New Internationalist

A Cause For Courage

Issue 274

[image, unknown] New Internationalist Issue 274


The material that follows has been provided by New Internationalist

Tibet - a history

A farewell to arms

Tibet was a great military power back in the seventh century. A succession of kings - the most famous of whom was Srongsten Gampo - expanded Tibet far beyond its present boundaries, south into India and west into China. The Chinese Emperor then had to pay annual tribute of 10,000 rolls of silk to Tibet - a fact conveniently forgotten amid China's current claims of 'historical' dominance.

It was during Srongsten Gampo's reign that Buddhism was introduced to the Tibetan court by two of his wives, one Nepalese and the other Chinese. By the end of the eighth century it had largely supplanted the native Bon religion. As Buddhism spread a wonderful thing happened. The previously warlike Tibetans gradually 'laid their weapons at the foot of the [Lord Buddha's] Lotus throne and forswore the arts of war'. By the end of the tenth century Tibet had withdrawn from Chinese and Indian territories. Tibetans did not entirely forget their military past, and no-one dared invade them, but they were no longer an expansionist people.

Tea with Genghis

For the next three centuries Tibet was essentially isolationist but in 1207 it fell under Mongolian domination. This was the age of Genghis Khan, the Mongol warlord who ruled over China, Korea and territories stretching as far as Europe. While in Chinese and Persian history Genghis Khan is portrayed as barbaric, Tibetan history presents him as tough but fair. When he invited representatives from all the world's religions to his court to determine which was best, Tibetan Buddhists won the day - telling Genghis to sit in his favourite chair with a cup of his favourite brew beside him, they made the cup rise to his lips of its own accord. In 1350 Tibet resumed its independence but enjoyed a unique priest-patron relationship with Mongolia for the next few centuries. Tibetans looked after the spiritual welfare of the Mongols while Mongol lords made generous gifts to Tibetan monasteries and guaranteed Tibet's defence against would-be invaders.

High Lamas and uncanny children

Out of this relatively stable religious climate emerged the Dalai Lama system. The Dalai Lama was to be both spiritual leader and head of state. When he died the search would begin for the child into whose body his spirit had chosen to be reincarnated. The first Dalai Lama, Pema Dorje (which means Lotus Thunderbolt), was born in 1391 of very poor peasants in the western highlands. From the day he was born miraculous things happened around him. By 1419 he was the first High Lama of Drepung, which was to become the biggest monastery in the world. Many of Tibet's great monasteries were founded during his reign and Buddhist thought and practice flourished. A few years after he died his successor was discovered in an uncannily mature child who had memories of a past life. The system worked relatively smoothly. Tibet prospered, especially during the the reign of the Great Fifth Dalai Lama who started building the Potala Palace, still the treasure house of Tibetan culture today.

Covetous glances and murder mysteries

But by the mid-seventeeth century Mongol power was on the wane and the new Manchu or Qing Dynasty in China began to cast covetous glances in Tibet's direction. When the Great Fifth Dalai Lama died in 1682 there were fears that the Chinese would seize the chance to invade. Amazingly, his death was kept secret for 15 years as an impersonator was put in his place. Unfortunately when the new Dalai Lama was found and enthroned his main interests were sex, wine and love poetry. In 1720 a 2,000-strong Chinese garrison was placed in Lhasa, putting an intolerable strain on the capital's food supplies and the following year Chinese Emperor K'an Hsi pronounced that Tibet had always been a vassal of China. Few Tibetans took any notice. But Chinese influence grew all the same by backing the Regent - the power behind the throne made necessary due to the time-lag between a Dalai Lama's dying, being reborn and reaching adulthood. Three of the next five Dalai Lamas died in childhood and were probably murdered - and the other two took no interest in politics.

Great games and betrayals

By the late nineteenth century Afghanistan, northern India and Tibet had become the setting of the Great Game, an imperialist power struggle. The British ruled India and were convinced that the Russians intended to gain regional influence by invading Tibet. In 1904 the British consolidated their position by themselves invading Tibet. The British military expedition, headed by Colonel Younghusband, met with resistance from the small Tibetan army. Two hundred British soldiers and several times that number of Tibetans died before Tibet signed a treaty, promising it would prevent other foreign powers from influencing its internal affairs and would trade with British India. When Chinese troops entered Lhasa six years later, the Dalai Lama appealed to the British to help expel them. To his surprise the British refused. Luckily the corrupt Chinese empire was in its death throes and fell to Nationalists in 1911. Tibetans seized the chance to throw out the invaders. In June 1912 the Dalai Lama proclaimed Tibetan independence.

