Tibet: Struggle for Independence

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Tibet: Struggle for Independence

The Conflict

Tibet, a land of Buddhists, currently is governed by the People's Republic of China. China discourages and actively interferes with religion. The controversy over Tibet's independence has become a media event with each side undertaking a public relations campaign.


  • Tibet has not been independent for much of known history.
  • Tibet comprises unique people—dissimilar from Chinese in ethnicity and religion—who are seeking self-determi-nation.
  • Many Chinese have moved to Tibet, and it is not clear what would happen to them if China granted independence to Tibet.
  • China fears that the ethnic separatism of Tibet—if allowed to lead to independence—could spread to other areas of China.


• Free religious expression in Tibet is denied.

In December 1999, Urgyn Trinley Dorje, a fourteen-year-old Tibetan Buddhist monk, left the Tsurphu monastery outside Lhasa, the capital of Chinese-occupied Tibet. He arrived in Dharamsala, India, the seat of the Tibetan government in exile on January 5, 2000. This boy was different from the thousands of Tibetans who have made the arduous trek over the Himalayas through Nepal and on to India since 1959, the year Tibet's highest spiritual figure, the Dalai Lama, went into exile. Both the Dalai Lama and the authorities of the People's Republic of China (PRC) recognized Urgyn Trinley Dorje as the seventeenth reincarnation of the Gyalwa Karmapa, head of the Kagyu or "Black Hat" sect of Tibetan Buddhism—a wealthy organization with hundreds of monasteries and meditation centers all over the world. This dual recognition caught the attention of the world's media. In a speech given on February 19, 2000, the young monk expressed his feeling about the Chinese occupation of Tibet: "Tibet, the Land of Snows, used to be a land where the sacred [Buddhist] faith and all aspects of intellectual and literary culture flourished. Over the last twenty to thirty years, Tibet suffered a great loss whereby Tibetan religious traditions and culture are now facing the risk of total extinction."

China was embarrassed by the boy's escape and his subsequent public statements. China had authorized the boy's enthronement in 1992 in the hopes that he might help Beijing exercise more influence over Tibetans' religious life. India was also disturbed by the events. It had hosted the Tibetan exiles for more than forty years, while simultaneously attempting to repair its relations with China. The two nations had fought a war in 1962 along their disputed Himalayan border.

The escape also brought to light internal conflicts among Tibetan Buddhist sects. For example, in 1994 a rival boy was enthroned as the Karmapa in New Delhi, India, by the Sharmapa, another high Kagyu figure. This enthronement defied the Dalai Lama and the other regents entrusted with finding a reincarnation after the death of the sixteenth Karmapa in 1981. The Sharmapa claimed that the Dalai Lama, as head of the Gelug, or Yellow Hat sect, had no authority to recognize Kagyu incarnations. Western adherents have been disturbed by the internal squabbling and charges of corruption, deception, and even murder. The image of Tibetans as peaceful spiritualists levitating above the world's problems has been tested by the ongoing Karmapa controversy and was perhaps irrevocably damaged when a well known Gelug monk and two disciples were murdered in Dharamsala, India, in 1997. Their deaths have generally been attributed to Tibetan followers of Dorje Shungden, a Gelug "protector god" whom the Dalai Lama officially renounced in 1996.

The Karmapa affair is not the first time that rival incarnations have been recognized. Enthronement has always been highly political. Such was the case when the Panchen Lama, the second-highest reincarnate figure after the Dalai Lama, suddenly died in Tibet in 1989. The Dalai Lama recognized a Tibetan boy, Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, as the Eleventh Panchen Lama in 1995. Soon after, however, Chinese authorities announced that they had enthroned Gyaltsen Norbu, whose parents were members of the Communist Party, as the new Panchen Lama. Although he had the devotion of most Tibetans, the Dalai Lama's chosen reincarnate disappeared; in May 1996 the Chinese government admitted they had taken the boy into custody. The Panchen Lama affair is written about extensively in Isabel Hilton's The Search for the Panchen Lama.

Historical Background

Shangri-La: Real or Ideal?

Tibet's struggle for cultural survival and political independence is becoming more visible in the West. In recent decades, cause of Tibet's cause has been championed by movie stars like Richard Gere and Steven Seagal, who was recognized as a reincarnated Tibetan by the Nyingma sect; movie directors like Martin Scorcese, whose film Kundun told the story of the young Dalai Lama; and bands such as the Beastie Boys have helped organize Tibetan Freedom concerts. It has become fashionable to take up the Tibetan cause and "Free Tibet" bumper stickers are more common. Westerners who seek truth in the spiritual traditions of the East, are becoming troubled by news of human rights violations and the destruction of Tibet's environment.

