Why Should We Care About Tibet?
Until 1949, Tibet was an independent Buddhist nation in the Himalayas which had little contact with the rest of the world. It existed as a rich cultural storehouse of the Mahayana and Vajrayana teachings of Buddhism. Religion was a unifying theme among the Tibetans — as was their own language, literature, art, and world view developed by living at high altitudes, under harsh conditions, in a balance with their environment.
The Dalai Lama, an individual said to be an incarnation of the Buddha of Compassion, had been both the political and spiritual leader of the country. The current Dalai Lama (the 14th) was only 24 years old when this all came to an end in 1959. The Communist Chinese invasion in 1950 led to years of turmoil, that culminated in the complete overthrow of the Tibetan Government and the self-imposed exile of the Dalai Lama and 100,000 Tibetans in 1959.
Since that time over a million Tibetans have been killed. With the Chinese policy of resettlement of Chinese to Tibet, Tibetans have become a minority in their own country. Chinese is the official language. Compared to pre-1959 levels, only 1/20 monks are still allowed to practice, under the government’s watch. Up to 6,000 monasteries and shrines have been destroyed. Famines have appeared for the first time in recorded history, natural resources are devastated, and wildlife depleted to extinction. Tibetan culture comes close to being eradicated there.
Peaceful demonstrations/protests/speech/writings by nuns, monks, and Tibetan laypeople have resulted in deaths and thousands of arrests. These political prisoners are tortured and held in sub-standard conditions, with little hope of justice. Unless we can all take part and recognize Tibet’s loss as our own, the future looks grim.
Some Startling Facts
1. The peaceful buddhist country of Tibet was invaded by Communists China in 1949. Since that time, over 1.2 million out of 6 Tibetans have been killed, over 6000 monastaries have been destroyed, and thousands of TIbetans have been imprisoned.
2. In Tibet today, there is no freedom of speech, religion, or press and arbitrary dissidents continue.
3. The Dalai Lama, Tibet’s political and spiritual leader, fled to India in 1959. He now lives among over 100,000 other Tibetan refugees and their government in exile.
4. Forced abortion, sterilization of Tibetan women and the transfer of low income Chinese citizens threaten the survival of Tibet’s unique culture. In some Tibetan provinces, Chinese settlers outnumber Tibetans 7 to 1.
5. Within China itself, massive human rights abuses continue. It is estimated that there up to twenty million Chinese citizens working in prison camps.
6. Most of the Tibetan plataeu lies above 14,000 feet. Tibet is the source of five of Asia’s greatest rivers, which over 2 billion people depend upon. Since 1959, the Chinese government estimates that they have removed over $54 billion worth of timber. Over 80% of their forests have been destroyed, and large amoutns nuclear and toxic waste have been disposed of in Tibet.
7. Despite these facts and figures, the US government and US corporations continue to support China economically. This shows their blatant lack of respect for these critical issues of political and religious freedom and human rights.
Yes, things are bad, but you may still ask, why Tibet? There are hundreds of other countries in which equal or worse environmental and human rights devistation has occured. Why Tibet? Tibet can be used as the catalyst for change in human rights, womens rights, political, religious and cultural freedom across the globe. Through a concerted effort, the citizens of Earth can stand up and say “NO!” to the corporations and governments that continue to abuse it’s people and misuse it’s resources. The struggles in Tibet are symbolic for every human rights struggle. Please, get involved. There is only a limited time left until there will longer be a Tibet to save.
Although the history of the Tibetan state started in 127 B.C., with the establishment of the Yarlung Dynasty, the country as we know it was first unified in the 7th Century A.D., under King Songtsen Gampo and his successors. Tibet was one of the mightiest powers of Asia for the three centuries that followed, as a pillar inscription at the foot of the Potala Palace in Lhasa and Chinese Tang histories of the period confirm. A formal peace treat concluded between China and Tibet in 821/823 demarcated the borders between the two countries and ensured that, “Tibetans shall be happy in Tibet and Chinese shall be happy in China.”
