News and Views on Tibet

Opinion: Tibet’s future?

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His Holiness the Dalai Lama and former Prime Minister of India Jawahar Lal Nehru (file photo)
His Holiness the Dalai Lama and former Prime Minister of India Jawahar Lal Nehru (file photo)

By Phintso Thonden (Phundhon)

Earlier this summer, following China and India’s deadly border skirmishes, there was a spike in public debate on Tibet’s legal status in the Indian news media. Many people claimed India did not have a common border with China, but only with Tibet, and that British India signed legal treaties regarding India’s northern border with Tibet, not China. Tibet had signed several treaties with British controlled India including the Simla Agreement of 1914, which established the McMahon Line as the border between Tibet and India. A public petition urged Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to change the name of Panchsheel Marg, the road within the Diplomatic Enclave in New Delhi leading to the Chinese Embassy, to “Dalai Lama Marg” because China had violated the principles of the Panchsheel (5-Point) Agreement signed by India and China in 1954. These recent debates indicate a growing awareness of, and the urgent need, to undo the colossal damage done to India’s national security by the Nehru Administration in recognizing the country of Tibet as “China’s region of Tibet” in the Panchsheel Agreement. This renewed interest in Tibet offers the Tibetan Government in Exile (now the Central Tibetan Administration), a unique opportunity to seek formal recognition for itself from the Government of India.

The Case for India’s Recognition of Tibet

When H.H. the 14th  Dalai Lama fled to India in 1959, the restoration of Tibet’s independence was his main objective. However, seeking legal recognition from the Indian Government under Prime Minister Mr. Jawaharlal Nehru was clearly not possible due to Nehru’s view that the Tibetan issue was merely an obstacle in the path of his own ambition. After Mr. Nehru’s death, when Shri Lal Bahadur Shastri became Prime Minister, the representative of H.H. the Dalai Lama at the Tibetan Bureau in New Delhi, Mr. D.W. Shakabpa made an appointment to see Mr. Shastri in August 1965. I was required to accompany him as his interpreter because I was then representing the Department of Foreign Affairs of the Exile Government in the New Delhi Bureau. When Mr. Shakabpa made the  request to recognize our Government in Exile, he did it as a matter of formality, a repeat of requests he had periodically made without any real expectation of result. We were, therefore, shocked and surprised by the Prime Minister’s answer.  He said: “We have been considering this matter for some time and we should be in position to answer your request within four or five months. We are expecting certain developments soon and when they happen, then we will recognize your Government in Exile.” I couldn’t believe what I was hearing and barely managed to translate his words for Mr. Shakabpa. We were both so excited that upon returning to the Bureau at 15 Link Road, he said: “Let’s go up to the rooftop to find a suitable place to hoist our Tibetan national flag.”

In October 1965, I was sent to the Office of Tibet in New York by Mr. Gyalo Thondup, Minister of Foreign Affairs and elder brother of His Holiness, to assist the Representative of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Mr. T.T. Liushar.  His primary task in New York was to prepare for deliberations on the “Question of Tibet” before the United Nations General Assembly, which resulted in UN GA resolution 1723.  This resolution recognized China’s actions in Tibet as a violation of the Tibetan people’s right to self determination. A few months later we heard the news Prime Minister Shastri had died in Tashkent, Uzbekistan on January 11, 1966. There was speculation that he was murdered by Soviet agents or by his own cook. The Indian Government never investigated this matter, and the cause of his death still remains a mystery.  Mr. Shastri’s revelation to us at our meeting in Delhi in August 1965, was the first time the Government of India came close to recognizing the Tibetan Government in Exile.  

