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A Discourse on the Future of Tibet

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Monday, Mar 10, 2008
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Originally published on U.S. Tibet Committee website.

On March 10, Tibetans everywhere commemorate the general uprising in 1959 against the Chinese occupation of their country. I imagine that even the Tibetans in Tibet will also secretly commemorate this event. Tibetans remember this event because it was in the chaos of the 1959 uprising that His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, managed to escape to India. The Chinese killed tens of thousands in ruthlessly suppressing this rebellion and thousands more suffered harsh prison terms. His Holiness remains in forced exile to this day in India. Nearly forty years after the Dalai Lama left, Tibet remains an occupied country under brutal domination by the People’s Republic of China and over one million Tibetans have died as a result of the Chinese occupation. The majority of the six million Tibetans live under harsh, brutal subjugation by China.

It was also in 1959 that the International Commission of Jurists (“ICJ”) published its first report: The Question of Tibet and the Rule of Law. The ICJ found that evidence existed that Tibetans were being deprived basic human rights under international law and that China was systematically and ruthlessly suppressing political and religious freedom in Tibet. The following year the ICJ published another report concluding that Tibet was an independent nation prior to 1950, that China illegally invaded Tibet, and that China was committing acts of cultural genocide against the Tibetan people. In September 1959, His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, appealed Tibet’s case to the United Nations (“UN”). In three resolutions between 1959 and 1965, the UN General Assembly called on China to respect the human rights of the Tibetan people, including their right of self-determination, and their distinctive cultural and religious life.

Since His Holiness fled Tibet, the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan Government-in-Exile have attempted to achieve freedom for Tibet through peaceful and diplomatic means. In 1988, His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, issued a statement, known as the “Strasbourg Proposal”, in which he stated that he was willing to negotiate the issue of Tibet’s future on the basis that Tibet would be a true “autonomous region” within the People’s Republic of China, and that this autonomous region would include all three former Tibetan provinces (U-Tsang, Kham, and Amdo). China basically had no response other than to state that Tibet is already a fully autonomous region of China (the Tibetan Autonomous Region of China currently includes only the province of U-Tsang or about half of Tibet’s original size), and that China would only negotiate the issue of the Dalai Lama’s return, but only if His Holiness first admitted that Tibet was never independent.

It has been ten years since the Tibetan Government adopted the Strasbourg Proposal and China has not changed its hard-line position. The terrible conditions which Tibetans have suffered since the 1950 Chinese invasion continue, and after a brief period of liberality in the early 1980s, oppression in Tibet has in recent years become more severe. It appears that the Strasbourg Proposal has had no effect on either alleviating the suffering of the Tibetan people or in achieving some measure of freedom for Tibet.

In 1997, the ICJ published its third report entitled Tibet: Human Rights and the Rule of Law. I have read this report and it is deeply disturbing. By reviewing international, Tibetan and Chinese documents, eyewitness reports, and treatises of international law, the ICJ has reached several conclusions, including:

- human rights abuses and suppression of political and religious freedoms continue and have steadily increased since 1987; 
- despite provisions in the Chinese Constitution and the 1951 Seventeen Point Agreement between Tibet and China (which Tibet was forced to sign and certain Tibetan government seals were forged by China), Tibet does not enjoy any measure of autonomy because all Tibetan political organs are dominated by Chinese officials and the Communist Party; 
- Since 1950 there has been a large influx of Chinese immigrants to Tibet accounting for nearly one-third of the population (by Tibetan estimates there are more than seven million Chinese living in Tibet compared to only six million Tibetans); 
- China has concluded that an association exists between the Tibetan language and ‘pro-independence’ ideas, and now prohibits the teaching of Tibetan beyond primary schools; 
- the judiciary is subservient to the Communist Party and has been enlisted in the crackdown against ‘splittist’ activities, and political detainees are deprived of even the most elementary safeguards of due process; 
- enrollment in middle and secondary schools by Tibetans is extremely low, there is high dropout rate among Tibetans, and the education that Tibetans do receive only serves to convey a sense of inferiority in comparison to the dominant Chinese culture; 
- peaceful political demonstrations are prohibited outright and broken up violently by the police; 
- although the Tibetan population is small and its territory sparsely populated, China limits the number of children which Tibetan women may have, punishes and discriminates against those families who have too many children, and even forces women to undergo sterilization and have late-term abortions; and 
- the ICJ concluded that Tibet was an independent nation prior to 1950, that the 17 Point Agreement was validly repudiated by the Tibetan government, and that Tibetans have a right to self-determination, by which they may freely determine their political status.

These are only some of the terrible crimes China has committed in Tibet. I urge every Tibetan to read a copy of the ICJ’s report to understand the full impact of China’s occupation.

