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June - July 2008


Political News

The Tibetan Uprising, China’s Military Crackdown & The Relevance of Beijing 2008 Olympics

by Sashanka Sekhar Banerjee


“It is Cultural Genocide…”

His Holiness The Dalai Lama, Tibet’s Spiritual Leader, said in a Statement from his exile in Dharamshala in India on China’s security crackdown on the peaceful Tibetan demonstrations beginning on 10 March 2008.

As the non-violent protest demonstrations of the Tibetans against the excesses of the Chinese repression spread all over Tibet and across into the Tibetan areas of the western provinces of China and in the industrial democracies of the world, The Dalai Lama said in a statement from Dharamshala that they are “the outbursts of long pent-up physical pain and mental anguish” that go to prove that most Tibetans want freedom from Chinese rule. This is probably the first time that the Tibetan leader opened his mouth in so categorical a term and at such a critical a juncture in the pro-independence struggle of the Tibetan people using the expression “freedom from Chinese rule”.

If it was a considered articulation, the change of tone was unmistakable. The Dalai Lama has consistently said that his vision of Tibet is to remain within China as an “Autonomous Region” and the struggle of the Tibetan people is aimed at achieving this goal through non-violent means and peaceful dialogue. He has also repeatedly stressed that he would not accept any dilution or diminution of genuine “Autonomous Region” status of Tibet within China nor would he compromise on the issues of preserving the unique cultural identity and the religious tradition of Tibetan Buddhism.

The Chinese never took serious notice of the Dalai Lama’s words that he has been reiterating since 1959; in fact the Communist Government consistently flouted his pleadings without any compunction. Beijing has turned Tibet into a colonial outpost of Imperial China making it part of its expanding Empire where the local Tibetan population has been reduced to a minority by the induced mass influx of Han Chinese from the mainland. The ulterior motive was to bring about such a dramatic demographic change in Tibet that the dominant numerical position of the Tibetan people as against the new arrivals the Han Chinese and the distinctive cultural identity of Tibetan Buddhism would be wiped out. The Tibetan people would then slowly become subservient to the brash materialistic culture of modern atheistic China. If the Communist Chinese have their way, Tibetan Buddhism will die on its own feet in its heartland and whatever residual leftovers there be, will flourish in freedom and liberty in India.

The Death of Tibet will be a terrible loss to world civilisation. China however describes its conquest of Tibet as an internal matter where no outsider has the right to interfere.

Beijing is completely wrong in this line of thinking. The international community cannot afford to hesitate for too long and stand and stare, remain aloof and watch helplessly the rape of Tibet under its very nose. Illegal occupation creates unjust and intolerant societies and Communist China is no exception to this. If democracy has any meaning, it is time for the great democratic powers like the US, the EU, Japan, Australia and India and all well-meaning people to stand up and declare their solidarity with the Dalai Lama.

Within a year in 1950 after Mao Zedong declared China a Communist Republic in 1949 he ordered the invasion and occupation of Tibet. India was responsible for maintaining the internal security of Tibet, a job bequeathed by the withdrawing British colonial authorities at the time of the transfer of power in 1947. New Delhi chose to remain a silent and helpless spectator. One reason was Beijing’s choice of timing. In 1950, India was busy with Kashmir, which was under attack by the tribesmen from Pakistan and therefore it had no option but to refrain from opening a second front of war with China.

The current turmoil in Tibet and the sacrifices being made by the Tibetans should be seen as an opportunity for the international community to find out if China’s occupation of Tibet in 1950 is illegal just as the Soviet Union’s invasion and occupation of Afghanistan in 1979 and Saddam Hussain’s invasion and occupation of Kuwait in 1991 were illegal. The people of Tibet reject Chinese rule over Tibet and regard the presence of the Peoples Liberation Army as an occupation force. In the cases of the illegal occupation of Afghanistan and Kuwait the world’s most powerful democracies united and challenged the Soviet Union and Iraq and drove them out. But in the case of Tibet they failed to respond to the challenge of the Chinese illegal occupation. This constitutes a travesty of justice against a peaceful and a non-violent people who are led by The Dalai Lama, the single most revered apostle of peace in the 21st century. Dr Manmohan Singh, India’s Prime Minister, meaning to send a subtle message to China, described The Dalai Lama as the greatest Gandhian of this century. When The Dalai Lama said that the Chinese occupation of Tibet, their wanton destruction of the institutions of Tibetan Buddhism and Culture and their repression of the peaceful people of Tibet was “Cultural Genocide”, his words came out from the depth of his aching heart. He is in fact looking for support and succour from the world’s most powerful democracies like the US, the EU, Japan, Australia and India; he needs their help to free his people.

