book by Human Rights
Watch* which I have discussed in my own work
Buying the Dragon's Teeth. Dissidents are locked
up in state psychiatric units (Ankang) where you
would be injected with an array of psychotropic
drugs or, if the need arose even undergo psycho-surgery.

But the recent case of Karma Samdrup, sentenced
to fifteen years in prison, seems to indicate
that starvation, as a method to break  prisoners,
hasn't entirely been relinquished in the PRC.
Named "philanthropist of the year" in 2006 by
CCTV, and embraced by the Chinese Communist Party
for his environmental work and his willingness to
give the government pieces from his art
collection, Karma was arrested last August along
with two of his brothers. He was brought before a
People's Court court in Xinjiang this year on 22
June. His wife Dolkar Tso wrote an appeal to the
Chinese government which has been translated into
English by

Karma was a big man, and Dolkar Tso writes that
he was tall and heavyset even a "little chubby".
But when she saw her husband in the People's
Court she did not recognize him immediately as he
had lost so much weight and had become "small and
skinny". He claimed that he had been beaten and
tortured so that he bled from his orifices, and
that he gone deaf in his left ear, probably from
a blow that had ruptured the ear-drum. But he
also said that he had not been allowed to sleep
and "he had not been given any food."
* Munro, Robin. (August 2002). "Dangerous Minds:
Political Psychiatry in China Today and its
Origins in the Mao Era. New York and Geneva:
Human Rights Watch/Geneva Initiative on Psychiatry."
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