The question of Tibet

Print edition : May 23, 2008

Tibetan rioters wreck a car at Bakhor Square in Lhasa on March 14.-ANDREAS STEINBICHLER/AP

Reflections on development, human rights, and politics in Chinas unique autonomous region.

April is the cruellest month, breeding Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing Memory and desire, stirring Dull roots with spring rain.

T.S. Eliot, The Burial of the Dead in The Waste Land, 1922.

MARCH is the cruellest month for Tibetans in China if you were to go by the serf-owners uprising that broke out on March 10, 1959 and the troubles that surfaced sporadically after that, in 1987 and 1989 or what happened in Lhasa, capital of the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), on March 14, 2008 and subsequently in some Tibetan autonomous areas in Qinghai, Gansu, and Sichuan provinces.


If you go by Western media reports, the propaganda of the theocratic Tibetan government-in-exile in Dharamsala and the votaries of the Free Tibet cause, or by the fulminations of Nancy Pelosi and the Hollywood glitterati, Tibet is in the throes of a mass democratic uprising against Han Chinese communist rule. Some of the more fanciful news stories, images, and opinion pieces on the democratic potential of this uprising have been put out by leading international news agencies, Western newspapers, and television networks. Unsurprisingly, these demonstrably false, manipulated reports have drawn condemnation and sharp criticism from tens of thousands of Chinese netizens.

The Washington Post

Many buildings, including schools, hospitals and residences, were set on fire by rioters on March 14. Here, firefighters train water cannons on a building in Lhasa.-CHOGO/XINHUA

The New York Times The Guardian

The reality is that the riots that broke out in Lhasa on March 14, 2008 and claimed a death toll of 18 innocent civilians and a police officer and an injury toll of 382, including 241 police officers, were the handiwork of violent, thuggish, ransacking mobs. They included 300 militant monks from the Drepung Monastery, who marched in tandem with a foiled March to Tibet by groups of monks across the border in India. The rioters committed murder, arson, and other acts of savagery against innocent civilians. The atrocities included dousing one man with petrol and setting him alight, beating a patrol policeman and carving out a fist-size piece of his flesh, and torching a school with 800 terrorised pupils cowering inside. The rioters set fire to seven schools, five hospitals, and 120 homes. They destroyed or looted 908 shops. The damage caused to public and private property was estimated at 244 million yuan ($35 million). Tourism, which is vital to the Tibetan economy, was set back seriously, with a sharp decline in the number of tourists and consequently hotel occupancy, and a blow to the catering business.

Visual images and independent eyewitness accounts attest to this ugly reality, which compelled even the Dalai Lama to put out threats to resign. There was violence also in Tibetan ethnic areas in the adjacent provinces of Gansu and Sichuan, which, according to official estimates, took an injury toll of more than 700.

By way of analysis, Western pundits have linked these incidents to the March 10 anniversary of the failed 1959 Tibetan uprising; non-progress in the talks between the Dalai Lamas emissaries and Beijing; Chinas human rights record; the Beijing Olympic Games, which will of course be held as scheduled from August 8 to 24 (notwithstanding some attempts to disrupt the ceremonial relay of the Olympic Flame or torch from Olympia in Greece to the Olympic venue in Beijing); and what not.

The Dalai Lama with U.S. President George W. Bush in Washington on October 17, 2007, when the former was presented with the U.S. Congressional Gold Medal.-JIM BOURG/REUTERS

As the evidence on the nature of the riots has piled up, the realisation has dawned that it was too much to expect any legitimate government of a major country to turn the other cheek to such savagery and such a breakdown of public order. Secondly, there has been a massive reaction from the Chinese people in support of their government and in opposition to those who have turned the truth about the Lhasa riots on its head and those who have supported the Dalai Lamas cause. This mobilisation involving tens of millions of people has major political and economic implications.

So there has been a strategic shift in the demand made on China: it must initiate a substantive dialogue with the Dalai Lama to find a just and sustainable political solution in Tibet. But this is precisely what the Chinese government has done for three decades. Even within days of the riots, it affirmed its consistent stand by announcing that it would resume contact and consultation with the Dalai Lamas representatives. The framework of the political solution regional autonomy within one China with its socialist market economy and political system led by the Communist Party is there for all to see.