In addition, the ICJ called upon the UN to resume the debate on the question of Tibet and seek a referendum of all Tibetans to ascertain their self-determination, and called upon the Tibetan government to negotiate with China based on the self-determination wishes of the Tibetan people. Only residents of Tibet prior to 1950 and their descendants, wherever they might be, would be entitled to vote in this referendum. The Chinese and Tibetan governments should abide by any decision of the Tibetan people.

Realistically speaking, such a referendum is unlikely to happen anytime soon. The General Assembly cannot force any member nation to comply with its resolutions, even assuming it passed such a resolution. The UN Security Council is powerless to act because China is a permanent member of the Security Council and can veto any of its resolutions. Considering China’s political influence, the UN is unlikely to pass such a resolution and even if it did, China would simply ignore it, as it currently ignores the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international conventions concerning political and social freedoms to which China is a signatory.

Unfortunately, the international community has been unwilling to take meaningful actions to end human rights violations in Tibet or to bring about a resolution of Tibet’s political future. Although many democratic nations are willing to denounce China’s human rights abuses and criticize China for its harsh treatment of political dissent in Tibet, these criticisms remain only that, words that have little real effect on China’s policy toward Tibet.

Fifty years after China invaded the sovereign nation of Tibet, exiled its political and spiritual leader, razed its historical and religious buildings to the ground, polluted its pristine environment, and killed over one million of its people, no nation is willing to take action to stop China and prevent the genocide of the Tibetan people. Genocide is what is happening in Tibet. The ICJ’s report leaves one with only one inescapable conclusion: China seeks to eradicate the Tibetan culture and religion and exterminate the Tibetan race. It has been systematically doing this since 1950 and it shows every intention of continuing until it succeeds. Rather than placing Tibetans in death camps, as the Nazis did with Jews, China has embarked on a strategy to eradicate first Tibet’s culture and then its people slowly over several generations so as not to bring down world condemnation. A ploy that so far seems to be working.

Diplomacy without a bargaining leverage has proven unsuccessful. The time for action is now. In another fifty years, there may not be any more Tibetans living in Tibet. Can Tibetans afford to wait, or will Tibet be so smothered in Chinese immigrants that it ends any hope of freeing Tibet?

The Tibetan Government-in-Exile has sought to free Tibet by seeking international, diplomatic pressure on China to end its occupation of Tibet. This should continue, but by itself, it may not be enough. If Tibetans do succeed in persuading the free nations of the planet to bring about diplomatic and economic pressure on China to free Tibet, then maybe this course might work. Up to now, however, no nation has been willing to give up the economic benefits of being China’s friend. It is time that Tibetans take positive steps to free their country. No one will help us unless we are willing to help ourselves.

One possible way is for Tibetan political leaders to organize civil disobedience on a massive scale both in- and outside Tibet. Of course, demonstrators outside Tibet have little to fear but temporary detention for disturbing the peace. In Tibet, demonstrators risk their very lives and the lives of their families. Even if large numbers of Tibetan s began demonstrating for independence in the streets of Lhasa, it would probably have little impact on the Chinese government. The type of non-violent civil disobedience employed successfully by Mahatma Gandhi in India and Martin Luther King in America worked because the governments they were opposing were essentially democracies. Democracies with elected leaders, a free press, and answerable to the public.

China is not a democracy but an autocracy ruled by a small circle of high level ‘Communist party’ officials. There is no free press, no free elections, no free speech, and the Chinese government does not answer to its public. It does not care what the Chinese people think about its policies in Tibet, even if the Chinese people heard the truth. As it is, the average Chinese does not hear the truth about Tibet, knows no Tibetans, and does not believe their opinions can alter governmental policies. Moreover, China tightly controls the information which comes out of Tibet so that acts of civil disobedience may not make it to the international headlines. As long as China remains a police state controlled by the Communist party, non-violent civil disobedience is unlikely to bring about an positive results.

If China were truly democratic with elected leaders, then civil disobedience could possibly work, if the press were allowed to report on it. When the harsh conditions the Tibetans have suffered are made known to the average Chinese, and when the Tibetan desire for independence is publicized to the world, then the Chinese government may be pressured into giving Tibet its independence. Because Tibet’s chances for freedom are greater in a democratic China, the Tibetan Government should coordinate its efforts with those of Chinese dissidents and democracy students. While I believe democracy will one day come to China, no one knows how long that will take. Time is not on our side.

Another possible way to free Tibet is to organize resistance cells. During World War II, French patriots joined underground resistance cells to harass, sabotage, and spy on the activities of their Nazi occupiers. Similar resistance movements occurred in other occupied countries in Europe and Asia. Although outgunned and outnumbered, these resistance cells were able to do significant damage to the German and Japanese occupation forces and provided vital intelligence to Allied forces. Unfortunately, Tibet does not have an Allied army fighting to expel its invader, as was the case in World War II or more recently in the 1990 Gulf War to free Kuwait. This does not mean that a Tibetan resistance movement would fail. Indigenous resistance movements succeeded in Vietnam and Afghanistan and they also faced the might of superior army. It could work in Tibet if the people have the will to be free against all odds.

