Tibet’s yearning for independence echoes in the Baltics – Feature

April 4, 2008

Riga – For three tiny Baltic nations, slogans to free Tibet have a familiar echo. At the first glance, EU members Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have little in common with the mountainous region thousands of miles away. Yet, the Baltic states know what it’s like to crave freedom.

Following their first independence in 1918, the Baltics were incorporated into the Soviet Union in 1940 under a Nazi-Soviet pact.

After Nazi occupation in World War II, they remained under Moscow’s control until the Soviet collapse in 1991.

So the fate of Tibet and its spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, resonate strongly in the Baltics.

“It’s some kind of debt that we could repay by helping somebody in a similar situation we once were ourselves,” said Janis Ziemelis, a Latvian who helped organize the Dalai Lama’s first visit to the region in 2001.

The Baltics suffered under the Kremlin’s policy of migration and Russification to fight the independence stirrings, which was similar to China’s current policy in Tibet.

The rhetoric of ethnic harmony under the leadership of the Communist Party sounds familiar to many Latvians, Estonians and Lithuanians, whose fathers and grandfathers were shipped to Siberian labour camps by the Soviet authorities.

“People who have suffered themselves ought to understand other nations who are suffering,” said Ziemelis, whose parents were deported by the Soviets after World War II.

Much like the three Baltic states who maintained official representatives abroad during the Soviet occupation, Tibet has a government in exile under Dalai Lama’s leadership.

Images of Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians connecting three Baltic capitals by holding hands in 1988 are reminiscent of the pacifist protest of the Buddhist monks of 2008, halfway across the globe.

Driven by such similarities, the Latvian group plans a protest outside the Chinese Embassy in Riga, the Latvian capital, next week.

Similar protests against the Chinese government’s actions in Tibet unfolded in Tallinn and Vilnius since unrest erupted on March 10.

Estonian President Toomas Ilves Hendrik said he would skip the Olympic opening ceremony in Beijing, citing a booked schedule for August.

Latvia’s head of state Valdis Zatlers and Prime Minister Ivars Godmanis face mounting political pressure to stay home. So far, they have not committed to attending.

“Comparisons between Tibet and the Baltics force us to think about our decision,” Godmanis said Tuesday.