A fact little-known outside China is its ethnic regional autonomy system. This is constitutionally entrenched and is clearly beneficial to the countrys 55 ethnic minorities. Chinas Han population may comprise 91.59 per cent of the total (according to the 2000 National Population Census) but the 155 ethnic autonomous areas, including five autonomous regions, 30 autonomous prefectures, and 120 autonomous counties, cover 75 per cent of the countrys ethnic minority population and 64 per cent of its territory. Tibet, which in 2006 had 0.21 per cent of Chinas 1.31 billion people but one-eighth of its territory, has enjoyed regional autonomy since 1965.

So what was the provocation for the violence in Lhasa and some Tibetan ethnic areas outside TAR? What is the cause for which these pro-Dalai Lama agitators are fighting? It cannot be economic because the economy of the Tibet Autonomous Region, as virtually everyone who has been there recognises, is on a roll. Nobody in their right mind has accused the Chinese government with its sights set firmly on economic development, political stability, and a harmonious society and just ahead of the August Beijing Olympics of any new set of suppressive measures, political, economic, social, or cultural, against the 2.6 million ethnic Tibetans who constitute more than 92 per cent of the 2.8 million population of the Tibet Autonomous Region or against the 3.9 million Tibetans who live in other Chinese provinces and regions outside TAR. According to officially compiled data, in 2008 more than 80 per cent of the deputies elected to peoples congresses at the regional, prefectural, and city levels, and 90 per cent of those elected at the county and village levels were Tibetans or people from other ethnic minorities.

The Dalai Lama has charged China with committing cultural genocide but this is contradicted by the existence of 1,700 monasteries and other Tibetan Buddhist religious sites with their 46,000 monks and nuns (1.77 per cent of the Tibetan population of TAR); four mosques for 3,000 Muslims, and a Catholic church for 700 Christians; the protection and showcasing of the Potola Palace and other priceless heritage sites; the flourishing of the Tibetan language; the renaissance of traditional Tibetan medicine, which is enjoying a cult status internationally; and the strength and vitality of age-old tradition observable in the daily lives of the Tibetan people.

Some terrible things, including cultural vandalism, happened in TAR and other Tibetan ethnic areas during the Cultural Revolution but even worse things happened elsewhere in China. In any case, very much for ideological reasons, the Dalai Lama and the Free Tibet campaign have chosen to underestimate the damage done during the Cultural Revolution, tending to depict the normal years as the worst period for Tibet and Tibetans.

Overall, over a period of nearly six decades following the Chinese Revolution, Tibet has developed, with some setbacks and interruptions, as an inalienable part of the Peoples Republic of China. This holds true socio-economically, politically, culturally, and above all in transforming the lives of the people. There have been shortcomings and deficits of course in rising to the historic challenges of development and socio-economic transformation in TAR and in Tibetan ethnic areas in other provinces but which country does not have such shortcomings and deficits? A fair, objective, and balanced assessment makes it absolutely clear that many developing and developed nations have done far worse by their ethnic minorities than China has done by its 6.5 million citizens of Tibetan ethnic stock.


entitlements capability Development real freedom human functionings stability harmony Development as Freedom

This photograph, showing Chinese Peoples Armed Police servicemen holding monks robes, began to circulate on the Internet following an allegation made by the Dalai Lama on March 29 that PAP servicemen dressed up as Tibetan monks and rioted in Lhasa on March 14. The problems with the credibility of the picture were many. The first is the summer uniforms worn by the policemen, something out of the question for March 14 in the Lhasa cold. The second is the absence of shoulder badges, worn by all PAP servicemen since 2005. Third, the pedicab in the picture is decorated with a blue Tibetan-style hood when, in fact, the colour of the hood of all pedicabs in the city was changed to a combination of blue, red and green in July 2007.-XINHUA

The primary goal of development must be to enable all members of a society to achieve basic and more advanced human functionings on a secure and stable path. Deprivation, chronic as well as contingent (as in a drought, famine, or flood), is the opposite of development and the freedom and opportunity to develop the capability to achieve valuable human functionings. The expansion of freedom in this sense should be the foundation of human rights a field that is valuable in itself but is unfortunately used from time to time as an ideological-political weapon to injure, besmirch, and pressure perceived adversaries. Those who use human rights as such a weapon are clearly open to the charge of upholding double standards.

We can approach Tibetan developments usefully from this perspective.

