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Leaders Divided Over Political Objectives Tibet for the Tibetans!

April 12, 2008

Apri1 10, 2008

The repression of the recent demonstrations in Tibet has shocked
international public opinion. Thousands of Tibetans took to the streets,
first in Lhasa, then in other towns, waving the Tibetan flag and
chanting slogans demanding independence. They represent a clear
rejection of 60 years of Chinese domination.

However, the presence of monks among the movement's leaders has prompted
questions about the real nature of the uprising, often described as a
"Buddhist revolt". Despite the brutality of police counter-measures, the
unusual violence of many demonstrators has also blurred the image of a
reputedly non-violent struggle. Rioters have targeted Han Chinese and
Hui Muslim civilians, suggesting the revolt may have ethnic or religious
motives. (China defines itself as a multi-ethnic country with 56 ethnic
groups, Han Chinese making up 92 per cent of the population. The
People's Republic established various autonomous regions for Tibetans,
Hui, Uighurs and Mongols: Tibet, Ningxia, Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia.)

Symbolically the demonstrations started on March 10, the anniversary of
the 1959 uprising in Lhasa against Chinese intervention. The repression
of this popular movement precipitated the flight of the Dalai Lama and
his government to India. Thousands of refugees followed their example.
However, although prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru welcomed the
government of Tibet, he did not recognize it. Nor did the United Nations.

The invasion of Tibet in 1950--or its "peaceful liberation" as the
Chinese prefer to put it--raises historical questions that have yet to
be resolved. It is emblematic of the recurrent difficulties encountered
by the Chinese in their attempts to occupy and settle the region, and of
the Tibetans' failure to convince the modern world that their claims to
independence have a historical basis.

China first claimed Tibet in the 13th century under the (Mongol) Yuan
dynasty (1279-1368), then again in the 17th century under the (Manchu)
Qing dynasty (1644-1911). During these two periods the Chinese empire
reached its furthest extent westwards, thanks to successful military
campaigns waged by the Yuan, who built on the remains of the Mongol
empire that once dominated Asia, China and Tibet.

During the interim period, on the sidelines of China's Ming dynasty
(1368-1644), which was more interested in maritime conquest, Mongol
princes left a lasting mark on Tibetan politics. Intervening in a
domestic religious conflict in 1578, Altan Khan backed the Gelugpa
lineage, bestowing on its head the title of Dalai Lama (ocean of
wisdom). In 1642 Gushi Khan confirmed the political authority of the
fifth Dalai Lama, strengthening existing links between Tibet and
Mongolia, based on the choyon (guide and protector) relationship in
which both parties are considered equals. The Mongol prince protected
Tibet with his armies and in exchange Tibet's spiritual leader offered
guidance to Mongolia. This type of relationship also worked with Manchu
China and, depending on the alliances in force, other neighboring kingdoms.

Tibet has a long history of foreign interference, more often Mongol than
Chinese, which explains its vulnerability. In 1720 it appealed to Manchu
China for help driving out the Mongols. It resorted to the same
expedient in 1792 to rid itself of the Nepalese. During this period the
Chinese strove to reorganize the Tibetan system of government, but
without establishing a permanent foothold. After the collapse of the
Manchu Qing dynasty, the Chinese political leader Sun Yat-sen
established the Nanking republic in 1912. Tibet proclaimed its
independence a year later.

In 1914 envoys from the United Kingdom, China and Tibet signed a
tripartite agreement at Shimla, in northern India, recognising a form of
Chinese sovereignty. But the Chinese refused to treat the Tibetans as
equals at the signing ceremony.

De facto independence

Tibet enjoyed de facto independence from then till 1949. China lapsed
into internal disorder--conflict between warlords, followed by civil war
between nationalists and communists--and foreign invasion by the French,
British, Russians and Japanese. Only a few months after proclaiming the
People's Republic of China Mao Zedong ordered the invasion of Tibet in
1950. At the recently formed United Nations the representatives of
Nationalist China (Formosa, now known as Taiwan) convinced the Security
Council that this was a domestic Chinese matter .

