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Understanding the Tragedy of Tibet
Phayul[Thursday, November 22, 2012 14:26]
By Norzin Dickyi

A nation that has stood tall for more than two thousand years with a thriving civilization and significant cultural and political influence over large parts of Asia has suddenly come under an assault, which from all counts is tragic. When countries around the world, especially in Asia at the end of the Second World War were gaining independence as a result of the process of decolonization, shadows of dark clouds were looming large over the roof of the world – Tibet. No sooner did the Mao’s revolutionary forces declared victory and China became a communist nation in 1949, Eastern parts of Tibet started coming under siege. As the world rejoiced freedom of many countries, the country at the roof of the world silently mourned its invasion by foreign forces. Not only is the nature and consequences of this invasion tragic but also how easily Tibet fell prey to the changing geo-political situations of the time.

It was certainly a most deplorable act of humiliation inflicted by a country which claims to have suffered a century of humiliation. But what was more deplorable was the unpreparedness of the Tibetan leadership of the time to face and challenge such situations. His Holiness the 13th Dalai Lama’s realization of the importance of modernization saw the establishment of Tibet’s first post office, introduction of currency notes and coins and, more importantly dispatching Tibetans to study abroad in England. As the importance of military strength was most dramatically realized, moves were made to strengthen the military as well. Though late, significant progress was nevertheless in the making but soon Tibet was engulfed into the misfortune of His Holiness’ demise in 1933. For more than three centuries, the Dalai Lamas have provided both the political and spiritual leadership to the Tibetans. The Dalai Lamas reincarnate and are not elected and hence, there was more or less a political vacuum after the demise of the previous and the full maturity of the next. His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama was born in the year 1935. It is appalling to think how in those testing times, China took the unpreparedness of the Tibetan leadership to their advantage and rendered Tibetans victims of its expansionist policy. It is also appalling to know that while small neighboring countries like Nepal were acquiring membership of the newly established the United Nations Organization, Tibetan leadership had failed to do so. Tibetan tragedy is indeed scripted with misfortune of the Tibetans, naivety of their leadership and China’s thirst for power.

Due to the impending threat of full-blown military invasion by China from eastern part of Tibet, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama and the Tibetan leadership initially tried to seek help from countries like the USA but to no avail. At this critical juncture, negotiation was indeed deemed most necessary in order to avoid People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) further intrusion into Tibet. This led to the signing of the so called, “Seventeen Point Agreement” which gave China the legitimacy and powers to formally carry out its own imperialist policies inside Tibet. Out of the 17 points of the Agreement, China exercised immediate implementation of the terms in favor of their imperialistic pursuits and, displayed a complete disregard to the terms such as Article 4, which declared no alteration to “the existing political system in Tibet” and “the established status, functions and powers of the Dalai Lama”. Article 11 declared a promise from the China’s side that there would be no compulsion to follow the reforms and that any reform “must be settled through consultation with the leading personnel of Tibet”. So, what appears to be Article 17, which says, “This agreement shall come into force immediately after signatures and seals are affixed to it” stands as the greatest deceit by the PRC as is seen on a regular basis that none of these terms have been implemented till date let alone “immediately” in 1951. The Agreement was formally and symbolically repudiated by the Tibetan government in March 1959 in Tibet, and later announced to the media on 18 April, 1959 after the Dalai Lama escaped into India. In a hypothetical situation, even if it were recognized, because of China’s non compliance with its own dictated terms the Agreement would stand ipso facto invalid.