Ten years from now, a visitor to Tibet is likely to find it transformed into a region of reasonable development. It is likely to have decent living standards for all its people; a robust industrial base; modern agriculture and modernising animal husbandry; a well-educated, relatively young population; a high cultural level; a strong infrastructural spine and network supporting the development of a vast region; and active linkages and contacts with the rest of the world. It is more than likely that the autonomous region will enjoy political and social stability. It is certain not just that Tibet will be a still autonomous but much better integrated part of China but also that rising China will be very much in charge of Tibets future. A significant part of Tibet in Exile could be back home, participating in shaping this future. Tibet is thus poised to achieve the status of a moderately developed region by the middle of the 21st century, possibly earlier.

These predictions can be confidently made on the strength of two visits I made to the Tibet Autonomous Region over the past seven years.

The first visit, over five days in July 2000, gave me an opportunity to attempt some reality testing of Dharamsalas main campaign themes. The opportunity for another reality check came during a weeklong visit in June 2007 to the Tibet Autonomous Region and, for comparative reference, some Tibetan autonomous areas in the neighbouring provinces of Qinghai and Yunnan. The process and effects of change were there for everyone to see and there were hundreds of visitors, from various parts of China and abroad.

Two servicemen in the photograph were found in Tibet and they told journalists that the picture was taken in 2001 when they were asked to act as figurants in a movie named The Torch.-

Five factors stand out about contemporary Tibet.

The first is the rapid development of its economy, which in 2007 grew by 13.8 per cent compared with 11.4 per cent for China as a whole. The second is the readily observable fact that the arrival of material prosperity, steady population growth, rises in living standards, education and skills training, and in general the process of modernisation are transforming life, work, and mindsets, especially of the young who make up the bulk of the Tibetan population. The third factor is a hard-won improvement in the Tibet Autonomous Regions internal and external political climate. The fourth is the dramatic leap in connectivity with the mainland that has come with the Qinghai-Tibet railway a 1,956-km engineering marvel that now links Xining, the capital of Qinghai Province, with Lhasa. The fifth factor is a widening credibility gap between the make-believe world of the independence for Tibet movement and on-the-ground Tibetan realities, which are reflected in the Dalai Lamas scaled-down political demands for an autonomous solution within a sovereign and one China.

The effects of the economic transformation are conspicuous on Lhasa roads and streets, with their fast-moving vehicular traffic and rising modern buildings and commercial complexes. They can be witnessed on Barkor Street, known locally as the Saint Road, and in the crowded bazaar around Jokhang Temple; in the vicinity of the Dalai Lamas long-vacant Potala Palace; in the fast-developing transportation, telecommunications, and energy infrastructure; and at another high altitude wonder, the 6.2 square kilometre Lhalu Wetland in the capitals suburbs, which is known as Lhasas oxygen bar.

However, the real test is in the countryside, where four-fifths of Tibets 2.8 million people live. There is visible evidence of economic development in the villages we were able to visit, especially in the households of farmers who have prospered thanks to their hard work and thrift, the large number of working hands in the family, central government subsidies, and new opportunities offered by the construction boom. The positive effects are also visible in the schools, kindergartens, and medical centres dispensing Tibetan medicine. They are on view in the bustling, grain producing and industrialising Xigaze prefecture located in TARs mid-south.

This screen grab from a Western website shows Chinese police carrying away a boy, Luo Jie, during the March 14 riots in Lhasa. The caption on the website said Insurrectionist taken away by police.-XINHUA

The most dramatic change since 2000 has come with the Qinghai-Tibet railway system, which will be marking its second anniversary on July 1, 2008. The section between Golmud, a city of the Haixi Mongol and Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in Qinghai Province, and the Tibetan capital took five years and 33 billion yuan to build. The worlds highest railway, Nima Tsiren, a Tibetan who is vice-chairman of the regional government, exulted, has ushered in a new millennium for Tibet. It is the realisation of a dream of two generations, of great importance to the Tibetan people. It has greatly reduced the cost of transportation. We have taken one more step towards the modernisation of Tibet and the deeper integration of the regional economy with the Chinese economy.

During the first ten months of the operation of the Qinghai-Tibet railway, TAR saw its foreign trade rise by 75 per cent to $322 million ($100 million of imports and $222 million of exports). The trains immediately brought an influx of tourists, more than 2.5 million domestic and foreign tourists in 2006, which represented an increase of 35 per cent over 2005. In 2007, the number rose to four million, bringing in $684 million (4.8 billion yuan) of tourism revenue. Interestingly, the structure of tourism in Tibet has changed.