An astute diplomat that he is, The Dalai Lama after much thought warned his fellow countrymen not to try to disrupt the Olympic Games 2008 in Beijing. “It will be futile and not helpful to anyone if we do something that will create hatred in the minds of the Chinese people”. The demonstrations in Athens, London, Paris, San Francisco, New Delhi and elsewhere by thousands of pro-independence Tibetan protesters and human rights activists against the Beijing 2008 Olympic Torch Relay through 21 countries travelling 85000 miles highlighted the plight of the Tibetans on the world stage as never before to the huge embarrassment and shame of the Chinese Communist leadership. The turmoil over the Torch Relay and the growing international criticism of China’s policies in Tibet and its human rights record have turned the Beijing Olympics 2008 into one of the most contentious in recent history and presented the International Olympic Committee (IOC) with one of its toughest tests.

The IOC President Jacques Rogge said in Beijing on 10 April that the turmoil surrounding the Beijing Olympics 2008 Torch Rally and the politically charged build up to the summer games posed a “CRISIS” for the Olympic Movement. He urged China to respect its “moral engagement” to improve human rights and to fulfil its promises of greater media freedom, reaffirming the right of free speech for the athletes at the Beijing Games. China angrily dismissed Rogge’s statement as “irrelevant” to the Olympic Games. As the protests widened, world leaders like the German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the French President Nicholas Sarkozy, the British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and other European leaders declared their decision to boycott the opening ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics 2008. It was huge snub. It jolted the Chinese leaders. US President George W Bush was also advised by both the Democratic Presidential hopefuls Barrak Obama and Hillary Clinton and also the Republican nominee John McCain not to attend the opening ceremonies. Meanwhile Bush has urged Beijing to open dialogue with The Dalai Lama. It looked like the first slow step of America towards taking a position on Tibet. Ban Kee Moon the UN Secretary General will also not attend the opening ceremony. A number of other world leaders are also expected to join the boycott.

The most outspoken Western leader is Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the US House of Representatives. She called on The Dalai Lama in Dharamshala, India and declared her support to his cause. She said “Tibet represented a challenge to world’s conscience.” On her return to Washington, Pelosi moved a Resolution in the House of Representatives calling on Beijing to “end its crackdown” on Tibet’s cultural, religious, linguistic institutions. The Resolution described China’s military response to the Tibetan non-violent uprising as “disproportionate and extreme”. The House Resolution called on China to begin a dialogue process with The Dalai Lama and work towards a long-term solution of Tibet’s future. The Chinese Foreign Ministry reacted to the House call to start a dialogue process with The Dalai Lama as interference in the internal affairs of China. Beijing expressed “strong indignation” against the House Resolution.

The security crackdown apart, China’s vitriolic personal attacks on The Dalai Lama are unfortunate. He has been variously described by officials in Beijing as a “splittist” , a “demon”, a “terrorist” with links to the Al Qaeda and so on. The Dalai Lama was amused when he heard that the Chinese had described him as a Demon. He reassured the world with a big laugh on his face that he is a human being.

Indicative of a deep sense of nervousness, the Chinese asked New Delhi to ban all demonstrations along the route of the Torch Relay. New Delhi reminded Beijing that India is a democracy and it cannot ban peaceful protest.

India’s muted response to China’s 2008 Tibet crackdown has been heavily criticised by a cross section of Indians. The UPA Government has been persistently reminded that Tibetan Buddhism is an integral part of Indian cultural tradition and therefore their cause is not one to be ignored and rubbished. Dr Manmohan Singh has been reminded that the wheel imprinted on India’s national flag is Buddhism’s Dharma Chakra - symbolising the righteous path - an essential element of the message of Lord Gautama Buddha. The Dalai Lama is a reincarnation of the Buddha who is still walking the earth and living with us.

