The Question of Tibet

. 3/26/08

If you go by western media reports, the propaganda of the so-called ‘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 western newspapers and television networks. The reality is that the riot that broke out in Lhasa on March 14 and claimed a confirmed toll of 22 lives involved violent, ransacking mobs, including 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. In Lhasa, the rioters committed murder, arson, and other acts of savagery against innocent civilians and caused huge damage to public and private property. 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. Visual images and independent eyewitness accounts attest to this ugly reality, which even compelled the Dalai Lama to threaten 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. Western analyses have linked these incidents to the March 10 anniversary of the failed 1959 Tibetan uprising, non-progress in the talks between the Dalai Lama’s emissaries and Beijing, China’s human rights record, and the Beijing Olympic Games, which will of course be held as scheduled from August 8 to 24.

Recent accounts, however, express unease and sadness over the containment of the troubles, the ‘large-scale,’ if belated and politically slow, response by Beijing, and the ‘brutal ease’ with which the protests have been ‘smothered’. In another context, say Pakistan under Pervez Musharraf, such a response would have been called exemplary restraint. As evidence accumulates, the realisation dawns that it is too much to expect any legitimate government of a major country to turn the other cheek to such savagery and breakdown of public order. So there is a shift in the key demand made on China: it must ‘initiate’ a dialogue with the Dalai Lama to find a sustainable political solution in Tibet.

But this is precisely what China has done for over three decades. The framework of the political solution is there for all to see. There is not a single government in the world that either disputes the status of Tibet; or does not recognise it as a part of the People’s Republic of China; or is willing to accord any kind of legal recognition to the Dalai Lama’s ‘government-in-exile.’ This situation certainly presents a contrast to the lack of an international consensus on the legal status of Kashmir. Nevertheless, there remains a Tibet political question, represented by the ideology and politics of the Dalai Lama and the ‘independence for Tibet’ movement, and it has an international as well as a domestic dimension.

This is an era of unprecedented development for the Chinese economy, which has grown at nearly 10 per cent a year for three decades. Tibet itself is on an economic roll: it has sustained an annual growth rate of more than 12 per cent over the past six years and is now on a 13-14 per cent growth trajectory. A new politics of conciliation towards the Dalai Lama’s camp has been shaped by this era, and since 2002, six rounds of discussion have taken place between the representatives of the Dalai Lama and the Chinese government. The former have stated that the Dalai Lama’s current approach is to “look to the future as opposed to Tibet’s history to resolve its status vis-À-vis China,” and that the crux of his ‘Middle Way’ approach is to “recognise today’s reality that Tibet is part of the People’s Republic of China … and not raise the issue of separation from China in working on a mutually acceptable solution for Tibet.”

The real problem arises from two demands pressed by the Dalai Lama. The first is his concept of ‘high-level’ or ‘maximum’ autonomy in line with the ‘one country, two systems’ principle. The Chinese government points out that this is applicable only to Hong Kong, Macao, and Taiwan, and that the kind of autonomy that the Dalai Lama demanded in November 2005 cannot possibly be accommodated within the Chinese Constitution. Secondly, the 2.6 million Tibetans in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), which constitutes one-eighth of China’s territory, form only 40 per cent of the total population of Tibetans in China. The Chinese government makes the perfectly reasonable point that acceptance of the demand for ‘Greater Tibet’ or ‘one administrative entity’ for all 6.5 million ethnic Tibetans means breaking up Qinghai, Gansu, Sichuan, and Yunnan provinces, doing ethnic re-engineering, if not ‘cleansing’, and causing enormous disruption and damage to China’s society and political system. This demand too is ruled out, as any comparable demand to break up States in India would be.

Multi-ethnic India is no stranger to such challenges to its territorial integrity: just consider the armed insurgency challenges, in some cases with external fuelling, in Jammu & Kashmir and in several parts of the North-East. Although the United Progressive Alliance government has made some statements about the Tibet incidents that hew close to the Washington line, it will be pleased that the studied official Chinese response has been to highlight India’s “clear and consistent” stand on the status of Tibet as part of the People’s Republic of China. New Delhi has allowed too much latitude to the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan discontents for their political activities on Indian soil, which go against the stand that they are not allowed “to engage in anti-China political activities in India,” a principle reaffirmed by External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee in Washington on March 24. The time has come for India to use the leverage that comes with hosting the Dalai Lama and his followers since 1959 to persuade or pressure him to get real about the future of Tibet — and engage in a sincere dialogue with Beijing to find a reasonable, just, and sustainable political solution within the framework of one China.

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