The image of Tibet has not always been so positive. Until the Chinese occupation, many Westerners characterized Tibetan society as feudal and stagnant, its religion a degenerate and superstitious form of Buddhism, riddled with corruption and idol worship. During the nineteenth century, Western scholars portrayed the Tibetan political system as the dark mirror image of the rational British Indian administration, likening it to the church-dominated feudalism of Europe's Dark Ages. The image of traditional Tibet has since been revised as Western appreciation for the spiritual wisdom of "traditional" peoples has grown.

As Europeans and Americans became "disen-chanted" with their "modern society" brought on by scientific and technological development, faraway Tibet, like other lands not fully mapped by Westerners, was imagined as a magical, sacred space where abominable snowmen and Himalayan gurus lived outside of history. This image was reinforced by the novel (and later film) Lost Horizon, in which the British writer James Hilton conjured up the secret Himalayan kingdom of Shangri-La, where peace reigns and no one grows old. Timelessness, harmony, and innocence of disappearing cultures are regular themes of coffee-table books, charitable solicitations, and travel advertisements. The alleged isolation of such societies makes them especially interesting to Western travelers precisely because they have not yet been contaminated by Western colonialism or tourism. This view fails to recognize accounts of internal violence and inequality that actually existed within most traditional societies and overlooks the impact of global politics and trade on even the most isolated peoples. For millions of New Age Westerners alienated from consumer society, an idealized and otherworldly Tibet has become a key symbol of spirituality that resists the twin onslaughts of modernism and materialism. New Age is a late twentieth century social movement drawing on concepts especially from Eastern traditions.

While scholars have begun to critically examine Western fantasies of Tibet, the Tibetan exiles and their supporters are concerned with countering propaganda from the People's Republic of China (PRC) about the evils of the old society. Chinese scholars emphasize old Tibet's technological underdevelopment, vast inequalities, and the alleged cruelty of its feudal system; while Tibetan activists tend to present idealized portraits of traditional Tibet both to foster nationalism within the refugee community and to elicit support from abroad. Tibetan activists have recently begun to appeal to the environmental consciousness of those in the West by portraying their culture as one that existed in harmony with nature before the Chinese occupation.

Like the idea of the Noble Savage—a mythic conception of non-Europeans as having innate simplicity and virtue uncorrupted by civilization—the myth of Shangri-La largely reflects Western desires, and it consequently places impossible expectations upon the Tibetans. The idealized, mythological image of Tibetans conflicts with their reality as flesh-and-blood people who are threatened with cultural extinction. The image of traditional Tibet as a completely isolated, spiritual, and peacefully unified nation is at odds with a historical record that reveals centuries of foreign alliances and sometimes violent power struggles among regional, religious, and aristocratic factions. Tibet's disputed history is at the heart of the "Tibet Question" as presented by Melvyn Goldstein's The Snow Lion and the Dragon.

Tibet Before the Storm

Tibet, on the "roof of the world," in the rain shadow of the Himalayan Mountains, attempted to remain aloof from global colonial and imperialist struggles. In name, Tibet was under Mongolian and Manchu imperial sovereignty for centuries, but it enjoyed a practical independence in its internal affairs, maintaining an imperfectly unified state under the dominance of Tibetan Buddhist monastic institutions. Although Tibet's recorded history presents no known cases of serious class conflict or peasant revolt, a short review of Tibetan society and history reveals enormous social, cultural, and political diversity, regional and religious conflict, and continuous foreign influences, both political and cultural.

At an average elevation of eleven thousand feet, the Tibetan plateau is dry, affords little arable land, and has a short growing season. The majority of Tibetan people live author had lived] in scattered agricultural valleys divided by mountain ranges and vast expanses of grasslands. Statistics on the Tibetan population are heatedly disputed. The Tibetan government-in-exile writes, "Although there is no independent census report of the Tibetan population in Tibet today, historical Tibetan sources show that their population before the Chinese invasion was at least six million." The exiles claim that about one million Tibetans have died as a result of the Chinese occupation. Geoffrey Samuel cited in the Journal of Asian Studies. the Chinese census of 1982, which estimated that there was a total of about five million culturally Tibetan people, of which only 1.79 million lived inside the Tibetan region. Indian, Nepalese, and Bhutanese sources supported these figures.

Tibetan settlements are linked by long-distance trading partners, Buddhist monastic networks, and nomadic pastoralists (herders) who tended herds of yak and sheep. The nomads trade meat and butter for barley, the staple grain of Tibet. Cities are few and relatively small, and industrial development is minimal. In rural areas the household is the basic unit of production. Families are organized into diverse forms to meet varied labor requirements and property rights. The most "exotic" and well-known Tibetan family arrangement is polyandry, the marriage of one woman to several men, usually brothers. Although the majority of Tibetan households are monogamous, some landholding families restricted their sons to having a single wife, so there would not be so many offspring to divide small farms among. Many households engage in diverse means of economic production, whereby members might specialize in agriculture, herding, or trade.

