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Protests in Tibet

Gunjan Singh is Research Assistant at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • March 18, 2008

    Tibet has been an important and controversial issue for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) since it came to power in 1949. The CCP “liberated” Tibet in 1950 and began its official rule in 1951. There have been two previous uprisings in Tibet, in 1959 and 1989. The latest protests have brought to the forefront the fact that all is not well in Tibet as claimed by the CCP. The policy followed by the CCP has been to increase the number of Han Chinese in Tibet, and thus more fully amalgamate the region into the mainland. All top and important official positions in Tibet are held by Han Chinese. The introduction of the Railway Line to Lhasa in 2006 is further contributing to this phenomenon, making Tibetans concerned about being reduced to a minority in their own land. The current protests were initiated by Buddhist monks on March 10 to mark the 49th Anniversary of the failed 1959 uprising led by the Dalai Lama.

    The number of people killed in the latest protests is not clear and information dribbling out from Tibet puts the number anywhere between 10 and 100. Tanks and armoured vehicles on the streets of Lhasa and other cities point to the intensity of the situation. The prevailing tense situation is not favourable for the Chinese government as the Olympics are less than 150 days away, which has made China the focus of the international media. The CCP has claimed that the protests have been instigated by the Dalai Lama in the backdrop of the Olympics to gain international attention. But the Tibetan government in exile has denied any hand in these protests. The CCP has also claimed that it is fully capable of maintaining social stability in Tibet.

    While the current movement has gained international attention and become an international issue mainly due to the forthcoming Beijing Olympics, the Dalai Lama has come under criticism for not issuing a call to boycott the event. This indicates a major degree of discontent amongst the younger generation of Tibetans towards the policy followed by the Dalai Lama. The younger generation feels that the policy stance taken by the Dalai Lama has failed to produce any positive result, and it appears that they want to see a degree of change in policy. But the fact remains that the presence of the Dalai Lama as a responsible leader is necessary to prevent the situation getting completely out of hand. He is also the person with whom the CCP can negotiate; in fact it has been negotiating with his representatives for the last few years. Even though a number of new Tibetan opposition groups are emerging, none has reached the stature attained by the Dalai Lama. And his decision not to boycott the Olympics appears to be a very well thought decision. For he knows that Tibetans are not in a position to fight the Chinese government; they have neither the resources nor the power to do so.

    Even the Tibetan Diasporas have shown a lot of support for the latest protests. There has been open support in India, Nepal, the United Kingdom and Mexico, though the host governments are trying to suppress these support movements, fearing Chinese accusations of interference in China’s internal affairs and consequent hampering of bilateral relations.

    The Indian government has claimed that there has been no change in its policy on Tibet. Its policy towards the ongoing protests has been to prevent Tibetan refugees from engaging in violent activities within the country and from attempting to cross the border into Tibet. They have also been advised to refrain from indulging in political activities, which could affect India’s relations with China. The Indian government has also claimed that it recognises the Tibetan autonomous region as a part of Chinese territory and that it will not allow its territory to be used for any kind of anti-China activities even though the Tibetan government in exile is stationed in India.

    The United States, Germany, Great Britain and the European Union have expressed concerns over the Chinese crackdown of the uprising in Tibet which has also spread to other neighbouring provinces. The United States has said that China must respect Tibetan culture and has advocated that Beijing enter into negotiations with the Dalai Lama as soon as possible.

    In spite of international pressure, one cannot ignore the fact that China is capable of curbing these protests. The CCP has always claimed that the situation is Tibet is a domestic issue and it will not brook any international interference. The only thing to see is whether renewed global attention will help Tibetans gain concessions on the negotiating table