Tibet is often called the “Roof of the World” because it is situated on a high plateau in the Himalaya mountain range at an altitude of 4500 metres. Chinese troops first entered Tibet in 1949. In March 1959, a popular uprising was brutally crushed. The Dalai Lama, Tibet’s spiritual and temporal leader, escaped into exile in India followed by more than 80,000 Tibetans. The exile community is now based in the North Indian town of Dharamsala where it is governed by an elected administration.
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The history of Tibet can be traced back to the early 7th century when the various tribes and clans living on the high plateau succeeded in uniting as a confederation. In AD 821, Tibet and China engraved their relationship into stone – a pillar which still stands today in the heart of Lhasa in front of the Jokhang Temple. It reads in part:
“Both Tibet and China shall keep the country and frontiers of which they are now possessed. The whole region to the East of that being the country of Great China and the whole region to the West being assuredly the country of Great Tibet, from either side there shall be no warfare, no hostile invasions, and no seizure of territory.”
China’s current claim to Tibetan territory is based on the fact that both countries were controlled by the Mongols in the 13th and 14th centuries, even though the Mongols controlled virtually all of Asia at various times. In fact, throughout the Mongol and Manchu rule, Tibet and China enjoyed various forms of “priest-patron” relations which ended formally when the Manchu dynasty came to an end and Tibet declared its independence in February1912.
From 1912 until Chinese troops entered the country in 1949, Tibet “governed itself without foreign influence, conducted its own foreign affairs, had its own army and operated its own postal system. Tibet enjoyed de facto recognition by its neighbor states as well as by Great Britain, with whom Tibet entered into a series of treaties regarding travel and trade”. The International Commission of Jurists concluded that Tibet had achieved “de facto independence and all of the requirements of de jure independence except formal international recognition”.
Tibet functioned as an independent but isolated state until Chinese troops entered the eastern province of Kham (ch. Sichuan) in 1949 just two years after India to the south had won its independence from Great Britain. Despite appeals to the United Nations, the international community which was pre-occupied with the situation in Korea, failed to act in defense of Tibet. With Chinese troops only 100 miles from Lhasa, the Tibetan government, headed by a 15 year old Dalai Lama, had little choice but to agree to send emissaries to Peking. Once there and prevented from contacting government authorities in Lhasa, the emissaries were coerced into signing the “Seventeen-Point Agreement” in 1951. The agreement formalized annexation of Tibet to China, ceding control of Tibet’s external affairs to China in exchange for guarantees that internal governance, cultural and religious systems and institutions would remain under Tibetan administration.
The guarantees of autonomy, however, quickly proved illusory. The Dalai Lama and his government were soon subordinated to the Military Control Committee of the People’s Liberation Army which systematically violated all provisions of the Seventeen Point Agreement. Between 1951 and 1959, the number of Chinese troops in Tibet increased steadily and eventually took full administrative control. In March 1959, the situation resulted in full-scale revolt which was brutally suppressed by Chinese forces resulting in the deaths of more than 10,000 people. The Dalai Lama, followed by some 80,000 of his countrymen, fled across the Himalayas and was given sanctuary by the Government of India. Once in India, the exiled administration repudiated the Seventeen Point Agreement stating that it had been signed under duress and while Chinese troops occupied much of its territory.
The United Nations General Assembly subsequently adopted three resolutions in support of Tibet citing various violations to the fundamental rights and freedoms of the Tibetan people, including their right to self-determination. Since 1959, hundreds of thousands of Tibetans have died as a result of the Chinese occupation, either through harsh prison conditions, summary execution or starvation. Today, the human rights situation continues to deteriorate.
The Dalai Lama’s Peace Proposal: A Middle Way Solution
In India, the Dalai Lama established his government in exile, guided the settlement of more than 100,000 refugees and initiated cultural preservation programs. He began his lifelong campaign for a peaceful resolution of the conflict in Tibet and the promotion of his doctrine of compassion and “universal responsibility”. For his efforts, the Dalai Lama has received several international peace awards including the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989.