Investment is likely to follow tourism and trade. Chinese officials project that by 2010 the Qinghai-Tibet railway will transport 75 per cent of the autonomous regions inbound cargo, tremendously lower transportation costs, and double the tourist revenue. As they see it, the railway symbolises the right of Tibetans to seek development, catch up with the rest of rising China, and open themselves more to the outside world. This is the opposite of the reactionary (romantic) perception of the railway as the ultimate destabiliser of Tibets culture, religion, demography, and environment.

Over the next decade, the railway will be extended to three more lines in Tibet: one connecting Lhasa with Nyingchi to the east, another with Xigaze in the west, and the third linking Xigaze with Yadong on the China-India border. Beginning September 1, 2008, a five-star luxury train, the most luxurious in the world, will transport well-heeled tourists from Beijing to Lhasa over five days.

The 14-year-old boy, a native of Lhasa, told journalists later that the police had, in fact, rescued him from rioters who attacked him on a street near Ramoqe Temple.-XINHUA

Apprehensions about the railways adverse effects on the environment and wildlife have proved exaggerated, if not entirely baseless. An unprecedented 1.5 billion yuan package of environment protection measures, including systems to store garbage and wastewater and treat them in designated stations, and 33 special passageways for antelopes and other wildlife, has been put in place. Technologies of heat preservation, slope protection, and roadbed ventilation have reportedly come to the aid of the plateaus frozen tundra. Scientists have set up a long-term monitoring system for water, air, noise, and ecology. Further, greening the 700-km Tibet section of the railway planting 26,000 hectares of trees over the next five years is under way.

Aside from the railway, the development of a new kind of physical infrastructure highways, paved roads, bridges, power lines, telecommunications, irrigation channels, modern housing, and so forth is there for all to see. The plan is to build, by 2010, high-class highways to connect 100 per cent of Tibets townships and 80 per cent of its administrative villages; and to convert 80 per cent of the roads into blacktops. Expressways, however, are considered unsuitable for a region that has only 2.3 persons per square kilometres.

The Chinese socialist system highlights the fast, coordinated, and healthy development of education in TAR as a solid achievement of liberation and especially the post-1978 programme of reform and opening to the world. According to vice-chairman Tsiren, there are 540,000 students enrolled in the autonomous regions educational institutions, comprising six universities, 118 high schools, seven intermediate vocational schools, and 880 elementary schools. He adds that school enrolment covers 96.5 per cent of children of the relevant age group and the programme of nine years compulsory and free education has been completed in 46 of the regions 73 counties.

In addition, central government preferential policies have enabled about 14,000 Tibetan students to study in scores of key high schools and higher educational institutions in 20 of Chinas provinces and municipalities. It has been estimated that up to January 2007, the fraternal funding of Tibetan education by these provinces and municipalities aggregated $74 million, in addition to the 2,000 teachers and educational officials they sent to Tibet. There is clearly a lesson in this for India, and especially the Hindi-speaking States.

The literacy rate among the Tibetan population in TAR is more difficult to estimate. Some Chinese education officials and literacy researchers have expressed concern over a stagnant if not worsening situation across the country between 2000 and 2005, because of factors like large-scale migration for work and the rising cost of rural education. Official sources estimated that the adult illiteracy rate in TAR was below 30 per cent at the end of 2003. It is not clear what it is in 2008 but it appears that it is not worse than the situation in Indias Hindi-speaking region.

In Lhasa on March 26, the Chinese government shows visiting foreign journalists video footage of the riots.-ANDY WONG/AP

The monasteries we visited were distinctly old world but there were plenty of signs of modernisation here too. Whether you went to the 16th century Kumbum monastery in the vicinity of Xining; or to 15th century Sera near Lhasa; or to the imposing Tashihungpo monastery, the seat of successive Panchen Lamas, in the northwestern suburbs of Xigaze city, a hub of Tibets modernisation; or to 17th century Songzanlin in Diqing prefecture in Yunnan, the monks wore their traditional robes and debated the sutras in the stylised and gesticulating style of Tibetan Buddhism. But they also carried mobiles, drove vehicles, collected fees for allowing photography inside the most hallowed chambers, followed satellite television, and performed for tourists. In a Tibetan autonomous area in Yunnan Province, we visited a novitiate monk of middling rank from a famous monastery in his rural home, where he is allowed to spend part of the year.

A major aspect of the propaganda campaign by the Dalai Lama, the remnants of his theocratic establishment, and his supporters abroad is the supposed contrast between Chinas authoritarian political system and the democratic character of Tibet in exile. This is a bit rich coming from the spiritual and temporal head of feudal serfdom, which Tibet indisputably was before 1951 when the nascent Peoples Republic liberated and took control of a region that was greedily eyed, infiltrated, and manipulated by imperialist powers, originally Britain and Czarist Russia, and subsequently Britain and the United States.

