The origins of Tibetans and the first kings
Amongst some interesting theories about the origins of Tibetans, the most striking one is that they may owe their origins to a group of Turkish tribesmen who are thought to have escaped from western Asia around 150 BC after a defeat by the fierce Hun people. There’s a certain link between Tibetans and Central Asian Turks, especially Tangut Turks and Monghols whom they shared borders for a long time. But there’s not much information about Tibetan history prior to arrival of Buddhism and the King Songsten Gampo, as those years are thought as dark ages.
The very first kings of Tibet lived in the southern province of Yarlung, on the border with Bhutan and they’re called Yarlung kings. But the most remarkable king was Songsten Gampo (630-649 AD) who reigned for 19 years. He was not only a warrior but also a good ruler and a learned man. He moved his capital from Yarlung to Lhasa and built a fort where the great Potala Palace stands today. He sent his minister Thonmi Sambhota and sixteen students to India to study Buddhist texts. Thonmi Sambhota is thought to be the person who derived Tibetan script from Sanskrit and Kashmiri scripts. But there’s another theory that Tibetan script is based on and developed from Ma-yig script of Khotan in east Turkestan, which existed before Songsten Gampo.
Successors of Songsten Gampo continued expansion of Tibetan Empire and supported Buddhism. Tibetan armies fought with Chinese on their eastern frontier. They became so powerful that they even forced the Chinese to pay them yearly tax of 50,000 rolls of silk. When Chinese emperor Wang Peng Wang refused to pay in 763 Tibetan king of that time, Tresong Detsun invaded Chinese capital of Chang’an. In 783 a peace treaty was agreed between Tibet and China. The treaty still exists today written on a stone pillar in Lhasa.
The decline of Tibet in terms of power started with the clashes between Bon religion (original religion of Tibet like shamanism) supporters, mostly royal family and relatives and the supporters of newly adopted Buddhism. The most remarkable king who ruled Tibet between 797-804 Muni Tsenpo was the greatest reformer and attempted to transfer money from rich to poor not even sparing the royal family. His attempts at equality aroused great opposition among the nobles and further divided the Tibetans. He was poisoned by his own mother in order to avoid more violence that his reforms were causing.
Muni Tsenpo’s grandson King Ralpachen is also remembered with affection by Tibetans. He encouraged Buddhism by founding temples and monasteries. He was assassinated by someone from anti-Buddhist party. Unfortunately Ralpachen did not have an heir and reign passed to his brother, Lang Darma who was a supporter of Bon religion. This period was a big set back for the development of Buddhism in Tibet. A Buddhist monk called Lhalung Pelgye Dorjee who invented the Black Hat Dance to perform the murder, himself assassinated Lang Darma.
For four hundred years after the death of the last king, Lang darma in 843, Tibet was divided into many little states and a chief or a lama ruled each. The only thing uniting the country during these years was the spread of Buddhism. As a result monasteries became very powerful and began to acquire wealth and land and the head lama might well rule over much of the surrounding countryside. When a chief died, his widow or daughter would sometimes rule the little kingdom with vigour and wisdom. Women in Tibet have always had a share in the control of their country.
During the 12th and 13th centuries the priests of the Buddhism in its Lamaistic form were steadily extending their influence among people always prone to believe in spirits and mysticism. When the invasions of Jenghis Khan and the rumours that nothing survived that lay in the path of the Mongol hordes were heard, Tibetan chieftains and lamas held a meeting in Lhasa and agreed to pay a tribute to Jenghis Khan to prevent him to attack Tibet. Mongol emperor agreed and Tibet was saved from his ferocious armies. After the death of Jenghis Khan, Tibet stopped paying the tribute, which annoyed his grandson, Prince Godan. But Prince was not just a harsh warrior and was greatly interested in Buddhism and he ordered a lama to go to Mongolia to advise his ignorant people on how to conduct themselves morally and spiritually. Impressed Prince of the Sakya Lama’s teachings gave him the title of supreme ruler on his return to Tibet. The lama never returned back, he stayed in Mongolia and translated the Buddhist scriptures into Mongolian, which was not a written language at that time with his nephew Dogon Choegyal Phagpa. Phagpa used the authority to rule on his return to Tibet and this was the start of unique relationship between the Tibetan Lamas and the Mongol leaders. In 1270 Khublai Khan, the first Mongol Emperor of Chinese converted to Lamaism thus the power and prestige of Sakya Lamas increased.
King Chang-Chub Gyal-tsen, who inaugurated the Second Monarchy in Tibet, broke the power of Sakya. He continued to promote the religion but discarded many of the Chinese and Mongolian innovations introduced by the Sakya priest-kings. The Sakya Hierarchs had depended on the Mongol Emperors, but the new dynasty known as Sitya depended on China. The Sitya dynasty ruled in Tibet for three hundred years till 1635. The affinity between Mongolia and Tibet has always remained strong.
Birth and development of Buddhism in the 8th Century in Tibet
Tresong Detsun invited the great Indian teacher Shantirakshita - known to Tibetans as Khenchen Zhiwatso- to come and teach the Buddha’s doctrines throughout in his lands. At that time the Bon religion was still powerful in Tibet and Khenchen Zhiwatso decided that Tibetans were not ready yet to receive his teachings and went back to Nepal to send the great Tantric teacher Padmasambhava to teach in Tibet. Padmasambhava known as Lopon Rinpoche in Tibet was successful as he had gained enlightenment through Tantric path which is the short but much harder path and had so much experience and power over evil spirits whom Tibetans seem to believe very much. The very first monastery is founded in Samye. Samye monastery became the centre for translating sacred scriptures. Lopon Rinpoche travelled far and wide across Tibet to give his teachings but he did not destroy all the Tibetans’ old beliefs, rather adapted them to fit in with the Buddha’s teachings. That’s where the differences of Tibetan Buddhism come from.