On September 21, 1987, speaking to the US Congress, the Dalai Lama launched his Five Point Peace Plan for Tibet. The central elements of the plan were the transformation of Tibet into a zone of peace; abandonment of China's population transfer policy; respect for the fundamental human rights and democratic freedoms of the Tibetan people; restoration and protection of Tibet's natural environment; the commencement of earnest negotiations on the future status of Tibet. In October 1990, the Dalai Lama presented the Five Point Peace Plan in the Parliament of Canada where it was tabled during a hearing on the situation in Tibet at the Standing Committee on External Relations.
On June 15, 1988, at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, the Dalai Lama elaborated on the Five Point Peace Plan and presented the Strasbourg Proposal in which he suggested that China could maintain responsibility for Tibet's foreign policy and a restricted number of military installations in Tibet for defense purposes. The proposal received mixed support within the Tibetan diaspora. Ultimately, the Tibetan administration held a referendum to determine the will of the people. The outcome of the referendum indicated strong support (64%) for the Dalai Lama to use his discretion in determining a strategy for resolution of the Tibetan issue. The referendum results were later endorsed by the exile parliament in a unanimous resolution passed in September 1997.
The Dalai Lama has since promoted his “Middle Way Approach”, articulated in the Strasbourg Proposal, as the best means to achieve genuine autonomy for the Tibetan people, while ensuring the unity and political stability of China. His position is endorsed and promoted by the current Tibetan administration headed by Sikyong Dr. Lobsang Sangay.
In 2002, representatives of the Dalai Lama traveled to China and Tibet and re-established contact with the Chinese leadership for the first time since 1993. The delegation, headed by the Dalai Lama’s special envoys, arrived in China on September 9, 2002 and was officially received by government representatives of the United Work Front. Nine subsequent rounds of talks took place until negotiations broke down in the wake of widespread protests in Tibet in 2008. In 2012, the Dalai Lama’s Special Envoys resigned their posts citing lack of progress and a sharp divide with their Chinese counterparts, particularly over the issues of autonomy and migration policy in Tibetan areas.
The myth of autonomy in Tibet today
Interestingly, the Seventeen Point Agreement was the first effort by the People’s Republic of China to develop and adopt an autonomy arrangement for ethnic minorities. It included the provision not to “alter the existing political system in Tibet…or the established status, functions and powers of the Dalai Lama” although China never honored those commitments.
Today, the status of Tibet as an autonomous region within China is protected by national level legislation entitled the “Law on Regional Ethnic Autonomy” (LREA) recently revised in 2001. The Law is designed to implement the system of regional autonomy based on Constitutional provisions which allow for the creation of administrative regions having their own governance systems. The Law includes the right to enjoy self-government, to manage internal affairs, to formulate separate regulations, to protect language and religious freedoms, and to independently manage economic development. Theoretically it enables autonomous areas, including Tibet, to enact local legislation and to modify state laws and policies in the interests of local priorities and needs. However, in practice these rights are not used, possibly because they must be approved by State ministries (effectively a veto) and because no actions are permitted if they are seen to “oppose the Constitution” or “harm the State”.
Far from enjoying regional autonomy, the Tibetan people suffer under a myriad of discriminatory policies that have contributed to political, social and economic exclusion. China continues to escalate its response to the self-immolations with an aggressive strategy to stop information reaching the outside world. On January 31, 2013, a court in Sichuan found two Tibetans guilty of "intentional homicide". The court issued a death sentence, suspended for two years, to 40 year-old Lobsang Konchok, and it sentenced his 31 year-old nephew Lobsang Tsering to ten years in prison. According to China’s state media, the men had confessed to "recording details of the protesters, gathered photographs and passed them on to exile groups in India". On 7 February 2013 authorities announced that they had detained another 70 Tibetans for similar offences.
