16 June 2008 at New Delhi
Tibet: its Early History
Tibet, widely known as a “land surrounded by snow mountains,” is situated on the roof of the world surrounded from all directions by snow mountains such as the Himalayan ranges. Whether the Sanskrit word “Bhota” is derived from Tibetan word “Bhod” or vice versa, both has a similarity of pronunciation. In the Buddha’s teachings Tibet was referred as “land of snow in the north” (Uttara Himpradesh). Vedic Rishis also called it “Trivishtab”. Whatever the case, Tibet is situated on a high plateau with clean air and is a source of major rivers of Asia. Tibet has a vast land with small population and remained economically self-reliant on the basis of need.
Archeological surveys revealed the evidence of human existence in Tibet since the primitive age. However, Tibetan civilisation received added strength in the 6th century and reached its peak in the 8th century. Tibet also emerged as a powerful nation with a strong military in Asia.
Tibetan ethnicity is distinct compared to other people in the region. Tibetan features resemble a mix of Aryan and Mongolian races.
All Tibetans use the same language. Though there are different local dialects, but after the invention of the script and grammar in the 7th century, all Tibetans use one language that is based on four vowels and thirty consonants. It is a rich language with the capacity to convey all Sanskrit terms accurately. Considering the time duration and population, the Tibetan language has richest and highest quality of literary output in the world both in terms of translation and original composition. A large number of ancient Indian texts are now available only in the Tibetan language. Since the Tibetan script and grammar are invented based on Sanskrit it belongs to the Indian language family.
After the advent of Buddhism in the 7th century, Tibetan culture and civilisation flourished widely and quickly. These originate from the Buddhist culture of India of the time.
Although Tibet emerged as strong and powerful nation until the mid-9th century, it gradually disintegrated and remained without a common ruler or central government for nearly three centuries. However, there was no major obstacle in the advancement of religion and culture. By the start of 13th century Tibet was invaded by Genghis Khan and remained under Mongol control for more than 50 years. Gradually China also came under Mongol rule.
In 1260s Mongol emperor Kublai Khan of the Yuan Dynasty of China offered three Cholkas (provinces) to Drogon Choegyal Phagpa, which restored Tibetan sovereignty to the Tibetans. Since then to 1640, though Sakya, Phagdru, Ringpung and Tsangpa fought each other to rule Tibet, there was no foreign invasion. In 1640s Mongol tribal leader Gushri Khan invaded whole of Tibet and offered it to the Great Fifth Dalai Lama to rule in 1642. Thus was founded the Gaden Phodrang Government of Tibet. Since then it has now been 366 years. Later on the Gaden Phodrang Government could not protect its Eastern borders. As a result China gradually started encroaching and finally divided it into “inner Tibet” and “outer Tibet”.
Since the commencement of Priest-Patron relationship between China and Tibet starting from Choegyal Phagpa, though there were many ups and downs in the relationship but the outer structure of the Priest-Patron relationship remained unchanged. After the founding of the Gaden Phodrang Government, the Manchu Emperor invited the Fifth Dalai Lama to China. This enhanced the Priest-Patron relationship between the two. At first, it was purely a religious relationship between the Priest, the teacher and the Patron, the student. This relationship was devoid of any political overtones. However, in the passage of time, this relationship was misinterpreted in many different ways in order to achieve political advantage. During the Sixth and Seventh Dalai Lamas, due to internal rivalry within Tibetan leaders, coupled with Mongol interference etc, Tibetans were compelled to seek help from the Manchu Emperors. In particular, during the Gorkha War by the end of 17th century Tibetans were forced to seek military help from the Manchus, which gradually paved the way for many unpleasant incidents such as involvement of political interference in the Priest-Patron relationship.
