The history of conflict in the so called “roof of the World” dates back to 821, before the Mongol invasions, with the peace treaty between Tibet and China, signed after 200 years of conflict over border regions. It established Tibet as independent with its own inviolable territory.
Tibet retained some autonomy and enjoyed religious authority throughout the Mongolian Empire. When the Mongol Empire in China fell to the ethnic Han Chinese, Tibet had already broken from the Mongols, and did not pay tribute to Ming emperors. Chinese scholars argue that lamas accepted titles and this is evidence of China’s sovereignty at this time.
After some peaceful years under the Dalai Lama authority, the Dzungar Mongols invaded Tibet in 1717. The Qing Emperor sent troops and crushed them in 1720. Taking advantage of Tibet’s instability, the Qing then declared Tibet a tributary state and turned Kham and Amdo into the Chinese province of Qinghai.
In 1903 a new invader arrived to Tibet; a British delegation entered on the pretext of establishing trade relations and resolving a border dispute. Probably they were more concentrated on assessing Russian influence in Tibet, as the country could be a good invasion route into British India.
Some 10 years after though, Thubten Gyatso (13th Dalai Lama) declared the independence when the Qing emperor abdicated following the establishment of the Republic of China, and all Chinese troops were expelled from Lhasa.
In 1914, Britain, Tibet and China met to negotiate the borders of India and her northern neighbors in the Shimla Accord. The treaty gave secular control of Qinghai to China and recognized the autonomy of the rest of Tibet. China refused to sign as a result of south Tibet being ceded to British India.
By October 1950, 40000 Chinese troops invaded Tibet*. A 15-year-old Tenzin Gyatso was given full powers to rule as the 14th Dalai Lama. A 17 point agreement was signed, under protest, by representatives of the Dalai Lama. Lhasa became then filled with refugees from eastern Tibet, and the resistance movement grew, to which the Chinese responded with widespread brutality. In 1959, fearful of plans to abduct the Dalai Lama, 300000 Tibetans surrounded Potala Palace to offer him protection. A week later the Dalai Lama fled over the mountains to India. The instauration of Mao’s Great Leap Forward campaign led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Tibetan peasants and nomads.
In 1965 U-Tsang (renamed Qinghai), was formally inaugurated as the Tibet Autonmous Region (TAR). Along with Amdo and Kham (incorporated into the Chinese provinces of Sichuan, Gansu and Yunnan), historical Tibet was about the size of western Europe.
By that time, the cultural revolution started as Mao insisted in imposing communism.
In 1979 Deng Xiaoping (Mao’s successor) opened talks with the Dalai Lama and offered the Strasbourg Proposal, calling for autonomy over domestic affairs, with China overseeing foreign policy. Despite the efforts made, Tibetan unrest began in 1987 on the 30th anniversary of the National Uprising thousands took to the streets, and the authorities responded with brutal force, expelled all foreigners and declared martial law.
In 1995 the 11th Panchen Lama (highest ranking Lama after the Dalai Lama), the 6-year-old Gendun Chökyi Nyima, became the World’s youngest political prisoner when he was taken by Chinese authorities. The following year China launched a patriotic re-education campaign and named Gyancain Norbu Panchen Lama.
Who is the Dalai Lama and which is his political role?
Lamas are spiritual teachers. The Dalai Lama is the most senior figure in Tibetan Buddhism.
Dalai Lama lineage started in 1578, when Mongol ruler Altan Khan bestowed the title Dalai Lama on Sonam Gyatso (the 3rd Dalai Lama, after his two previous reincarnations), leader of the Gelugpa school of Buddhism.
The 5th Dalai Lama assumed political authority over Tibet. He unified the central Tibetan states, began the construction of the Potala Palace as his seat of government, and established diplomatic relations with China in 1649.
Since 1950, Tenzin Gyatso is Tibet’s14th Dalai Lama, considered to be the reincarnation of Chenrezig, the Buddha of Compassion. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1987. He is living in Dharamsala, northern India, seat of the Tibetan political administration in exile (Central Tibetan Administration, or CTA) since 1959, with the brutal suppression of the Tibetan national uprising in Lhasa by Chinese troops.
