Could This Happen In Your Town? PDF Print E-mail
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Written by Rebecca Novick   

Imagine that your elected representatives came to an art gallery in your neighborhood, and demanded, under threat of violence, that an exhibit be closed down because it contained photos that were upsetting to the Chinese government. That’s exactly what happened in October this year in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh. The prestigious Drik Gallery had just launched the exhibition Into Exile: Tibet 1949 to 2009. The photographs depicted the experience of the Tibetan people and their journey as refugees into India and abroad. And yes, they included photographs of Beijing’s archenemy – the Dalai Lama.

The gallery’s Managing Director Shahidul Alam described his surprise when, in the middle of a staff meeting, one of his colleagues announced that a delegation from the Chinese Embassy had arrived for a ‘social visit.’ “I thought I should go up and say ‘hello’,” recalls Alam, unaware of the drama that was about to unfold.

Two men, a counselor and the Chinese cultural attaché, were there to receive him with presents. The counselor asked Alam if he could have a word in private. He came right to the point. “They knew we were having this exhibition on Tibet. They wanted to know if there were any pictures of the Dalai Lama, and they wanted us to take down the show.”

Later, Alam got another, less friendly visit, from his own regional government officials and the officer in charge of the local police station. When Alam protested, they warned him that he was putting himself in a very difficult position. “They said, ‘If you don’t cooperate, you might be forcing us to use violence.”

Alam was receiving an unwelcome education in the darker side of Sino-Asian politics. “I was very surprised that the Chinese Embassy felt that it could come to my agency, to our gallery, and actually tell us to take a show down. That level of audacity is something I find flabbergasting. What I find far more disconcerting is the fact that our own government capitulates to something like this as easily as it does.”

Alam's art gallery was suddenly the epicenter of a story that captured the collective attention of this tiny South Asian democracy. Something that neither the Chinese delegates nor the politicians had factored in was the response from ordinary Bangladeshis who turned out in droves to show their support for the gallery.

The exhibit had been organized by the Bangladesh chapter of Students for a Free Tibet, but after word got out that the police were looking for them, its members went into hiding. One of the SFT organizers, Wasfia Nazreen, who continues to be harassed by police, said that many of the people who showed up to protest the closing of the exhibit were not there to support Tibet, but to protest government censorship and foreign interference. “It goes to show how big of an impact this had,” she said.

Activist and Professor Dr. Muzzafar Ahmed sits in front of Drik gallery protesting the ban on a Tibetan photo exhibition November 1, 2009.
Activist and Professor Dr. Muzzafar Ahmed sits in front of Drik gallery protesting the ban on a Tibetan photo exhibition November 1, 2009.

“I side with them when they say they do not want foreign governments interfering in their internal affairs,” says Alam, “but then they continue to do exactly the same thing with their neighbors. I realize the Chinese government is a powerful government. I realize that our government wants to stay on friendly terms with them. But being friends and being slaves are very different.”

Shahidal Alam voices the feelings of many freedom-loving people who find themselves resentful of Beijing's bully diplomacy. Recently, the US government avoided a meeting with the Dalai Lama so as not to upset the leaders in Beijing. Would they go so far as to try to pressure a local gallery to remove his photograph from their walls? Can Americans rest assured that what happened this fall in Dhaka could never happen in Los Angeles?

Rebecca Novick is the founding producer of The Tibet Connection radio program online at where you can hear more about this story, turning obstacles into opportunities with Tenzin Palmo and Chinese and Tibetans using music to bridge the gap.


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