In the 19th century, British government tried several times to reach out to Tibet through China under various pretexts. However none of these endeavors were successful. Finally, in 1904 the British army entered Tibet and signed a ceasefire treaty with the Tibetans. Similarly, later Chinese attacks on Tibet were repulsed by the Tibetans on their own. At the Shimla Convention and the Agreement of 1913/14 and during the subsequent events thereafter, the British government engaged directly with Tibet to sign treaty when it served their purpose and they accepted Chinese suzerainty over Tibet when dealing directly with Tibet did not serve their interests. Due to these self-contradictory positions of British government, the status of Tibet remained unclear on the international level. However, the demarcation of the present Indo-Tibetan border, which is at present followed by the government of India, was made between the British and Tibetans and there was no Chinese participation.
It was the weakness of the Tibetan leadership of not being able to assert Tibetan sovereignty and the failure to be a member of the League of Nations and subsequently the United Nations. Nevertheless, both the Chinese and British had collectively tried to create confusion at international level. In order to dispel these doubts, the great Thirteenth Dalai Lama reiterated the status of Tibetan independence in 1913.
After Chinese Revolution
Soon after the establishment of Communist rule in China in 1949, Chinese army started invading Tibetan territories. The PRC considered the ‘liberation’ of Tibet and Taiwan of the utmost urgency. Within a year Chinese invasion reached Chamdo. It was termed as “forceful liberation”. Later on, Tibet was brought under Chinese rule when the Tibetan delegation, consisting of Ngapoi, the Governor of Chamdo who was held as prisoner of war together with his aides, and the others who were sent from Tibet to China, were forced to sign the 17-Point Agreement on 23 May 1951 under the pretext of negotiations. It was termed as “peaceful liberation”. This is quite similar to the occupation of India by the British as explained by Mahatma Gandhi in Hind Swaraj, Chapter 7.
His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government has sincerely tried to implement the agreement since under the given national and international situation there was no other options available at that point of time. Moreover, His Holiness the Dalai Lama returned Lhasa with confidence trusting the words of senior Chinese leaders of Party, State and the Army, including Mao, when he met them during his visit to China in 1954/55. However, unrest started unfolding in the Eastern Tibetan regions of Kham and Amdo around 1956. In addition, after the completion of road connection between Beijing-Lhasa facilitating faster mobilisation of army and military equipments, local Chinese officials deliberately violated the agreement by making the situation even more critical. His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s appeal to the central leadership, including Mao, were left unanswered. Finally there was a threat to the life of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Tibetans in Lhasa were compelled to carry out peaceful uprising on 10 March 1959. On the night of 17 March, His Holiness the Dalai Lama disguised as a common man escaped from Norbulingka and eventually sought asylum in India.
On 31 March 1959, after reaching the Indian border, the Government of India received His Holiness the Dalai Lama by offering him asylum. On 17 April 1959 at Tezpur, during his first meeting with the international media, His Holiness the Dalai Lama renounced the 17-Point Agreement based on two reasons. The two reasons were that the agreement was signed under duress and that the Chinese central government themselves had deliberately violated all the clauses of the agreement. Since then His Holiness the Dalai Lama declared to strive for the revival of the Tibetan independence. This policy was followed till 1979.
Nature of Tibetan Struggle
Since 1959, after seeking asylum in India, His Holiness the Dalai Lama has been striving hard to resolve the Tibetan issue by implementing wide-ranging programmes. However, different people see the nature of Tibetan struggle differently.
- a) Not a political ideological conflict
Some people think Tibetan struggle is a struggle between different political ideologies and interprets Tibetan uprisings of the early 1950s and 60s as an uprising against Communism. Some people extend their support to Tibet based on this reason. However, this is not the truth. As long as the Tibetans are happy and contented, ideologies do not matter to them. Moreover, certain aspects of Marxism appeal to His Holiness the Dalai Lama.
- b) Not an ethnic conflict
Some identify our struggle as an ethnic conflict between the Tibetans and Han Chinese. Many even attempt to make it into an ethnic conflict. But the Tibetans and Chinese have lived together as neighbors since time immemorial by helping each other like brothers. Especially after the commencement of the Priest-Patron relationship in the 13th century, most of the Chinese Buddhists became followers of Tibetan lineage of Buddhism. There were times when the two sides fought wars. But these wars were few and scattered and for short periods. For most of the time the two sides remained amicably and even today there is no hatred between the Tibetans and Chinese.