During the theocratic rule of the Dalai Lama, lands as well as most means of production were in the hands of three categories of estate-owners government officials, nobles, and upper class Lamas who made up merely 5 per cent of the population. The mass of the Tibetan population, serfs and slaves numbering a million in 1951, lived in extreme poverty, as appendages to estates owned by masters, lacking education, health care, personal freedom, and any kind of entitlement. They were obliged to perform unpaid labour services or ulag, corvee, and parasitical land rent.

Agriculture was largely of the slash-and-burn kind. Modern industry was virtually non-existent. Transportation was predominantly on animal or human back. Life in general was brutish and short, with diseases rampant, the population stagnant, and life expectancy at birth hovering around 36. It has been estimated that in old Tibet monks and nuns accounted for 10 per cent of the population. At the top of this oppressive feudal and theocratic system sat the institution and person of the Dalai Lama.

Pre-1951 Tibet had no schools worth speaking about. Monastic education, going back a thousand years and focussing on the Buddhist scriptures and to some extent the Tibetan language, was the leading form of education. There were some schools outside the monastic system meant for the training of lay and monk officials and for imparting a modicum of basic education reading, writing, and arithmetic besides the recitation of Buddhist scriptures. These schools had a student body of less than 1000. Not surprisingly, the illiteracy rate was higher than 90 per cent.

From such an abysmal socio-economic base, it would be hard not to make substantial progress. With the 1959 Democratic Reform, which was brought forward by the armed uprising and the flight of the Dalai Lama, serfdom and landlordism were abolished and the socialist system was introduced in stages into Tibet. There have been twists and turns and ultra-left attempts to force the pace of change with the Cultural Revolution of 1966-1976 inflicting extensive and grievous damage on life, the economy, education, religion, and cultural heritage in Tibet, as in the rest of China.

While many Tibetans regard the period 1961-1965 as a golden age in their material lives, it is the post-1978 programme of economic reform and opening to the world and recent developments in political policy that have transformed life and work in Tibet most profoundly. Four central conferences on development issues in Tibet, sponsored by the central government in 1980, 1984, 1994, and 2001, have led to a new understanding of what needed to be done and helped put the autonomous region on a new development path. Top Chinese leaders have freely admitted that much more could have been done for the countrys western development, and specifically for the development of TAR. Deng Xiaoping it was who inaugurated, in 1978, a new development-oriented policy approach towards the region. Hu Yaobang made an important inspection tour of Tibet in May 1980, after which Tibetan development was given higher priority; and Zhang Zemin followed up during a fact-finding visit a decade later. Hu Jintao himself worked for more than a decade as a Communist Party of China organiser in Gansu Province, which adjoins Tibet, and subsequently served as secretary of the CPC Tibet Autonomous Regional Committee.

In Manchester, England, on April 19, Chinese students protested outside the office of the British Broadcasting Corporation against the way China is portrayed in the media ahead of the Beijing Olympics.-DAVE THOMPSON/AP

However, it is Mao Zedongs portrait that you will find in a large number of ordinary Tibetan homes because he continues to be seen as the liberator of a million serfs from the old feudal regime of landowning aristocrats and upper class monks. During my 2007 visit, I noticed that a growing number of Tibetan families also appeared to see no contradiction in displaying pictures of the 14th Dalai Lama, typically besides smaller portraits of the 10th and 11th Panchen Lamas, inside their homes. These moderate demonstrations of reverence for the Dalai Lama as a religious leader, which I did not witness during my 2000 visit to Tibet, seemed to reflect a more relaxed socio-political situation in TAR as well as in more developed Tibetan autonomous areas outside the region. But the riots and disturbances of March-April 2008 have obviously brought about a change in this situation.


What about the future of the independence for Tibet movement?

The term Tibet in Exile is used by the Dharamsala-based Tibetan Government-in-Exile to denote up to 150,000 people of Tibetan ethnicity spread across India and several other countries who are supposed to be votaries of the Dalai Lama. This Living Buddha, who will turn 73 on July 6, 2008, has suffered some health setbacks over the past few years. He has himself fuelled uncertainty about the future by making a profusion of statements about his own mortality. At times, he has indicated that he might choose to be the last Dalai Lama; and even proposed democratic modalities for ending the institution. But he has also said: If I die in exile, and if the Tibetan people wish to continue the institution of the Dalai Lama, my reincarnation will not be born under Chinese controlThat reincarnation will be outside, in the free world. This I can say with absolute certainty. These remarks make it clear that the Dalai Lamas approach even to rebirth is decidedly ideological-political.

