The lost hope of Tibet
The community in exile hope for and dream of being able to claim back the land of their ancestry.
- Total Shares
The world is happy to speak in two tongues
– Tibetan for Culture and Chinese for Economy
The period March 10 to March 17 holds a special place in the hearts and minds of Tibetans spread across the four corners of the earth. 56 years ago, these eight days sealed the fate of a land, the size of Western Europe, situated on the world’s highest plateau. It was during these days of March 1959 that the People’s Republic of China forcefully and fully seized control of Tibet, which till then had managed to enjoy a semi-independent political existence, under the stewardship of the Dalai Lama.
Today’s Tibet is a far cry from what the Dalai Lama ruled. The population of six million Tibetans stayed more or less stagnant but Tibet under the Dalai Lama has been split up between various other regions of China. The Tibet Autonomous Region or TAR is about one-third of what the traditional boundaries of Tibet enclosed. Rail and road connectivity has changed the face of the region. Chinese of other ethnicity today outnumber Tibetans in Tibet. Yet the approximately hundred thousand Tibetans in exile hold on to what seems a misplaced hope of being able to dislodge China from the Tibetan plateau. The Nobel laureate Dalai Lama is feted across the world and is seen as a champion of peace – a claim the Chinese vehemently decry. The Western democracies and India make all the necessary sympathetic sounds to the Tibetan clamour for independence but none dare step too hard on the "dragon’s" tail. The world well knows, which side is buttered, of the global economic toast.
The trauma of Tibet began to take shape in 1950, when Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet, was all of 15 years old and still under the tutelage of the Regency, which ruled in his name. In October that year, 80,000 soldiers of the PLA marched into Tibet and declared it to be part of China. Within a month the Dalai Lama’s Regents declared the young Tenzin as the head of the government of Tibet – three years before time.
By 1951 the Chinese army were camped in Lhasa and a treaty had been signed which proclaimed that Tibet was a national autonomous region to be ruled by a Chinese commission with the Dalai Lama as a figurehead ruler. Slowly over the next few years China tightened its grip over Tibet and resistance to its rule began to spread. The young Dalai Lama or his representatives met Chinese leaders to try and sort out the issue but no compromise was ever reached and by March 1959 the situation had turned volatile.
On March 10 the PLA opened fire in the streets of Lhasa and on March 17 it started firing mortars aimed at the Dalai Lama’s official residence – The Potala Palace. After hours of indecision, on the suggestions of his advisers, the Dalai Lama fled Lhasa disguised as an ordinary Tibetan soldier. For the next 13 days he and his small entourage fled toward India pursued by the Chinese army. In India, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru granted him political asylum and India allowed him to settle in an area above the hill station of Dharamshala in Himachal Pradesh. The place – Mcleodgunj, is world renowned today as the seat of the Dalai Lama in exile.
Thousands fled Tibet and followed their leader into exile. As per estimates close to 80,000 found refuge in India alone. Refugee Tibetan settlements spread to different corners of India... and even today, 56 years after the original crossing a trickle of Tibetans still cross the border and find refuge in the proximity of a person they revere and hold true as the spiritual and political leader of their nation. Tibetan exiles also spread to the Western world and there they found champions to their cause, citizens and celebrities who spoke out against China. All over the world a mere handful of Tibetans managed to keep alive their demand for a settlement with the People’s Republic of China... some who compromised to the idea of a Tibet under PRC and others who still feel that the time will come when true independence will become a reality. The world lapped up the exotic culture of Tibet with passion even as the political destiny of the Tibetan highlands remained well entrenched in Chinese hands. The People’s Republic of China and its economic prowess effectively managing to scuttle all voices of dissent – external as well as internal.
While more than half a century of acrimony may have obfuscated the truth of the Tibet situation, historically monarchies in Peking and Lhasa, at different times, had exercised political power over each other. But on what ground does modern China claim suzerainty over Tibet and why do the Tibetans challenge it? Some major events of the last century shed some light on basis for the counter claims:
1. 1912: Tibetan government orders expulsion of all Chinese in Tibet. The last one leaves in January 1913.
2. 1913: The 13th Dalai Lama and the Tibetan National Assembly proclaims Tibet's independence. Peking withholds recognition.
3. 1914: Great Britain played arbitrator, both parties invited to Shimla where the Simla Convention is initialled; London recognises Peking's "suzerainty" over Tibet, not sovereignty. Tibet partitioned. China undertakes not to interfere in "Outer Tibet". Chinese government does not ratify the treaty.
4. 1942: Lhasa sets up a Foreign Affairs Bureau.
5. October 1, 1949: Mao-Tse Tung proclaims the People's Republic of China.
6. October 7, 1950: Chinese PLA soldiers invade Tibet.
7. May 23, 1951: Signature in Peking of 17-Point Agreement, to enshrine the integration of Tibet with China. China undertakes to respect Tibet's extensive autonomy.
8. October 26, 1951: Chinese army enters Lhasa.
9. March 10-17, 1959: A Tibetan uprising in Lhasa against the Chinese is brutally put down, thousands of Tibetans are killed. The Dalai Lama flees into exile. Thousands of Tibetans jailed.
10. September 1, 1965: Peking proclaims the creation of "Tibet Autonomous Region". At least half of Tibet's ethnic area is annexed to the neighbouring Chinese provinces.
11. August 1966: The Cultural Revolution comes to Lhasa. Temples and monasteries that were still standing are looted and razed. Thousands of Tibetans, lay and ordained, persecuted and sent to labour camps.
The Tibetan community in exile – in India primarily or across Western democracies – hope for and dream of being able to claim back the land of their ancestry. But the reality is that for a vast majority of the hundred thousand Tibetans in exile, their pride remains curbed, because they have to carry identification documents which state that they are a people without a country... they are the refugees of the world.
For the time being all they can do is to keep the world politically aware of Tibet and to ensure that at least the culture of the land survives in exile. Their fervent hope being that March 10, 1959 - the day Tibet rose against China, is not forgotten by the world. The world of course is more than happy to carry on with the status quo – Tibetan culture to imbibe and Chinese produce to sustain economies.