Tibetan people are ethnically distinct from the majority Han Chinese, and they speak a language that is only distantly related to Chinese languages. While there are fundamental similarities in the social structure, language, dress, and religion of all Tibetan people, there is also great regional and political variation and differences between agricultural and pastoral ways of life. Like the loosely structured pre-colonial Islamic societies of the Middle East, Tibet has a very low population density compounded by difficulties with communications and a heavy reliance on long-distance trade. These factors inhibit the development of a strong, centralized political authority. The presence of nearly autonomous monastic orders and waves of cultural and philosophical influences from China and India also has fostered the growth of a very rich and diverse set of Buddhist beliefs and practices, many of which retain significant elements of pre-Buddhist shamanism according to Geoffrey Samuel in Civilized Shamans: Buddhism in Tibetan Societies.

Tibet and Religion

Tibetans are devoutly religious people, and Buddhism permeates every aspect of a Tibetan's life. Before the Chinese occupation sparked nationalist feelings, Tibetans often identified themselves as nangba, or insiders (of the Buddhist community). Signs of their faith are visible everywhere, and prayer flags can be seen hanging from rooftops or strung across mountain passes. Many Tibetans make long pilgrimages to holy sites, walk around (circumambulate) temples daily, and offer prayers between snatches of conversation.

The vast Buddhist monasteries and nunneries, some of them virtual cities unto themselves, meet the Tibetan people's spiritual needs and provide the basis for the Tibetan socioeconomic system. According to Samuel in Civilized Shamans, monks account for approximately one-eighth of the Tibetan population, although some sources estimate up to one-fourth of the male population is made up of monks. Political power is shared between secular and religious figures, with the Dalai Lama, a sort of god-king, nominally above them all. Practical power and wealth is largely local, based on the manorial estates of aristocrats, incarnate lamas, and monastic institutions, which hold some fifty to sixty-two percent of the arable land in the twentieth century according to Melvyn Goldstein in A History of Modern Tibet, 1913-1951.

Historically, the central Tibetan state, which roughly corresponds to the present Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) of the People's Republic of China (PRC), governed less than half of the population. Much like feudal European kingdoms, the central state contained subordinate units, such as Sakya, that exercised considerable autonomy. Other Tibetan people lived under the political regimes of smaller agricultural states such as Bhutan, Sikkim, and Ladakh, and yet others lived under clan structures in pastoral areas such as in Kham and Amdo to the east, or were virtually self-governing, such as the Sherpas of Nepal. Many of these Tibetan peoples were incorporated into the modern nation-states of India, Nepal, and Pakistan, as well as into the PRC provinces of Sichuan, Yunnan, Gansu, and Qinghai that border the TAR. The annexation of Tibetan cultural regions into Chinese provinces is a continuing source of conflict.

The Rise and Fall of the Tibetan Nation

The early Tibetan political history is unclear. According to early Tibetan sources, rival chiefdoms and clans were first united under the Yarlung kings in the second century b. c. This period is also associated with a military expansion that continued for nine centuries. From the seventh to the mid-ninth centuries, the Tibetan Empire dominated the Himalayas. In 763 a. d. Tibetan armies even overran and held the Tang dynasty capital of Chang'an (later Xian) for several weeks.

The unification of Tibet and the evolution of Tibetan Buddhism must be understood in the light of the political relationships that stretched beyond its borders. In 640 a. d. Tibetan king Songtsen Gampo married the Tang dynasty princess Wenchen. Tibetans interpreted the marriage as a tribute from the Chinese, while Chinese scholars insist that it was made based on the initiative of the Tang emperor. Wenchen took a statue of the Buddha with her to Tibet. Thus Wenchen and her Nepalese co-wife are credited with introducing Buddhism to Tibet.

Although they occasionally warred, Tibet traded with China and India. Tibet also came under the cultural, political, and religious influences of these civilizations. While Chinese scholars claim that Tang artisans took their refined skills to a less developed Tibet, Songsten Gampo, in fact, brought in artists from regents adjacent to Tibet, including what are now India, Nepal, and Pakistan. The Tibetan written script was developed in the seventh century and adapted from the Indian Gupta alphabet.

Tibetan Buddhist texts devote considerable attention to the historical competition between Chinese and Indian religious philosophies and styles. In 792 the Tibetan king Trisong Detsen organized a contest in which famed practitioners from the Chinese and Indian Buddhist traditions debated and engaged in a magical competition. The Indians were declared the victors and the Chinese delegation was banished from Tibet. Tibet's rejection of Chinese philosophical forms parallels its attempts to reject Chinese political influence. In early Tibetan Buddhism, Indo-Nepali influences in philosophy and art predominated.