Over the centuries, a number of different Buddhist sects grew up in Tibet. These sects have slightly different rules and teachings but they all follow the words of the Lord Buddha in their own way.
Indian teacher, Atisha who arrived in Tibet on one of the heroes of the Buddhist revival in western Tibet, Yeshe Od’s invitation taught monks to follow a purer and more disciplined path. His followers were called Kadampa. The ideas of Kadampa were later adopted by the Gelukpa sect. However, some monks chose not to follow Atisha and continued practising the older teachings of Lopon Rinpoche and were known as the Nyingmapa – Old believers, which is the oldest sect of Tibetan Buddhism.
Two of Atisha’s disciples deviated slightly from their master’s teachings and founded lineages of their own, which are known as Kargyupa and Sakyapa sects. Kargyupa was founded by a great translator called Marpa. One of his disciples was the much loved Milarepa, who was a great poet and his songs are still remembered and sang by nomads and farmers to this day.
The Sakya monastery was founded by a great scholar called Khon Konchog Gyalpo. It became famous for its purity and learning. Sakya Lamas ruled Tibet in the 13th and 14th centuries with the support of the Mongols.
The last and the largest sect, Gelukpa was founded by a great religious teacher called Tsong Khapa (1357-1419). Gelukpa means the “perfect virtue”. It was from this sect that the Dalai Lamas were to come. The biggest and most important Gelukpa monasteries are Sera and Drepung of which the replicas are built in India.
In 1788 Hindu Gurkhas attacked Tibet from Nepal unexpectedly. Manchu Emperor sent army to repel Gurkhas and also decided to increase his influence in Tibet. He made a suggestion for choosing the future Dalai Lamas and send a golden urn to Tibet to be used for this purpose. He decreed that Tibet’s communication with outside world should be controlled by China and foreigners prevented entering the country. But among these reforms only one was put in action, which was the isolation of Tibet from the rest of the world. In 1841 and 1855 Tibet had to deal with two more attacks from Dogras and Gurkhas but did not receive any military aid from China. So Tibet declared sovereignty in 1913. The “Patron” (China) could no longer protect his “Priest” (Tibet).
Dalai Lama – “Ocean of Wisdom” and the Structure of Government
The Dalai Lama is the supreme political and spiritual head of Tibet. His whole life is devoted to maintaining the Buddhist religion (he follows practices of all four sects) and serving his people. They are originated as the spiritual followers of Tsong Khapa –the founder of Gelukpa sect- first achieved their supreme position in Tibet in the time of the great Fifth Dalai Lama in the 17th century. In 1642, the Mongol Prince Gushri Khan, helped the Fifth Dalai Lama (1617-1682) to become the supreme political and spiritual ruler of Tibet. For the Dalai Lama is regarded by Tibetans as the human manifestation of Chenresig, Lord of Compassion. This gives him a god-like authority. Moreover, many Tibetans watch their ruler grow up from childhood, and therefore feel an added warmth and affection for him. Each one is an incarnation of his predecessor and is discovered, never elected or appointed.
Tashilhunpo Monastery was established in 1447 by Panchen Gedun Drup, retrospectively known as the First Dalai Lama. Successive abbots were given the name Panchen because of their scholarship. The fifth Dalai Lama gave his teacher, Panchen Lobsang Chokyi Gyaltsen (1570-1662), the ownership of the monastery and some additional estates. After that Panchen Lamas were selected on the basis of reincarnation, each successive Panchen Lama retaining ownership of the monastery and estates.
Contrary to Chinese Communist propaganda, the Panchen Lamas and other high lamas exercised authority only and were not involved in the political administration of any part of Tibet. After the invasion of Tibet the Chinese Communist government consistently tried to use the late Panchen Lama to legitimise its position and urged him to denounce, and take the place of, the Dalai Lama on a number of occasions. But the Panchen Lama refused to do so, and suffered many years of imprisonment and maltreatment as a result.
In theory, the Dalai Lama is the absolute ruler. In practice, he is bound by various checks, which make sure that he follows the traditions and customs of his country. As being both political and spiritual leader of Tibet, his civil service is divided into two branches - religious and lay. There were 300 specially trained monks in the monastic civil service known as Tsedrung, and an equal number of hereditary nobles in the lay civil service, known as Shodrung. Noble families were obliged to provide at least one boy for government service at little or no salary. The lay official below the Dalai Lama was the Prime Minister and the cabinet called Kashag, which was the most important ruling body in Tibet. After the Chinese invasion in 1959 the government formed itself in Dharamsala exactly in the same structure. There is no government representing the so-called Autonomous Tibet, which is the size of only one and a half of traditional Tibet today.
Below the Kashag came all the different offices, which dealt with the direct administration of the country, e.g. finance, foreign, military, treasury and district offices.
Tibet was divided into three great regions known as Doto (Kham), Dome (Amdo) and U-Tsang (central and western Tibet). Each of these regions was ruled by a provincial governor called Chikyab. The districts were administered by two officials called Dzongpons.