There is precedence in Tibetan history for this type of action. My own grandfather, Tsepon W. D. Shakabpa, helped organize resistance movements in Tibet in the 1950′s. In 1958, a rebellion, which had started in eastern Tibet, had nearly become successful, having formed their own army called Danglang Temsung Makhar, or Volunteer National Defense Army. Resistance would not have to be on a large scale to have an impact on China. If Tibetans can make China’s occupation of their country costly and difficult, it will give significant leverage to negotiating efforts on the diplomatic front.

No one wants violence to erupt in Tibet. Most everybody would prefer a diplomatic solution. But Tibet may not have the time. China has shown every intention of holding onto Tibet with an iron grip. They will not loosen that grip until Tibetans force them to. If the Tibetan Government does not seize the initiative to organize the Tibetan people, sporadic violence may erupt chaotically throughout Tibet. Without organization and direction, such spontaneous outbursts of freedom will ultimately fail and result only in widespread arrests, torture and perhaps the death of many Tibetans, without any gains in the goal of freeing Tibet.

So what can be done?

The Government-in-Exile must listen to the voice of the Tibetan people. The evidence is clear that the majority of Tibetans desire independence and do not want to be a part of China. One only has to look at the hundreds, perhaps thousands of political prisoners in Tibet, who were imprisoned because they expressed a desire for independence. As far as I know, no one has ever been arrested for demonstrating in support of Tibetan autonomy. Even His Holiness himself recently acknowledged that it is the overwhelming desire of the Tibetan people to regain their independence.

Although concerns over whether Tibet can handle itself as an independent nation have been expressed, the problems facing an independent Tibet are no different than those faced by any new nation in the modern era. There will be many problems and it will likely take many years to recover from the Chinese occupation, but that is not a reason not to seek independence. I believe Tibetans are up to the task of governing their own country. To believe otherwise seriously underestimates the abilities and determination of the Tibetan people.

The Tibetan Government should continue to push for a diplomatic and peaceful solution. However, it is time the world took Tibetans seriously and recognize His Holiness and the Government-in-Exile as the political representatives of the Tibetan people. Diplomatic efforts should include persuading the United Nations to address the issue of Tibet formally and asking the UN to apply the same action it did in the case of Iraq’s occupation of Kuwait and the recent condemnation of Serbia’s violent attacks on ethnic Albanians in Kosovo who desire freedom for their land.

Tibetan freedom movements have and should continue to align themselves with other movements who oppose the Communist Chinese. Supporters for independence of Taiwan, East Turkestan (Xinjiang), and Inner Mongolia are our allies. Tibetans should also support Chinese dissidents who seek democracy in China. It would be far easier to achieve independence under a democratic China than under a communist one.

The media should also be enlisted to support our cause. Seven Years in Tibet and Kundun have done far more in spreading the truth about Tibetan than any political organization has. It is time another movie be made which describes the conditions in Tibet since the Chinese occupation.

What can ordinary Tibetans do? Tibetans who are citizens of democratic nations, such as the United States and India, must write to their political representatives and leaders and urge them to press China to respect the human rights and freedoms of Tibetans and to negotiate in good faith with the Tibetan Government-in-Exile. We must also try to convince these nations to impose economic sanctions against China for its racist and repressive policies in Tibet. There must be constant pressure to persuade the world that Tibet deserves its freedom.

Young Tibetans in exile should try to obtain the best education possible. When Tibet is finally free, it will need talented leaders in government, business, science, health care, and education. China has prevented the majority of Tibetan children from obtaining a decent education. To fill in this large gap, Tibetans who grow up outside Tibet must learn useful skills so that they can use them for the benefit of a new Tibetan nation.

Finally, each Tibetan must decide for him or herself what they can do to help free Tibet. If you truly desire independence, write to the Government-in-Exile and tell them so. Be not afraid to speak your views in public or among other Tibetans. If we Tibetans are serious about democracy, then we must be willing to express our views and tolerate different viewpoints. If our compatriots in Tibet are willing to risk imprisonment, torture and even death to speak out against the Chinese occupation, can we who live in free countries do no less?

The time to act is now. All Tibetan nationalists who desire freedom, liberty and independence for their country should stand up to be counted. To free Tibet, Chinese tyranny must be resisted. I truly believe Tibet will be free one day, because our cause is just and our goal is righteous. Tibet cannot afford to wait another fifty years. The path to freedom and the preservation of Tibetan culture and religion is through independence.

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