Buddhism was institutionalized under King Trisong Detsen and the first monastery at Samye was established in 779. Monastic institutions grew into wealthy bureaucracies that controlled large agricultural estates and engaged in international trade, money lending, and tax collecting. Buddhism provided a language for cross-cultural communication during this period of Tibetan expansion. The conquest, or domestication, of Tibet by Buddhism is represented by the image of the nation as a pre-Buddhist demoness pinned on her back by nails in the form of monasteries as described by Janice Willis in Feminine Ground: Essays on Women and Tibet.

In the ninth century, King Ralpachen supported the growing Buddhist hierarchy who opposed the "old Bön" shamanic priests. The modern Bön religion is now generally considered a variant of Tibetan Buddhism. This threatened the legitimacy and influence of the priests and their patrons, the aristocratic rivals to the king. Along with the king's brother, Langdarma, they engineered the assassination of Ralpachen in 836. Langdarma was enthroned, and he reinstated Bön as the official state religion and began persecuting Buddhists. He was killed by a Buddhist monk a few years later. The Tibetan state then collapsed into warring principalities. This began what is often referred to as the four-hundred-year Dark Age, when Tibetan power in Central Asia shifted from the Tibetans to the Turks, then the Mongols, and finally the Manchus.

In the eleventh century, a Buddhist renaissance began in the western outskirts of Tibet. In 1042 the Indian Buddhist sage Atisha arrived in Tibet, and, after his death, his disciple Lama Drom systematized his teachings and founded the Kadampa sect of Tibetan Buddhism. The Sakya and Kagyu sects also developed during this period. All three were rapidly transformed into monastic hierarchies. During this period, noble families and monasteries alike fielded armies in the contest for political supremacy. It was only under Mongol dominance that relative stability returned.

In 1207 the Mongol emperor Genghis Kahn threatened to invade Tibet unless it accepted vassal status and agreed to an annual tribute. A Tibetan delegation made payments until the Khan's death. The end of the annual monetary tributes provoked an invasion by the Khan's grandson, Godan Khan. Sakya Pandita, a Buddhist master, went to the Mongol court in 1244. He pacified the court and initiated a relationship between Tibetan clerics and Mongol rulers that Tibetans refer to as yon-mChod, or patron-priest. From 1271 to 1378, the Mongol Yuan dynasty dominated both China and Tibet, lending some credence to the Chinese claim that Tibet was a province of China at least since that time. Nevertheless Tibetan dynasties rejected the political or cultural union with the majority Han Chinese and both peoples lived under the loose foreign authority of Mongol and Manchu dynasties for centuries.

Under Kublai Khan, the first Yuan emperor, the Sakya sect was granted political authority over central Tibet and Kham and Amdo to the east. Mongol support of the Sakyas was the true beginning of Tibetan theocracy, a dual government of religion and politics, called Cho Si Nyi Den in Tibetan. In 1578 the abbot of Drepung monastery converted Altan Khan to the new reformist Gelug (Yellow Hat) sect, and received the Khan's military support as well as the title of Dalai Lama (Ocean of Wisdom). The Dalai Lama was believed to be an incarnation of Avalokitesvara, the Buddha of Compassion, and has remained a figure of reverence for all Tibetan peoples, including those living outside the political boundaries of the central Tibetan state. When the Third Dalai Lama died (the First and Second were recognized retroactively), the succeeding incarnation was found in the great grandson of Altan Khan.

The Great Fifth Dalai Lama faced resistance from aristocratic and monastic rivals to expanding Gelugpa power, and he turned to the Mongolian prince Gushri Khan for support. Gushri Khan supported the Dalai Lama as the spiritual and political head of Tibet. At the death of the Fifth Dalai Lama in 1682, however, Tibet again descended into chaos. The Sixth Dalai Lama, noted for his amorous adventures and love poetry, died or was killed under questionable circumstances. He was the first of many Dalai Lamas to meet an untimely demise. Stability was restored when Mongol power waned and the Manchu Qing dynasty of China sent troops into Lhasa, Tibet, in 1720 and installed the Seventh Dalai Lama.

The Qing dynasty made Tibet a relatively autonomous protectorate and generally attempted to direct Tibetan affairs only when it would benefit their interests. Despite the presence of two imperial representatives (ambans) and a small number of troops in Lhasa, Tibet maintained its own legal system and army according to Goldstein in A History of Modern Tibet. During this period, regents governed and exercised power because the Dalai Lamas was not of age. In order to counter the power of the Dalai Lama's regents in Lhasa, the Manchu emperors also supported the Gelug sect's second highest incarnation, the Panchen Lama in Shigatse, Tibet's second largest city.