Politically, Tibet presents a paradox. There is not a single country and government in the world that disputes the status of Tibet; that does not recognise it as a part of China; that is willing to accord any kind of legal recognition to the Dalai Lamas government-in-exile based in Dharamsala. This situation presents a contrast to the lack of an international consensus on the legal status of Kashmir. On the other hand, there is little doubt that there is a Tibet political question; that it has a problematical international dimension; that it continues to cause concern to the political leadership and people of China; and that it serves to confuse and divide public opinion abroad and, to an extent, at home.

With respect to Tibet, India, which started out in the late 1940s with a policy of ambivalence shaped by the British Raj, has come a long way. In the Declaration on Principles for Relations and Comprehensive Cooperation Between the Republic of India and the Peoples Republic of China, issued at the end of Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayees official visit to China in June 2003, India firmly reiterated its one China policy and recognised that the Tibet Autonomous Region is part of the territory of the Peoples Republic of China. It added that it did not allow Tibetans to engage in anti-China political activities in India. The Manmohan Singh government reiterated this official Indian position in the Joint Statement issued at the end of Prime Minister Wen Jiabaos state visit to India in April 2005, and again during Dr Singhs visit to China in January 2008. In the aftermath of the March-April 2008 riots and disturbances, External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee has reiterated Indias position on the status of Tibet as part of one China, and also on not allowing the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan refugees to engage in anti-Chinese political activities in India; and the Chinese government has expressed its satisfaction over, and appreciation of, this stand.


College students hold a banner reading "Support (Beijing) Olympics, Oppose Tibet Independence, Reunify the Motherland" during a peaceful demonstration at the Nanya Square in Haikou, capital of south Chinas Hainan Province, on April 20.-ZHAO YINGQUAN/XINHUA

The long-term assessment of Chinas political leadership has been that the Dalai Lama cannot be treated merely, or even primarily, as a religious leader. If he were just a pre-eminent religious leader, there would be no problem in accommodating him within the constitutional framework that guarantees religious freedom to all citizens and regional autonomy to ethnic minorities in extensive parts of a giant country. In fact, the 14th Dalai Lama is a consummate politician leading a movement that seeks to take Greater Tibet away from the motherland an anti-communist and separatist political figure, with external links.

The Dalai Lamas track record certainly bears out this assessment. He started out by accepting Chinas peaceful liberation of Tibet in 1951 (which can be compared, in some ways, to Indias peaceful liberation of Goa a decade later). He acquiesced in, and supported, the May 1951 Agreement of the Central Peoples Government and the Local Government of Tibet on Measures for the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet. The key features of this 17-article agreement were unambiguous recognition of the status of Tibet as part of one China; cooperation by the local government of Tibet with the Peoples Liberation Army; continuation of the existing political system and the status, functions, and powers of the Dalai and Panchen Lamas; and a crucial and remarkably liberal provision that the local government should carry out reforms of its own accord and there would be no compulsion on the part of the central authorities.

However, after his flight to India, the Dalai Lama showed his, and his Keshags, secessionist colours. He declared Tibet to be an independent state. In September 1959, acting against Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehrus advice, he sought unsuccessfully to get the United Nations to intervene in Tibet. In 1960, he ordered a reorganisation of the Religious Garrisons of Four Rivers and Six Ranges in Nepal and thus became complicit in military activities against the Chinese state. His Tibetan government-in-exile, with its Draft Constitution for Future Tibet and its front organisations, functions in flagrant disregard of legality as well as Indias long-declared official policy of not allowing Tibetans to engage in anti-China political activities in India.

Over the past three decades, following a high-level political decision, the Dalai Lama has travelled extensively abroad to rally support for the internationalisation of the Tibet question and presented various realistic proposals for its satisfactory and just solution. These have included a Five Point Peace Plan unfurled in a September 1987 address to members of the U.S. Congress; the elaboration of these five points in the so-called Strasbourg Proposal of June 1988; the withdrawal, in March 1991, of his personal commitment to the ideas expressed in the Strasbourg Proposal on the basis of the allegation that the Chinese leadership had a closed and negative attitude to the problem; and an abrasive and propagandistic open letter written to Deng Xiaoping in September 1992. His March 10 speeches have varied in content and tone, in sync with his perception of the international situation and Chinas place in the sun.