The present Dalai Lama had plans to reform the administration of the remote districts from Lhasa along with the land-owning system, but he was forced to flee his homeland before this could be carried out.
Two Rival Empires; British India and China
In the late 19th century, British power in India was advancing towards the great rock barrier of the Himalayas. To the north and east lay China, but Russian Empire also started creeping closer to Tibet’s borders from north-west. Although neither Russia nor Britain wished to take territory from Tibet, each was concerned that the other should not exert undue influence in Tibet itself.
Britain and Tibet had had their first contact in the second half of 18th century, between the third Panchen Lama and Warren Hastings-governor of India- and this had led to friendly exchanges. George Bogle who went to see the Panchen Lama in 1774 married Panchen Lama’s sister.
After a long quiet period between Britain and Tibet until 1876, Britain’s wish to visit Tibet was refused. By 1895 the Russians had reached the Pamirs, which caused a great concern for British. Tibet was the only buffer between Russian Empire and British India. After some attempts of negotiating with Tibet through Chinese, Britain government in India sent a mission to Tibet to deal with the Lhasa government directly. Purpose of the mission was two- fold: to agree to trade rights and to see what the Russians were up to in Tibet. Sikh and Gurkha troops commanded by British officers attacked Tibetan army, which was wiped out in a very short period of time. Colonel Francis Younghusband who could not find any high rank Tibetan officials to negotiate carried on moving towards Lhasa and camped just before Lhasa. (The first Europeans to visit the Holy City for more than a generation.) As a result 1904 Convention was settled outstanding disputes on the Indian Tibetan frontier, agreed to the opening of trade centres with residents British agents at Gyantse, Gartok and Yatung and contained a clause excluding any other foreign power from political influence in Tibet. The British were dealing with Tibet as a separate and independent state capable of making its own treaties, for the Convention made no mention of China at all.
However in 1907, the British signed a Convention with Russia in which they both agreed not to negotiate with Tibet except through China. (One explanation of this inconsistency on the part of the British may be that the 1904 treaty was made by the government in India, while the latter was negotiated by the government in London. Tibetans were not a party to 1907 one and they never felt themselves bound by it.)
British invasion caused confusion in Tibet and China panicked thinking of losing influence over Tibet and sent troops to Tibet and started negotiations with British over the trade agreements. Eastern border of Tibet became under Chinese control and in the face of the threat the Dalai Lama for the first time in Tibetan history appealed to the outside world for help against the Chinese. The protest made by British in Beijing did not stop the Chinese and in February 1910 the troops of General Chung Ying reached Lhasa. The Dalai Lama at that time escaped and took refuge in British India.
Historians have rightly seen the 1910 invasion as a turning point in the relationship between Tibet and China. Up until this time, when the Chinese had interfered in Tibetan affairs, they had not been openly opposed by the Tibetans. But the events of 1910 mark a completely break from this. The corruption of the court in Beijing and internal problems of China such as famine and political unrest led to revolution in China in 1911. That meant the end of Chinese interference in Tibet and 1912 all the Chinese troops were shipped back to China.
The conference at Simla was called by the British in 1913-at The Dalai Lama’s request- to try to settle the differences between Tibet and China once and for all. The role of the British was merely to act as mediators, for their particular interest was to encourage a peaceful agreement between the delegates, in order to ensure a stable northern border for their empire.
After lots of arguments the British persuaded the delegates of both sides to accept the idea of an autonomous Tibet under the over lordship of China. “Autonomy” meant in practise that neither China nor Britain would interfere with the administration of Tibet, nor send any troops into Tibet. Over the problem of the frontier, the British proposed the idea of “Outer” and “Inner” Tibet. Outer Tibet would consist of the huge area west of Yangtse river that had been governed independently by the Tibetans for centuries, thus will remain autonomous from the Chinese, but Inner Tibet would consist of the semi-independent border areas. Chinese officials could be appointed there, but the area was not to be converted into a Chinese province.
Neither China nor Tibet was completely happy with these proposals, but after six months of negotiations, both sides agreed to sign the agreement. When the news reached China the Chinese government refused to recognise it, but Britain and Tibet signed the agreement which reaffirmed Tibet’s position as an independent power capable of making her own treaties.
The Chinese Invasion
At the time of invasion by troops of the People’s Liberation Army of China in 1949, Tibet was an independent state in fact and at law. The military take over constituted an aggression a sovereign state and a violation of international law. Today’s continued occupation of Tibet by China, with the help of several hundred troops, represents an outgoing violation of international law and of the fundamental rights of the Tibetan people to independence.
The Chinese communist government claims it has a right to “ownership” of Tibet. It does not claim this right on the basis of its military conquest in 1949, or its alleged effective control over Tibet since 1959. They do not base their claim on the so-called “Seventeen-Point Agreement for the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet” which was forced upon Tibet in 1951. Chinese claim is based on historical relationships-primarily Mongol or Manchu rulers of China with Tibetan Lamas as we have looked at earlier under the titles of The Origins of Tibet and first kings and Gurkha Wars. However, there is no evidence of Chinese authority or influence in Tibet between 1911 and 1951 to support Chinese claim. The International Commission of Jurists’ Legal Enquiry Committee on Tibet reported in its study on Tibet’s legal status: “ Tibet demonstrated the conditions of statehood as generally accepted under international law from 1913 to 1950. In 1950 there was people and a territory, and a government, which functioned in that territory, conducting its own domestic affairs free from any outside authority. From 1913-1950 foreign relations of Tibet were conducted exclusively by the Government of Tibet, and countries with whom Tibet had foreign relations are shown by official documents to have treated Tibet in practice as an independent state.” [Tibet and Chinese People’s Republic, Geneva, 1960, p.5,6.]