Swapan Dasgupta, writing in The Pioneer, a national newspaper in India, asked the Government to rediscover its lost spine and take a stand against China. In the backdrop of India kow-towing to China on almost every issue including Tibet, he suggested that the UPA Government should consider substituting the Peacock by a Chicken as the National Bird of India. The point was well taken.

I think it is easy to criticise India for its muted response to China’s pursuit of aggressive policies in the region but if one sees the broader picture one could perhaps get a more balanced view of the bilateral relationship. In 2003 when Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee visited China the total volume of trade between the two nations was a mere $4 billion. In 5 years time it has shot up to $40 billion. It is obvious that Dr Manmohan Singh is not prepared to jeopardise the economic gains of the on-going developing relationship with China. Negotiations on the border dispute are also progressing well. There is no point at this critical moment disrupting the momentum of the talks.

The demonstrations on 10 March 2008 were first set in motion by the Buddhist Monks from the various Monasteries. It was quickly joined by the ordinary Tibetans both young and old and men and women in large numbers. Not to be left out were the civil servants who too joined the peaceful demonstrations simultaneously with the rest of the population. The ferocity of the protest demonstrations accompanied by looting, arson, destruction of property in both commercial and residential areas in Lhasa was so spontaneous and overwhelming that droves of the new arrivals of Han Chinese, engaged in high street businesses, fled the capital in fear.

The Tibetan pro-independence uprising, having secured the support of the Tibetan people and also those of the thousands of human rights activists all over the world, looked like the beginnings of a Liberation Struggle of the Tibetan people. 200 lives were lost in the security crackdown - it could be 2000, who knows? - on 14 March 2008 and in the in the subsequent weeks. The official figure put the number of deaths at 22. The riots have continued unabated in Tibet and spread across to the bordering areas of western China including the Provinces of Szechuan, Gansu and several other prefectures like Chengdu where significant numbers of Tibetans have taken up residence over the years. Despite the strict censorship, reports of many deaths continue to filter out in the world media.

The 1959 Tibetan uprising was the first of the three known rebellions that the outside world knows. It was crushed with such brutality that The Dalai Lama, who was till then resident in The Potala, the seat of his temporal and spiritual power in Tibet, had to flee his homeland to the safety of India. He has since then for the next nearly half a century lived in exile in Dharamshala in India, where he leads a Tibetan Government-in-exile. The Government of India treats him as an honoured guest but has imposed an embargo on him against engaging in any political activity that could jeopardise Sino-Indian relations.

Harking back to history: the British Imperial authorities had gained control over Tibet following the expedition in 1903 of Col Francis Younghusband. At the time of the transfer of power on 15 August 1947, when India became independent, the Colonial Office in London simultaneously handed to the Government of India the responsibility of helping The Dalai Lama, recognised as the supreme sovereign power in the land - he was then only 12 years old - putting the Indian authorities in charge of certain administrative functions in Tibet like running the postal services, maintaining internal security like policing duties etc. Indian currency was legal tender in Tibet at that time. What was India’s responsibility, handed down by history, was flagrantly violated by China when it occupied Tibet in 1950.

The British Government recognised China as a “suzerain power” over Tibet, which determined Peking’s relationship with Lhasa. The word Suzerain meant that China was like a “ feudal overlord ” and Tibet its “tributary”. The Dalai Lama in an arrangement that was put in place under duress by the Chinese used to pay an annual lump sum amount – which was some sort of a tax - to the Emperor in Peking, who as legend would have, supposedly ran Tibet’s foreign policy. India was responsible for Tibet’s internal security. The sovereignty of Tibet lay with the Dalai Lama who was not only the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism, he was also the political head of the Government in Lhasa. India as the successor administrative authority that replaced the British Crown had a clearly defined legal role to play. When China decided to ignore India’s historical position and chose to invade Tibet instead of opening a dialogue process with India, it heralded the rise of a giant aggressive military power on India’s doorstep. It created alarm the world over. The invasion and occupation of Tibet by China in 1950 was thus by definition illegal.

