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Serfs' Emancipation Day

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James Reynolds | 08:38 UK time, Monday, 19 January 2009

There's a simple, easy way for governments across the world to lock into place their own particular views of history: create a national holiday.

I was in the Green Zone in Baghdad in July 2003 to cover the first ever meeting of the Iraqi Governing Council, following the fall of Saddam Hussein. The council needed to make its mark quickly. So its first interim president opened the proceedings by declaring a new national holiday: 9 April - Baghdad Liberation Day. The audience cheered.

In Chile, the military government of General Augusto Pinochet made the anniversary of his coup - 11 September - a national holiday. On this day citizens were ordered to place Chilean national flags outside their homes (opponents of the military regime, at great risk, often refused to do so). When democracy returned to Chile in 1990, this national holiday was abolished.

In the Middle East, the same event - the creation of the state of Israel in May 1948 - is marked by contrasting commemorations. Israel celebrates Independence Day, while Palestinians mark Nakba (or Catastrophe) Day.

Chinese National DayChina already has its own independence day holiday - 1 October. The country also celebrates the Chinese New Year and then Labour Day in May. But in its most contested region the government has decided that one more holiday is needed.

The parliament in Tibet, which is loyal to Beijing, has just passed a bill by unanimous consent. From now on, 28 March will be celebrated every year in Tibet as Serfs' Emancipation Day. China has picked this date to commemorate the day that the Communist Party announced the dissolution of the Dalai Lama's government structure in Tibet in 1959 - following the escape into exile of the Dalai Lama a few days beforehand. China says that this dissolution freed about 1 million Tibetans from serfdom and slavery.

China's position on Tibet is built on two beliefs: firstly, that Tibet is an integral part of Chinese sovereign territory; secondly, that the Chinese Communist Party liberated the Tibetan people from the oppressive, feudal rule of the Dalai Lama. China is keen to promote its beliefs - particularly because the 50th anniversary of the Dalai Lama's escape is just a few weeks away (the 49th anniversary a year ago led to widespread protests). Creating a new national holiday locks the official Chinese position into the calendar.

Tibetan groups in exile see it all very differently. For them, the events of March 1959 and the exile of the Dalai Lama from his homeland were a tragedy. One exile group has called the new holiday an effort at rewriting history which is provocative and irresponsible.

PS: I'm back from my New Year train trip and am busy putting together all the material my colleague and I recorded along the way.


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