The Status of Tibet between 1912-1951
The territory of Tibet largely corresponds to the geological plateau of Tibet, which consists of 2.5 million square km. At different times in history wars were fought and treaties were signed concerning the precise location of boundaries. The population of Tibet at the time of Chinese invasion was approximately six million. That population constituted the Tibetan people, a distinct people with a long history, rich culture and spiritual tradition. They are distinct from the Chinese and other neighbouring nations. Not only have the Tibetans never considered themselves to be Chinese, the Chinese have also not regarded the Tibetans to be Chinese (hence, for instance the references to “barbarians” in Chinese historical annals.
The government of Tibet was headquartered in Lhasa, the capital city of Tibet. It consisted of a Head of State (the Dalai Lama), the cabinet of ministers (the Kashag), a National Assembly (the Tsongdu) and an extensive bureaucracy to administer the vast territory of Tibet. The judicial system was based on that developed by Emperor Songsten Gampo (7th C.), Lama Changchub Gyaltsen (14th C.), the Fifth Dalai Lama (7th C.) and the thirteenth Dalai Lama (20th C.) and was administered by the magistrates appointed by the Government.
The international relations of Tibet were focused on the country’s neighbours. Tibet maintained diplomatic, economic and cultural relations with countries such as Nepal, Bhutan, Sikkim, Mongolia, China, and British India and to a limited extent with Russia and Japan. Tibet’s independent foreign policy is perhaps most obviously demonstrated by the country’s neutrality during the World War II. Despite strong pressure from China, Britain and the USA to allow the passage of military supplies through Tibet to China when Japan blocked the strategically vital Burma Road, Tibet held fast to her declared neutrality.
Today China claims that “no country ever recognised Tibet”. However, the treaties, the conduct of negotiations and certainly the maintenance of diplomatic relations of Tibet are surely forms of recognition.
Relations with Nationalist China
China’s position was ambiguous during this period (1911-1949). On one had, the Nationalist Government unilaterally announced in its constitution and in communications to other countries that Tibet was a province of the Republic China (one of the five races of the Republic of which one of them is Turks of east Turkestan). On the other hand, it recognised that Tibet was not part of the Republic of China in its official communications with the government and Dalai Lama asking them to join the Republic of China. Several invitations were to Nepal as well, but neither Nepal nor Tibet accepted these offers.
In 1919, an unofficial Chinese delegation went to Lhasa, ostensibly to present religious offerings to the Thirteenth Dalai Lama, but in reality to urge the Tibetan leader to negotiate an agreement with China. Several other Chinese envoys were made consequently in later years, but none of them were accepted by Tibet.
United Nations Debates
When Chinese Communist armies started entering Tibet in 1949, the Tibetan Government sent an urgent appeal to the United Nations to help Tibet resist the aggression. The General Assembly as advised by Britain and India not to take any action for the time being in order not to provoke a full-scale attack by China.
This became especially evident during the full debates on the issue in the United Nations General Assembly in 1959,1960, 1961 and 1965 took place. Many governments asserted similar opinions expressed by the Ambassador of the Philippines who referred to Tibet as an “independent nation” and added: It is clear that on the eve of the Chinese invasion in 1950, Tibet was not under the rule of any foreign country”. He described China’s occupation as “the worst type of imperialism and colonialism past or present”.
The Nicaraguan representative condemned the Chinese invasion of Tibet and said: ”The people of America, born in freedom, must obviously be repelled by an act of aggression…and particularly when it is perpetrated by a large state against a small and weak one.” Similarly the Government of United States condemned and denounced Chinese “aggression” and their “invasion” of Tibet.
Recognition of Tibet’s right to self-determination
The Permanent Tribunal of Peoples, which met in Strasbourg for a week to hear extensive testimony and arguments in November 1992, found that the Tibetans meet the generally accepted legal criteria of ‘a people’ with the right to self-determination”. The Tribunal concluded that, “the presence of the Chinese administration on Tibetan territory must be considered as foreign domination of the Tibetan people.”
In an unrelated conference, several week later, thirty eminent international lawyers from many countries in Europe, Africa, Asia and the Americas met in London for four days to consider issues relating to the exercise of the right to self-determination by the Tibetan people. After extensive consideration of evidence, including the Chinese Government’s White Paper, and after a lively legal debate, the conference participants concluded, in a written statement, that;
1- Under the international law the Tibetan People are entitled to the right to self-determination, that this right “belongs to the Tibetan People” and that “it is not for the state apparatus of the PRC, or any other nation or state to deny the Tibetan people’s right to self-determination”.
2- “Since the military action of 1949-50, Tibet has been under the occupation and domination of the PRC and has been administered with the characteristics of an oppressive colonial administration.”
3- “In the particular case of Tibet and having regard to its long history of separate existence”, the Tibetan people’s claim to self-determination, including independence, is compatible with the principles of national unity and territorial integrity of states. [International Lawyers’ Conference Statement on Tibet-London 1993, London, January 10, 1993,p.6-8]
The Chinese government was invited to participate in both events, but declined to do so.
The “Seventeen - Point Agreement”
In April 1951 the Tibetan Government sent a five-member delegation to Beijing, led by Kalon Ngapo Ngawang Jigme. The delegation had the authority to put forward the Tibetan stand and listen the Chinese position, but not to conclude an agreement. On April 29 negotiations opened with the presentation of a draft agreement by the leader of Chinese delegation. It was unacceptable by Tibetan delegation but they were forced to sign it and denied any contact with Lhasa to discuss it further with the government. They were given only one choice of either signing the agreement or accepting the responsibility for an immediate military advance on Lhasa.
The seventeen clauses of the agreement, among other things, authorised the entry into Tibet of Chinese forces and empowered the Chinese Government to handle Tibet’s external affairs. On the other hand, it guaranteed that China would not alter the existing political system in Tibet and not interfere with the established status, function and powers of the Dalai Lama or the Panchen Lama. The Tibetan People were to have regional autonomy, and their religious beliefs and customs were to be respected. Internal reforms would be inflicted after consultation with the leading Tibetans and without compulsion.
The Dalai Lama wanted to renegotiate the agreement with the Chinese government. However, on September 9, 1951 around 3,000 Chinese troops marched into Lhasa, soon followed by some 20,000 more, from Eastern Turkestan (Xinjiang) in the north, he effectively lost the ability to either accept or reject any Tibet-China “agreement”.
The National Uprising in 1959 and the flight of the Dalai Lama
Following the entry of Chinese troops into Lhasa, every effort was made to undermine the sovereign authority. This was carried out in three ways: First, political and regional divisions were created among Tibetans under the policy of divide and rule. Secondly, certain social and economic reforms, calculated to change the fabric of Tibetan society, were instituted against the wishes of Tibetans. Thirdly, various organs of the Chinese Government, and new bodies under their authority, were set up alongside the existing Tibetan institutions.
- Between November 24, 1950 and October 19, 1953 China incorporated a large portion of Kham Province into neighbouring Chinese Sichuan province. Kham was divided into two so-called Tibetan Autonomous Prefectures and Autonomous District. On September 13, 1957 another portion of southern Kham was named the Dechen Tibetan Prefecture and put under Yunnan Province.
- The bulk of Amdo, together with a small area of Kham was reduced to the status of a Chinese province, and named as Qinghai. One portion of Amdo was named Ngapa Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture and merged with Sichuan Province. The remaining area of Amdo was sub-divided into Tianzhu Tibetan Autonomous District and Ganlho Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture and incorporated into the Chinese province of Gansu.
- On September 9, 1965 China formally established the so-called Tibet Autonomous Regional Government, placing under its administration the whole of U-Tsang and areas of Kham.
- China stripped numerous ethnic Tibetans like Sherpas, Monpas, Lhopas, Tengpas, Jangpas etc. –who consider themselves to be Tibetan- of their Tibetan identity, reclassifying them as distinct Chinese minorities.
The first major popular resistance group, Mimang Tsongdu (People’s Assembly) banded together spontaneously and handed the Chinese Military Command a petition demanding the withdrawal of the PLA and an end to Chinese interference in Tibetan affairs. The two Tibetan Prime ministers, Lukhangwa and Ven. Lobsang Tashi, who had made no secret of their opposition to Chinese rule and opposed the ‘Seventeen Point Agreement”, were forced to resign and five Mimang Tsongdu leaders were jailed, driving the organisation underground.
In 1954 the Dalai Lama visited Beijing at China’s invitation. The special autonomous position of Tibet, embodied in the Seventeen Point Agreement was formally abolished by the new Constitution by the Chinese People’s Congress. Preparatory Committee for the Autonomous Region of Tibet was to function as the central administration instead of Tibetan Government and Dalai Lama was made its Chairman without any authority.
Full-scale guerrilla warfare broke out in the summer of 1956 in result of Chinese violence. Refugees from eastern and north-eastern Tibet began to arrive in Lhasa in large numbers.
In March 1959, there was a general fear that the Chinese were planning to abduct the Dalai Lama and take him away to Beijing. Fear for the safety of the Dalai Lama became acute when the Chinese Army Command invited the Tibetan leader to a theatrical show in the military barracks and instructed that he was not to be accompanied by his bodyguards on March 10. On March 10, 1959 a massive demonstration took place and thousands of people surrounded the Dalai Lama’s summer palace, the Norbulingka, to prevent him form attending the Chinese show. The Dalai Lama had to flee to India to appeal for international help to save his people on the night of March 17 with the help Kham guerillas.
Killings in Tibet between 1949-1979
Mode of Death U-tsang Kham Amdo Total
Tortured in prison 93,560 64,877 14,784 173,221
Executed 28,267 32,266 96,225 156,758
Killed in fighting 143,253 240,410 49,042 432,705
Starved to death 131,072 89,916 121,982 342,970
Suicide 3,375 3,952 1,675 9,002
Struggled to death 27,951 48,840 15,940 92,731
Total 427,478 480,261 299,648 1,207,387
Democratic reforms in exile
In 1959 the Dalai Lama re-established his government in India, soon after his flight from Tibet, and a serious of democratic changes were initiated. The parliament-in-exile, was constituted. In 1961 the Dalai Lama prepared a draft constitution for future Tibet and sought the opinion of Tibetans on this matter. Despite the strong opposition, the Dalai Lama insisted on the inclusion of a clause, which states that the executive powers of the Dalai Lama should be exercised by the Council of Regency. Hence the National Assembly, by a majority of two-thirds of its total members in consultation with the Supreme Court, decides that this is in the highest interest of the State.