As a result of the signing of the so called “Seventeen Point Agreement” between Tibet and China, India decided to take a different stand on Tibet’s status. Prior to that India acted against the voices raised by the Guomindang and invited the Tibetan delegation as an independent nation to Asian Relations Conference held in March – April, 1947 in New Delhi (http://tpprc.org/publication/fifty_years_after_asian_relations_conf-sharan-1997.pdf). India also raised a strong voice against PLA’s intrusion into Tibet in 1950. However, due to fear of security threats from the Himalayan borders, India gave in and signed with China what was called the “Panchsheel Agreement” in 1954. This agreement “sacrificed Tibet’s historical status at the altar of Sino-Indian friendship (Hindi Chini Bhai Bhai)”(1). According to the colonial British policy, Tibet was treated as an autonomous buffer state between India and China. Thus, if any country mattered in the status disputes of Tibet other than China, it was India and with the “Panchsheel Agreement”, India had fundamentally compromised this historical fact. The fact that Nehru looked perplexed (or even remorseful) when he first met the young Dalai Lama in Peking in 1954 a few months after the Agreement was signed tells the underlying story (http://www.indianexpress.com/news/meeting-the-dalai-lama/799456). Late Prof. Dawa Norbu sums up that “the PRC could establish its full legal claims over Tibet only after Nehru recognized Tibet as part of China in 1954”(2) as a part of the Agreement.

A more desperate event followed the one of 1954. Fear of China’s conspiracy on the night when the Dalai Lama was invited to a show with conditions that he should be unguarded and unarmed, led many thousands of Tibetans to surround the Dalai Lama’s palace and prevent him from attending the show. This later led to one of the biggest national uprisings against China’s invasion and, eventually led to a desperate escape of the Dalai Lama into India. The only consolation in those desperate hours was the sympathy and warmth of India in giving the Dalai Lama and his followers the much needed asylum. Two things were settled in that unforgettable year of 1959. Firstly, Tibetans clearly displayed the un-willingness to stay with and under China under the existing circumstances and secondly, Tibetans as a group of population became geographically divided. More importantly, Tibetan leadership became physically separated from the Tibetan masses inside Tibet and this was further exacerbated by the China’s iron-fist policy of virtual lock-down and, isolation of the region from the rest of the world.

Since then, Tibet’s issue has attracted widespread attention of many countries and many international organizations. For instance, the United Nations has passed three resolutions on Tibet since 1959, one each in years; 1959, 1960 and 1961 regarding concerns over violation of human rights in Tibet by the PRC. European Union, US Congress and many other countries have likewise often raised voices against the violations of human rights in Tibet. Tibetans have made their own efforts too. In March 1979, when Deng Xiaoping stated “apart from independence, all issues can be discussed,” the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan leadership in exile responded with the proposal for a negotiated settlement, what is now commonly known as the “Middle Way Approach.” In the same year, the Central Tibetan Administration in Dharamashala, India, started dispatching fact finding delegations to Tibet. Even as such, the situation inside Tibet did not improve. In fact, starting in mid-1980’s, the PRC imposed further restrictions resulting in Tibetan mass protests and the Chinese government responded with the imposition of martial law inside Tibet. Formal channels of communication between Dharamshala and Beijing were suspended for about a decade. Partly because of the international pressure and partly because of China’s own interests in improving its image in the run up to its WTO membership and the Beijing Olympics, formal communications between the Dalai Lama’s envoys and the Chinese government represented by the United Front Work Department began in 2002. This dialogue process culminated in the Tibetan side presenting the Chinese government with the proposal for the genuine autonomy for the Tibetan people in October 2008. All these efforts only resulted in more accusations of the Dalai Lama being a splittist and the condemnation of the Tibetan proposal for their insincerity. Since January 2010, no further direct communications have been held and both sides have since hardened their positions.

There are three ways to look at the failure of Sino- Tibetan dialogues so far. One is of course that China, notwithstanding its own invitation for dialogue, is completely not ready to engage in a serious one. The other two ways are inter-connected. 1963 saw the introduction of modern system of democratic governance in the Tibetan community in exile with elected representatives. Democratization process had steadily grown since then with the historical event of the Dalai Lama completely devolving his political powers to the elected Tibetan leadership in 2011. So, at least the Tibetans in exile enjoy the values of democracy such as freedom of thought and expression. In a democratic set-up however, consensus on any matter could be seldom seen let alone on matters as big as the issue of national status and struggle. Therefore, as expected, some Tibetans chose to keep the struggle for complete independence alive and some conformed to the middle way approach. The largest non-governmental organization and the most vocal advocate of complete independence of Tibet, the Tibetan Youth Congress was founded in 1970 by prominent members of the Tibetan community.

