Tibetans walk past the Potala Palace in Lhasa, former residence of the Dalai Lama. Centuries of war, intrigue and conquest have shaped Tibetan history. (Ng Han Guan/Associated Press)
Tibet's troubled times
Flames on the roof of the world
March 18, 2008
History has not been kind to Tibet.
The vast land at the roof of the world has been battered by centuries of war, intrigue and conquest. Rioting in recent weeks is just the latest violence to hit this alluring place.
Despite Tibet's reputation as a peaceable place of Buddhism and spirituality, internal strife has always been a feature of its political life. But it has been the great powers of Asia — China, India, British India — that have most wreaked havoc in Lhasa.
Until the 13th century AD, Tibet was relatively free from dominance by its neighbours. That all changed with the invasion of Kublai Khan's Mongols in 1230. At first a relatively benign force in Tibetan life, the Mongols eventually gave way to a succession of Chinese dynasties.
Tibetan lamas and nobles played key roles in power struggles in the both the Mongol and Chinese imperial courts. They served as religious teachers to emperors and high officials. But choosing sides in China was a risky business, and Tibetans often paid the price of factional defeat.
The Dalai Lama, Tibet's spiritual leader, speaks to the media in Dharamsala, India, headquarters of his government in exile. He has offered to negotiate with China for Tibetan autonomy, dropping longstanding demands for independence. (Gurinder Osan/Associated Press)
As if coping with the machinations of courtiers in neighbouring capitals wasn't enough, internecine fighting among Tibetan Buddhist factions — even with the Dalai Lama's lineage — devastated lives and weakened Tibet's polity between the 17th and 19th centuries.
Instability and intrigue often prompted local factions to reach out to China for support. Typically, a pretender or aspiring leader would offer Beijing a treaty or fealty and ride to power at the head of a column of Chinese troops.
"Tibet in those days was a land in a pre-rational state," says Professor Charles Burton, a China specialist at Ontario's Brock University, "There wasn't much of a sense of nationhood, and someone from China, or British India, who showed up in Lhasa with a treaty, they were just apt to sign it for their own purposes."
Mao stamps down hard
Contemporary Chinese policy towards Tibet, Burton says, is firmly anchored in the historical notion that Lhasa has been subservient to Beijing for most of the last millennium.
The 20th century has been particularly tough on Tibetan aspirations for independence and recognition as a modern nation-state. In 1905, Britain invaded Tibet but only stayed long enough to sign a treaty recognizing Chinese suzerainty in Lhasa. China's first post-imperial government in 1910 maintained its claims to Tibet but was too battered by instability to exercise any authority.
When Mao Zedong took power in Beijing in 1949, stamping China's authority over Tibet became a crucial symbol of Communist Party rule. Mao's People's Liberation Army invaded Tibet in 1950, and a treaty with Beijing renouncing the notion of Tibetan independence was signed the following year. Tibetan activists have long insisted that treaty was signed at gunpoint and is invalid. China says the document was an acknowledgement of historical reality — Tibet is a part of China and had always been so.
Anger at Chinese rule has boiled over on many occasions since the formal annexation of Tibet. In 1959, tens of thousands of Tibetans were killed in Lhasa and other cities in the largest ever uprising against Beijing. The Dalai Lama fled to India, where he remains at the head of a government-in-exile. There have been other paroxysms of violence, each put down brutally by Chinese forces and blamed on Communist officials on "separatists, encouraged by the Dalai clique."
Growing population concerns
Aside from harsh suppression of such uprisings, Tibetan activists also accuse China of trying to destroy their Buddhist faith, especially during the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s. Hundreds of monasteries were destroyed and monks killed by roving gangs of students.
These days, demographics and economics are causes for concern among Tibetans as well. Many say China is encouraging a large-scale population transfer of ethnic Han Chinese into Tibet, overwhelming local culture, ethnicity and language. Anecdotal evidence of travelers and foreign scholars confirm those fears, but Beijing says there is no policy to encourage Chinese migration to Tibet.
That Han Chinese shops were attacked and burned by Tibetan rioters in the latest round of protests is a measure of the anger among indigenous Tibetans at the demographic changes in their homeland.
A measure of hope for a peaceful, sustainable solution to the Tibet quandary arose in 2005 with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao's offer to hold talks with the Dalai Lama, provided demands for Tibetan independence were dropped. In reply, the Tibetan spiritual leader seemed to go the distance.
"We are willing to be part of the People's Republic of China," the Dalai Lama told the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong, "to have it govern and guarantee to preserve our Tibetan culture, spirituality and environment."
Autonomy not enough for the young
Protestors burn Chinese flags in Lhasa and wave the banned flag of free Tibet. Young people are stronger supporters of full Tibetan independence than the Dalai Lama. (Ashwini Bhatia/Associated Press)
The Dalai Lama has reiterated that he's willing to negotiate with China on autonomy, but there has been no discernible progress on the issue. Whether Chinese government insincerity is to blame for that, or a refusal to compromise among young Tibetan pro-independence activists is disputed among analysts and Tibet-watchers.
With the 2008 Summer Olympics coming up in Beijing, opponents of Chinese rule in Tibet see a golden opportunity to put their cause to the world, according to Professor Charles Burton. But he's not hopeful they'll succeed.
"The [Olympic] games will embolden elements in China who want to make us aware of their plight," says Burton, "and the Chinese have promised to address Human Rights concerns as part of the package of getting the Olympics. But so far, they've just cracked down harder [on Tibet], shown even less accommodation for those who don't agree with them.
"It doesn't bode well."