For generations, Dalai Lamas have also been the rulers of Tibet, but the current Dalai Lama has given up any political role and is now a purely religious figure. He relinquished the last vestiges of his formal governmental role in the Tibetan government in exile. These duties, enshrined in the Charter (constitution) of Tibetans in exile, include summoning or suspending the parliament (empowered to elect the Tibetan Kashag or the Council of Ministers), appointing ministers, and holding referenda. He handled over full governmental responsibility to the elected leaders of the exile population.
The Dalai Lama stated that the exile government would be dissolved as soon as Tibet regained freedom, and that he would then transfer his power to a transitional government headed by an interim-president, required to hold a general election within two years, and hand over the power to the popularly-elected government.
However, his political image is still relevant in the country, and in most areas of Tibet, it is illegal to sell or possess images of the Dalai Lama. Also, the Dalai Lama still advocates for Tibetan people; he has appealed to the United Nations on the question of Tibet (the General Assembly adopted three resolutions on Tibet in 1959, 1961 and 1965).
Is modernization good or bad for Tibetans?
China’s attempt to consolidate its control over Tibet through modernization has gone tragically awry. After pouring money into programs for a “new socialist countryside,” “civilized cities,” and “comfortable housing” and even a “gratitude education” campaign, Beijing faces resentment.
Entrepreneurial Han migrants to Tibet rent land and living space from residents and use government aid to start businesses, pushing local people to the economic margins. In response to Tibetan disaffection, the authorities have increased surveillance, making Tibetans feel “already guilty” just for looking and acting Tibetan.
On the one hand, in the evolutionary framework of Chinese historiography, Tibetans and other so-called national minorities lag far behind and must therefore be civilized by the more advanced Han people. In 2001 Hu Jintao, by then China’s vice president, visited Tibet and gave a speech on China’s civilizing mission which would “turn from darkness to light, from backwardness to progress, from poverty to affluence.” In this statement and in scores of official policies and regulations, there is an open attitude of superiority and paternalism, which is sometimes officially recognized as “Han chauvinism” but which masks a reality that exists in countries all over the World: racism; a social fact for many Tibetans living under Chinese rule.
On the other hand, economic indicators suggest that Tibetan economy has progressed significantly during the past 50 years (in 2000, the region’s GDP reached 11.746 billion yuan, twice as much as in 1995), as basic industries have thrived, the level of urbanization has constantly improved and remarkable achievements have been made in opening up. Finally, rapid progress has been made inmedical and health care, science and technology, and education. Although it is true that it hasn’t been exempt of some controversy, such as the “National Territory Consciousness Education in School, Community and Media” activity implemented in Primary Schools, just to name an example.
Is resistance self-generated or incited from abroad?
It is not so much the struggle for sovereignty as the struggle for respect that drives Tibetan resistance, which persists despite improvements in Tibet’s economic conditions.
On March the 16th 2011, Phuntsog, a young monk from Kirti Monastery, set himself on fire in Ngaba. Since then, there have been over 100 self-immolation protests. The number of self-immolations since 2009 ascends to 131 persons. Self-immolations together with other Tibet-related protests are considered as internal affairs and phrased as the “Tibetan Problem” (a name ironically similar to the over 60-year-old “Taiwan Problem”) by China.
The Chinese government has responded to the self-immolations and unrest in Tibet by intensifying the military buildup and strengthening the very policies and approaches that are the root cause of the acts, such as aggressive campaigns against loyalty to the Dalai Lama.
There is a direct correlation between the self-immolations and an intensified campaign against the Dalai Lama in Tibet together with the aggressive expansion of legal measures tightening state control over Tibetan religion and culture.
Although the Chinese government has sought to blame the Dalai Lama and ‘outside forces’ for the self-immolations, it is far from absurd to think that these dramatic developments in Tibet reflect significant failures in policy that must be addressed.
While it is an official government policy that all peoples in China are equal and discrimination is prohibited, what is occurring in China today is massive denial of tragic proportions. China’s laws and policies are in dire need of revision to remove the pervasive paternalism and inferences of superiority that lead to thousands of acts of discrimination day in and day out.
The International Community has to monitor this process while making sure human rights are being taken into account. At the same time though, it is important to give due credit to many of China’s reformers, past and present, in and out of government, who are part of the genuine fight against racism and who have contributed to reducing racist attitudes in China.