As Genghis Khan’s Mongol Empire expanded towards Europe in the West and China in the East in the 13th Century, Tibetan leaders of powerful Sakya school of Tibetan Buddhism concluded an agreement with the Mongol rulers in order to avoid the conquest of Tibet. The Tibetan Lama promised political loyalty and religious blessings and teachings in exchange for patronage and protection. The religious relationship became so important that when, decades later, Kublai Khan conquered China and established the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368), he invited the Sakya Lama to become the Imperial Preceptor and supreme pontiff of his empire.
The relationship that developed and continued to exist into the 20th Century between the Mongols and Tibetans was a reflect of the close racial, cultural, and especially religious affinity between the two Central Asian peoples. The Mongol Empire was a world empire and, whatever the relationship between its rulers and the Tibetans, the Mongols never integrated the administration of Tibet and China or appended Tibet to China in any manner.
Tibet broke political ties with the Yuan emperor in 1350, before China regained its independence from the Mongols. Not until the 18th Century did Tibet again come under a degree of foreign influence.
Relations with Manchu, Gorkha and British Neighbors
Tibet developed no ties with Chinese Ming Dynasty (1386-1644). On the other hand, the Dalai Lama, who established his sovereign rule over Tibet with the help of a Mongol patron in 1642, did develop close religious ties with the Manchu emperors, who conquered China and established the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). The Dalai Lama agreed to become the spiritual guide of the Manchu emperor, and accepted patronage and protection in exchange. This “priest-patron” relationship (known in Tibetan as
Choe-Yoen), which the Dalai Lama also maintained with some Mongol princes and Tibetan nobles, was the only formal tie that existed between the Tibetans and Manchus during the Qing Dynasty. It did not, in itself, affect Tibet’s independence.
On the political level, some powerful Manchu emperors succeeded in exerting a degree of influence over Tibet. Thus, between 1720 and 1792, Emperors Kangxi, Yong Zhen, and Qianlong sent imperial troops to Tibet four times to protect the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan people from foreign invasions by Mongols, and Gorkhas or from internal unrest. These expeditions provided the emperor with the means for establishing influence in Tibet. He sent representatives to the Tibetan capital, Lhasa, some of whom successfully exercised their influence, in his name, over the Tibetan government, particularly
with respect to the conduct of foreign relations. At the height of Manchu power, which lasted a few decades, the situation was not unlike that which can exist between a superpower and a satellite or protectorate, and therefore one which, though politically significant, does not extinguish the independent existence of the weaker state. Tibet was never incorporated into the Manchu Empire, much less China, and it continued to conduct its relations with neighboring states largely on its own.
Manchu influence did not last very long. It was entirely ineffective by the time the British briefly invaded Lhasa and concluded a bilateral treaty with Tibet, the Lhasa Convention, in 1904. Despite this loss of influence, the imperial government in Peking continued to claim some authority over Tibet, particularly with respect to its international relations, an authority which the British imperial government termed “suzerainty” in its dealings with Peking and St. Petersburg, Russia. Chinese imperial armies tried to reassert actual influence in 1910 by invading the country and occupying Lhasa. Following the 1911 revolution in China and the overthrow of the Manchu Empire, the troops surrendered to the Tibetan army and were repatriated under a sino-Tibetan peace accord. The Dalai Lama reasserted Tibet’s full independence internally, by issuing a proclamation, and externally, in communications to
foreign rulers and in a treaty with Mongolia.
Tibet in the 20th Century
Tibet’s status following the expulsion of Manchu troops is not subject to serious dispute. What ever ties existed between the Dalai Lama and the Manchu emperors of the Qing Dynasty were extinguished with the fall of that empire and dynasty. From 1911 to 1950, Tibet successfully avoided undue foreign influence and behaved, in every respect, as a fully independent state.
Tibet maintained diplomatic relations with nepal, Bhutan, Britain, and later with independent India. Relations with China remain strained. The Chinese waged a border war with Tibet while formally urging Tibet to “join” the Chinese Republic, claiming all along to the world that Tibet already was one of China’s “five races.”