Tibet's isolation during this period was not only a result of geography but also reflected the interests of Tibet's conservative elites who desired to hold foreign influences at bay. In the nineteenth century, the Tibetans refused to establish diplomatic or formal trade relations with British India to the south. The British sent the Pandits, Indians disguised as Tibetan pilgrims, on missions to investigate and map what the British perceived as "unknown" territory. These intrepid Indians, such as Sarat Chandra Das, painstakingly counted footsteps using Tibetan prayer beads to keep track of distances and hid compasses in handheld Tibetan prayer wheels to keep track of direction. Various European foreign adventurers vied to cross the Himalayas from the south, or traverse the great deserts from the north to reach the "forbidden city" of Lhasa. Few succeeded and most were turned back by Tibetan officials, bandits, or perished in the snows. Nevertheless, a French woman, Alexandra David-Neel, crisscrossed Tibet in disguise for years. Her book, Magic and Mystery in Tibet, contributed to a growing interest in Eastern spirituality, and fed the imaginations of less critical Western seekers. In the twentieth century, the books of Lobsang Rampa, such as The Third Eye, popularized many misconceptions about Tibet. Rampa claimed to be a Tibetan initiate but was in fact a British impostor, the son of a plumber.

Tibet and China

In the nineteenth century, the British and Russian empires were involved in a struggle for dominance over Central Asia, which was referred to as the Great Game. Britain never desired the unprofitable expense of incorporating Tibet into the empire: rather, it hoped to use Tibet as a buffer zone for its south Asian colonies. Lord Curzon, viceroy of India, sent the Younghusband military expedition to Lhasa in 1904. It brutally brushed aside the ragtag Tibetan army and its antiquated armaments. The Qing dynasty by this time was powerless to halt the intrusion. It had lost the Opium War (1839-42) to the British and was crumbling before a combination of European economic imperialism and internal discord.

The Younghusband mission had not been authorized by London, and the British soon reaf-firmed Chinese power over Tibet. China, startled by the short-lived invasion, made attempts to re-assert control over Tibetan affairs. This drove the independent, reform-minded Thirteenth Dalai Lama, the first to wield real and sustained power since the Great Fifth, into brief exile in India. The Qing dynasty, however, fell to a nationalist revolution in 1911, and China entered into decades of civil war and occupation by the Japanese.

In 1913 the Thirteenth Dalai Lama returned to Lhasa and expelled the Chinese from Tibet. Although Tibet enjoyed a de facto independence free from Chinese interference until 1950, Tibetan independence was never recognized by the Chinese Republic, Britain, the United States, or the League of Nations. Most nations acknowledged Chinese suzerainty (including another nation in international affairs but allowing the subject nation to have domestic sovereignty), but for all practical purposes dealt with Tibet as an independent nation. This is analogous to the current status of Taiwan, which exercises practical independence but is no longer recognized by the United States or the United Nations, both which adhere to a "one China" policy.

The Tibet question was addressed at the 1914 conference that brought together representatives of Britain, Tibet, and the new Chinese Republic at the Simla Conference. For the nationalist movement in China, reassuming control of Tibet and other border provinces was and remained a matter of great symbolic importance continues Goldstein in A History of Modern Tibet. The Simla Convention declared Tibet to be under Chinese suzerainty but autonomous in its internal affairs. The Chinese and Tibetans could not, however, reach consensus on Tibet's eastern borders, and ultimately the British and Tibetans signed the Convention without the consent of the Chinese Republic. The Tibetans also secretly agreed to accept British representative Arthur McMahon's map that for the first time clearly defined the boundaries of Tibet and British India from Bhutan to Burma, according to Warren Smith in Tibetan Nation. This boundary, known as the McMahon line, incorporated parts of Tibet into India in exchange for British support of Tibetan autonomy. Disputes over this border and China's refusal to recognize the legality of unequal and covert agreements eventually led to the 1962 war between India and China, in which India was defeated.

Despite problems with China, the Thirteenth Dalai Lama's worked to modernize Tibet and institute reforms. But these efforts, as well as his efforts to gain international recognition and organize a national army were sabotaged by conservative aristocrats and the monasteries, which deployed their own armies and were reluctant to pay taxes to the central government (Goldstein 1993). After the death of the Thirteenth Dalai Lama in 1933, the Fourteenth and current Dalai Lama was discovered in 1935 in eastern Tibet on the Chinese border. He was enthroned in Lhasa in 1940.

