Thursday, March 20, 2008

Smoldering Sedition in Shangri-la

For almost 500 years, the powerful Empire of Tibet ruled the Himalayas, parts of central Asia, China and India; as far south as Bengal and as far up north in Mongolia during the 7th to the 11th centuries. The snow capped mountain ranges and narrow paths made Tibet impenetrable, and gave the empire an attacking advantage of the high ground when invading neighboring countries and territories. This however turned into a distinct disadvantage, since its isolation denied the empire of the emerging technologies and strategies in war, economics, and politics.

The cultural and religious traditions deepened, and way of life of Tibetans flourished; but its growth and defensive capabilities weakened. From the 12th century's occupation of Tibet by the Mongols followed by a succession of China's dynasties, Tibet was integrated with the Chinese Empire. The European "contact" blurred the status of Tibet beginning with the Portugese Missionaries who began encroaching on the domain of the Tibetan lamas, until they were expelled in 1745. The British Empire also raised its interest in Tibet to secure trade concessions. The British invasion of 1904 took out all resistance even from the Nepalese Gurkha government which occupied Tibet in 1855. Knowing the difficulty of governing the Tibetan terrain, the British agreed to sign the Anglo-Tibetan Treaty in 1904 which provides non-annexation of Tibet by Britain in exchange for fees from the Qing dynasty, and free trade zones for Britain; and the British empire would recognize China's suzerainty over Tibet.

In 1911, the 13th Dalai Lama declared independence from China, but no country ever recognized it as a sovereign nation and not a single western power had come out to grant it diplomatic recognition, much less favor its declared sovereignty. The turmoil in China from 1912 to 1948 allowed Tibet room for self rule, until the Communists controlled China and subsequently occupied and took control of Tibet in 1950. The Agreement signed in 1951 by Tibetan representatives affirming China's sovereignty over Tibet was obtained under pressure after resistance to China's occupation was crushed. America suddenly appeared in Tibet through the provision of massive funding and military support for Tibetan Guerrillas in 1959 via the CIA. The agency was also responsible for taking the Dalai Lama to exile in India. The support was discontinued in 1970 when then President Richard Nixon opted for rapprochement with China.

In 1980, protests erupted anew in Tibet pre-dating the
Tienanmen incident. The Chinese government decided to push for rapid modernization and development of Tibet to improve incomes and standards of living; to placate the region's ethnic population. They also encouraged the massive migration of Han Chinese into the regions of Tibet. The Tibetan language and religion were disallowed in the schools in Tibet, which was viewed by the ethnic Tibetans as a systematic means of wiping out their culture, traditions, and way of existence.

The latest round of violent protest clashes is a result of a continuing resentment made more intense by the perception that development and modernization favored the Han Chinese rather than the Tibetans. The cry for independence stems from their desire for self-rule, economic growth and empowerment, and the preservation of their culture, traditions and religion. The idealism of the Tibetan youth, fired up by years of frustration and disappointments, has been a smoldering cauldron that finally burst into a raging avalanche of burning lava not even the Dalai Lama's appeals could cool down.

The Chinese government has accused the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan Government in exile of masterminding the unrest, to embarrass China in its task of hosting the 2008 Olympics. It has also accused the western press of biased reporting in favor of the protesters. It has confirmed, however, that the violence has spread to other parts of the region. The Dalai Lama has denied masterminding the violence and has stated that talks be held between his government and China. He added that he would be satisfied with autonomy, not independence. Media has had to rely on unsubstantiated reports from the clash areas since China has banned all foreigners and media in these locations. Reports being released by China from statements of citizens point to support for the government in its campaign to contain the demonstrations. The news blackout in China itself and lack of knowledge about the Tibetan situation may cloud perception and judgment of the Chinese in these protest incidents. Or, the supportive statements for the government 's response are merely self-serving.

There are those who argue that independence would not be an economically viable option for Tibet, plus the fact that it will put them in direct conflict with China. Others argue that some sort of autonomy like that of Hong Kong or Taiwan, or at least what Tibet had between 1950-59 where the Dalai Lama was involved in governance, would be a workable solution. China is likely to agree to negotiations only if independence is removed from discussions as a pre-condition, since it is afraid that other ethnic groups would demand the same opportunity. China has poured billions into Tibetan development, which Tibetans feel benefited only the Han Chinese, and focused on urban business rather than rural social programs that would empower the ethnic populations. The current literacy rates of Tibetans cannot compete with those of the Han Chinese. All these have not helped in diffusing the anger of Tibetans with China, and the long standing resentment over Chinese rule.

The Chinese perspective is that Tibet is what borders the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) occupied by the 13th Dalai Lama in 1912. The Tibetan perspective is that it is an integrated region that does not have a politically unified history, but definitely a socially integrated history. The disadvantage of Tibet is that it faces a powerful country that controls its claimed territory, and any hope of settling the issue in its favor rests with the magnanimity of its invader and the support of the free world, both of which are too much to expect. Development will eventually overtake them, and whatever seditious sentiments remain in "Shangri-la" will be defeated by compromise and capitulation, unless all ethnic groups rise up at the same time and declare their respective sovereignty. Until then, this idyllic horizon at the roof of the world will slowly vanish from the sight of man, and forever be lost even from his memory.



Zhu said...

Very interesting! I'm preparing a post on China and Tibet (I'm in between...politically wise) and I might quote you if you don't mind.

Oh, and just to add the Ming, more precisely Yongle, the second emperor, lost Tibet to the Mongols at the time... The Mongols had the actual power and the Tibetan and the religious power/ influence.

durano lawayan a.k.a. brad spit said...

Hi Zhu,

You're welcome to quote me, I don't mind at all.

There is also uncertainty regarding the Mongols and why they vanished in history. Part of the theory is that most of them were assimilated into the Tibetan culture.

The merger of these two cultures, which had many similarities being from the same region of social integration, were probably softened by the inspiration provided by the Himalayas. :-) Perhaps it is the Mongol side that we now see in these current protests. This is a wild, wild guess of course! :-)--Durano, done!