What has the World to say about it?
March 2008 demonstrations in the Tibetan Autonomous Region and other Tibetan-populated areas of China and the vitriolic popular Han response further polarized ethnic antagonisms. Since 2008 protests supporting Tibet erupted also in cities across North America and Europe, targeting Chinese embassies and the Olympic torch relay.
Instead of being silent as they have been for last 50 years, Tibetans found the necessity of having their own position towards the “Tibetan Problem” phrased by Chinese government and “Tibet tensions” acknowledged by US and other Western governments.
US foreign policy towards China and Tibet has been evolving, emphasizing its humanitarian elements. From the first encounter between a US diplomat and the then Dalai Lama in 1908, to the recent pattern of congressional and White House pressure on Beijing to engage in dialogue with the Tibetan leadership in exile, Washington assured the Tibetans of their friendship and support but never abandoned the position that Tibet is part of China.
In the 1950’s and early 1960’s, the US provided limited training and assistance to Tibetan guerillas resisting Chinese rule. This aid was sufficient only to harass, not expel, Chinese forces. CIA support for the guerillas (such as Chushi Gangdruk) is also a known story (Dalai Lama’s administration acknowledged that it received $1.7 million a year in the 1960’s). The decade-long covert program to support the Tibetan independence movement was part of the CIA’s worldwide effort to undermine Communist governments, particularly in the Soviet Union and China.
Less well known are the roles of the Indian and Nepali (with a large refugee population), and, to a small degree, Taiwanese governments (Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party) in supporting the small force. It has to be bearded in mind that Tibet is the source of 10 major rivers in Asia, and so it is vital for India and South Asia, as well as Asia as a whole.
The EU created the Tibet Intergroup and Committees on Foreign Affairs and Human Rights (within the European Parliament) and the European External Action Service and the European Commission advocate policies to advance a negotiated settlement for Tibet’s future. Also, there are many Europe-based International Organizations, agencies and other multilateral forums to raise Tibetan issues on the World stage and to have China address these issues.
In those forums, as well as in the UN, during the various General Assembly debates, several members spoke passionately, denouncing the Communist government’s aggression against Tibet as a violation of its independence. However, while two of the resolutions referred to the principle of self-determination, all three skirted the issue of Tibet’s status under international law, focusing instead on human rights violations. Many interpret the UN’s unfinished consideration of the question of Tibet a longstanding act of omission.
Tibet-China dialogue must be assured to find a peaceful and negotiated solution. The reunification of all Tibetan areas as a single Tibetan administrative entity, enjoying real autonomy, within the political framework of the People’s Republic of China to avoid instability in Tibet and its eventual separation from China, seems to be a reasonable “middle-way” solution.
*I acknowledge that in the Tibetan sovereignty debate (as an interpretation of the modern succession of states theory), the view presented here is closer to the one held by the Tibetan Government in exile, rather than PRC claims that Tibet has been a part of China since the Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368) and ROC claims that Tibet was placed under the sovereignty of China when the Qing Dynasty (1644–1912) expelled Nepal from Tibet in 1793. I held this position as the literature I have had access to suggest this is more accurate, although in my research I have found evidence to hold all three views to some extent.
- “Tibet’s Last Stand? The Tibetan Uprising of 2008 and China’s Response”, by Warren W., Jr. and Smith Jr.
- “Struggle for Tibet”, by Wang Lixiong, Tsering Shakya. (A very interesting collection of back-and-forth articles by Wang (an independent Chinese intellectual) and Shakya (a Tibetan academic living in exile)
- “Arrested Histories: Tibet, the CIA, and Memories of a Forgotten War”, by Carole McGranahan.
- “Beyond Shangri-La: America and Tibet’s Move into the Twenty-First Century”, by John Kenneth Knaus.
- Simla Accord, 1914; Convention Between Great Britain, China, and Tibet, Simla (1914)
- UN General Assembly Resolutions 1959 (1353 XIV), 1961 (1723 XVI), 1965 (2079 XX).
- “Jampa, The Story of Racism in Tibet”, (prepared for the UN World Conference against racism, September 2001), by International Campaign for Tibet.
- CRS Report for Congress; “Tibet: Problems, Prospects and US Policy”, by Kerry Dumbaugh (April 10, 2008).