India and Tibet are bound together by their geography and mutual interests for an independent Tibet:  Tibet for its own sake, and India for the protection of its 4,000 kilometer long northern border. While Mr. Nehru was blinded by his personal ambition, Indian leaders like Mr. Shastri were not. Experiences like the Sino-Indian war of 1962 and India’s continued dealings with China convince India that it is impossible for India to function  with its 4,000 km long northern border all the way from Ladakh in the west to Assam in the east, so totally exposed to China. Nehru’s acceptance of Tibet as part of China was very shortsighted. It left India in the untenable position of accepting Tibet as a part of China on the one hand, and on the other hand upholding the validity of the Indo-Tibetan border agreement defined by the McMahon Line.  As long as Tibet remains under China’s occupation, the threat to India will remain. Without restoring Tibet’s traditional role as a buffer between the two giants of Asia, India will never be able to focus adequately on issues of economic development or anything else.

Since the late 1980s, the Central Tibetan Administration’s goal has been downgraded from independence to a high degree of autonomy within the People’s Republic of China. The Tibetan government hoped this conciliatory position would stem the tide of Chinese civilians pouring into Tibet, and allow Tibetans to maintain their cultural identity and a degree of control over their internal affairs.  But China’s recent erasure of the “One Country, Two Systems” in Hong Kong clearly demonstrates the utter uselessness of hoping for genuine Tibetan autonomy under China.

Differences between Independence and Autonomy under International Law

There is an ongoing struggle between followers of Independence and Autonomy among  Tibetans, without a clear understanding of the ramifications of the two. An independent country is a nation state recognized by the community of nations, with its own government, a permanent population, its own laws and judicial system, diplomatic and international relations with other nations, its own army, a national flag, a defined geographic territory with control of its borders, and the issuance of its own national passports. An autonomous region is a territory within a country that may exercise local control over its internal affairs; but does not conduct its own international relations, nor does it have its own national flag, or issue its own passports or control its borders. Another important difference is that when an independent country is invaded by another country, the attacked country can appeal to the UN Security Council claiming aggression by the invading country. An autonomous region has no such rights. That is the reason why when the Tibetan issue was first raised in the UN, it was done so in the General Assembly, not in the Security Council. Another concept under international law afforded to nations, is that if a representative of an independent country is coerced to sign an agreement under physical threat, the state can claim that it had signed under duress and can revoke such treaty unilaterally, just as His Holiness the Dalai Lama had done in the case of the so called 17-point Agreement signed with China in 1951. I am not a lawyer, nor a legal scholar, but what  I know about these matters, I learned in dealing with the group of cosponsors of the Tibetan issue in the UN General Assembly.

Seizing the Opportunity

After India gained independence from Britain in 1947, the new Indian Government wrote the then Tibetan government in exile asking whether it would like to commence a new relationship with the independent Government of India. In hindsight, it is clear this was a golden opportunity for Tibet to establish itself as an independent country recognized by India. Incredibly, the Tibetan Government failed to seize this opportunity. The only excuses that one can think of are: 1) at that time H.H. the 14th Dalai Lama was  a 12-year old boy and the country was run by a regent in 1947, and 2) during this crucial three-year period after India gained independence and when China invaded Tibet in 1950, we were busy fighting among ourselves in the civil war between the Tibetan Government and Sera Monastery.  A great opportunity was missed in failing to establish diplomatic relations with the new Indian government.   

Despite past missteps, the possibility of future opportunities will arise. A country with 2,147 years of recorded history cannot simply vanish into thin air within 70 years of China’s occupation. India regained its independence from the British after almost 200 years under the British Raj. In light of their own very long experience under colonial rule, India should be one of the first countries to recognize Tibet’s independence from China.  Aside from this, India has close cultural ties with Tibet. H.H. the 14th Dalai Lama and the majority of Tibetan refugees still live in India, but most importantly, India’s northern border security is inextricably linked to Tibet’s legal status. When Tibet was free, India had nothing to worry about its northern borders.