When President Leonid Breznev ordered the Red Army to march into Afghanistan on December 24, 1979, the US could not tolerate the encroachment and launched the Mujahideen-led onslaught against the Soviet Union’s occupation forces in Afghanistan. It destroyed the Soviet Union. The US took military action against Saddam Hussain when he attacked Kuwait in 1991 and occupied the country. He too was driven out of Kuwait. But for reasons best known to Washington, US response to the Chinese invasion and occupation of Tibet in 1950 was muted and except for expressions of alarm and protests there was no concrete action taken against China.

What America did in real terms was denying the newly established Communist Republic in East Asia its permanent seat in the UN Security Council. Taiwan was asked to temporarily hold on to China’s permanent seat in the Security Council which it did till 1971 when Beijing was invited by the US to resume its due place in the UNSC.

There may be a case for Professor Samdhong Rimpoche, the Prime Minister of the Tibetan Government-in-Exile in Dharamshala India to petition the International Court of Justice in the Hague and ascertain through a full bench verdict the legality or otherwise of the 1950 Chinese invasion and occupation of Tibet and find out how it compares with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan or Saddam Hussain’s push into Kuwait.

The Chinese occupation of Tibet was an affront and a defiance of Indian power. India’s reaction was water down a duck’s back. Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s fascination with India-China friendship had just begun and the Chinese occupation of Tibet did not dampen his exuberance for Hindi-Chini Bhai Bhai. Nehru believed that Tibet was historically a part of China; therefore there was no point in opposing its being taken over by Peking. That apart, India did not have the military capability to confront China and stop the invasion from progressing.

As if nothing had happened in Tibet, the Chinese Prime Minister Zhou en Lai paid a visit to New Delhi in 1954 and signed the famous Panch Sheel Agreement or the Five Principles of Peaceful Co-existence. At the heart of the declaration was the principle of non-interference in each other’s territorial jurisdiction. Having thus obtained the twin commitments from India that it recognised Tibet as an “Autonomous Region of China” and that it would not meddle in Tibetan affairs, China got into the business of tightening its grip on Tibet. India was reduced to remain a passive onlooker.

Thus began the process of demographic re-engineering in that unfortunate land. An influx of Han Chinese was encouraged into Tibet with the object of changing the composition of the population making the Tibetans a minority community and reducing them into second class citizens.

In its passion for friendship with China, what India or for that matter the international community, failed to take due notice was that Tibet had begun simmering beneath the surface. The Tibetans have consistently refused to accept the rule of China over Tibet.

The first mass uprising against the Chinese occupation began on 10 March 1959. It came to be known as the Khampa Revolution. There are reports that the CIA funded the Khampas, a warrior segment of the Tibetan society. The uprising was suppressed with great brutality by the Chinese security forces. The repression was so overwhelming that The Dalai Lama was left with no alternative but to leave his hearth and home and arrived as an exile in Darjeeling in West Bengal, India. He was only 24 years old then. The Chinese did not like India giving political asylum to the Dalai Lama and openly declared that it was an unfriendly act against Beijing. China’s revenge against India playing host to The Dalai Lama was the 1962 war against a militarily unprepared India. Beijing occupied large parts of Indian territory and there are no signs that they will ever be returned.

1989 saw the second uprising of the Tibetans. In a military crackdown, the Tibetan Unrest was suppressed with a heavy hand killing hundreds of civilians under the orders of Hu Jintao. His success in putting down the Tibetan rebellion was rewarded by the Communist Party of China when he was made the President of China, a post he still holds.

The 2008 uprising is the third outbreak of political unrest in Tibet. The current turmoil is still unfolding in the full view of the world. There are signs that a lot more may be coming. The backdrop of the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games makes the 2008 uprising very different from the earlier ones. The world has woken up and is gradually mobilising itself in support of the indomitable Tibetans.

Will the Tibetan people ever be free? Will their moment of destiny come in the lifetime of The Dalai Lama? It is up to the Tibetan people how they carry forward their struggle.

The author is a retired Indian Diplomat who has served in the China Division in the Ministry of External Affairs in 1961-62.

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