Map: Historical Tibet
This map shows the three traditional provinces of Tibet prior to 1951, and how they have been divided
by the provincial boundaries of the People’s Republic of China: Amdo (most of Qinghai and portions of Gansu and Sichuan), Kham (portions of Sichuan, Yunnan, Qinghai and the Tibet Autonomous Region), and U-Tsang (most of the Tibet Autonomous Region).
Source: Central Tibetan Administration, http://www.tibet.com/glance.html
The impact on Tibet’s cultural traditions
Even today, China sees Tibetan religion and culture as a threat to its authority. In 1994 and 2001, China called for an array of measures to wipe out any vestige of Tibetan religion. This includes the selection by Beijing of reincarnated Tibetan lamas (monks) including the Panchen Lama, the second highest religious figure in Tibetan Buddhism. The boy recognized by the Dalai Lama as the Panchen Lama has been missing, along with his family, since 1995.
Forced to denounce the Dalai Lama, Tibetans must pledge their allegiance to the Chinese government. Failure to do so can result in imprisonment or other forms of punishment. Under the guise of economic development, Beijing encourages the migration of Chinese to Tibet. As a result, Tibetans are now vastly outnumbered by Chinese migrants who receive preferential treatment in education, jobs and private enterprises.
The occupation of Tibet has seen use the Tibetan language surpassed by Chinese. Local government policy is making the language redundant. Tibet’s education system is geared to the needs of Chinese-speakers, with Tibetans suffering from prohibitive and discriminatory fees and inadequate facilities in rural areas. The deprivation of education has forced an estimated 10,000 Tibetan children and youths to escape to India for better educational opportunities.
For More Information
- Backgrounder: The Seventeen Point Agreement, Canada Tibet Committee, 1994
- The Dalai Lama’s Five Point Peace Plan, 1987
- The Dalai Lama’s Strasbourg Proposal, 1988
- Tibet: Human Rights and the Rule of Law, International Commission of Jurists, Geneva, 1997
Book available for download at: http://books.google.ca/books/about/Tibet.html?id=RG8qAQAAMAAJ&redir_esc=y
- Occupied Tibet: The Case in International Law, Eva Herzer, Tibet Justice Center, 2002
- The Middle Way Policy and All Recent Related Documents, Department of Information and International Relations, Central Tibetan Administration, India, 2010
The Central Tibetan Administration website: www.tibet.net
Frequently Asked Questions about Tibet-China Relations
1. What is meant by ‘Greater Tibet’?
His Holiness the Dalai Lama has never used the term ‘Greater Tibet’ either verbally or in a written document. It was coined by the People's Republic of China after 1979 to describe areas inhabited by Tibetan people. These areas currently include the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR), ten Tibetan autonomous prefectures (TAP) and two Tibetan autonomous counties (TAC). Currently, approximately two million Tibetans live in the TAR whereas approximately four million live in the ten TAPs and two TACs in the neighbouring four Chinese provinces.
2. How are the Tibetan autonomous areas currently administered by the PRC?
The autonomous areas were founded under the Regional Ethnic Autonomy Law (passed on 31st May 1984 by the 6th National People's Congress and put into effect on 1st October 1984) which states that the Chinese Government has an obligation to ‘respect and protect the right of every minority nationality to manage their own internal affairs’. This is understood to mean that policies made in Beijing may be adapted for implementation in autonomous. China’s Constitution also stipulates that local leadership should include a citizen or citizens of the nationality of that region. In practice, however, autonomy is only theoretical. No autonomous area is expected or permitted to define its own policies. Even when local administration is held by Tibetans, the Central Government has, effectively, a veto on all decisions.
3. Why has so little progress resulted from the formal dialogue meetings between the Central Tibetan Administration and the Chinese Government since contact between the two sides restarted in 2002?
His Holiness the Dalai Lama has stated that the Chinese Government continually insists that there is no Tibet problem, only a Dalai Lama problem. The Dalai Lama affirms he has no demands of his own but his primary concern is for Tibetans and their culture, religion and natural environment. Once the Chinese leaders acknowledge that there is a ‘Tibet question’ and indicate readiness to work for its solution, renewed negotiations may yield better results. The negotiation process has been stalled since January 2010 when the ninth and final round of talks took place immediately following China’s 5th Tibet Work Forum.
