“These 50 years have brought untold suffering and destruction to the land and people of Tibet. Today, the religion, culture, language and identity … are nearing extinction; in short, the Tibetan people are regarded like criminals deserving to be put to death … However, the fact that the Tibet issue is alive and the international community is taking growing interest in it is indeed an achievement. I have no doubt that the justice of Tibet’s cause will prevail, if we continue to tread the path of truth and nonviolence.” – The 14th Dalai Lama, 2009.
Tibet is a region on the Tibetan Plateau in Asia, spanning about 2.4 million km2 – nearly a quarter of China’s territory. It is the traditional homeland of the Tibetan people as well as some other ethnic groups. Tibet is the highest region on Earth, with an average elevation of 4,900 metres. The highest elevation in Tibet is Mount Everest, Earth’s highest mountain, rising 8,848m above sea level.
Tibet has been occupied and ruled by China since 1951 in “a calculated and systematic strategy aimed at the destruction of their national and cultural identities.” This has often been described by the Tibetan people and third party commentators as “a cultural genocide”. The unsuccessful Tibetan Uprising of 1959, in which Tibetans rebelled in an attempt to overthrow the Chinese government, led to the fleeing of the 14th Dalai Lama to India. He has lived in exile ever since. A few hundred Tibetans initially followed the 14th Dalai Lama into exile, and since then hundreds of thousands have followed.
When one talks about the conflict between Tibet and China, one talks about the Tibetan sovereignty debate. This is essentially either of two complex and contentious political debates.
- The first is over whether Tibet should separate from China and become a new sovereign state.
- The second is over whether Tibet was independent or subordinate to China in certain parts of its recent history.
A more detailed history of Chinese-Tibetan relations is presented below.
The Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama
The Dalai Lama is essentially the political and spiritual leader of the Tibetan people. Dalai Lama is also an important figure beyond sectarian boundaries. He is a symbol of the unification of the state of Tibet and is an international advocate for Buddhist values and traditions.
Each Dalai Lama is considered a manifestation of the Bodhisattva (Buddha) of Compassion. They are believed to have postponed their “nirvana” & chosen to be rebirthed in the service of humanity.
The next most important figure in Tibetan Buddhism is the Panchen Lama. The Dalai Lama is traditionally involved in recognising the Panchen Lama, and the Panchen Lama is part of the process by which each new Dalai Lama is chosen.
The 14th Dalai Lama is the current Tibetan leader in a line that stretches back to the 1300s. He is one of the most recognised faces in the world and is also a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize.
After the death of the 10th Panchen Lama, Gedhun Choekyi Nyima was announced by the 14th Dalai Lama as the 11th Panchen Lama. However, only three days after the announcement, Chinese authorities kidnapped the 6-year-old child and his family and instead installed another boy, Gyaincain Norbu, in his place as the 11th Panchen Lama.
Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, the original 11th Panchen Lama, has not been seen in public since 17 May 1995.
1935 – The man who will later become the 14th Dalai Lama is born to a peasant family in a small village in Tibet.
1949 – Mao Zedong proclaims the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), a communist state born out of a brutal and bloody civil war. Zedong threatens Tibet with “liberation”.
1950 – The Dalai Lama, now aged 15, officially becomes head of state.
1951 – Tibetan leaders are forced to sign a treaty dictated by China. The treaty, known as the “Seventeen Point Agreement”, professes to guarantee Tibetan autonomy and to respect the Buddhist religion but also allows the establishment of Chinese civil and military headquarters at Lhasa (Tibet’s capital). The Chinese government regards the Seventeen Point Agreement as a legal contract that was mutually welcomed by both governments and by the Tibetan people. However, the Tibetan people – including the 14th Dalai Lama – consider it invalid and as having been signed under duress.
The Seventeen Point Agreement and its interpretation is one of the central themes of the Tibet-China debate. The Agreement can be read here.
1950s– Gradually mounting resentment against Chinese rule leads to outbreaks of armed resistance.
1959 Tibetan uprising & its aftermath
1959 – Full-scale uprising breaks out in Lhasa. Tens of thousands die when the Chinese brutally suppress resistance.
The 14th Dalai Lama and most of his ministers flee to India; some 80,000 Tibetans follow him. India houses more than 150,000 Tibetan refugees to this day.
The anniversary of the Uprising is celebrated as “Tibetan Uprising Day” by Tibetan exiles around the world. The day is marked by protest marches and vigils to spread awareness about the Chinese occupation and the human rights violations subjected on the Tibetan people.