In hindsight, Mr. Nehru also regretted his actions towards Tibet. He had full faith in China, befriended Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai and became the self-appointed champion of China in pushing for China’s admission to the United Nations. Apparently, Nehru thought China could be useful to him in attaining his personal ambition of playing a major role on the world stage. Instead, he ended up being outmaneuvered by the Chinese Premier, leading to the Sino-Indian war of 1962, when Nehru had to abandon his cherished nonalignment foreign policy and seek the United States’ protection from President Kennedy. It was only when the U.S. 7th fleet arrived in the Bay of Bengal that China’s soldiers made a hasty retreat from the plains of India to the Tibetan border areas. After their departure, Mr. Nehru, then thoroughly disillusioned and a broken man, cried in the Indian Parliament that China had stabbed India in the back.

The importance of Tibet and India to coordinate their efforts for their common goal can hardly be overstated. India has to revoke the so-called Panchsheel Agreement, and the Central Tibetan Administration has to reassert their claim of independence  These issues might sound far-fetched to some but they are the core issues that  must be dealt with to move forward. If the Tibetan Administration is serious about preserving Tibetan religion, culture and the Tibetan way of life, then achieving independence is the one and only choice. 

Tibet was an independent nation for much of its recorded history of 2,147 years. There are numerous treaties, and stone pillars marking Tibet’s borders with China that still stand in front of the TsuglagKhang, the 7th century sprawling temple in the center of Lhasa surrounded by the Barkhor Square, and in front of the Potala Palace, dating back to the 6th and 7th centuries. In fact, out of roughly 200 countries in the United Nations, more than half of them would have a hard time to match their historical claim of independence as Tibet does. Even Mr. Nehru, before his death in 1964, grudgingly admitted in an interview with National Integration that Tibet does have the right to independence if the Tibetan people have the strength enough to fight for it.

When Chinese soldiers invaded Tibet in 1950, the small ill-equipped Tibetan army without proper training fought back the invaders but were vastly outnumbered.  In the Tibetan rebellion of 1959, over 87,000 Tibetans were killed in the fighting,  according to Chinese records captured by Tibetan freedom fighters based in Mustang, Nepal. In the late 1980s Tibetans launched a series of major demonstrations in Lhasa against the Chinese occupation of Tibet, culminating in martial law in Tibet. Six months before the Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing in 1989, Tibetans again launched another major public demonstration in Lhasa to protest China’s continued occupation of Tibet. Despite ever-tightening militaristic rule, there have been 156 self-immolations all over Tibet since 2009.  In 2008, in the lead up to  the Beijing Olympic Games, massive uprising across the Tibetan plateau demonstrated that Tibetan national identity and resistance to Chinese occupation remain strong and alive among a new generation.

The world is changing rapidly and we have no control over that. But what we Tibetans can do is to prepare ourselves for the coming changes by holding tight to our claim of independence, and consider terms for a negotiated settlement on territory with China.   The Tibetan side should be prepared for a negotiated settlement on the border issue with China and be willing to give up our claim of a greater Tibet. Wherever the final boundary is drawn, it is likely to cause dissatisfaction among Tibetans and Chinese living in the border areas.  A provision could be made for a period of time, say three years, within which  people living on either side of a newly defined border would be free to  cross over to the other side. Tibet is a vast country with a small population of only 6 million people. It is therefore in a position to give up some territory in exchange for a clear independent Tibetan state. It is possible that China might even prefer such a solution, because it would validate Chinese ownership of what lies to the east of the border, which otherwise would remain questionable.

In 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed, breaking into 15 countries, those Soviet satellites which stuck to their claim of independence were able to reassert their claims to become independent countries. China’s increasing international incursions in India, the creation of artificial islands in the Philippines and  encroachments in other Southeast Asian islands with enough military power to threaten international shipping, coupled with the erasure of Hong Kong’s autonomous status, point to China’s renewed aggression, long after its annexation of Tibet. But this adventurism also masks China’s rising domestic instability with regular reports of China’s rising debt, corruption and unemployment. We Tibetans must prepare for the collapse of the Chinese Empire. Are we prepared for that?

(Views expressed are his own)

The author is a former Representative of H.H. the Dalai Lama in the Office of Tibet, New York (1965-1973) and in New Delhi (1973-1976). He currently resides in New York, US.  

