November 02, 2005

Microsoft Outlaws Dzongkha

According to the Tibet News

Microsoft has barred the use of the Bhutanese government's official term for the Bhutanese language, Dzongkha, in any of its products, citing that the term had affiliations with the Dalai Lama. In an internal memorandum, Microsoft employees were told not to use the term Dzongkha in any Microsoft software, language lists or promotional materials since "Doing so implies affiliation with the Dalai Lama, which is not acceptable to the government of China. In this instance, replace "Dzongkha" with 'Tibetan - Bhutan'."

What adds insult to injury is that, according to the Bhutanese news site Kuenselonline, the government of Bhutan, with the assistance of the Swiss Development Corporation, paid US$523,000 to add support for Dzongkha. It didn't cost Microsoft a penny. Bhutan should have spent its money on free software. It would probably have been much cheaper, and they would have control over it.

It simply isn't true that Dzongkha is a dialect of Tibetan in the sense in which dialect is usually used. It isn't particularly closely related. There's more information about Dzongkha at the Himalayan Languages Project. The Ethnologue provides this family tree. Nor is there any relationship between Dzongkha and the Dalai Lama. A reader's comment on the Pinyin News post on this topic contains this explanation by Dr. George van Driem, Director of the Himalayan Languages Project, Department of Comparative Linguistics at Leiden Universiy:

The language Dzongkha, literally "language of the fortress", is a South Bodish language related to Dränjoke [a language of Sikkim] and, more distantly, to Tibetan. Tibetan, however, belongs to a distinct sub-branch and is a Central Bodish language. The word rDzong (pronounced Dzong) denotes the citadels which served as the centres of military power and higher learning throughout Bhutan since the mediaeval period. The word rDzong has nothing to do with the name Tsong-kha-pa, literally "man from the onion district" (1357-1419), who founded the dGe-lugs-pa (pronounced Gelukpa or Gelup) school of Tibetan Buddhism currently headed by the Dalai Lama. Such confusion could only arise in the minds of speakers of Mandarin Chinese or Tibetan who are not literate in either Tibetan or Dzongkha. Neither Mandarin Chinese nor Tibetan distinguishes phonologically between voiced and voiceless obstruent initials, unlike Dzongkha and, for example, English.

Why is it that China would object to a term that they mistakenly associate with the Dalai Lama, one of the great men in the world today, recipient of the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize? It is because as head of the legitimate government of Tibet he is the symbol of Tibetan resistance to the colonial rule initiated by the Chinese invasion of 1950. In other words, Microsoft is refusing to recognize the existence of the national language of Bhutan so as not to offend China's sensibilities over its colonization of Tibet.

Now, I know from previous experience that I'm going to get outraged email and comments elsewhere from apologists for colonialism complaining that I don't know what I'm talking about, that Tibet has been part of China for thousands of years, that when China invaded in 1950 it was merely repossessing a part of China, and that Tibetans are much better off under enlightened Chinese rule, so I'll say a few words about this issue here in an attempt to forestall this. If you're not familiar with it, you can get a good idea of the Chinese government's position here.

Some of the arguments might be valid if the underlying facts were true, but others are simply infantile. One argument is that prior to the Chinese invasion Tibet was an oppressive, feudal society. That was, in many ways true, but it hardly justifies colonization. Here's an identical argument: in the nineteenth century, China was an oppressive, corrupt, feudal society. The European powers would therefore have been justified in invading China and incorporating it permanently into their countries.

The people who take the opposite view include the Nobel Prize Committee. Here are a couple of excerpts from the Dalai Lama's Nobel Prize citation, with my emphasis added:

The Norwegian Nobel Committee has decided to award the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize to the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, the religious and political leader of the Tibetan people.
The Committee wants to emphasize the fact that the Dalai Lama in his struggle for the liberation of Tibet consistently has opposed the use of violence. He has instead advocated peaceful solutions based upon tolerance and mutual respect in order to preserve the historical and cultural heritage of his people.

There are actually two issues here. First, has Tibet historically been a part of China, and second, even if Tibet has been part of China, are Tibetans entitled to national self-determination? As for the first issue, the claim that Tibet has been part of China since time immemorial, or even for the past seven hundred years, is utter nonsense. Tibet has been independent of China for most of its history. Imperial China claimed nominal sovereignty over every state with which it had diplomatic relations, on the theory that the Emperor could only enter into the relationship of master to vassal, including Japan, Okinawa (an independent country until 1609), Korea, and Vietnam. If you aren't familiar with Chinese history, you can get an idea of the Imperial style from this letter sent in 1839 by Imperial Commissioner 林則徐 Lín Zé Xú to Queen Victoria demanding that she put an end to the opium trade.

In spite of China's nominal claims of sovereignty over Tibet, Tibet was de facto an independent state and did not acknowledge Chinese sovereignty. That is why, for example, China under the Manchus attacked Lhasa in 1720 and again in 1910. If Tibet were part of China, China would not have attacked it. Tibet also fought wars with Jammu in 1841-1842 and with Nepal in 1854-55. Making war is of course one of the defining capacities of a sovereign nation.

The first point at which Tibet was actually ruled by the same government as China was during the Yuan dynasty, when both Tibet and China were under Mongol rule. It was, however, the Mongols who conquered Tibet, not the Chinese. The Mongols took over Tibet before they took over China, and once they were in power administered the two separately. In China they exerted direct control, while in Tibet they ruled via the local rulers. When the Mongol Empire disintegrated, Tibet regained its independence.

In the period leading up to the Chinese invasion, it is clear that as a matter of international law Tibet was an independant state. It had a distinctive population occupying a well-defined territory under the effective control of its own government. The government of Tibet issued coins, currency and passports that were internationally recognized. It entered into diplomatic relations as a sovereign nation with other countries, including Nepal, Mongolia, Great Britain, and Ladakh. Even the Republic of China negotiated with Tibet as a sovereign nation at the Simla Conference in 1913-1914.

The second issue is whether Tibet is entitled to independence, whatever its prior status may have been. Surely the answer is yes. Tibetans have a distinctive language, culture, and sense of identity. As defined in international law, they are a people with a right to self-determination. To this China opposes two claims. First, it claims that the independence of Tibet would violate China's territorial integrity. International law does not recognize claims of territorial integrity by illegitimate governments. Since China does not govern Tibet with the consent of Tibetans and has engaged in massive violations of human rights in Tibet, China cannot legitimately make any claim of territorial integrity. The second is the argument already addressed, that Tibet was a backward country in need of enlightenment.

For a detailed examination of the question of Tibetan self-determination I recommend Tibet's Sovereignty and the Tibetan People's Right to Self-Determination by Andrew G. Dulaney and Dennis M. Cusack of the Tibet Justice Center and Dr. Michael van Walt van Praag of the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization. You can download the entire document as a PDF file or read it online here.

So there you have it. China objects to the language name Dzongkha because of an imaginary association with the leader of the legitimate government of its Tibetan colony. In order to please China, Microsoft refuses to use the generally accepted name for the national language of Bhutan. Now there's a company with principles.

Posted by Bill Poser at November 2, 2005 11:59 PM