By Stephen de Tarczynski
MELBOURNE, Mar 22 (IPS) - The crackdown by Chinese authorities on protesters in Tibet has elicited calls within Australia, a major sporting power, to boycott the Beijing Olympics.
"The Communist regime in China is one of the worst human rights abusers in the world and by participating in the Olympics when that country is not improving its performance, I think we’ve got to look at whether that makes us complicit," Senator Andrew Bartlett from the Australian Democrats party told ABC radio.
Bartlett’s call for Australian athletes to boycott this year’s Olympics came amid reports indicating that Chinese police and troops are stepping up their security measures, carrying out house searches and conducting arrests.
Dozens have been reported killed in protests and clashes with security forces in the Tibet Autonomous Region and neighbouring provinces since the Mar. 10 demonstrations by monks marking the 49th anniversary of a failed uprising against Chinese rule.
But with the eyes of the world focused on Tibet and surrounding areas, Australian organisations with connections to China have also been speaking out.
Damian Rachmat, former president of the Eastern Turkistan Australian Association (ETAA), told IPS that Australia should boycott the games. "The human rights problem is very heavy in China and Tibet and Turkistan," he says.
Rachmat argues that ETAA is fighting for democracy, human rights and independence in Eastern Turkistan -- which China refers to as the Xinjiang Autonomous Region -- a region of the country’s far west stretching into Central Asia.
According to ETAA, the ethnic Han Chinese population in East Turkistan has increased from six percent of the total in 1949 to forty percent at present, which Rachmat describes as a policy of "ethnic assimilation."
He argues that Australia’s participation at the Olympics would provide backing to this policy. It would "support the Chinese government to assimilate other ethnic groups," says Rachmat.
With a haul of 49 medals, Australia stood fourth at the 2004 Athens Summer Olympics and hosted the Games in 2000.
Prominent Uyghur activist -- Muslim Uyghurs are the largest ethnic group in East Turkistan -- and president of the World Uyghur Congress (WUC), Rebiya Kadeer, told SBS television that the authorities in China want to eliminate Uyghurs.
"They destroy our beliefs and push us into immorality. They harass, jail and execute Uyghur writers and intellectuals who speak or write anything against the Chinese Government. They call them separatists or terrorists and gradually eliminate them," said Kadeer during a recent visit to Australia.
She argues that recent reports of an apparent Uyghur "terrorist attack" were false, with the attempt fabricated to act as a pretext upon which authorities can justify their crackdown. In early March, China’s official Xinhua news agency reported that an attempt by militant Uyghurs to hijack and crash a China Southern flight from Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, had been thwarted.
Rachmat says that the situation in East Turkistan is getting worse. "Last year they said they found some terrorists in Eastern Turkistan. In January (2007) they said they killed 18 terrorists there and this year they said they killed two terrorists in Urumqi city," he told IPS.
But it is not only separatists in the restive regions of Tibet and East Turkistan who appear to be coming under increasing scrutiny from Chinese authorities. Practitioners of Falun Gong -- or Falun Dafa, as it is also known -- have faced harsh treatment as the Olympics approach.
"We had news earlier in the week that there have been a couple of thousand arrests [of Falun Dafa practitioners]," says Michael Pearson-Smith from the Falun Dafa Association of Victoria (FDAV).
A report released last year by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture, Manfred Nowak, condemned China for its practice of obtaining organs from live Falun Gong practitioners.
"Organ harvesting has been inflicted on a large number of Falun Gong practitioners at a wide variety of locations for the purpose of making available organs for transplant operations," Nowak stated in the report.
Yet Pearson-Smith says that the FDAV does not take a position on whether the Olympics should be boycotted to protest human rights abuses. "I can certainly see why people could be calling for a boycott and individual practitioners may or may not support that according to their conscience," he says.
Pearson-Smith argues that the FDAV is only interested in ending the persecution of practitioners in China. He says that "we’ve always said that we are not a political organisation [and] we don’t get involved in politics."
However, the FDAV spokesperson concedes that speaking out against persecution may be interpreted as becoming involved in politics. "Some people may see that as a political goal, others may see it as a human rights issue," says Pearson-Smith.
Others in Australia have been actively opposing a boycott. The Rudd government says that it is not considering such action, although it has submitted a formal request to China for diplomats to travel to Tibet.
Ahead of a scheduled trip to China by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd later this month, Foreign Minister Stephen Smith called for "calm and restraint by all parties."
"The Australian Government has urged China to allow free access to Tibet and other affected areas so the international community and foreign media may gain an accurate understanding of what is occurring there," said Smith in a statement.
Athletes, former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser -- who supported boycotting the 1980 Moscow games -- and the Australian Olympic Committee (AOC) are among those rejecting calls to boycott the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.
President of the AOC, John Coates, says that such a boycott would only make athletes suffer.
"It is not the role of the IOC (the International Olympic Committee, of which the AOC is a member) to take the lead in addressing such issues as human rights or political matters, which are most appropriately addressed by governments or concerned organisations," argues Coates.
But in a speech to parliament this week, Senator Bartlett called for a different perspective.
"If the Olympics were being held in somewhere like Zimbabwe we would all be boycotting them in an instant. It is because of the political clout of China. We all need to look at that," he said.