In an effort to reduce Sino-Tibetan tensions, the British convened a tripartite conference in Simla in 1913 where the representative of the three states met on equal terms. As the British delegation reminded his Chinese counterpart, Tibet entered the conference as “independent nation recognizing no allegiance to China.” The conference was unsuccessful in that it did not resolve the difference between Tibet and China. It was, nevertheless, significant in that Anglo-Tibetans friendship was reaffirmed with the conclusion of bilateral trade and border agreements. In a Joint Declaration, Great
Britain and Tibet bound themselves not to recognize Chinese suzerainty or other special rights in Tibet unless China signed the draft Simla Convention which would have guaranteed Tibet’s greater borders, its territorial integrity and fully autonomy. China never signed the Convention, however, leaving the terms of the Joint Declaration in full force.
Tibet conducted its international relations primarily by dealing with the British, Chinese, Nepalese, and Bhutanese diplomatic missions in Lhasa, but also through government delegations travelling abroad. When India became independent, the British mission in Lhasa was replaced by an Indian one. During World War II Tibet remained neutral, despite combined pressure from the United States, Great Britain, and China to allow passage of raw materials through Tibet.
Tibet never maintained extensive international relations, but those countries with whom it did maintain relations treated Tibet as they would with any sovereign state. Its international status was in fact no different from, say, that of Nepal. Thus, when Nepal applied for United Nations’ membership in 1949, it cited its treaty and diplomatic relations with Tibet to demonstrate its full international personality.
The Invasion of Tibet
The turning point of Tibet’s history came in 1949, when the People’s Liberation Army of the PRC first crossed into Tibet. After defeating the small Tibetan army and occupying half the country, the Chinese government imposed the so-called “17-Point Agreement for the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet” on the Tibetan government in May 1951. Because it was singed under duress, the agreement lacked validity under international law. The presence of 40,000 troops in Tibet, the threat of an immediate occupation of Lhasa, and the prospect of the total obliteration of the Tibetan state left Tibetans little choice.
As the resistance to the Chinese occupation escalated, particularly in Eastern Tibet, the Chinese repression, which included the destruction of religious buildings and the imprisonment of monks and other community leaders, increased dramatically. By 1959, popular uprising culminated in massive demonstrations in Lhasa. By the time China crushed the uprising, 87,000 Tibetans were dead in the Lhasa region alone, and the Dalai Lama had fled to India, where he now heads the Tibetan Government-in-exile, headquartered in Dharmsala, India. In 1963, the Dalai Lama promulgated a constitution for a democratic Tibet. It has been successfully implemented, to the extent possible, by the Government-in-exile.
Meanwhile, in Tibet religious persecution, consistent violations of human rights, and the wholesale destruction of religious and historic buildings by the occupying authorities have not succeeded in destroying the spirit of the Tibetan people to resist the destruction of the national identity. 1.2 million Tibetans have lost their lives, (over one-sixth of the population) as a result of the Chinese occupation. But the new generation of Tibetans seems just as determined to regain the country’s independence as the older generation was.
In the course of Tibet’s 2,000-year history, the country came under a degree of foreign influence only for short periods of time in the 13th and 18th centuries. Few independent countries today can claim as impressive a record. As the ambassador of Ireland to the UN remarked during the General Assembly debates on the question of Tibet, “for thousands of years, for a couple of thousands years at any rate, (Tibet) was a free and as fully in control of its own affairs as any nation in this Assembly, and a thousand times more free to look after it own affairs than many of the nations here.”
From a legal standpoint, Tibet has not lost its statehood. It is an independent start under illegal occupation. Neither China’s military invasion nor the continuing occupation by the PLA has transferred the sovereignty of Tibet to China. As pointed out earlier the Chinese government has never claimed to have acquired sovereignty over Tibet by conquest. Indeed, China recognizes that the use or threat of force (outside the exceptional circumstances provided for in the UN Charter), the imposition of an unequal treaty, or the continued illegal occupation of a country can never grant an invader legal title to territory. Its claims are based solely on the alleged subjection of Tibet to a few of China’s strongest foreign rulers in the 13th and 18th centuries.
Source:(Michael C. van Walt van Praag practices international law. His publication include The Status of Tibet: History, Rights and Prospects in International Law (Westview Press, Boulder, Colo., Wisdom Press, London, 1987) and numerous articles in book collections and magazines.)