The Dalai Lama also announced that on the day Tibet regains her independence, the Tibetan people must decide for themselves what system of government they want. In 1990 further changes were introduced by increasing the strength of the Assembly of Tibetan People’s Deputies from 12 to 46. More constitutional powers were given to ministers. In 1992, the Dalai Lama announced that he would not play any role in the future government of Tibet and it would be elected by the people. The guidelines of future Tibet’s politics also stated: “Future Tibet will be a peace-loving nation, adhering to the principle of ahimsa (non-violence). She will have a democratic system where the government will be committed to preserving a clean, healthy and beautiful environment. Tibet will be a completely demilitarised nation.”
Human Rights in Tibet today
The death of Mao Zedong in September 1976 resulted in a change in Chinese policies. The change was economic liberalisation and openness, and even some degree of leniency on political prisoners. But the liberalisation and openness did not affect the attitude towards political freedom in Tibet. The arrests of political activists carried on in masses in 1982, 1987, 1988. In 1990 China announced the lift of Martial Law and the first Australian Human Rights Delegation to China was permitted to visit Tibet in July 1991. The Martial Law was lifted on paper but it continues to exist in practice. Amnesty International, in its 1991 report, also confirmed this adding; ”the police and security forces retained extensive powers of arbitrary arrest and detention without trial”
Arbitrary arrests, incommunicado detentions, disappearances, executions, torture in prisons are very common and there is no freedom of movement in Tibet.
Socio-economic Conditions and Colonialism
“The price Tibet paid for this development was higher than the gains.” This was the Panchen Lama’s last verdict on three decades of Chinese rule in Tibet. Chinese government claims great economical advancement and growth in Tibet; bumper crops, industrial growth, improvement of infrastructure and so forth. These claims were made even when Tibet was suffering its only famines in the nation’s history (1961-1964 and 1968-1973).
It is fairly obvious that it is not the Tibetans who have benefited from the social and economic developments in Tibet but the Chinese settlers, their government and military. One Chinese leader who had the honesty and courage to admit the failure of Chinese policies supposedly designed to bring improvement to the lives of Tibetans had not benefited from the much-vaunted Chinese “assistance”. He visited Tibetan families in several communes, including one called the “Anti-imperialist Commune”. Disgusted by the poverty of Tibetans, he called a meeting of top functionaries of TAR and demanded to know if all the financial assistance earmarked for Tibet had been “ thrown into Yarlung River.” He complained that, contrary to Chinese propaganda claims, the living standards of Tibetans had gone down since 1959, and that the large Chinese presence in Tibet-particularly government cadres- was an obstacle to the development. He immediately announced that steps should be taken to raise the standard of living to pre-1959 levels in three years, and withdraw eighty-five percent of Chinese cadres. The TAR Party Secretary, Yin Fatang, summed up Hu’s impression of Tibet as a region steeped in “poverty and backwardness” [Red Flag, No. 8 1983]
Soon after the invasion of Tibet, China imposed far-reaching collectivisation programmes. Nomads, like farmers, had all their herds confiscated and were themselves divided into brigades and communes. The nomads tended their herds with no right to the product of their labour; the case applied to farmers. They survived each year on average rationed diet of five pounds (a pound is half a kilo) of butter, ten pounds of meat and four-five khel (a khel is between twenty-thirty pounds) of tsampa (barley flour).
According to official Chinese statistics, the level of annual subsidies to the TAR in the late 1980s was around one billion-yuan or $270 million. What Chinese government would not admit is that she has earned far more from Tibet that she has given. In monetary terms, the volume of Tibetan timber taken to China far exceeds the amount of financial assistance it claims to have given. And this doesn’t even taken into account the vast mineral resources such as uranium, gold, silver, iron, copper, borax, lithium, chromate, etc. as well as priceless art treasures carted away to China.
In any case, the bulk of China’s financial subsidy goes towards the maintenance of Chinese personnel in Tibet. It also goes to pay incentives to Chinese settlers. The Tibetans benefit very little from it. During the late 1970-and early 1980s an average subsidy of $128 was spent on every town-dweller, and only $4.50 on each rural inhabitant. The urban areas of the TAR are dominated by Chinese settlers and personnel, who form overwhelming majorities in major towns like Lhasa, Nyingtri, Gyangtse, Nagchu, Ngari, Shigatse, Tsethang, Chamdo etc. The Tibetan population on the other hand, is concentrated mainly in rural areas.
Even the items subsidised are those that are consumed by Chinese rather than Tibetans. The staple diet of Tibetans is barley (for tsampa), though urban or richer families add wheat and rice to their diet. However, it is only the price of rice and wheat, which is subsidised. These form the staple diet of Chinese settlers. Roads may run through most Tibetan villages, but a public transport system is almost non-existent in the majority of rural Tibet. China’s modern transport system does not benefit the majority of Tibetans. In some villages busses run once a week and people still use horses, mules, yaks, donkeys and sheep as mediums of transportation.
It is the same with the health service which concentrates 90% in urban areas and the ones who are sent to rural areas are mostly unqualified and have little prospect of finding employment in China. There have also been numerous reports of Chinese doctors and health personnel using Tibetan patients as guinea pigs to practise their skills.