In his major pronouncements, the Dalai Lama has taken the stand that Tibet has been an independent nation from ancient times; that it has been a strategic buffer state in the heart of Asia guaranteeing the regions stability; that it has never conceded its sovereignty to China or any other foreign power; that Chinas control over Tibet is in the nature of occupation by a colonial power; and that the Tibetan people have never accepted the loss of national sovereignty.

A view from the train on the worlds highest railway, between Qinghai and Tibet. The railway transformed the structure of tourism in Tibet.-N. RAM

Equally important, he has repeatedly spoken of six million Tibetans. He has falsely accused China of rendering Tibetans, through a state-sponsored policy of population transfer and Hanisation, into a minority in their own land. The plain truth, borne out by official censuses and easily verifiable by foreign observers and experts, is that Tibetans constitute more than 92 per cent of the population of the Tibet Autonomous Region. The Dalai Lama has even accused the Chinese socialist state of unleashing a holocaust and exterminating more than a million Tibetans.

He has put forward the demand for the reconstitution of a Greater Tibet known as Cholka-Sum and comprising the areas of U-Tsang, Kham, and Amdo. This is a revival, in another form, of the infamous British attempt in the early 20th century to constitute two zones, Outer Tibet and Inner Tibet (the latter comprising extensive ethnic Tibetan areas in several Chinese provinces); weaken Chinas sovereignty over both zones; require Chinese non-interference in the affairs of Outer Tibet; and give the Lhasa-based Tibetan administration the right to control most monasteries and even appoint local chiefs in Inner Tibet.

He has demanded that Chinese forces, the Peoples Liberation Army, should pull out of Greater Tibet and that a regional peace conference should be convened to guarantee demilitarisation in Tibet. If the 14th Dalai Lama has his way, a single de-Hanised administrative unit, which will be formed by breaking up four Chinese provinces, will appropriate one-fourth of Chinas territory instead of the one-eighth covered by TAR.

There have been other political provocations under the guise of exercising traditional religious authority. On May 14, 1995, in a pre-emptive bid, the Dalai Lama in exile in India `recognised the boy Gendhun Choekyi Nyima, sight unseen of course, as the 11th Panchen Lama. However, in December 1995, the Chinese central government, going by centuries-old custom and tradition that empower it to recognise and appoint both the Dalai and the Panchen Lama, approved the enthronement of Gyaltsen Norbu as the 11th Panchen Erdeni.

A class in progress at the College of Tibetan Medicine, which was established in Lhasa in 1989. It is the only institute in China teaching Tibetan medicine, which enjoys a cult status internationally.-SOINAM NORBU/XINHUA

Over the past three decades, the Chinese leadership has fashioned and finessed its strategy of dealing politically with the Dalai Lama and his followers. In December 1978 Deng Xiaoping announced, in a media interview, that the Dalai Lama may return, but only as a Chinese citizen and that we have but one demand patriotism. And we say that anyone is welcome, whether he embraces patriotism early or late. In May 1991, Prime Minister Li Peng clarified that we have only one fundamental principle, namely, Tibet is an inalienable part of China. On this fundamental issue, there is no room for hagglingAll matters except Tibetan independence can be discussed.

However, after several rounds of informal talks and contacts with the Dalai Lamas emissaries and fact-finding delegations between 1979 and 1992, and after watching his performance on the international stage, the Chinese government came to a provisional conclusion by the time it held the Third National Conference on Work in Tibet in 1994. The conclusion was that the Dalai clique was demonstrably insincere; that it was working overtime to separate Tibet from China and destabilise the situation in TAR in concert with Chinas international enemies; and that its real demands were tantamount to independence semi-independence [or] independence-in-disguise.

However, that was by no means the end of the story. In an era of Chinas unprecedented economic growth, inclusive and nuanced socio-political and cultural policies, commitment to a peaceful rise and a harmonious society, when serious international political support for Tibetan independence is non-existent, the Dalai Lama has been obliged to back-pedal on the key issues. In turn, the Chinese central government and the Communist Party of China have shown exceptional patience. This has meant that since 2002 six rounds of discussion have taken place between the representatives of the Dalai Lama and the Chinese government.

