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Resolution of Tibet a will-o’-the-wisp

Pranamita Baruah is Research Assistant at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.
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  • April 13, 2009

    For decades, the issue of Tibetan autonomy has been a bone of contention between China and the Tibetan government in exile. While Beijing considers Tibet an integral part of China, the Tibetan people owe their allegiance to the Dalai Lama. Over the years, friction between the two parties have manifested through outbreak of anti-China uprisings, both within and outside Tibet. The occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Dalai Lama’s escape from Tibet on March 10, 2009, once again reinforced the acrimonious relationship between China and the Tibet government in exile. Tibetans-in-exile and the Chinese government celebrated the occasion in very contrasting styles. While the Dalai Lama recalled the suffering of the Tibetans and reiterated his commitment to the ‘middle way approach’ - a policy of compromise and peaceful dialogue - in pursuing the Tibetan cause, China promised stern action against separatist elements within Tibet. Through a motion passed in January 2009 by the Tibetan legislature, the Chinese government declared March 28 a holiday to celebrate Serfs Emancipation Day, commemorating what the Chinese consider the emancipation of millions of serfs and slaves in Tibet fifty years ago. To deter the recurrence of another anti-China uprising similar to the Lhasa riot of March 2008, China took stringent security precautions demonstrating that the rift between China and Tibet has only accentuated in the last fifty years.

    It may be recalled that the failure of the anti-China uprising compelled the current Dalai Lama and around 80,000 of his followers to escape to India in 1959 where they set up the government-in-exile. In 1965, the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) was proclaimed, which, according to the Chinese, marked the establishment of regional ethnic autonomy in Tibet taking a historic leap from theocratic feudal serfdom to socialism featuring people’s democracy.

    Despite China’s insistence on democracy, during the Cultural Revolution most of Tibet’s monasteries were destroyed, monks were publicly paraded in the street and flogged. Thousands of Tibetans are believed to have been killed during those years of repression and martial law. However, during the 1980s, in the face of international criticism, China decided to ease its grip on Tibet by introducing ‘Open Door’ reforms and boosting investment. However, the Tibetans continued to allege violation of human rights, and particularly repression of political and religious rights. The detention of the Dalai Lama’s choice of the 11th Panchen Lama, Gedhun Choekyi Nyima in 1995 and his replacement with the Chinese choice of Gyaincoin Norbu, further accentuated Tibetan anger. After almost twenty years of relative quiet, in March 2008, unrest on a large scale occurred in Tibet. For the Chinese government, it was a deliberate attempt by the ‘Dalai clique’ to upstage China’s so called ‘international coming out party’- the summer Olympics. On the Tibetan side, while launching a tirade against the Chinese authorities, the Dalai Lama refused to make any appeal for calm in Tibet. He accused China of unleashing ‘cultural genocide’ in Tibet and demanded an international probe. The demand for genuine autonomy in Tibet remains undiluted.

    The Tibet-China friction is not restricted to the issue of autonomy alone. A gulf of mistrust exists between the two parties on their future vision for Tibet. Despite regular negotiations between them since 2002, they have not come to a common understanding about what constitutes Tibet. The Dalai Lama claims to represent all seven million Tibetans, including those living in the Sichuan, Yunnan, Gansu and Qinghai, the provinces which became part of China as a result of borders drawn by Beijing in the 1950s. However, the Chinese consider the Dalai Lama to be the representative of only the 2.8 million natives living in the Tibet Autonomous Region. While Beijing sees the Tibetan impasse as an issue of sovereignty, the exiled Tibetan community considers sees it as an issue of human rights. Moreover, China accuses the Dalai Lama of using the ‘middle way’ approach as just another drive for Tibetan independence. However, the results of a secret poll conducted among Tibetans reveal that most would want full independence and not the current ‘middle way’ approach of the Dalai Lama.

    Over the years, there is nothing to suggest that China has an interest in discussing increased autonomy for Tibetans. Even Deng Xiaoping’s statement that everything was negotiable apart from independence is now being denied by most Chinese officials. To heap further humiliation, Tibetan monks were made to denounce the Dalai Lama. Moreover, Beijing has announced that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) will be the sole authority to approve reincarnation, the divine process by which a ‘living Buddha’ is chosen.