In independent Tibet, over 6000 monasteries and nunneries served as schools and universities, fulfilling Tibet’s educational needs. In addition, Tibet had many non-monastic schools run by the government as well as by individuals. For the Chinese Government, these traditional learning centres were homes of “blind faith” and nurturing grounds for “feudal oppression”. In the place of Tibetan monasteries, China forced the Tibetans in rural and nomadic areas to found independently funded “People’s Schools” which do not get a penny from the Chinese government grants. There are 2450 primary school in Tibet. 451 of the are funded by the government. Over 2000 of these schools are funded by people. These schools don’t have sound foundation and are not properly equipped. The level of education is either nil or very low. Only 45% of the school aged children go to school. Out of them 10.6% manage to graduate to the lower-middle school. There are not enough teachers in these schools and the ones are not qualified enough. Facts on paper do not seem to be the same in practice, as in rural areas these schools are either used as warehouses or shut down because of lack of teachers or resources. The literate grandparents are the brutal reminders of Chinese neglect that their grandchildren couldn’t read or write.
Public condemnation of religion and humiliation and ridicule of religious people became a usual practice of Chinese towards Tibetans. Religious texts were burnt and mixed with field manure, the sacred mani stones (prayers engraved stones and slates) were used to build toilets and pavements, monks and nuns were forced to copulate in public and taunted to perform miracles, ruined monasteries and temples were turned into pig stays, starving monks and nuns in Chinese prisons were told to get food from “the Buddha”.
Population Transfer and Control
Although China no longer bombs or sends Red Guards to destroy Tibet’s monasteries, her aim still remains the same as before, which is total elimination of Tibetan religion and culture. Chinese in large quantities are constantly being moved into Tibet. In 1985, in Lhasa alone, there were 50,000 to 60,000 Chinese civilian residents. From 1985 to 1988 a further influx of Chinese immigrants doubled the population of Lhasa. Tibetan areas out side of TAR include the whole present day Qinghai Province and the portions of Kham and Amdo merged with the Chinese provinces of Sichuan, Gansu and Yunnan. The concentration of Chinese population in these areas is the highest. Beijing government offers an array of benefits to civil servants and civilians to encourage the Chinese settlement in Tibet, such as long holiday leaves, less tax, high salaries.
In 1984 China imposed a birth control policy on Tibetans to have only two children. In Shigatse and Gyatsa 1087 women were sterilised by force. In Kham and Amdo 2415 women were sterilised in 1983. Mobile birth control teams roam countryside and rural areas where they round up women for abortion and sterilisation. Even women well advanced in their pregnancy are forced to undergo abortion followed by sterilisation.
As a result of Chinese population transfer and birth control policy Tibetans find themselves marginalized in their own country in economic, political, educational and social spheres.
In 1992, only 300 shops were owned by Tibetans out of 12,227 shops and restaurants in Lhasa City. In southern Kham, Chinese owned 133 businesses whereas Tibetans owned only 15. In Amdo according to a British journalist, Tibetans are reduced to “tourist curious”.
Tibet’s environment is in danger
Tibet is the source of the five biggest rivers of Asia. Ninety percent of Tibet’s river run off flows down across her borders. The Machu (Yellow River), The Tsangpo, the Drichu(Yangtze) and the Senge Khabab (Indus) are among the five most heavily silted rivers in the world. The total area irrigated by these rivers, from the Machu basin in the east to the Senge Khabab in the west, support 47% of the earth’s human population. Chinese have built huge dams, such as Longyang Xia and are carrying on to do so, such as the hydro-power station at Yamdrok Yutso to provide power and other benefits to the Chinese population and industries both in Tibet and China. While Tibetans are displaced from their homes and lands, tens thousands of Chinese workers are brought in from China to construct and maintain these dams.
She also has the loftiest mountains and the highest plateau, ancient forests and many deep valleys untouched by human disturbances. Tibet is also 70% grassland, which form the backbone of the country’s animal dominated agrarian economy. The domestic animal population is as big as seventy million and supports nearly a million herdsmen.
Over the last four decades there has been widespread degradation of these vital pastures. The conversion of marginal lands to agriculture for Chinese settlers has become the greatest threat to Tibet’s grasslands. This has led to extensive desertification, rendering the land unusable for agriculture or grazing. Especially Amdo region has suffered of this problem.
Tibet possesses the world’s highest solar energy potential per unit after Sahara, an estimated annual average of 200 kilocalory/cm, as well as significant geothermal resources.
In 1949 Tibet’s forests covered 221,800 square kilometres, by 1985 this area went down to 134,000 square kilometres. Chinese who needed pulp for their paper production did not control their policy of deforestation in Tibet. It was a lot cheaper than importing from Austria for instance. I met an Austrian who worked in China for five years in a company selling raw paper to China from Austria. She said Chinese realised the damage they have given to Tibet’s environment and consequently to whole Asia, but it is too late. As the surrounding countries of Tibet owe their heavy rains and monsoon season to the forests of Tibet. This year (2004) monsoon rainfall in the Himalayas was a lot less according to the locals.
Tibet’s rich mineral mines are being exhausted by the Chinese as well as wild life. Hunting sport of Chinese wiped out serious number of Tibetan Antelope and herds of yaks and wild asses.
China is reported to have stationed about ninety nuclear warheads in Tibet. The Ninth Academy, China’s North-West Nuclear weapons research and Design Academy in Tibet’s north-east area of Amdo, is reported to have dumped an unknown quantity of radioactive waste on the Tibetan Plateau.
Achievements of exile Tibetans
China insists that the Chinese presence in Tibet is justified because of the help that is offered to develop and civilise the culturally and economically backward Tibetan People. Tibetans are capable of managing their own affairs left to themselves. The thriving exile community is the best evidence of this.