4. Is HH the Dalai Lama seeking a political role within Tibet?
His Holiness the Dalai Lama has said repeatedly that he is not seeking and would not accept such any political role in future Tibet. In its ‘Memorandum on Genuine Autonomy for the Tibetan People’, the Central Tibetan Administration reaffirms this principle as follows: The objective of the Tibetan Government in Exile is to represent the interests of the Tibetan people and to speak on their behalf. Therefore, it will no longer be needed and will be dissolved once an agreement is reached between us. In fact, His Holiness has reiterated his decision not to accept any political office in Tibet at any time in the future. His Holiness the Dalai Lama, nevertheless, plans to use all his personal influence to ensure such an agreement would have the legitimacy necessary to obtain the support of the Tibetan people (Section V11).
5. Is HH the Dalai Lama asking for the removal of non-Tibetans from Tibet?
The Memorandum clearly states (Section IV, para 11) that it is not the intention of the Central Tibetan Administration to expel non-Tibetans who have permanently settled in Tibet and have lived there for a considerable time. Their primary concern is China’s policy of encouraging mass in-migration of primarily Han Chinese which contributes to the marginalisation of the Tibetan population. Tibetans have not, and do not, claim that Tibet should be occupied by Tibetans to the exclusion of all other nationalities.
6. Is HH the Dalai Lama asking for the removal of Chinese military from Tibetan areas?
His Holiness the Dalai Lama has repeatedly made it clear that Tibet’s external affairs and defence would fall under the exclusive authority of the central government. In matters of internal public security, the Constitution of the PRC (Article 120) and the Law of Regional National Autonomy, LRNA, (Article 24) both recognise the importance of local involvement and authorise autonomous areas to organise their security within ‘the military system of the State…..with the approval of the State Council’.
7. Why do HH the Dalai Lama and the Central Tibetan Administration talk about cultural and environmental destruction in Tibet but not mention the enormous increase in wealth and infrastructure in Tibet?
Although China has developed Tibet, urban Tibetans only benefit marginally and rural Tibetans hardly benefit at all. It is the Chinese settlers who are the main beneficiaries of the new wealth. Tibetans, often without Chinese language skills and connections, are increasingly marginalized in their own homeland. China’s own statistics show Tibet’s per capita income falls below that of all Chinese provinces, and vast areas of rural Tibet lack basic health care and education. It is true that China is spending huge amounts of money on infrastructure but this is predominantly to secure control, mobilise the military, and export resources. The new railway to Lhasa, for example, has cost Beijing more than its investment in healthcare and education for Tibetans in the 50 years it has occupied Tibet.
8. Why shouldn’t the Chinese just wait for HH the Dalai Lama to pass away? Won’t the Tibetan movement then become much weaker and less significant?
His Holiness the Dalai Lama believes that even after his death the Tibetan exile set-up will continue to make progress. In the political field His Holiness the Dalai Lama has devolved political power to an elected administration headed by a political leader, Sikyong Dr. Lobsang Sangay. This system of democratic governance for the diaspora community will continue into the future and it will continue to advocate for greater freedom and genuine autonomy in Tibet.
9. Why doesn’t HH the Dalai Lama just agree to go back to Tibet without preconditions?
Although China’s official policy on the possible return of His Holiness the Dalai Lama to Tibet states that he would be welcome, the government’s public rhetoric has been far from clear. The stated conditions for his return, on which the Chinese will not compromise, are that the Dalai Lama renounces any claim for independence and that he defends ‘unity of the motherland’. His Holiness has consistently said that the question of his return is not a matter of his personal gain or status, as the Chinese authorities maintain, but of reaching a political solution for the Tibetan people. Without reaching such a political solution before his return, further unrest could result.
For More Information: