[ This paper is read on his behalf by Sonam Tenzing, Deputy Director of Tibet Policy Institute, Central Tibetan Administration at an International Seminar titled Human Migration in South Asia : Dynamics and Implications held at Synod College in Shillong on October 9, 2014 ]
In this paper I would like to talk about : ( a ) Genesis of the issue of Tibet, ( b ) relocation of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and his followers to India, ( c ) reconstruction of the Tibetan refugee community in India, Nepal and Bhutan, and ( d ) Central Tibetan Administration’s international efforts, including outreach to the Chinese government and community.
However, before I talk about these issues, few words about Tibet’s Buddhist civilization deserves mentioning. Tibet was for more than a thousand years a composite civilization that stretched over an enormous landmass. The Tibetan Buddhist civilization influenced and transformed the way of life and thinking of people from Ladakh to Arunachal Pradesh. Tibetan Buddhism deeply influenced Mongolia, and the people of Kalmykia, Tuva, and Buryatia in Russia. For them Tibet served as a centre of learning. Students and scholars trekked to Tibet from all over this vast region to study Tibetan language, Tibetan Buddhism and medicine. Through the centuries this transmission of Tibetan Buddhism to areas within Tibet and beyond made Tibet’s Buddhist civilization vibrant and continuously refreshed.
Invasion by China
But this story of the continuous growth and development of Tibetan civilization came to an abrupt and tragic end when in 1949-1950 the People’s Republic of China invaded Tibet. This invasion, which is termed as a ‘peaceful liberation’ by Beijing, was strongly resisted by Tibet. But Tibet’s resistance was no match for communist China which overwhelmed Tibet by its military hardware and the sheer scale of manpower.
Eventually in 1951 Tibet was forced to sign the 17-Point Agreement. The 17-Point Agreement promised that ‘ the central authorities will not alter the existing political system in Tibet. The central authorities will not alter the established status, functions, and the powers of the Dalai Lama. Official of various ranks will hold office as usual’. With this promise, Buddhist Tibet coexisted with communist China for eight long years from 1951-1959.
However the promises made to Tibet in the 17-Point Agreement were never kept. The Chinese authorities in Tibet constantly undermined the authority of both the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government. In the Tibetan provinces of Kham and Amdo, forcible land reforms were introduced and the authority of both the spiritual leaders and the tribal chieftains were undermined by the People’s Liberation Army’s intrusive interference. Because of this the Tibetans of Kham and Amdo rose up in armed resistance which spread to Lhasa and which culminated in the national uprising of 1959. The Dalai Lama followed by an estimated 87,000 Tibetans fled to India, Nepal and Bhutan. The Lhasa Uprising was violently suppressed by the People’s Liberation Army.
Challenges for reconstruction
Once established in Dharamsala in 1960 after a brief stay in Mussoorie, the main challenges the Dalai Lama and his administration faced was the rehabilitation of his people, giving a decent education to new generations of Tibetan refugees and the reconstruction and reestablishment of Tibetan culture in exile. The government of India at the centre and the state governments were very generous in providing vast tracks of land to Tibetan refugees to cultivate and settle themselves. These Tibetan refugee settlements, scattered all over India but mainly concentrated in Karnataka in south India, serve as the foundation of the Tibetan community in exile. These settlements are administered by the Central Tibetan Administration based in Dharamsala, the headquarters of the Dalai Lama. According to 2009 Demographic Survey conducted by the Planning Commission, CTA, Tibetan population in India is : 94203, Nepal : 13514, Bhutan : 1298; North America : 11,112, Europe : 5633, and Australasia : 1120. Total : 126880
It took 20 years (1959-1979) for the Dalai Lama and his administration to reconstruct the Tibetan refugee community. Today the Tibetan exile community functions as a productive and cohesive community. Observers and media say that this refugee rehabilitation effort is the most successful anywhere in the world.
Giving a decent education to the Tibetan refugee children has been one of the dreams of the Dalai Lama. With the active support and generous financial assistance of the government of India, Central Schools for Tibetans were set up in the early 1960s. These schools taught Tibetan students all modern subjects along with lessons in Tibetan language, Tibetan Buddhism and Tibetan history.
The other remarkable accomplishment of the Tibetan community in exile is the successful reconstitution of Tibetan culture and religion in India, Nepal and Bhutan. Out of the estimated 6000 monasteries and other centers of learning in Tibet, only 13 remained intact after the devastation and turmoil that engulfed China during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1969). The rest of the estimated 6000 monasteries, temples and institutions of higher learning were all razed to the ground during the Cultural Revolution and before.
What was destroyed in Tibet by the Chinese authorities were rebuilt in India and Nepal but on a much smaller scale. But more than the scale or the student population of the new monasteries in exile what was important is that under the guidance and leadership of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and other Tibetan spiritual leaders and masters, the Tibetan refugee community was able to reconstruct and maintain the monastic education system and the transmission of the teachings of the Buddha from generation to generation. This rebuilding of old Tibet’s monastic education system in exile has greatly revitalized Tibet’s Buddhist civilization outside of Tibet.
Because of the very success of the Tibetan refugees in reestablishing their culture in exile, scholars and students who once flocked to Tibet now come to India to study Tibetan Buddhism, Tibetan language and Tibetan medicine.
Enhancing CTA’s international efforts
After the successful reestablishment of both the Tibetan community and Tibetan culture in exile, the Central Tibetan Administration under the leadership of His Holiness the Dalai Lama increased its international efforts to bring global spotlight on the tragic conditions of the people of Tibet. More than fifty years earlier, global attention was riveted on Tibet when His Holiness the Dalai Lama fled his country. In 1959, 1961 and 1965 the General Assembly of the United Nations passed three separate resolutions on the issue of Tibet. These resolutions called on China to respect the fundamental human rights of the Tibetan people, including their right to self-determination. Since then the world body felt silent on the issue of Tibet. This was made possible because of the strategic alliance the United States developed with the People’s Republic of China in order to counter the Soviet Union. As one of the price for the alliance the United States helped China to secure a seat in the world body. Taiwan which earlier represented China in the United
Nations was kicked out of the world body and its place was taken over by the People’s Republic of China with a permanent seat in the Security Council. With its veto power China was able to squash any uncomfortable discussion on the issue of Tibet.
We can say that it was in 1979 during His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s first visit to the United States that the seed of an idea to highlight the issue of Tibet again on the global stage grew within the leadership of the Central Tibetan Administration. Central Tibetan Administration’s decision to go global on the international stage was prompted by and coincided with several promising factors.
One of the factors which shaped Western mind on the political issue of Tibet was the rapid but silent spread of Buddhism in the West. The Buddha’s message of compassion, non-violence, and inner transformation as articulated by countless Tibetan Buddhist masters was positively received in the West ravaged by two World Wars and living nervously in an atmosphere of mutual distrust created by the Cold War. The Buddha’s message of inner transformation and individual’s ability to change his own fortune came as a breath of fresh air and was seen as overwhelmingly empowering. Hundreds of thousands of people in Europe and North America, as a result, were attracted to the wisdom of Tibetan Buddhism. Many in increasing numbers became practicing Buddhist. The spread of Tibetan Buddhism in the West and its sustained reach drew many people in the West to support the political cause of Tibet, creating a fertile ground for the subsequent growth of the worldwide Tibet movement.
The second factor responsible for the Central Tibetan Administration to project the issue of Tibet on the international stage was the Tibet story itself. Tibet, remote and isolated, was for many centuries the focus of Western fascination. It was around this time that one book which reignited western fascination to the political cause of Tibet is John Avedon’s classic retelling of Tibet’s story, In Exile from the Land of Snows: The Definitive Account of the Dalai Lama and Tibet Since the Chinese Conquest. This book started the trend of western authors and media to reexamine the Tibet story.
Tibetans were helped in telling their story to the world by the actions of the Chinese leadership. Deng Xiaoping, who assumed paramount power in China after the death of Mao in 1976, met the Dalai Lama’s elder brother, Gyalo Thondup, in late 1978 and early 1979. Deng Xiaoping told the Dalai Lama’s emissary that ‘anything except Tibetan independence’ could be discussed between the representatives of the Tibetan leader and their Chinese counterparts. This willingness on the part of the Chinese leadership to reengage the Dalai Lama in a common quest for a solution of the issue of Tibet paved way for what the international media termed as ‘the delegation diplomacy’. From 1979 to 1985 Dharamsala send four fact-finding missions to Tibet. These delegations travelled all over Tibet. The reception the Tibetan people accorded the representatives of the Dalai Lama was beyond the wildest nightmare of the Chinese leaders.
When one Chinese official observed the joy and happiness with which the Tibetan people across all works of life met the first fact-finding mission in 1979, he said, ‘twenty years of propaganda has been undone in one day’ or words to that effect. At the same time exploratory delegations visited Beijing to tackle the real business of finding a solution to the issue of Tibet in 1982 and 1984.
Since his first visit to the United States in 1979, His Holiness the Dalai Lama has travelled around the globe, articulating both the demands of the Tibetan people and his message of peace, compassion and non-violence. The political cause he so tirelessly advocated and his message of peace, compassion and non-violence were received with sympathy and understanding by people everywhere he went. In this way His Holiness the Dalai Lama was able to create a large and growing international constituency for the political cause of Tibetan people and millions of followers of Tibetan Buddhism.
In 1987 before the Congressional Human Rights Caucus of the United States Congress, His Holiness the Dalai Lama announced his Five-Point Peace Plan for Tibet. He said that he was willing to let Tibet function in association with the People’s Republic of China. Before doing this China must restore the fundamental human rights of the Tibetan people, stop the population transfer of Chinese settlers to Tibet, make Tibet into a zone of ahimsa and non-violence and a sanctuary for environmental protection and start earnest negotiation with his representatives to define the future status of Tibet that satisfy the aspiration of the Tibetan people. In 1988 before the European Parliament in Strasbourg, His Holiness the Dalai Lama formally announced that he was not seeking independence for Tibet but rather seeking genuine autonomy for Tibetan people. China on its part rejected both proposals, claiming them to be ‘independence in disguised form’.
The rejection of the modest proposals to resolve the issue of Tibet coincided with the hardliners within the Chinese leadership resuming power in Beijing. Moderate leaders, like Hu Yaobang, under whose watch a short-lived period of liberalization was introduced in Tibet in the 1980s, was removed from power in 1987. He shortly died. In 1989, the anniversary of Hu Yaobang’s death prompted thousands of students in Beijing and across China to demand an end to official corruption and for freedom, democracy and rule of law.
The mass student protest and demonstration divided the central Chinese leadership. Zhao Ziyang, the Party Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, wanted to go half way in meeting the demands of the students. He was opposed in this by Deng Xiaoping and Li Peng, the Prime Minister, and vast majority of other hardliners. In the end, Zhao Ziyang was purged from power and put under house arrest. On 4 June 1989 the People’s Liberation Army moved in to squash the growing demonstration. Observers say hundreds, if not thousands, of students were massacred.
The purging of moderate Chinese leaders and resumption of power by hardliners made it impossible for the representatives of His Holiness the Dalai Lama to resume and conduct meaningful discussions with the Chinese leadership. In fact in 1993, Beijing cut off all contacts with Dharamsala.
At the same time, Tibet erupted into turmoil. To show support for His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s Five-Point Peace Plan and the Strasbourg Proposal, starting from 1987, Tibetans in Lhasa staged a series of peaceful street protests. These protest, always violently crushed, culminated in a massive and sustained protest in 1989. Hu Jintao, the former President of China, who was then the Party Secretary of the Tibet Autonomous Region, crushed this protest and imposed martial law in Lhasa, the first in the history of the People’s Republic of China. These protests also had an impact in strengthening the hands of the hardliners in the Chinese leadership.
All these meant that Dharamsala had no formal contacts with Beijing from 1993 to 2002. In 2002, Beijing accepted to receive the two envoys of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and their assistants to discuss the issue of Tibet. Since then, Mr Lodi Gyari and Mr Kelsang Gyaltsen and their assistants conducted a series of talks with Chinese officials till 2010. In one of these talks the two envoys handed to the Chinese counterparts a copy of the Memorandum on the Genuine Autonomy for the Tibetan People. In this memorandum the Central Tibetan Administration demanded that the whole of Tibet be merged into a single administration that enjoyed genuine autonomy. All the demands made in this memorandum are based on the rights of the minorities as enshrined in the constitution of the People’s Republic of China. Even this latest proposal of the Central Tibetan Administration was rejected by Beijing. Since 2010 there has been no contact between Dharamsala and Beijing.
However, although official China continues to reject the just demands of the Tibetan people, ordinary Chinese, scholars, and students, writers, human rights activists, lawyers, and environmental advocates are embracing the Middle-Way Approach as enunciated by His Holiness the Dalai Lama and his message of non-violence, peace and mutual respect. In 2008 when peaceful protests erupted throughout Tibet and were violently suppressed by the Chinese authorities, more than 300 Chinese scholars, writers and human rights activists wrote an open letter to the Chinese government. In this letter they said they supported the peace initiatives of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and appealed to the Chinese government to refrain from the use of propaganda that inflamed ethnic animosity between the Tibetans and the Chinese.
Today there is a growing trend of young Chinese embracing Tibetan Buddhism. At the same time, Chinese intellectuals who work within the government and party establishments, express their opinion that His Holiness the Dalai Lama is the key to a speedy and just resolution of the issue of Tibet. I believe that this trend will compel the Chinese government to resolve the issue of Tibet in a manner that satisfies the just aspirations of the Tibetan people.