The Tibetan Government-in-Exile, the host Indian Government and International aid agencies have invested 1.5 billion Indian rupees in educating Tibetans in exile since 1959. Tibetan Government-in-Exile allocates 65% of its budget to the education of the children of Tibetan community in exile. This does not include the amount invested in monastic education.
Today, in the newly established Tibetan monasteries and Nunneries in India, Nepal and Bhutan, there are about 11,000 monks and nuns. Many specialised institutions have been established in India to preserve the endangered Tibetan culture. The Tibetan Medical and Astrology Institute in Dharamsala provides traditional Tibetan medical services to patients all over the world. Some come to Dharamsala just to get treatment from this centre from abroad. (I met a Turkish family from Uzbekistan who came to Dharamsala for a week to get Tibetan medicine treatment.)
The Library of Tibetan Works and Archives(LTWA) in Dharamsala and Tibet House in New Delhi, serve as facilities to educate foreign students in Tibetan philosophy, language and culture. The LTWA is the premier internationally-recognised centre for studies in Tibetology.
The Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts (TIPA) in Dharamsala has preserved traditional Tibetan Opera, dance, songs and music. Many of the performing arts teachers in the various Tibetan schools in India and some singers who perform in India and abroad were trained at TIPA.
The Tibetan Cultural Printing Press in Dharamsala, and other tibetan publishing centres, preserve the culture by printing the Buddhist canon, the Kagyur and Tengyur, along with thousands of other traditional Tibetan publications and scriptures.
Today, there are 84 Tibetan schools in India, Nepal and Bhutan with enrolment of 26,000 students at primary, middle and secondary levels. Seventeen of these are residential. In addition, there are 55 pre-primary schools. According to statistics compiled by the Planning Council of the Tibetan Government- in –Exile in Dharamsala, altogether about 92% of Tibetan children in exile are aged between six and seventeen are attending schools. School education is free for all Tibetan children. Every year 405 students finish their senior secondary school education and 200 to 250 of these graduates join universities in India or abroad.
Some families send their children to Dharamsala purely for education and since 1979, over 5000 monks and nuns fled to India to pursue religious studies. The Tibetan community in Dharamsala is constantly growing. There are new arrivals every week either for political or religious reasons. Dalai Lama has an audience for new arrivals to welcome them to their new lives and give them his blessings whenever he is in town.
The new life in India for Tibetan asylum seekers is not completely promising as even though they are issued with leave to remain, that has to be renewed yearly until further notice. They are not granted indefinite leave to remain and they all have concerns about changes in Indian policy about Tibetan refugees.
There is freedom of speech, performing arts, running business and having children in India but the uncertainty of future hangs over all the Tibetans who are struggling to survive in a totally different environment and climate as well as culture. New generation who were born in India has got Indian mannerism and adopt Indian life style and customs despite the fact that there is a big movement of preserving Tibetan culture and language.
Tibetan youngsters are multi-lingual speaking one or two Tibetan dialects, English, Hindi and Nepali.
During my stay in Dharamsala as a volunteer English teacher for Multi- Education Centre, Tibet Charity I met some monks who had to stay in Nepal for a while before actually arriving in India hence the reception centre for Tibetan refugees in Nepal works very hard. Especially when they have to care for Tibetans who walked over the Himalayas under snow for weeks and arrived in Nepal with frostbites on their limbs. Many toes and fingers are lost to frostbites and some became disabled for the rest of their lives.
When the Dalai Lama first arrived in 1960, Mc Leod Ganj was a sorry sight. It had been devastated by earthquakes and abandoned by its colonial clientele. The task of rebuilding Tibet in exile began then and within twenty years this derelict hill station in Himachal Pradesh was transformed into “Little Lhasa”. Monasteries and temples, schools and orphanages, libraries and institutes for the propagation of Tibetan culture were established and gradually added to. They were built using such untraditional materials as concrete and brick; but upon the whole they replicate Tibetan designs and motifs.
Half way between Mc Leod Ganj and Dharamsala, Tibetan Government-in-exile was built in a campus where every small house represents a ministry of the government. It felt quite bizarre to descent down through the courtyard of ministry of finance of Tibetan government on my way to LWTA to attend my Buddhist philosophy lesson on the first day. It had a fairy tale air in this campus looking unreal, but they all were at work, running the government within a foreign government.
As a Tibetan who was raised in Tibetan Children’s Village, the co-ordinator of Volunteer Tibet took me there on a visit with some of the other volunteers. Knowing of the early days of TCV from Dervla Murphy’s writing, I was impressed of seeing an established big boarding school with sections for all children from babies to teenagers. Today TCV is the second biggest attraction in Mc Leod after Dalai Lama’s Temple and supported by a number of celebrities such as Richard Gere. They also try to raise awareness for Tibet’s Freedom Movement in the West where people are sensitive for the issue.
Before I went to Dharamsala to join the Tibetan community when I said I was going to teach English to Tibetan monks where Dalai Lama lived people in Turkey thought I was going to Tibet. They did not know that Dalai Lama had escaped Lhasa in 1958 and lived in India since then. They were educated people and reading newspapers regularly. As a person who’s been living abroad I had not realised that Turks do not know much about Tibetans and what’s been happening in Tibet. I hope this piece of writing will raise some awareness of Tibetan Movement amongst Turks who live in Turkey and it will start some interest in supporting the Tibetan community in exile and in Tibet under Chinese rule.
Seda S. Kervanoglu
2004, Mc Leod Ganj