In 1951 Mao used the threat of military action to obtain Tibetan
approval of a 17-point plan. It stipulated that "the Tibetan people
shall return to the big family of the motherland". In exchange the plan
granted autonomous status providing for the continuation of the
"existing political system... and the established status, functions and
powers of the Dalai Lama." But for the Tibetans he remained the
country's spiritual and temporal leader, contradicting the agreement.
Moreover the Chinese failed to uphold any of their commitments.

When the Dalai Lama went into exile in 1959 he formally repudiated the
agreement. He reinstated a government, set up a parliament and organised
the refugee community, which remained determined to continue the
struggle for independence. At the same time the Dalai Lama made it clear
that he sought "the creation of a favorable climate by the immediate
adoption of the essential measures as a condition precedent to
negotiations for a peaceful settlement"

Following the Lhasa uprising the UN passed three resolutions, in 1959,
1961 and 1965. The 1961 resolution called for "the cessation of
practices which deprive the Tibetan people of their fundamental human
rights and freedoms, including their right to self-determination."

In 1979 China's new leader, Deng Xiaoping, made it known that "apart
from independence, all issues can be discussed". (His message sent by
Deng Xiaoping to the Dalai Lama's elder brother, Gyalo Thondup, in
Beijing in March 1979.) Between then and 1985 four Tibetan delegations
were allowed to visit their home country, which became an autonomous
region in 1965, to observe the progress that had been achieved. They
returned unconvinced. (The autonomous region covers the central part
(U-tsang) of historical Tibet. The other two provinces (Kham and Amdo),
traditionally considered part of the country, have become part of the
Chinese province of Qinghai or the western extremities of Gansu, Sichuan
and Yunnan.)

In the 1988 Strasbourg Proposal the Dalai Lama officially renounced
independence, falling back on self-government and union with China. But
in March 1989 the brutal repression of one of the largest demonstrations
against the Chinese authorities since 1959 ended all dialogue. In
repeated attempts to reopen negotiations the Dalai Lama proposed genuine
self-government within the framework of Chinese sovereignty. Between
2002 and 2007 Chinese and Tibetan envoys met on six occasions, but the
recent demonstrations and the authorities' response suggest that history
is repeating itself.

Hostility to China

The Buddhist religion is an integral part of Tibet's identity but
hostility to China now dominates nationalist sentiment. Though the
majority of the population seems resigned, hatred of China is finding
violent outlets. Beijing may accuse the Dalai Lama of being the main
troublemaker, but a new generation is emerging over which the nation's
spiritual leader has less influence.

As China has strengthened its hold on the country, with a steadily
increasing influx of settlers, Tibetans have been gradually sidelined.
Development has not delivered its promised benefits and economic
investment, largely colonialist in its aims, has failed to appease
discontent exacerbated by persistent nationalism.

The violence that rent the Chinese quarter of Lhasa is not typical of
the independence movement as a whole. Protests have brought together
secular and religious elements, the latter brandishing portraits of the
Dalai Lama as well as the Tibetan flag. Seen by his supporters as an
exiled head of state, the spiritual guide has lost none of his
authority, enjoying widespread recognition in and outside Tibet, even if
some militants are advocating more direct action. He is still the cement
of national unity. In their way even the Chinese authorities acknowledge
his importance. As the Tibet Communist Party leader, Zhang Qingli, put
it: "We are in the midst of a life-and-death struggle with the Dalai

The attitude of Tibetans living abroad to the Dalai Lama and the issue
of independence is more complex. Independence has been a taboo ever
since their leader officially abandoned the idea and confirmed his
policy of openness and dialogue with Beijing. In October 2002 he
explicitly appealed to militants to refrain from any form of
anti-Chinese demonstration in public all over the world, in order to
create a propitious atmosphere for dialogue. The call for restraint left
many militants confused and discouraged.