However, the Chinese government observes the anniversary of the Uprising’s end as “Serfs Emancipation Day”. This is a product of Chinese claims of moral authority for governing Tibet, based on narratives that portray Tibet as a “feudal serfdom” and a “hell on earth” prior to the Chinese invasion.
1965 – Chinese government establishes Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR). The TAR is essentially the area of Tibet within the People’s Republic of China. It is the second-largest and least densely populated provincial-level division of China.
1966 – Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution reaches Tibet and results in the destruction of a large number of monasteries and cultural artefacts. A sociopolitical movement set into motion by Mao Zedong, the Cultural Revolution’s stated goal was to preserve communist ideology in the country by purging remnants of capitalist and traditional elements and to re-impose Maoist thought as the dominant ideology. The movement paralysed China politically and negatively affected the country’s economy and society to a significant degree.
This “most severe setback and the heaviest losses suffered by the Party, the country, and the people since the founding of the People’s Republic” particularly affected Tibet, where resentment against the Chinese remained high. The years of the Cultural Revolution inflict heavy casualties on Tibet. During these 10 years, 1.2 million Tibetans are worked, starved or beaten to death. Parents were forced to bury their children alive for any act of disobedience, dissidents were doused in excrement and urine and set alight or had their nose or an ear cut off. The Cultural Revolution was one of the bloodiest chapters in world history, let alone Chinese history, and cemented a bloodstained divide between the Tibetan people and the Chinese.
1987 – The 14th Dalai Lama calls for the establishment of Tibet as a zone of peace and continues to seek dialogue with China, with the aim of achieving genuine self-rule for Tibet within China.
1988 – China imposes martial law after riots break out.
1989 – The 14th Dalai Lama is awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace.
1993 – Talks between China and the Dalai Lama break down.
The controversy surrounding the 11th Panchen Lama
“Once His Holiness is gone, then, even if the Chinese government or representatives of Chinese government, if they want to engage in a dialogue – it’s going to be really hard to identify who to do it with.” – Kaydor Aukatsang, Representative of the Dalai Lama to North America, 2016.
As mentioned earlier, the Dalai Lama named a six-year-old boy, Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, as the true reincarnation of the Panchen Lama, the second-most important figure in Tibetan Buddhism. Three days after the announcement, the Chinese authorities place the boy under house arrest and designated another six-year-old boy, Gyaincain Norbu, as their officially sanctioned Panchen Lama.
The move was condemned by the Tibetan people, the Dalai Lama, the United Nations, and various human rights groups. The Dalai Lama-designated six-year-old boy has not been seen since 1995. Tibetan exiles lament that he is the world’s youngest political prisoner – that is if he still alive.
This put a new dilemma in front of the Tibetan people. The Chinese have appointed their own candidate as the 11th Panchen Lama. This move has been decried as illegitimate by the 14th Dalai Lama.
The catch is this: the 11th Panchen Lama – whoever he is – will have a powerful role in the selection of the 15th Dalai Lama – whoever he is. With the current Dalai Lama ageing (he is 81), there arises the possibility of two power centres in Tibetan Buddhism – one in exile, and one in Tibet. This would seriously affect the Tibetan independence movement and seriously divide the Tibetan people as well.
2007 – The Dalai Lama hints at a break with the centuries-old tradition of selecting his successor, saying the Tibetan people should have a role in the process. He voices support for Tibet’s political leadership to be democratically elected.
2008 – Anti-China protests escalate into the worst violence Tibet has seen in 20 years, five months before Beijing hosts the Olympic Games. Pro-Tibet activists in several countries focus world attention on the region by disrupting progress of the Olympic torch relay.
In response to the Chinese government’s response, the 14th Dalai Lama says he has lost hope of reaching an agreement with China about the future of Tibet. He suggests that his government-in-exile could now harden its position towards China.
Human rights violations in Tibet
“Chinese authorities have responded to [demonstrations by Tibetans] with measures that tighten already strict controls on freedoms of religion, expression, assembly and association of Tibetans. Official rhetoric that denigrates the Tibetan language, the Dalai Lama, and those who have self-immolated has further exacerbated tensions … We call on the Chinese government to permit Tibetans to express their grievances freely, publicly, peacefully, and without fear of retribution … We call on China’s leaders to allow journalists, diplomats and other observers unrestricted access to China’s Tibetan areas. We call on the Chinese government to engage in dialogue with the Dalai Lama or his representatives without preconditions.” – Maria Otero, US Special Coordinator for Tibetan Issues, 2012.
Tibet has internationally been recognised as one of the most unstable regions in the world, constantly featuring among the top targets of human rights violations.