- c) Not a power struggle
Some suspect the Tibetan struggle is one of power struggle. The Chinese side has unleashed a massive propaganda campaign to misinterpret the Tibetan struggle as an attempt to revive the old system of governance. Nothing is farther from truth. His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the exile administration have never thought of holding power in future Tibet. Not even in our dreams.
His Holiness the Dalai Lama has declared time and again that He will not hold any political or institutional position the moment Tibetan issue is resolved for once and all. The officials of the exile administration will also not aspire for political authority in Tibet. They will lead the life of the common people. Therefore, the issue between us is how to rule the people and not who will rule.
- d) True nature of Tibetan struggle
Then, what is the true nature of Tibetan issue? It is an issue between truth and false, justice and injustice. In other words, it is an issue of difference in approach to fulfill one’s duty. Tibetans are not struggling for their rights but to perform their special duty towards universal responsibility. The precious Buddhist tradition of all the yanas, including vajra-yana, originated from the great land of India is today not available in any other part of the world. Preservation of this tradition, which is of immense value to all living beings, is the true nature of our struggle. If we read carefully the definition of “civilisation” as explained in Hind Swaraj by Mahatma Gandhi, then one can exactly identify the true nature of the Tibetan struggle.
Community that preserves Buddhist tradition should be a non-violent society and there is a need to create non-violent environment for such society. Therefore the broad vision to transform Tibet into a zone of non-violence was suggested. Need for consistency between means and ends is not only highlighted in Buddhist philosophy, but Mahatma Gandhi also emphasised on this point. To conform our means and ends we strive to adopt only non-violent means. As a result the Tibetan movement at present is free from violence.
There are opposite ways of looking to our struggle from the two sides. The Chinese consider us their enemy and our struggle as struggle for victory and defeat and life and death. But we view the authorities of People’s Republic of China (PRC) as our potential friends and our struggle as win-win to both sides. We do not struggle for the victory of oneself and defeat of the opponent.
Undoubtedly, the Tibet problem is a direct result of a larger scheme of modern power struggle among the nations, continents and civilisations. Therefore, it is difficult to keep our movement away from the larger conflict. But we are happy that under the leadership of His Holiness the Dalai Lama we are able to protect ourselves until now from becoming tools of the bigger powers.
Etymological Meaning of Middle-Way
The Lord Buddha first used the word “middle-way” in his first sermon. It refers to the middle which avoids two extremes. At first it was used in reference to ethics but later on it was more commonly used in reference to philosophy. Going to extremes is divergence from the truth and there is a need to have middle-way in every field.
In this case when we use the word “middle-way” in reference to policy, the two extremes are 1) to seek separation from China and 2) to remain within China under present condition. The essence of the Middle-Way Approach is to seek meaningful national regional autonomy status to all Tibetans as provided under the constitution of PRC by avoiding these two extremes.
Why Middle-Way Approach?
Since Tibet is a country which has remained independent for a long period, what are the reasons for upholding the Middle-Way Approach instead of restoring independence?
- a) Given the realities of the present global scenario, it is absolutely necessary for us to be pragmatic and realistic in formulating any policy to conform to these realities.
- b) Even if Tibet became independent and lived as a neighbour of China, it will face unavoidable encroachment in the fields of politics, economy and social matters.
- c) Since Tibet is land-locked and situated on a high plateau, it has to rely on others to meet its needs.
- d) On the positive side if we remain with the PRC, this will be helpful for our modern material development.
- e) Under the present global scenario when there is a loosening of the nation-state ideology, there is a trend towards greater unions, like the European Union.
- f) This will make it less inconvenient for friendly nations like India to extent their support.
- g) Since the PRC’s constitution sufficiently provides national regional autonomy provisions, this aspiration is legitimate and within the Chinese constitution and it can be achieved.