Unsure what to do next

Until the outbreak of the recent unrest, China seemed to have achieved
its ends, no longer the target of public criticism and credited with new
respectability on account of its "goodwill". Meanwhile, in the political
arena, it arrogantly dismissed demands for self-government. The Tibetan
independence movement has played on this behavior, though it seems in
some doubt as to what to do next.

Among those in exile there is no unified movement pulling together the
various organizations advocating independence. None of them has managed
to set out new proposals, replacing or complementing the line adopted by
the government in exile. Most pro-independence campaigning inside Tibet
is the work of isolated individuals or spontaneous, unpredictable
gatherings without any clearly formulated strategy or goal.

The media build-up to the Olympic Games in Beijing offered a unique
opportunity to denounce Chinese hegemony to the world. In India the five
main pro-independence organizations joined forces to organize a march
back into Tibet, setting out on March 10. The Indian authorities
promptly banned the operation, triggering the departure of another wave
of marchers. Demonstrations started in Lhasa at the same time, gathering
strength and spreading to other towns in Tibet and other provinces once
occupied by Tibetans, which has not happened before. But though the
movement has achieved a certain popular and militant synergy, it lacks
political direction and visibility, raising the larger question of how
Tibetans are represented and what means are available for them to
express demands.

Most Tibetans still living in their home country see the government in
exile as a legitimate entity, because it is consistent with the
principle of the Dalai Lama's sovereignty and rule. But they are wary of
the government, blamed for not finding a solution to their present
predicament and giving up the goal of independence. This disaffection
spares the Dalai Lama himself.

However a distinction needs to be made between the government's
diplomatic efforts and the work of the Tibetan parliament in exile as a
representative body. The parliament is supposed to represent the Tibetan
people in its entirety, at home and abroad, if only symbolically due to
the impossibility of organizing a vote in Tibet. Its only real
electorate is the exiled community in India and Nepal, organized
according to the three regions that traditionally formed Tibet. The five
Buddhist schools also have their representatives, as do expatriates
living in Europe and North America. The complex overlapping of
constituencies does not make it any easier to determine quite what the
parliament stands for.

Unvoiced split

The root problem is the Tibetans' inability to institute proper
political debate. The parliament operates without parties. The draft
constitution does not condemn this. It simply does not refer to it,
despite reforms on the separation of executive, legislative and judicial
powers, voting rights, and the election of MPs and the prime minister by
universal suffrage. But setting up democratic institutions is not enough
to achieve democracy, particularly without parties to defend contrasting
political ideals or goals. It is immediately obvious that there is no
way of voicing the underlying split between advocates of independence,
and those in favor of self-government. At the last general election, in
exile, in March 2006, some MPs backed independence, but they have made
no attempt since to put their commitment into practice. Of course it is
difficult to oppose openly the views of the Dalai Lama.

There is little chance of political parties being formed in the near
future, even if an increasing number of MPs now support independence,
with talk of a pressure group on the sidelines of the parliament. The
present situation - the precarious condition of refugees, the limited
tolerance India can afford as their host, pressure from foreign
governments not to upset the status quo, and Chinese reprisals targeting
Tibetans at home - leaves the pro-independence faction very little room
for manoeuver.

The country may be on the brink of an uprising but it lacks the
political direction without which the Lhasa spring will never bear
fruit. Current events must bring back memories to the Chinese president,
Hu Jintao, who was the Chinese Communist party leader in Tibet at the
time of the 1989 demonstrations. He ordered out the troops and imposed
martial law. He knows that a tremor on the roof of the world may be the
precursor of a quake in Tiananmen Square.

The troubles are in danger of spilling over into other regions with
separatist inclinations, particularly Xinjiang, with its Uighur
population, and Inner Mongolia. Beijing must decide how best to
reconcile its international image with measures to quell the domestic
unrest that threatens its stability.

Mathieu Vernerey is a journalist with Le Monde Diplomatique.

Translated by Harry Forster

This article also appears in the April edition of Le Monde Diplomatique,
whose English language edition can be found at The full
text appears by agreement with Le Monde Diplomatique. CounterPunch
features one or two articles from LMD every month.
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