Tibet was invaded by 35,000 Chinese troops who systematically raped, tortured and murdered an estimated as many as 1.2 million Tibetans – one-fifth of the country’s population. Since then, over 6000 monasteries have been destroyed and thousands of Tibetans have been imprisoned.
According to different sources, it is estimated that up to 260,000 people died in prisons and labor camps between 1950 and 1984. 34.4% of Tibetans in farming and pastoral areas of Tibet are still stuck below poverty line. What is more, the region accounts for the highest poverty rate in China. It is estimated that there up to twenty million Chinese citizens working in prison camps.
Hundreds of Tibetans have set themselves on fire to protest Chinese rule since 2009, with more than 100 dying from their injuries. The numbers are murky due to the absence of official records and the suppression of free press in communist China. However, reliable records show that between 1949 and 1979 the following atrocities occurred:
- 173,221 Tibetans died after being tortured in prison,
- 156,758 Tibetans were executed by the Chinese,
- 432,705 Tibetans were killed while fighting Chinese occupation,
- 342,970 Tibetans have starved to death,
- 92,731 Tibetans were publicly tortured to death,
- 9,002 Tibetans committed suicide.
One can only imagine what the actual numbers were for this period, and what the numbers were for the years since 1979.
In Tibet today, there is no freedom of speech, religion, or press and arbitrary detainments continue. The 14th Dalai Lama, who fled to India in 1959, now lives among over 100,000 other Tibetan refugees and their government in exile. Forced abortion, sterilisation of Tibetan women, and the transfer of low-income Chinese citizens threaten the survival of Tibetan culture. In some Tibetan provinces, Chinese settlers outnumber Tibetans 7 to 1.
The Chinese government has never made a formal apology for their atrocities in Tibet. Within China itself, massive human rights abuses continue.
The India connection
“I am living in India for the past 58 years and hence, I am a son of India .. In the field of secularism there is no other country like India. When I was in Tibet my thoughts were narrow. But when I moved out of my homeland and came to India, I developed a broader thought about Tibet as well as about the entire world.” – The 14th Dalai Lama, 2017.
Tibet has always been a thorn in the side of Sino-Indian relations. India’s harbouring of the Dalai Lama and more than 150,000 Tibetan refugees has always evoked an angry response from China.
Former Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru agreed to provide all assistance to the Tibetan refugees to settle in India until their eventual return. The Tibetan diaspora maintains a government in exile in Himachal Pradesh, which coordinates political activities for Tibetans in India. The Tibetan government-in-exile functions from McLeod Ganj, a suburb of Dharamsala.
In 1960, the Government of Mysore (Karnataka) allotted nearly 3,000 acres of land for the first ever Tibetan exile settlement, Lugsung Samdupling. A few years later, many more settlements came into being in Karnataka, making it the state with the largest Tibetan refugee population. Other Indian states have also provided land for Tibetan refugees.
The Government of India has built special schools for Tibetans that provide free education, health care, and scholarships. There are a few medical and civil engineering seats reserved for Tibetans. Tibetans live in India with a stay permit which is processed through a document called Registration Certificate (RC). It is renewed every year or half-year in some areas.
While India’s role in the rehabilitation of Tibetan refugees has been criticised by China, it has drawn praise from international bodies and human rights groups.
A detailed analysis of international resolutions and recognition of Tibet can be read here.
What lies in the future for Tibet?
“Any relationship between Tibet and China will have to be based on the principle of equality, respect, trust and mutual benefit.” – The 14th Dalai Lama, 1989.
The future course of Tibet-China relations is directly linked to three factors:
- China’s response to the continuing human rights violations in Tibet;
- The status of the Dalai Lama and the over 150,000 Tibetan refugees around the world;
- The controversy of the 11th Panchen Lama.
As things stand, if there will be a 15th Dalai Lama he could very well be chosen by the Chinese government-installed 10th Panchen Lama. This would mean that the Chinese government will have a stranglehold on Tibetan Buddhism and play the next Dalai Lama as a puppet.
On the other hand, the 14th Dalai Lama has indicated that he might be the last one. He wants the process to be democratised; he wants the Tibetan people to elect their next leader. By doing this, the Dalai Lama hopes to limit the role of the Beijing-controlled Panchen Lama. But there is a risk to this method as well – Tibet is under control of communist China, and communist China is not known for fair and free elections.
Either way, the Tibetan people continue to suffer human rights abuses every day in Tibet. Meanwhile, the thousands of Tibetans living outside their homeland continue to dream of a day when they could return to a Tibet free of strife and conflict, let alone a free Tibet.