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Transformation of Tibet Issue from Hope to Despair: What Next?

Dr. Yeshi Choedon is Professor at the Centre for International Politics, Organization and Disarmament, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.
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  • February 12, 2013

    Tibet has been in the news in recent years due to a series of self-immolations by Tibetans as an extreme form of protest against oppressive Chinese rule. This is not the first time that the Tibetans in Tibet have protested against Chinese rule. They have expressed their grievances whenever they saw a window of opportunity, especially since the Chinese liberalization policy of the late 1970s. Under the oppressive Chinese rule, Tibetans have been very innovative in devising mechanisms to express their grievances, such as performing ‘khora’ (pilgrimage/meditation) around the Jorkhang temple, offering special prayers every Wednesday, the procedure for cremation of bodies of those shot dead by the Chinese authorities, and so on.

    Self-immolation is the latest mode of protest adopted by the Tibetans. This is an act of desperation as there are no other viable avenues to express their grievances. This mode is not a Tibetan innovation as it has been resorted to by others before. However, unlike other cases where a single self-immolation captured international headlines and triggered major reactions, in the case of Tibet the effect has been different. Despite nearly a hundred persons having immolated themselves over the last few years, these events have passed by without much notice, let alone reaction.

    This double standard of the international community is partly to be blamed on the Tibetans themselves. They failed to think and act like a nation according to the general trend in their neighbourhood and the rest of the world. They preoccupied themselves with religion and closed themselves to outside influence. Tibetan leaders bartered away their sovereignty for protection in the garb of a patron-priest relationship with China. Tibetans allowed their martial instincts, well known in their recorded history from the seventh century onwards, to be subdued. In short, Tibetans preoccupied themselves with the next life, forsaking the ways of living this present ‘conventional’ life.

    Historical evidence suggests that Tibet as a nation had inadvertently committed major blunders, and that the people of Tibet, both inside and outside Tibet at present time, are bearing the harsh consequences of those blunders. Tibet is an ancient country with a recorded history of its existence since the seventh century. Its foundation, basic characteristics and consolidation as a distinct country took shape under the reign of 42 ingenious kings, who ruled from around 127 BC up to 842 AD. In the seventh to ninth centuries, Tibet emerged as a formidable military power in Central Asia and adopted expansionist activities towards its neighbours. The King of Nepal and the Emperor of China had to offer their daughters to the Tibetan Emperor in marriage. However, when Lang Dharma, the last of the aforementioned kings, was assassinated in 842 AD, Tibet underwent a period of turmoil and fragmented into small principalities.

    This period had been referred to by the Tibetan historians as “Sil-bu-dus”, a veritable dark age, but in reality it was a period of cultural renaissance in Tibet. During this period, Buddhism had transformed from a courtly interest into a social force which permeated every aspect of Tibetan life. Moreover, different schools of Tibetan Buddhism started flourishing during this period. It was the Mongols’ invasion of Tibet and handing over the reign of Tibet to Sakya Lama that eventually paved the way for the system of rulers in whose hands both the earthly authority and the prestige of religious sanctity were united, and the whole of Tibet was once again brought under one central authority. The rule of the Lamas, first by the Sakyas (1247-1358) and later by the Dalai Lamas (1642-1959), brought about the historic transition from royal authority based on force to a lama-ist authority based on religious belief. The predominance of religion had the effect of neglecting statecraft and killing the martial spirit of the Tibetans.

    In order to protect the lama-ist rule from external threats, a unique patron-priest relationship developed between the rulers of China and Tibet. Under this system, the Chinese rulers accepted the lama rulers of Tibet as their spiritual leaders and, in return, provided military protection to the latter . However, when the protector itself started posing a threat, after the Communist takeover in Beijing, it became necessary for the Tibetan government to interact with the rest of the world.

    In the mid-1950s, the Tibetan government sent missions to India, Nepal, Britain and the United States to explain the crisis developing in its relationship with the new regime in Beijing, to inform the threat of China’s action against Tibet, and to seek their assistance. It also sent an appeal to the United Nations (UN) on November 7, 1950. In a letter to the Secretary General, it explained:

    Tibet recognize that she is in no position to resist (The Chinese advance)…. This unwarranted act of aggression…has created a grave situation in Tibet and may eventually deprive Tibet of her long cherished independence…. We therefore appeal through you to the nations of the world to intercede in our behalf and restrain Chinese aggression.