After the World War II, China was involved in a civil war that ended in 1949 with the founding of the People's Republic of China (PRC) under the rule of Mao Zedong and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The Nationalist Party, or Kuomintang (KMT), fled to exile in Taiwan. After its victory, the Peoples' Liberation Army (PLA) announced its intention to "liberate" all Chinese territories, including Taiwan and Tibet, which it claimed had been stolen from China during its previous weakness. On October 7, 1950, Chinese troops attacked and occupied the Tibetan border city of Chamdo, killing thousands of poorly armed Tibetan soldiers. On November 17, 1950, El Salvador requested that the Tibetan situation be addressed by the General Assembly of the United Nations. This request was tabled at the suggestion of the new Indian republic, which had gained independence in 1947 and was attempting to establish friendly relations with the PRC. The United States, already involved in a decades-long Cold War with the communist world, had little interest in confronting the PRC over the sparsely populated Tibet.

Confronted by imminent military defeat and occupation, the Tibetan government signed the Seventeen Point Agreement, meant to pave the way for the peaceful liberation of Tibet. The agreement stated that the Tibetan political-religious system would be preserved for the time being. It also stated, however, that Tibet was a province of China: this was the first time the Tibetan leadership had ever clearly consented to this proposition. Tibetan exiles have since argued that treaties imposed under the threat or use of force are invalid.

On September 9, 1951, some three thousand PLA troops entered Lhasa without resistance. The Dalai Lama was then just sixteen years old. Chairman Mao encouraged a policy of moderation in order to win over the Tibetans and to gradually institute reforms. At first these reforms appeared beneficial to many Tibetans, especially the poor. Improvements in roads and communications were made. The young Dalai Lama agreed that there were many faults with the old feudal system and had some sympathy for communist doctrines of equality. But during a face-to-face meeting with Mao Zedong, he was repulsed when Mao turned to him and said that "religion is poison."

Exile and Ethnocide

Friction in Tibet mounted, and in the late 1950s an armed resistance movement arose, particularly in Kham and Amdo, the eastern borderlands where more radical reforms had been instituted. The guerrillas obtained minor support from the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). They fought for about twenty years and launched their relatively ineffective attacks from Nepal after 1959. The Dalai Lama, while sympathetic, never condoned the resistance movement, always adhering to a policy of nonviolence.

Things came to a head when thousands of refugees and guerrilla fighters from the countryside gathered in Lhasa in 1959. On March 10 the Dalai Lama was invited to a performance hosted by Chinese officials. He was told not to bring an escort or bodyguards, which fueled rumors that he was to be kidnapped. Thousands of Tibetans surrounded the Norbulingka, the Dalai Lama's summer palace, to protect him. In the ensuing chaos, the Dalai Lama escaped disguised as a soldier, fleeing to exile in India. The Chinese shelled the palace and crushed the revolt. The Tibetan exile administration claims that some eighty-seven thousand Tibetans were killed between 1959 and 1960.

About eighty thousand Tibetans, including members of the elite and ordinary farmers, artisans, and traders, followed the Dalai Lama into exile. Many became ill or died either from the passage over the Himalayas or from infectious diseases that swept through their ranks. In the following decades thousands more have fled the Chinese occupation, and today there are approximately 133,000 Tibetan refugees in India, Nepal, and Bhutan, as well as several thousand in the United States, Canada, and Switzerland. The majority of Tibetan refugees live in settlements administered from Dharamsala, India, by the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA).

With the help of host country governments, international aid agencies, and money made from treasure smuggled out with the Dalai Lama, the Tibetans have established a democratic state-in-exile that provides employment, education, and medical care for many of the refugees. In 1963 the CTA drafted the first ever Tibetan constitution. The Dalai Lama has made a commitment to democracy and nonviolence and has repeatedly hinted that he will be the last of his lineage.

Before the Chinese occupation, Tibetan elites attempted to keep foreign influences out of Tibet, and few Westerners were allowed to set foot in the capital city of Lhasa. In recognition of the new importance of international political and economic support, CTA offices have been opened in Delhi, India; New York, New York; Zurich, Switzerland; Budapest, Hungary; Canberra, Australia; Paris, France; Tokyo, Japan; Geneva, Switzerland; Moscow, Russia; Kathmandu, Nepal; Washington, D.C.; and London, England. Tibetan refugees have relied more on cultural resistance than direct action against the Chinese occupation. Sympathy and financial support for their cause has been generated as a result of their displays and promotions of art and ritual. Rather than directly competing with Indian and Nepali businesses, the exiles in India and Nepal produce traditional arts and crafts for export and tourist markets. They have also profited from the surge of Western interest in Buddhism. Because so many Tibetans live in exile, they have been forced to adapt their traditional religious institutions. Over 117 monasteries have been reestablished in exile, in large part through Western donations. These echo the traditional yon-mchod relationships between Tibetan clerics and Mongol or Manchu elites. Tibetans in exile are extremely successful, and are often materially better off than their Indian and Nepali hosts.