- i) Many areas of Kham and Amdo were gradually separated from Tibetan sovereignty. In 1951 when Tibet lost its independence, Tibetan territory was already reduced to the size of the present day so-called Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR). Even if we managed to restore independence, it is unlikely to extent beyond the territory of the present so-called TAR. Since more than fifty percent of Tibetan population lives outside of this area, it is impossible to achieve the unification of all Tibetans. There are many other such reasons.
The reason why His Holiness the Dalai Lama chose autonomy as the objective of the Tibetan struggle is quite similar to Gandhi’s choice of “self-rule; Swaraj” instead of “independence”. Gandhi’s article “Independence versus Swaraj” published on 12 January 1928 has been the supreme guiding light for us in our path.
Detractors of Middle-Way Approach may think this as surrendering of the Tibetan people’s legitimate right. If we look at Chapter 4 of Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj titled “What is Swaraj?” then one can clearly see our aspiration. To safe time I will not quote here.
Formation of Middle-Way Approach
Around 1968, under changing national and international situation, it was clear to us that restoring Tibetan independence was difficult and the means to resolve the Tibetan issue through autonomy was suggested. Since then series of discussions and consultations were held. Especially after internal consultations with the Kashag, Speaker and Deputy Speaker in mid-1970s, the basis for the Middle-Way Approach was established by formulating a new policy to seek meaningful autonomy instead of independence when an opportunity for negotiation arose.
In China, the turmoil of the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution came to an end. Post – Mao China witnessed major political changes. Deng Xiaoping informed His Holiness the Dalai Lama through his elder brother Mr. Gyalo Thondup, who was stationed in Hong Kong, to consider returning home and declared that “except independence” all other issues can be resolved through negotiation. This has paved the way for new era of relationship between the Tibetans and Chinese. Since His Holiness the Dalai Lama has already formulated a policy of Middle-Way Approach it was easy for Him to respond immediately.
However, during the course of contacts substantial negotiations were delayed without any concrete result. Similarly there was a shift in the views of Chinese leaders. Therefore, in order to clarify the background and framework of negotiation, His Holiness the Dalai Lama issued the Five-Point Peace Plan in 1987. In his Strasbourg Proposal of 1988, His Holiness the Dalai Lama outlined the detailed framework for autonomy. But the Chinese termed it as semi-independence or independence in disguise. Since China has rejected these proposals, there was no further discussion on this and gradually the documents became somewhat like ineffective. Contacts between the two sides broke off in 1994.
Thereafter in 1996 and 1997 His Holiness the Dalai Lama proposed that Tibetan people should decide on the best possible way of realizing the cause of Tibet through a referendum. Accordingly, a preliminary opinion poll was conducted in which more than 64% of the Tibetan people expressed that there was no need to hold a referendum, and that they would support the Middle-Way Approach, or whatever decisions His Holiness the Dalai Lama takes from time to time, in accordance with the changing political situation in China and the world at large. To this effect, the Assembly of Tibetan People’s Deputies adopted a unanimous resolution on 18 September of 1997 and informed His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Responding to this, His Holiness the Dalai Lama said in his 10 March Statement of 1998: “..I continue to believe that my ‘Middle-Way Approach’ is the most realistic and pragmatic course to resolve the issue of Tibet peacefully. This approach meets the vital needs of the Tibetan people while ensuring the unity and stability of the People’s Republic of China. I will, therefore, continue to pursue this course of approach with full commitment and make earnest efforts to reach out to the Chinese leadership…” Based on His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s instruction, this policy was, hence, adopted through highest decision-making process of democratic system by taking into account the opinion of the Tibetan people both in exile and inside Tibet and a unanimous resolution passed by the Assembly of Tibetan People’s Deputies.
