News and Views on Tibet

Preventing Cultural Genocide: The Case for Genuine Autonomy for Tibet

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By Kelsang Gyaltsen, Special Representative of His Holiness the Dalai Lama to Europe

(Delivered at the Symposium on Cultural Diplomacy & Human Rights on 31 May 2013, Berlin, Germany)

Just last weekend we witnessed the public demonstration of the excellent bilateral relationship between Germany and China on the occasion of the visit of Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang to Berlin. A lot has been said and written about the “privileged partnership“ between Germany and China which both countries intend to further expand and deepen. This is welcome. The more China is integrated into the world community the more the likelihood that the arbitrariness of a one-party dictatorship can somewhat be curtailed by international rules and regulations. It is, however, of overriding importance to ensure that relations with China are conducted in a way that does not amount to tacitly condoning a dictatorship and its abuses and crimes. In fact as a matter of principle it should be the duty of every democracy entering into relations with a dictatorship to make this clear publicly. History has provided Germany with sufficient experiences and lessons from dealing with the former German Democratic Republic and the Soviet Union how to engage with dictatorships in a flexible but also principled and responsible way. An example of such a value-based strategic approach in dealing with totalitarian regimes is Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik “Wandel durch Annäherung” (change through rapprochement). In doing so, however, it is important to point out that Brandt’s Ostpolitik never implied the acceptance of the status quo or the acquiescence of the Communist dictatorship in East Germany. In fact the very long-term aim of that policy has been to bring about the eventual dismantlement of that dictatorship.

Today, what is required is the same political resolve, will and vision by the free world in dealing with the dictatorships of this new 21st century. Profit cannot and should not be the sole aim and the driving force for a democracy in building a relationship with a dictatorship. The conduct of relations with dictatorships must be guided by the pursuit of value-based strategic aims such as human rights, democracy and the rule of law.

It is the inherent nature of all human beings to yearn for freedom, justice and dignity. Human rights, democracy and the rule of law have become today universal aspirations of people suffering from oppression and persecution. The pursuit of fundamental freedoms, human rights and human dignity are as important to the peoples of Africa and Asia as it is to those in the West. But unfortunately it is often those people who are deprived of their human rights who are the least able to speak up for themselves. This responsibility, therefore, rests with those of us who do enjoy such freedoms.

The world needs Europe to play a leading role in the promotion, defence, and protection of human rights. At the core of Europe’s spirit is a fundamental belief in the inherent equality and dignity of all peoples and are the values of human rights, democracy and the rule of law. Guided by this spirit Europe succeeded in defeating and eliminating tyranny and despotism on the continent of Europe.

It is important that this spirit of Europe does not halt at the borders of Europe out of political expediency or because of commercial interests. The oppressed people around the world needs Europe’s commitment to these values beyond the shores of Europe.

In the case of my own country, Tibet, for too long the international community has underestimated the gravity and urgency of the plight of the Tibetan people. To a certain extent, today’s dramatic worsening of the situation inside Tibet is clearly a consequence of the negligence of this issue by the international community.

Today the very survival of the Tibetan people with our their distinct and unique culture, language, religion and identity is at threat. With the invasion and occupation of Tibet more than 60 years ago the Chinese authorities launched an era of radical changes not only in the political fortunes of the Tibetan people but also for Tibetan culture. The imposition of direct Chinese rule, combined with the application of Maoist political theories to Tibetan society, produced unprecedented social upheaval, cultural destruction and immense suffering for Tibetans.

The Chinese authorities see the distinct culture, religion, language and identity of Tibet as a threat to the stability of its rule and as a potential source for Tibet’s separation from China. Accordingly, there is an attempt to destroy the integral core of the Tibetan civilization and identity. After initial disastrous efforts to obliterate Tibetan culture in the early decades of Communist rule by physical destructions of monasteries and temples and killings of monks and nuns, Chinese authorities adjusted their policy to a more subtle and sophisticated approach by engaging in a consistent effort to replace authentic, organic Tibetan culture with a state-approved and controlled version that conforms with the ideological, political and economic objectives of the Chinese Communist Party. This effort has been pursued through intentional policies that are designed to fundamentally alter Tibetan culture in a way that robs it of its essence and turns it into something that the Chinese authorities can manage.

The Chinese party-state’s attacks on Tibetan Buddhism and culture are not just ancillary effects of this state and nation-building effort, but rather represent a central weapon in it. This is clear from the repeated ideological campaigns that the Chinese party-state has directed toward Tibet since its invasion. Given the might and resources that the Chinese party-state has at its disposal to carry out its long-term assimilation goals in Tibet, the threat of cultural genocide being committed in Tibet is imminent.

There is little doubt that the policies of the Chinese government with regard to Tibet have been established and executed in such a way that wholesale cultural destruction in Tibet was predictable and likely. It is also clear that the Chinese authorities have acted intentionally in its treatment of the Tibetans, including in the abrogation of their cultural rights, and that the present grave situation in Tibet is a cause for serious concerns that acts of cultural genocide will continue to be committed.

There is compelling evidence that the Chinese state’s policies and practices related to Tibetan culture have created conditions that violate key international human rights instruments and contain elements of cultural genocide. While there is no question that the various elements that comprise ‘cultural genocide’ are prohibited under international human rights law, these elements have not been formally bound together and recognized as a specific violation. It is, therefore, our sincere hope, that the tragic case of Tibet will encourage governments, universities, human rights organizations etc. to take the initiative in the further development of a cultural genocide framework.