In 1959, the situation in Tibet began to deteriorate. Under Chinese rule, the forced collectivization of agriculture in Tibet led to impoverishment and famine. Wheat, preferred by the Han Chinese, was planted in place of barley, and did poorly. The Tibetan government-in-exile claims that up to 1.2 million Tibetans died as a direct result of Chinese oppression and mismanagement. Destruction of the environment under Chinese rule has been rampant. There have been reports of Chinese soldiers machine-gunning wildlife. Some species unique to the Tibetan Plateau are now on the brink of extinction. China used Tibet for its nuclear testing and for dumping hazardous wastes. Because Tibet is the source of many Asian rivers and a watershed for China, India, and Bangladesh, the environmental damage will affect many including people outside Tibet's borders. Deforestation in the headwaters of the Yangze River may have contributed to the devastating floods in 1998 that killed thousands of people downstream. The PRC continues to construct massive hydropower plants, claiming it will provide power for Tibetan development. The scale of these projects, and the presence of military guards at construction sites, disrupts both the environment and the sensibilities of Tibetans who consider many lakes and rivers sacred.

During the Chinese Cultural Revolution (1966-76) rapid and ill-planned reforms were enforced by young communist zealots called the Red Guards who were encouraged by Chairman Mao to overturn the last vestiges of the old society and humiliate its representatives. Children were forced to denounce their parents, and religious figures were paraded through the streets, beaten, and spat upon. Tibetan religious expression, central to Tibetan identity, was forbidden, and the Tibetan language was banned in the schools. According to the exiles, in 1959 there were a total of over six thousand monasteries and some half a million monks and nuns. During the Cultural Revolution the great monasteries were shelled for target practice, religious texts were burned, and the Tsuglakhang, Tibet's most sacred temple, was used as a pigsty. By 1976 only eight monasteries and nunneries were left standing.

After the death of Mao in 1976 and the downfall of the ultra-leftist Gang of Four, the PRC made an about-face in social and economic policy under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping. Collectives were broken up and privatized, and the populace encouraged by the words, "enrich yourselves." Liberalization continues under the present leadership, which calls its policies "market socialism." Religious and cultural freedoms for Tibetans have expanded, many monasteries and temples are being rebuilt, and the Tibetan language has been reintroduced in the schools. Tibetans also now experience the (somewhat restricted) presence of sympathetic Western tourists.

Millions of ethnic Han Chinese, who are encouraged by the PRC to immigrate to Tibet, dominate much of political and commercial life. Tibetans are still discriminated against and subjected to what is referred to as the Great Han Chauvinism. Traditional neighborhoods are being pulled down and cities are being rapidly built in their place. Tibetan cities will soon be indistinguishable from Chinese cities. Under the PRC's family-planning policies, thousands of Tibetan women have been subjected to forced sterilizations and late-term abortions. Hundreds of cases of torture of political prisoners, many of them monks and nuns, have been documented by human rights organizations such as Amnesty International.

Recent History and the Future

A Future for Tibet?

Negotiations between representatives of the Dalai Lama and the PRC were conducted between 1982 and 1984 but little progress made. A key stumbling block has been the exiles' demand for a Greater Tibet that incorporates the ethnically Tibetan provinces of Qinghai, Sichuan, Gansu, and Yunnan. In 1987 the Dalai Lama announced a Five Point Plan, later reformulated in a well-publicized speech known as the Strasbourg Proposal that was delivered before the European Parliament. The Dalai Lama offered significant concessions to the PRC to the consternation of many exiles. He proposed Tibetan autonomy rather than full independence, and he envisioned a demilitarized "Zone of Peace" on the Tibetan Plateau. The Chinese rejected the inclusion of Tibetan ethnic regions in Chinese provinces and reiterated their demand that the Dalai Lama support the full integration of Tibet into the PRC. Chinese leadership seems to fear that the ethnic separatism of Tibet will spread to other regions of China where there is a Tibetan minority.

Negotiations are at a standstill, and the Tibetan exiles now have an international strategy to attract people and governments of the world to their in position who in turn will pressure the PRC. The Dalai Lama, who once lived in seclusion in the city of Lhasa, has become a globetrotter, addressing the U.S. Congress, meeting with presidents, and offering once-restricted Buddhist initiations to hundreds of thousands converts. His face can be seen advertising Apple computers, urging us to "Think Different." The Dalai Lama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989.