    Little surprise Beijing treats the iconic Dalai Lama as its Enemy No. 1. Beijing is unnerved by the Dalai’s indomitable global influence through his exercise of soft power. In its recent outbursts, Beijing stated: “A jackal in Buddhist monk’s robes, an evil spirit with a human face and the heart of a beast. We are engaged in a fierce battle of blood and fire with the Dalai clique.” However, despite China branding him a ‘splittist’, the Tibetan issue has evoked worldwide sympathy. In March 2009, both the EU Parliament and the US Congress passed two separate resolutions on Tibet. The US Congress’ resolution calls for a sustained multilateral effort to bring about a durable and peaceful solution to the Tibet issue and calls upon China to “cease its repression of the Tibetan people and to lift immediately the harsh policies imposed on Tibetans,” including patriotic education campaigns, detention and abuse of those freely expressing political views or relaying news about local conditions. It also urges Beijing to lift restrictions on travel and communications. The EU Parliament resolution, on the other hand, pleads with the Chinese government to resume dialogue with the Dalai Lama for ‘real autonomy’ for Tibet. Beijing has dismissed such outside views by claiming Tibet to be an internal matter and therefore no country should use it as an excuse to interfere. Beijing also bullied South Africa, its largest African trading partner into barring the Dalai Lama from attending a peace conference in Johannesburg in late March 2009.

    Despite international criticism, China continues to emphasize the progress made within Tibet in the last fifty years. Statistics maintained by the Chinese government shows that the central government’s transfer of funds to Tibet amounted to 201.9 billion yuan (US $28.8 billion) between 1959 and 2008. The figure totalled more than 154.1 billion yuan between 2001 and 2008, or 93.7 per cent of Tibet’s financial revenue in the same period. In 2008, the GDP of Tibet reached 39.591 billion yuan (US$ 5.66 billion) and per capita GDP reached 13,861 yuan. As far as infrastructural development is concerned, a 51,300 kilometre network of highways connects every Tibetan county. The 1956 kilometre long Qinghai-Tibet Railway has become operational since 2006. The telecommunications sector in Tibet has also reportedly registered progress, with the number of telephones rising from 276 in the whole region in 1959 to 55 for every 100 people now. Tourism made up 5.7 per cent of the region’s GDP in 2008, compared to a mere 0.2 per cent in 1990 and the output value of Tibet’s medical and pharmaceutical industry also reportedly registered a 1.6 fold increase during 2000-2008.

    Although these figures indicate positive growth, Tibetans themselves offer a negative perspective on the issue and statistics emerging from Beijing can easily be fudged. Many Tibetans continue to complain about social discrimination, unequal pay, lack of equal access to jobs and education, rising inflation, astronomical increase in prices of food and consumer goods. The Chinese government’s callous policy has resulted in Tibet’s cartographic dismemberment, rewritten history and systematic undermining of traditional institutions. The death of more than one million Tibetans in direct or indirect conflict with the Chinese and the shabby state of the 6,267 monasteries in Tibet have aggravated the resentment of the natives further.

    As far as India is concerned, it has inherited the British policy of sustaining Tibet as a buffer zone. But China has already gobbled up the traditional buffer by military means. Further compromises on the Tibet issue may prove quite disastrous to Indian interests. However, India’s so called ‘see no evil, hear no evil’ attitude and long drawn China appeasement policy has left New Delhi with a dilemma on the Tibetan issue. Some Indian strategic commentators opine that China is deliberately ‘provoking’ India as it is not serious about settling the border dispute until Beijing ‘subdues’ Tibet on its own terms. They also express concern over the odds heavily favouring China in its so called ‘current shadow boxing’ with India over Tibet. Still, the very presence of the Dalai Lama in India along with 120,000 Tibetan refugees spread across 35 settlements remains India’s biggest strategic asset vis-à-vis China. India should utilize the Dalai Lama’s soft power to bring about a peaceful resolution to the problem of Tibet. Unfortunately, India lacks the political will to creatively utilize the Tibetan card.