Regardless of whether there is an international legal regime under which a charge of cultural genocide can be applied to the Chinese government, there is overwhelming evidence that the Tibetan culture is being dismantled and undermined at an alarming scale and pace and redefined by the Chinese state for its own purposes. This fact is well documented and substantiated by authoritative studies and reports. The conclusion is that the Chinese government’s policies and practices of cultural repression and destruction are so systematic and persistent in Tibet, and their effects are so serious, that they contain elements of cultural genocide.

For the Tibetan people these repeated and systematic assaults on their culture, religion and language cannot but be called genocidal in intent and impact. Raphael Lemkin, who first coined the term, genocide, in 1944 in his book “Axis Rule in Occupied Europe”, writes: “By ‘genocide’ we mean the destruction of an ethnic group. … Generally speaking, genocide does not necessarily mean the immediate destruction of a nation, except when accomplished by mass killings of all members of a nation. It is intended rather to signify a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves. The objectives of such a plan would be disintegration of the political and social institutions, of culture, language, national feelings, religion, and the economic existence of national groups, and the destruction of the personal security, liberty, health, dignity, and even the lives of the individuals belonging to such groups …“

According to the UN Declaration on Rights of Indigenous Peoples of 1994, genocide involves attempts by a more powerful group to dilute the integrity of another group, dispossess them of their lands, assimilate or absorb them into the more powerful culture, or to seek to malign or diminish the minority culture through propaganda.

The sad fact is that almost all these aspects of an act of genocide have been well-established features of the tragedy in Tibet under Chinese occupation.

Viewing the Sino-Tibetan conflict in this context it is obvious that the fundamental cause of the Tibetan problem is not difference in ideology or social system or issues resulting from clashes between tradition and modernity. Neither is it just the issue of human rights violations alone. The root of the Tibetan issue lies in Tibet’s long and separate history, its distinct and ancient culture and civilisation and its unique identity.

Because of a total lack of understanding, appreciation and respect for Tibet’s distinct culture, history and identity, China’s Tibet policies have been consistently misguided. The use of force and coercion as the principal means to rule and administer Tibet compel Tibetans to lie out of fear and local officials to hide the truth and create false facts in order to suit and to please Beijing and its stewards in Tibet. As a result China’s treatment of Tibet continues to evade the realities in Tibet.

Today, it is the third and fourth generations of Tibetans, who are born under Chinese communist rule, who continue to resent and resist the Chinese policies in Tibet. The old generation of Tibetans, who witnessed the invasion and occupation, has gone. However, irrespective of the passage of time the freedom struggle of the Tibetan people continues with undiminished determination.

This sad state of affairs in Tibet is of no benefit either to the Tibetans or to the government of the PRC. To continue along this path does nothing to alleviate the suffering of the Tibetan people, nor does it bring stability and unity to China or help in enhancing her international image and standing. If China is seriously concerned about stability and unity, she must make honest efforts to win over the hearts of the Tibetans and not attempt to impose her will on them.

Successive Chinese leaders have always assured that the Chinese presence in Tibet is to work fort he welfare of the Tibetans and to help develop Tibet. If this is true and sincere, there is no reason why the Chinese leadership cannot start addressing the issue of Tibet by entering into a dialogue with us. Our position on a mutually acceptable solution is straightforward. We are not seeking separation and independence. What we are seeking is genuine self-rule for the Tibetan people. Our main concern is to ensure the survival of the Tibetan people with our distinct Buddhist cultural heritage and language. For this, it is essential that we Tibetans are able to handle our domestic affairs and to freely determine our social, economic and cultural development.

We remain committed to the path of non-violence and to the process of dialogue and reconciliation. It is our firm belief that only dialogue and a willingness to look with honesty and clarity at the reality in Tibet can lead to a mutually beneficial solution that will enhance greatly the stability and unity of the PRC and secure the basic rights of the Tibetan people to live in freedom, peace and dignity.

Against this background it is obvious that the Tibetan issue represents both a challenge and an opportunity for China. Many people throughout the world feel deeply committed to the Tibetan cause as a matter of humanitarian and moral principles. China’s inability to resolve the Tibetan issue peacefully has been tarnishing her international image and reputation. Moreover, there is no doubt that a solution to the Tibetan issue would have far-reaching positive implications for China’s image in the world, including in its dealing with Taiwan as well as in its relationship with India. Without peace and stability on the Tibetan plateau, it is unrealistic to hope that genuine trust and confidence can be restored in the Sino-Indian relationship.

Looking around the world we cannot fail to notice how unattended conflicts with strong ethnic undercurrents can erupt in ways that make them virtually impossible to solve. It is, therefore, in China’s interest not to let that happen in the case of Tibet. A creative and courageous initiative to resolve the issue of Tibet by the new Chinese leadership would serve as a widely appreciated signal that China is maturing and becoming more responsible in assuming a greater leading role on the global stage. Such a political initiative and gesture by the new Chinese leadership during this time of deep sense of insecurity and anxiety in the international community will go a long way to impressing and reassuring the public at home and in the larger world.

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