The point of intersection comes here, when Deng Xiaoping assumed the responsibility of China’s paramount leadership in 1978, China had merely begun to recover from the miseries of events such as the Cultural Revolution and the Great Leap Forward. China had just opened up its economy and needed to engage itself in nation rebuilding. This gives us a slight hint that may be Deng’s invitation for discussions might have been merely a trick to avoid unresolved issue of Tibet disturbing his leadership. With the strategic thinking coming from those of masters like Sun Tzu, China’s strategic thinking stands arguably next to no one. This understood, Deng might have taken it for granted that the Tibetans will never reach upon a consensus – independence or autonomy - and that PRC can reject or disregard the dialogues easily on the basis of such grounds. The total rejection of the Memorandum on the genuine autonomy for Tibetans by the Chinese government with no regard whatsoever to the merit of the proposal may not come as a surprise if one can understand the assumptions with which China handles the Tibet issue. For the Chinese government, it is very easy to dismiss the good intentions of the proposal for genuine autonomy as long as the voice for independence is heard on the streets of Dharamshala. The tragedy here is that it is difficult to tell whether the Chinese government is indeed afraid of the independence movement or they are simply framing up this issue to reject any meaningful conversation.

As this impasse continues, Tibetans inside Tibet are deprived of basic human rights every day. To witness one of the most woeful periods in the history of Tibet’s political struggle since PLA’s intrusion, a spate of self-immolation protests, at an alarming rate, has reached a toll of around 80.

This is a clear reflection of the failed policies of Beijing and the total rejection of the repressive rule of the Chinese government by the Tibetans inside Tibet. However, the tragedy is that the Chinese government has put the blame squarely on the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan set-up in exile of rousing Tibetan separatist sentiments instead of investigating the real causes of these most desperate acts.

This month, the world has seen the formal unveiling of the new Chinese leadership but nothing new or dramatic is expected of them. Besides being risk-averse, old leaders still pull the strings and exert a tremendous amount of control over the new leadership and the policies of the government.

Yet many believe the change is imminent as one-party rule in China cannot withstand the immense pressure of the ground realities. China scholar Minxin Pei believes, “the CCP may have defied the odds so far, but cannot do so indefinitely” (http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/0/5d992eea-2e6f-11e2-8f7a-00144feabdc0.html#axzz2CqDa3KrG). Change in the hardline policies with regards to handling the Tibet issue can only come with genuine acknowledgment of mistakes committed by its policies and thereby making necessary course corrections. However, in a political environment where acknowledgment of mistakes tantamounts to failure, will the CCP and the Chinese government take this risk? Both the Tibetan leadership and the Chinese leadership are under tremendous pressure to resolve the self-immolation crisis as the situation is getting out of control day by day. Both parties need to declare ceasefire (from taking rhetorical stance) and return to the negotiation table to discuss ways and means to resolve this crisis as urgently as possible. Though an assessment of Tibet’s tragedy in Sino-Tibetan relations shows that Beijing does not hesitate to be arbitrary at all times, it is hoped that only this time, the Chinese side shows genuine concern and serious intent.

The author is currently learning Chinese at the Chinese language Center, National Sun Yat-sen University, Kaohsiung, Taiwan. She holds an M.A in East Asian Studies from the University of Delhi. Article submitted by the author.

The views expressed in this piece are that of the author and the publication of the piece on this website does not necessarily reflect their endorsement by the website.
(1). Norbu, Dawa., Tibet in Sino- Indian relations: the centrality of marginality, Page.1080, Asian Survey, Vol. XXXVII, no.11, November 1997.
(2). Ibid, page. 1082
- www.tibet.net
- www.dalailama.com
- www.tibetanyouthcongress.org
- Statements on the status of Tibet by different countries
- Britain’s suzerain remedy, The Economist, 6 November 2008
- Facts about the Seventeen Point “Agreement”, between Tibet and China, DIIR Publication
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