Liberalization in Tibet has not softened Tibetan resentment. In September 1987, monks from Lhasa, Tibet's Drepung monastery were arrested after staging a protest in support of the Dalai Lama. When another small group of monks demonstrated on their behalf on October 1, the police took them into custody and beat them, sparking the first of several riots. Police fired into the crowds, killing an uncertain number of Tibetans. Much of our knowledge of these and other such incidents comes from the reports of Western tourists who have witnessed and sometimes covertly filmed these incidents. Riots in December 1988 and March 1989 provoked a declaration of martial law in Tibet and the expulsion of foreign tourists. Travel to Tibet is once again possible within strict limitations, and tourists remain a primary source of information about and sympathy for nationalist protests.

Despite the PRC's continuing violation of human rights accords and the feelings stirred by images of unarmed monks beaten by Chinese police, most nations are interested in maintaining good relations with the PRC and its vast and growing consumer market. The U.S. Congress has passed a number of resolutions calling for humans rights in China, and Presidents Bush and Clinton have met with the Dalai Lama on several occasions, to the great irritation of the PRC's leadership. Priority, however, is given to U.S. economic interests, and the Clinton administration succeeded in extending Most Favored Nation trading status to the PRC in 2000. President Clinton also supported its inclusion in the World Trade Organization (WTO). By the mid-1990s, many Tibetans and their supporters feared that the struggle had been lost. One recent bright spot for Tibetan nationalism was the cancellation of a controversial project supported by the World Bank that would have re-settled some sixty thousand Chinese farmers in Tibetan regions.

More recently China may be hardening its stance. The Dalai Lama's visit to Taiwan in 1997 angered Beijing, and China now demands that the Dalai Lama recognize Chinese sovereignty over Taiwan as well as Tibet. In June, 2000, Taiwanese president Chen Shui-bian told an American delegation that he accepted the "one China" principle, although how that unitary China should be defined was still open to debate. Some Tibetan nationalists hope for the dissolution of the present Chinese state along the lines of the former Soviet Union in the early 1990s. The U.S. government and the Dalai LamaCwho made statements supporting China's membership in the WTOChope that by fully including the PRC in the global economy, it will gradually be reformed. In a democratic China, Tibetans might run their own affairs, and possibly hold a referendum on independence. In such a scenario, Tibet might return to the role it played in earlier centuries, as a buffer or "Zone of Peace" between larger nations, with its political and cultural autonomy recognized by nations and peoples from beyond the peaks. China appears to be waiting for the death of the Dalai Lama, now in his sixties, while Tibetans become a minority in much of their homeland.


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Eric A.McGuckin


200-100 b. c. Tibet is united under the Yarlung kings.

600s-800s a. d. The Tibetan empire dominates the region.

763 Tibet armies briefly overrun the Chinese Tang dynasty.

1271-1378 The Mongol Yuan dynasty dominates both China and Tibet.

1904 British India briefly gains control of Tibet with the Younghusband expedition. As the British withdraw, China attempts to regain control.

1913 China is expelled from Tibet; however, Tibet's independence is never recognized internationally.

1914 The Simla Conference gives Tibet autonomy within China.

1940 The fourteenth Dalai Lama is enthroned.

1950 Chinese troops occupy a Tibetan border town and kill thousands.

1959 The Dalai Lama and thousands of Tibetans flee Tibet.

1962 China and India fight a war over borders, including Tibet's borders.

1966-76 Thousands of Tibetan monasteries and nunneries are destroyed during the Cultural Revolution of China.

1982-84 The Dalai Lama and the People's Republic of China negotiate Tibet's status but fail to arrive at an agreement.

1999 A Tibetan monk, fourteen-year-old Urgyn Trinley Dorje, is recognized as the seventeenth reincarnation of Gyalwa Karmapa. He flees Tibet for India.

Dalai Lama

1935- The term "Dalai Lama" refers to the head of the Gelug (Yellow Hat) order of Tibetan Buddhists. The Dalai Lama is considered by many followers of the order to be the ruler of Tibet through reincarnation. Tibetan monks select a child they believe to be the physical manifestation of the previous Dalai Lama. Tibetans call the Dalai Lama Rgyal-ba Rin-po-che, which means Great Precious Conqueror.

The current Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso (Ocean-like Guru) was born June 6, 1935. He was designated the fourteenth Dalai Lama in 1937, but his duties were exercised by a regent while he was being educated. As a child, the Dalai Lama was raised in a monastery and has recalled often being lonely.

After the unsuccessful revolt of the Tibetans against the Chinese forces in 1959, he disguised himself as a soldier, fled to India with one hundred thousand followers, and set up a government-in-exile. Known for his sense of humor and compassion, the Dalai Lama is the author of several books. He was awarded the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize for his commitment to the nonviolent liberation of Tibet. His life is the subject of the movie Kundun.