Tibet: Independent or not?

Emotions run high as 6,000 Tibetan exiles walk on soil transported into India by a Tibetan artist. But was Tibet ever a sovereign state?

People who deny that the nation-state means something should hear the cries from Tibetans who remain exiled on the far side of the Himalayas in India. As their countrymen and women receive increasing numbers of Han Chinese migrants, and their culture is at best sidelined and at worst treated as obscure and harmful, a moment to reflect on the plight of Tibet appears opportune. 

Of course, the international community (dreadful phrase) courts China, and speaks in diplomatic tones of hope for the incarcerated democracy protestors and troubled minorities (not merely in Tibet), but what of Tibet? Is it actually an integral part of China, or not?

(1)  The history of a unified Tibet begins with the founder of the Tibetan Empire, SongtsÃĪn Gampo, who ruled from around 604 to 650 AD. 

(2)   It didn't last long, as by about 750 AD most of the northern possessions had been lost to the Chinese. 

(3)  The Chinese and Tibetans signed a treaty in c. 821 and Tibet persisted in controlling its own lands unthwarted until the mid-9th Century. 

(4)  The Mongols then over-ran the area, managing Tibet as a sub-district of China until a Tibetan, Tai Situ Changchub Gyaltsen, expelled the foreign overlords in 1354. 

(5)  His clan's replacement Tibetan rulers, the Rinpungpa, ruled much of Tibet until c. 1512.

(6)  A Tibetan Kingdom at Guge in Western Tibet existed from the 10th Century until incorporated, along with another at Tsaparang, in around 1680 by the Lhasa-headquartered 5th Dalai Lama.

(7)  The Chinese Qing Dynasty overan Tibet (then Khan) in 1724, although a Tibetan exclave at Ladakh in modern-day Kashmir retained independence which was itself eventually over-run by Sikhs in 1834.

(8)  As Qing authority subsided, so the Chinese hold over Tibet weakened to the point that by around 1850 its presence was hardly felt at all in Lhasa. Whether that could be interpreted as independence is somewhat doubtful.

(9)  After the British of the Indian Raj invaded Tibet in 1904, worried as they were at that time about Russian expansionist intentions, a treaty was signed between the Brits and the 13th Dalai Lama. But that was swiftly superceded by a treaty with the Chinese in 1906, which recognised Chinese suzereignty over Tibetan territory.

(10) The Qing government exiled the Dalai Lama, who fled into British India in 1920.

(11) When the Xinhai Revolution (1911-12) threw out the Qing dynasty and installed a republic in China, the new Chinese government requested the return of the Dalai Lama. But he declined, declaring instead that he was ruler of an independent Tibet "in collusion with Mongolia" as Wikipedia describes it. That might refer to ancient connections and old alliances. A power struggle with the Chinese for territorial control ensued for a few years. In 1914 the Simla Accord between the Tibetans and the British ceded South Tibet to the British, a decision rejected by the Chinese.

(12)  Chinese involvement in Tibetan affairs increased over time, and by the 1940s China had considerable influence over Tibetan policy.

(13)  The then young 14th Dalai Lama signed an agreement with the Chinese in 1950, but a Tibetan rebellion against Chinese interference in 1959 resulted in a great exodus of Tibetans over the border into India and the creation of the now-famed government-in-exile at Dharamsala in Himachal Pradesh.

The rest is history, as they say.

To claim that the Tibetans never had a country of their own appears to be erroneous. To appreciate the degree of Chinese involvement in the region, one only ought to consider the extent of Chinese power and influence there.

But, as the Brits would say of the Falklanders or the Gibraltarians, they should decide their fate themselves. If Falklanders wish to become Malvinian Argentinians, or Gibraltarians seek to be Spaniards then they should choose in a plebiscite.

No referendum, that I'm aware of, has been offered to Tibetans. And the conundrum is complicated (as is the case with Western Sahara and Sahelian demands for independence from Morocco) by the vast number of Han now living and working in Tibet. Demographics have been severely scewed.

At some point eventually, years after the Chinese have adopted full democracy, Tibetans might be offered a free vote on their future. But by then what proportion of Tibet's population will be Tibetan, and who exactly should be allocated a ballot paper?

Understandably, the 'international community' steers wide of this contentious issue. Double-dealing as many do, it appears, by shaking the Dalai Lama's hand or that of the Tibetan premier-in-exile, as colleagues strike borrowing or trade deals in Beijing.

A messy affair if ever there was one. All Tibetans could hope to do is bide their time uneasily. But sixty two years have passed and a solution is no nearer. 

China can sit on its hands, it seems, as it enhances its prestige and prowess. And Tibetans can hold tightly onto their culture as they remember the past and imagine their future.

43-year old Darjeeling-born, Harvard-educated Lobsang Sangay is the first ever elected Kalon Tripa (equivalent to Prime Minister) of the Tibetan government in exile. He presents the political case as the 14th Dalai Lama focusses on religious and cultural issues. There are some 128,000 Tibetans registered as residing abroad but this figure could be over 150,000. Most live in India. Some 5.4 million Tibetans live in China, mostly in the Tibetan Autonomous Region, but quite a number also in the neighbouring provinces of Quingai, Sichuan and Gangsu.

The Kalon Tripa is effectively premier of the Dharamsala-based Central Tibetan Administration which claims the territory of the Tibetan Autonomous Region. Tenzin Gyatso, the Nobel-prize winning 14th Dalai Lama, has been in post since 1950 and lives in exile also in Dharamsala.

Approximately 6.1% of the population of the Tibet Autonomous Region are Han Chinese.

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