Renewal of Direct Contacts
Since the renewal of direct contacts in 2002, the Chinese side has expressed deep suspicions and doubts concerning the Five-Point Peace Plan and Strasbourg Proposal. In order to dispel these suspicions it was explained that Five-Point Peace Plan is a future vision for the benefit of entire humanity, including Chinese and Tibetans, irrespective of the resolution to the Tibetan issue. The Preamble and other explanations of the Strasbourg proposal are not a part of the discussion agenda. The framework for autonomy that was outlined in the text is only a proposal and not an ultimate decision. To avoid suspicion from both sides on the proposal for negotiations, envoys have, in a nutshell, explained our aspiration for implementation of the provision of national regional autonomy enshrined in the PRC constitution in its entirety in both letter and spirit. His Holiness the Dalai Lama has also explained it several times. In his address to the 4th World Parliamentarians’ Convention on Tibet, 18 November 2005, His Holiness the Dalai Lama said,
“Basically, we are not seeking independence and everybody knows that. What we are seeking is genuine, meaningful autonomy within the framework of the constitution of the People’s Republic of China.”
Similarly on 10 March Statement of 2006, His Holiness the Dalai Lama said,
“I have stated time and again that I do not wish to seek Tibet’s separation from China, but that I will seek its future within the framework of the Chinese constitution. Anyone who has heard this statement would realise, unless his or her view of reality is clouded by suspicion, that my demand for genuine self-rule does not amount to a demand for separation.”
Provisions of Autonomy in the PRC Constitution
Since China is a multi-national state, the reason behind adopting provisions of national regional autonomy in the constitution of the PRC is because it was impossible to achieve equality and unity among nationalities without abandoning both Han chauvinism and local nationalism. It was said, to ensure equality and unity among nationalities the policy of national regional autonomy was formulated based on nationality policy of Marxist-Leninism by criticising exploitation of minority nationals in the past by previous Emperors and the nationalist government, which caused the separation of nationalities.
Preamble of the PRC constitution states,
“The People’s Republic of China is a unitary multi-national State created jointly by the people of all its nationalities. Socialist relations of equality, unity and mutual assistance have been established among the nationalities and will continue to be strengthened. In the struggle to safeguard the unity of the nationalities, it is necessary to combat big-nation chauvinism, mainly Han chauvinism, and to combat local national chauvinism. The State will do its utmost to promote the common prosperity of all the nationalities.”
Similarly article 4 of the Chapter 1 states,
“All nationalities in the People’s Republic of China are equal. The State protects the lawful rights and interests of the minority nationalities and upholds and develops a relationship of equality, unity and mutual assistance among all of China’s nationalities. Discrimination against and oppression of any nationality are prohibited; any act which undermines the unity of the nationalities or instigates division is prohibited.
The State assists areas inhabited by minority nationalities in accelerating their economic and cultural development according to the characteristic and needs of the various minority nationalities.
Regional autonomy is practised in areas where people of minority nationalities live in concentrated communities; in these areas organs of self-government are established to exercise the power of autonomy. All national autonomy areas are integral parts of the People’s Republic of China.
All nationalities have the freedom to use and develop their own spoken and written language and to preserve or reform their own folkways and customs.”
Article 112 to 122 of Section 6 of the constitution explains in detail organs of national regional autonomy.
Article 116 empowers local people’s congress of the national regional autonomy areas to enact regulations in accordance with the need of the areas.
Article 117 and 118 explains provisions of autonomy in the field of economy and financial development.
Article 119 provides autonomous provisions in educational, scientific, cultural, public health and physical culture affairs.
Article 120 explains provision of autonomy to organise local public security forces for the maintenance of public order.
Article 121 explains provision to use local language of the area as an official language. Similarly article 134 of Section 7 on Judiciary provides provisions to use local language in judicial proceedings.
Preamble of National Regional Autonomy Law (NRA Law) states,
“Regional national autonomy means that the minority nationalities, under unified state leadership, practise regional autonomy in areas where they live in concentrated communities and set up organs of self-government for the exercise of power of autonomy. Regional national autonomy embodies the state’s full respect for and guarantee of the right of the minority nationalities to administer their internal affairs and its adherence to the principle of equality, unity and common prosperity for all its nationalities.”
Article 10 of Chapter 1 on General Principles of NRA Law guarantees the freedom to use and develop one’s own spoken and written language and to preserve one’s own folkways and customs.
Article 11 clearly guarantees freedom of religion.
