On 15 August the Chinese Government arrested three people for trying to investigate the World Bank Western Poverty Project (see Bretton Woods Update 13). The three were Australian researcher Gabriel Lafitte, American Tibet specialist Daja Meston, and local translator Tsering Dorje. The two foreigners, travelling on tourist visas, were charged with “illegal covering and photographing.” The charges against Tsering Dorje are unknown, as is his status.
The World Bank press release announcing approval of this project in June stated that “diplomats, government officials, members of parliament and the media” would have access to the project site, emphasising that the Chinese authorities would allow extensive contacts with the local people, unattended by officials. Yet journalists have been allowed only on a government-run tour controlled by the Chinese authorities. US NGO requests for official invitation letters have also been refused, implying that there can be no independent monitoring of this project.
Lafitte and Meston were detained in a hotel and intensively interrogated for several days without access to consular officials. On 18 August, while in custody, Meston suffered severe injuries after falling from a third-floor window. Lafitte was released on 21 August, while Daja Meston was released and medically evacuated on 25 August. He is still in hospital, and recovering well from his many injuries, though he faces many months of rehabilitation. A fund has been created to help cover his huge medical bills.
Meanwhile, on 18 August the Bank’s Inspection Panel recommended a full investigation into the China project. The Panel found the claim filed by the International Campaign for Tibet on behalf of local people to be eligible and recommended “that the Board authorize an investigation by the Panel into the matters alleged in the request.” On 31 August, the Chinese Executive Director wrote to President Wolfensohn and the Board objecting to the claim on the grounds that it was “politically contaminated”.
This reversed the Chinese government’s pledge, when the loan was signed, of “full support for the Inspection Panel review”. On 9 September, however, the Board approved a full inspection of whether the project has violated any of eight policies and procedures, including those on environmental assessment, dam safety, resettlement and information.
On 30 August, more than 400 people rallied in front of the World Bank to express their concern about the China Western Poverty Project and call for the release of Tsering Dorje.
This controversy has deeply embarrassed the Bank. This is because of its recent statements about extending its mandate to take account of governance, participation, and human rights, and also because its request for more funds from the US government is at a crucial stage.
NGOs are pressing the Bank to do all in its power to ensure that Mr. Dorje is released as quickly as possible, as he was doing a professional job relating to a Bank project. The Bank should also ensure that no others are being held.
To contribute to the Daja Meston medical fund, make cheques payable to “Bank Information Center/Daja Meston”, and send them to: Bank Information Center, 733 15th Street NW Suite 1126, Washington, DC 20005, USA, firstname.lastname@example.org