Feudal foibles and leisured splendour

Tibet may have entered the twentieth century but its people were living in conditions that had more in common with medieval times in Europe. Feudal landowners and powerful monasteries held sway in most of the country and peasants had to pay them the equivalent of tithes. Secular education did not exist. The Thirteenth Dalai Lama was virtually alone in his realization that for Tibet to survive in the modern world changes would have to be made. He tried to reform land ownership, the legal and penal system, the civil service and education. He also tried to establish a modern Tibetan army. But time and again his initiatives were blocked by powerful traditionalists, both religious and secular. He died before seeing the dreadful outcome of this rigidity. The leisured splendour of the secular Žlite looked to the outside world for some things - Lhasa shops sold Scotch whisky and Elizabeth Arden cosmetics - but there were still no diplomatic relations with foreign countries. When Communists came to power in China in 1949 only a handful of Tibetans had any idea what this might mean for their country.

Isolation and invasion

On 1 January 1950 Radio Beijing announced that: 'The task of the People's Liberation Army for 1950 is to liberate Tibet.' Chinese propaganda explained that Tibet was dominated by foreign imperialists (six Westerners lived there at the time) and that the Tibetan victims of a feudal regime could wait no longer for their 'peaceful liberation'. On 7 October, 84,000 Chinese troops penetrated Tibet's eastern province of Kham. They met with unexpected resistance from Khampa horseriders fighting with swords against Chinese guns. News of the invasion went unheeded in Lhasa: the entire Tibetan government was out picnicking when the telegram arrived. When appeals went out for international help, India and Nepal expressed sympathy but did nothing and Britain called for adjournment of the UN debate on the invasion. On 17 November 1950 15-year-old Tenzin Gyatso was prematurely given full powers to rule as Fourteenth Dalai Lama. In 1951 the Chinese presented him with an 'agreement' promising that neither Tibet's social system nor its religion would be changed but that Tibetans would 'return to the big family of the Motherland, the People's Republic of China'. Without international support he had no choice but to sign.

Uprising and crackdown

The Chinese believed the Tibetan masses would embrace the benefits of communism. But although standards of living were low, no-one went hungry and the traditional ruling powers were paternalistic rather than brutal. In 1953 Mao Zedong promised the Dalai Lama the Chinese would leave Tibet once 'liberation' was complete. Instead persecution by the Chinese led hundreds to head for the mountains to join the guerrilla organization Chushi Gangdrug ('Four Rivers, Six Ranges'). In March 1959 Tibetan resistance exploded. Fearing a Chinese plot to kidnap him, the Dalai Lama went into exile in India. The Chinese cracked down hard. Chinese figures record 87,000 deaths while Tibetan sources suggest as many as 430,000 were killed in the Uprising and subsequent years of guerrilla warfare. Large-scale and systematic Chinese brutality began, involving an arsenal of torture and humiliation methods. Peasants and nomads lost freedom of movement and were ordered into communes. Tens of thousands of Tibetans starved to death between 1959 and 1961 in the famines that followed Mao's disastrous Great Leap Forward.

The darkest years

In 1966 Mao Zedong launched the 'Cultural Revolution' - and the decade that followed was to be Tibet's darkest. Threatened by the opposition he felt growing within his Party, Mao turned to China's youth and ordered them to eradicate the 'the four olds' (old ideas, old culture, old customs, old habits). Red Guards, most in their teens, went on the rampage, righteously intimidating, beating and killing 'reactionaries', 'class enemies' and 'spies'. In Tibet it meant full-scale war on a people and a civilization. Thousands of monasteries were looted and razed. Tens of thousands of Tibetans, lay and ordained, were persecuted and sent to labour camps. Red Guards poured into Lhasa from China, to be joined on their rampages by some Tibetan youths. Every home was raided and statues or images of Buddha were destroyed and replaced with pictures of Mao. Holy texts were turned into toilet paper. Only when Mao died in 1976 did the onslaught ease.

Money, money, money

In 1980 the outspoken Chinese leader Hu Yaobang came to Tibet and made an extraordinary comment: the country was in a shambles, he said. The Communist Party had 'let Tibetans down' - they were worse off than before due to 'plain colonialism'. Money was allocated for rebuilding monasteries and tourism was encouraged. Unfortunately Hu was soon disgraced and paramount leader Deng Xiaoping, while steering China away from Maoism towards capitalism, has been just as repressive as Mao in his attitude to Tibet. The 1980s saw the Dalai Lama changing strategy: he started making political speeches on his visits abroad and international support for Tibetan independence grew. In 1988 he made the Strasbourg proposal, a compromise which called for genuine autonomy rather than independence - but still the Chinese would not negotiate. In 1989 the Dalai Lama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Back in Lhasa, Tibetans had been taking to the streets in a a new era of protest which began in 1987 and continues today, despite intense repression. China's interests in Tibet have now lost any ideological tinge they might once have had: it wants to extract its natural resources and to inject Chinese colonists.

©Copyright: New Internationalist 1995

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