    Neither these countries nor the UN responded positively to Tibet’s pleas for assistance. When a full-scale military attack was launched on Tibet on October 5, 1950, Tibetan soldiers fought bravely at Chamdo but were defeated. Tibet was also faced with a diplomatic set-back as the UN decided to defer the discussion on the Tibet issue mainly on the ground of its unclear status. With these setbacks, Tibet had no alternative but to sign the contentious Seventeen-Point Agreement on May 23, 1951. However, the simmering discontent and resistance to China’s policy in Tibet continued throughout the 1950s and finally erupted into a full-scale national uprising against Chinese rule in March 1959.

    When, for the first time, a full-scale discussion on Tibet took place in the plenary session of the UN General Assembly, Tibet was discussed not as a nation subjected to aggression and colonial occupation but under the diluted, term “human rights violation”, thus evading any reference to the political situation. A resolution was passed in that august body calling for “respect for the fundamental human rights of the Tibetan people and their distinctive cultural and religious life”. The draft resolution was passed by the General Assembly by 46 votes to nine, with 26 abstentions. Subsequently, two more resolutions of a similar nature were passed in the General Assembly in 1961 and 1965. Thus, according to the UN, the ancient nation of Tibet was not qualified to be treated as a nation-state; nor did the august international body consider Tibet to be an occupied territory. It simply denigrated the issue as merely a question of the denial of human rights of the Tibetan people by the Chinese state.

    Despite these setbacks, Tibet did not become a lost cause. Nationalist feelings in Tibet remained uncontaminated even after persistent Chinese indoctrination, which was manifested for the first time in the spontaneous outpouring of emotion in greeting the fact-finding delegations of exiled Tibetans in the 1980s and 1990s. Thereafter, Tibetans in Tibet used every opportunity to protest against Chinese rule and express their aspiration for independence. They resorted to various innovative methods of protest (discussed earlier), leading to the imposition of martial law in Tibet in March 1989.

    This was the period when western countries were celebrating their victory over communism with the end of the Cold War and disintegration of the former Soviet Union, and when their people were expecting governments to promote their cherished values worldwide. In this context the governments and parliaments, especially in the West, needed to be seen doing something for Tibetans to placate their public. Their high-sounding resolutions and pronouncements proved to be futile as they lacked the political will to take concerted and coordinated action against China. In fact, as their stand on human rights clashed with their core national interests of markets, trade and investment opportunities, human rights became side-lined. In order to satisfy themselves and their general public, western leaders seems to have persuaded the exiled Tibetan leaders to engage in dialogue with China and induced them to give up Tibet’s core issue of independence as a concession to start the dialogue with China. The series of dialogue that ensued between the exiled leaders and the Chinese government proved futile mainly because the pressures exerted by the western governments were not compelling enough for China to yield ground. In hindsight, it is obvious that China engaged in these fruitless rounds of dialogue to buy time with the intention of finding a “final solution” by its own means.

    Tibetans, both in Tibet and in the diaspora, are in deep despair due to the lack of progress in the dialogue process despite giving in on their most cherished goal of independence as well as because of the lack of visible reaction to the loss of nearly hundred precious lives from self-immolation. However, their decision to celebrate the centenary of the “Proclamation of Tibet Independence” issued on February 13, 1913, seems to indicate that they seek to resurrect the issue once again. This time round, the comity of nations should not blame the Tibetans for going back on their stand of independence or their willingness to work within the Chinese constitution. It would not be a surprise if they do; after all, state authorities always take a stand on the basis of costs and benefits.

    Tibetans should learn to focus on mobilizing the support of and relying on international civil society as this is an era of civil society activism the world over. For the international civil society, the Tibet issue is the test case to prove that they stand for what they claim to stand for.

    Dr. Yeshi Choedon is Associate Professor at the Centre for International Politics, Organization and Disarmament, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.