One of the Tibetans-in-exile who were detained on April 16 during a demonstration near the Chinese embassy in Kathmandu.-PRAKASH MATHEMA/AFP

For a start, the Dalai Lamas representatives declared themselves to be encouraged by the new focus within Chinas leadership on the creation of a harmonious society and by the concept of Chinas peaceful rise, whereby it will develop as a modern socialist country that is prosperous, democratic, and culturally advanced. They also stated that the Dalai Lamas current approach was to look to the future as opposed to Tibets history to resolve its status vis--vis China because revisiting history will not serve any useful purpose. Further, they clarified, the crux of the Dalai Lamas Middle Way approach was to recognise todays reality that Tibet is part of the Peoples Republic of Chinaand not raise the issue of separation from China in working on a mutually acceptable solution for Tibet. His commitment was to a resolution that has Tibet as a part of the Peoples Republic of China, the need to unify all Tibetan people into one administrative entity, and the importance of granting genuine autonomy to the Tibetan people within the framework of the Chinese Constitution.

But within a year, the tune changed. Addressing the European Parliament Conference on Tibet in Brussels on November 8, 2007, the Dalai Lamas envoy, Kelsang Gyaltsen, assumed an apparently pessimistic but more belligerent tone: After six rounds of discussion, unfortunately, I have to report to you that the overall picture of our dialogue process is rather sobering and disillusioning. Since the resumption of this dialogue in 2002 the Chinese side has been adopting a position of no recognition, no reciprocity, no commitment and no concession. Although they profess an interest in continuing the dialogue, however so far they have been pursuing a strategy of avoiding any progress, decision and commitment in the dialogue process. It has now become clear that the Chinese leadership is clearly lacking the political will to address the issue of Tibet in all earnestness.

President Hu Jintao: As long as the Dalai side stops activities splitting the motherland, stops activities scheming and instigating violence, and stops activities sabotaging the Beijing Olympic Games, we are ready to continue contacts and talks with him at any time.-MINORU IWASAKI/POOL/REUTERS

This, in fact, is an acknowledgement of the big gap which cannot be narrowed unless the Dalai Lama and his establishment radically modify their stand on two core issues.

First, the concept of high-level or maximum autonomy in line with the one country, two systems principle (which Beijing holds to be applicable only to Hong Kong, Macao, and Taiwan) is very different from what Chinese constitutional framework and the law on national regional autonomy stipulate. The law, it has been pointed out, defines national regional autonomy as the basic political system of the Communist Party of China to solve the countrys ethnic issues using Marxism-Leninism. The content of autonomy, which in the Chinese constitutional and political context essentially means self-administering opportunities and subsidies and preferential policies from the state to help the autonomous region overcome historical backwardness, can certainly be improved.

However, the kind of autonomy that the Dalai Lama demanded in November 2005 the Central Government should take care of defence and foreign affairs, because the Tibetans have no experience in this regard, but the Tibetans should have full responsibility for education, economic development, environmental protection, and religion cannot possibly be accommodated within the Chinese Constitution. Further, his demand that a Tibetan government should be set up in Lhasa and should have an elected administrative chief and possess a bicameral legislative organ and an independent judicial system is ruled out of court. Beijings 2004 white paper, National Regional Autonomy in Tibet, is emphatic that, in contrast to Hong Kong and Macao that follow the capitalist system, Tibet does not face the possibility of introducing another social system.

Secondly, it bears reiteration that the 2.6 million Tibetans in TAR a number that has grown steadily and is more than twice the Tibetan population in the region when the Dalai Lama went into exile form only 40 per cent of the total population of Tibetans in China. In responding to the demand for one administrative entity for all ethnic Tibetans, the Chinese government makes the perfectly reasonable point that TAR parallels the area under the former Tibetan regime. Acceptance of the demand for Greater Tibet means breaking up the provinces of Qinghai, Gansu, Sichuan, and Yunnan, where there are a large number of Tibetan autonomous counties and prefectures; doing ethnic re-engineering, if not cleansing; and causing enormous destabilisation and damage to Chinas state, society, political system, development, and human rights.

The talks will continue, as they should. Civility, open-mindedness, flexibility, and a positive attitude to resolving the Tibet question will certainly help, on both sides.

For those who espouse independence for Tibet organisations like the Tibetan Youth Congress, the National Democratic Party of Tibet, and the International Tibet Support Network the future looks bleak indeed. One thing is absolutely clear: as much as the future of Goa, Sikkim, and Kashmir belongs to India, the future of the Tibet Autonomous Region and the extensive Tibetan autonomous areas that form part of four major provinces will reside in their differentiated and distinctive ways within one China.

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