Similarly ariticle 19 of Chapter 3 provides provision to adopt autonomy regulations.
Article 20 provides rights to not to implement resolution, decision, order or instruction of a state organ at a higher level if it does not suit the conditions of the autonomous areas.
Article 43 provides provision to work out measures for control of the transient population.
Likewise there are sufficient provisions to ensure self-rule and autonomy in terms of culture, economy, usage of natural resources, taxation, trade, health, public security and education.
Moreover article 31 of the constitution provides provision to establish special administrative regions when necessary. This essentially provides that accept foreign relations and national defence, all other affairs are left under the domain of the administration of regional autonomy.
If these provisions of constitution and autonomy law are implemented in true spirit it will ensure the welfare of Tibetan people and the protection of Tibet’s unique culture, religion, tradition and language. It will further enable Tibetans to perform their universal responsibility. However, at present, unfortunately it is a universal fact that none of these provisions are implemented in all Tibetan autonomous region, prefectures and counties.
All Tibetans lived together on the Tibetan plateau since time immemorial, sharing the same religion, culture, language, customs, geographical location and livelihood, and if the PRC truly accepts Tibetan nationality as one of the 55 minority nationalities of China as they already claim, one cannot divide them into different parts or designate them into inner or outer region and smaller or greater. It is essential to implement self-rule provided under the provisions of national regional autonomy to all Tibetans.
PRC’s Concerns and Differences in Opinion
Since 2002 six rounds of meetings were held. Though we have time and again clearly explained our aspirations of Middle-Way Approach, they still do not understand or prefer not to understand. Though there are many differences in opinion, it comes down to two main points. Firstly difference on history and secondly regarding the unification of Tibetans.
The Chinese side insists that His Holiness the Dalai Lama accept Tibet was part of China from a historical point of view. Tibetan side has explained that is not true. Therefore, His Holiness the Dalai Lama is not in a position to accept it. Chinese concern is that if we do not accept Tibet as a part of China from past history, then liberation of 1951 will be considered as invasion and the present Chinese rule of Tibet will be viewed as illegal occupation. His Holiness the Dalai Lama sees that no nation today has remained the same as its past history and this will never make the present status illegitimate. Tibet will naturally become a legitimate part of China the moment Tibetans have voluntarily decided to remain as a part of the PRC. For such a thing to happen, His Holiness the Dalai Lama has repeatedly agreed to work on this.
Similarly the Chinese side supports their position by saying that united Tibet has never happened in history and it will be impossible to change the boundaries of the present provinces. To this we explained that since time immemorial the Tibetans lived together in concentrated and compacted groups and not scattered. For larger period of the history, all the Tibetan were ruled by the early Kings as well as during the early period of Sakya reign. Moreover, PRC considers Tibetan nationality as one of the 55 minority nationalities, it is imperative that Tibetans come under one single administration. If Tibetan nationality does not come under one single administration then this will be tantamount to a policy of ”Divide and Rule” as practiced by the past imperialist regimes. Especially, this aspiration is not a new aspiration. During the signing of 17-Point Agreement, the Tibetan delegation raised the unification of the Tibetan nationality. The Chinese side responded by saying that the time was not yet ripe but the idea of unification of the Tibetan nationality was appropriate. This was again discussed during the meeting on the establishment of the Preparatory Committee of the TAR and a special committee to make a detailed plan was appointed under the leadership of senior Communist Party cadre, Sangye Yeshi (Tian Bao). However, due to ultra-leftist policy this could not materialise. Similarly there are many incidents where the boundaries of the provinces are altered according to the needs of the time. In the future too boundaries can be altered.
Though Chinese side has unleashed massive propaganda to project that His Holiness the Dalai Lama is demanding a “greater Tibet” and “high degree autonomy”, but in reality Tibetans are one single nationality and it cannot be divided into greater or smaller parts. Our aspiration is to implement the provisions of national regional autonomy as enshrined in the PRC constitution. Apart from that we have never talked about high degree or low degree autonomy. We see that these differences can be resolved if PRC leadership possesses political will.