6 Responses

  1. The time appears right for the Tibetan Parliament in Exile to discuss about our current stand by inviting experts. Once the Parliament approves, the Tibetan administration led by the Sikyong could approach the Government of India to recognize Tibet as an Independent Nation. Once the Indian government changes its current stand, other nations will follow as and when the Tibetan Administration approaches great powers including the United States, European countries, Australia, Canada, etc.

  2. Former Representative Phintso Thonden’s personal opinion is food for thought. The struggle of the Tibetan people is at a crucial juncture. The aging of the Dalai Lama who was responsible for high lighting the plight of Tibet is at an advanced age. The communist Chinese who are occupying Tibet are facing international condemnation and hostility that is making the communist regime insecure and lashing out like a wounded dog. Even the compliant and friendly Indian Government has at last found the real colour of the communist regime in China.
    The most powerful nation on earth is at logger heads with the communist regime and recently Republican senator Scott Perry introduced a bill in the US Congress to recognise Tibet as an independent nation. These are very important developments after more than six decades.
    There is no chance the present and any Government in India would ever dare to recognise Tibet as an independent nation even though the 1.3 billion Indian public knows, Tibet was an independent nation. They didn’t dare to sent even a birthday card to the Dalai Lama on his 85th birthday.
    The imposition of National Security Law in Hong Kong and stripping of Hong Kong’s much touted one country-two system and with it all the promised freedoms enshrined in the Sino-British declaration shredded the long held hope of U-Mei Lam to solve the Tibet issue. Those who refuse to agree MUST explain to the Tibetan masses how is genuine autonomy possible for Tibet when Hong Kong’s autonomy has been snuffed out in spite of the fact that it was an international undertaking from the Chinese communists.
    Therefore, the only option is complete independence for Tibet without which the survival of Tibet’s rich culture, language and religion is impossible.
    The independence for Tibet consists of all three Provinces of U-Tsang, Kham and Amdo. Tibet must not give an inch of our territory and must be prepared for any eventually.
    If we look at the history of how the Vietnamese achieved reunion of their nation despite overwhelming might of the US shows nothing is impossible. What is needed is naked determination and unflinching faith in our avowed goal.

  3. Not sure of the historical record. ” After India gained independence from Britain in 1947, the new Indian Government wrote the then Tibetan government in exile asking whether it would like to commence a new relationship with the independent Government of India.” Tibet was an independent country till 1959, why you wrote then the ”Tibetan government in exile” asking whether it would…?
    Why compromise Tibetan territory before even start negotiations with the Chinese? No matter how big the territory maybe?
    The only way to assert a rightful claim is sovereign independent Tibet, no doubt about it. The change will come, and maybe sooner than one thinks.

  4. History tells us that nothing is permanent and change is the law of nature. China is doomed to collapse one day and Tibet would be an independent country. It’s all a matter of time. There is a famous saying in Hindi “Paap ka garah bharne ki deri hai”. Because of its sins, every nation is cursing China and day is not far off when it will die its natural death. A slight action from them will trigger to war thereby leading to its destruction. Day will come when India will declare Tibet a free nation and that is only possible under Modi ji for which CTA and GoI should start spade work right now.

  5. How has the “one country, two systems” played out in Taiwan? Don’t forget, that like India, Hong Kong was also a former British colony and a trade hub. Nowadays, that moniker has dropped significantly for Hong Kong as other Chinese cities have surpassed it’s position.
    Looking at the past serves a purpose to understand mistakes that were made, however looking into the future requires understanding the current realities. What caused European powers to leave their profitable colonies? And at what cost? Did the balance sheet normalize with investments made and resources plundered?
    The world is quite aware of the repercussions of a mushroom cloud and it’s effects on humanity. Unlike the past, more players are also now involved. Moving forward, requires understanding those realities.

  6. As a Tibetan, we should learn lessons from all the facts mentioned by Phondhon la who was then one of our great educated diplomat. I fully support his opinion expressed here above. Thank you for giving light for future from your experience.

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