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Free Tibet!

By Norm Dixon

September 25, 1996 -- Green Left Weekly -- The visit of Tibet's exiled ruler Tenzin Gyatso, better known as the 14th Dalai Lama, has focused attention on the Chinese government's continued denial of the Tibetan people's right to national self-determination, the absence of democratic rights and the widespread repression of dissent.

Tibetans are entitled to claim their right to national self-determination. They have a common language, territory and culture. A distinct, continuous Tibetan history can be traced back 2500 years. Whatever the arguments about the independence or otherwise of Tibet during this long period, when China's last dynasty was overthrown in 1911, all Chinese officials were expelled and the 13th Dalai Lama issued a proclamation that many Tibetans consider a declaration of independence.

While no country formally recognised this independence, Tibetan officials conducted all governmental functions without reference to, or interference from, Beijing. Lhasa conducted government-to-government relations with many countries, signing trade pacts and other deals. Until 1950, Tibet operated as a de facto independent state.

The Chinese Communist Party once adhered to the traditional Leninist position on the right of nations to self-determination. The 1931 constitution of the soviet government of China stated: "All Mongolians, Tibetans, Miao, Yao, Koreans and others living in the territory of China shall enjoy the full rights to self-determination, i.e., they may either join the Union of Chinese Soviets or secede from it and form their own state as they may prefer".

By 1949, the CCP's commitment to the right of self-determination had been quietly dropped. In that year, the new government announced that the liberation of Tibet was a major goal of the People's Liberation Army. Mao Zedong — aware that Tibet's de facto independence made a negotiated integration into China preferable to an immediate military attack, which might have brought international repercussions — proposed "peaceful liberation".

When the Tibetan government failed to meet a deadline for "peaceful liberation", PLA forces in October 1950 invaded Tibet's eastern province of Kham and quickly overran Tibet's poorly armed and led army of 10,000 troops. The PLA stopped its advance, and Beijing again urged Lhasa to begin negotiations.

Tenzin Gyatso, now the Dalai Lama, sent a negotiating team to Beijing which, with little choice, signed an agreement on May 23, 1951, known as the Seventeen Point Agreement. For the first time in recorded history, Tibet's rulers formally acknowledged in writing China's sovereignty over Tibet.

The Dalai Lama did not attempt to rally the Tibetan people to defend their former independence. He and the majority of his regime were satisfied, if uncomfortable, since China agreed to maintain Tibet's oppressive theocratic political system and keep the exploitative semi-feudal economic system intact, with the Dalai Lama at its head. Some of Tibet's more recalcitrant aristocrats, though, were perturbed by the caveat that this would last until such time as Tibetans wanted reforms. Under this agreement, Chinese troops moved peacefully into Lhasa in the autumn of 1951.

CCP policy in this period recognised that the religious, political and economic hold of the landowners was strong and that the class struggle in Tibet had not developed sufficiently for the peasantry to rebel against their appalling conditions and absolute lack of human rights. Beijing strove instead to work closely with the Tibetan landowning elite and allay their fears.

According to Tibet scholar Melvyn Goldstein, between 1951 and 1959 there was no significant expropriation of property of the aristocratic and religious landlords. Mao was committed to the continued reign of the Dalai Lama because this would reassure the feudal and religious elites of their place in China's new multi-ethnic state.

The CCP did virtually nothing to encourage the Tibetan masses to challenge the rule of the landlords. In the eyes of both Mao and the Tibetan elite, the peasants were mere appendages of the landowners. The PLA was at first careful to show respect for Tibetan culture and religion, giving alms to all 20,000 monks in the Lhasa area.

But the damage had been done with the taking of Kham by force and the entry of Chinese troops, no matter how well behaved, into Lhasa. The Tibetan people felt humiliated at the loss of their independence and feared for their future. The sudden presence of Chinese troops was disturbing after 40 years in which there had been virtually no Chinese in Tibet. When the disgruntled landlords felt their economic and political monopoly was threatened, they were able to clothe their reactionary rebellion in a nationalist garb and win many poor Tibetans to their side.

A section of the landholders, convinced that the CCP would eventually introduce land reform and fearing the impact on their power of the development of Tibet's infrastructure, began to organise an armed rebellion. There were landlord-inspired disturbances in eastern Tibet triggered when the Chinese authorities levied taxes on traders returning from India and demanded that monasteries supply lists of property for tax assessment. By 1957, the US had altered its ambivalent position on Tibet, and the CIA was arming and training Tibetan rebels.

In 1957, Mao made a last-ditch attempt to placate the landlords. The numbers of Chinese CCP cadre and troops in Tibet were reduced, and the Dalai Lama was promised in writing that China would not implement land reform for another six years. If conditions were not "ripe" then, reforms would be postponed again.

The landlords were not convinced. The Dalai Lama, with 80,000 supporters, fled to India at the height of several days of massive demonstrations that began on March 10, 1959. Soon after the Dalai Lama's retreat, fighting broke out. Chinese troops put down the uprising, which involved tens of thousands of Tibetans. Beijing says 87,000 people were killed.

The CCP concluded that the cause of the rebellion was its policy of "moderation" toward minorities. Beijing tore up the Seventeen Point Agreement and abolished the traditional government, confiscated the estates of the religious and aristocratic elites and closed thousands of monasteries. Policy toward Tibet has been marked ever since by varying degrees of brute force and terror, with systematic discrimination, reaching its worst extremes during the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution.

While land reform and other measures undoubtedly benefited Tibet's poor peasants, its arbitrary implementation and the brutal suppression of Tibetan culture and religion sowed hatred and fuelled Tibetan nationalism. The brutality and colonisation imposed by the Chinese government became the overriding issue for Tibetans, giving new life to the illusion that all sections of Tibetan society have fundamental common interests.

Since the late 1980s, there has been an upsurge of protest. Following significant protests in 1987, 1988, 1989 and 1990, extreme police repression has prevented further outbreaks. Recent visitors report a heavy police presence in Lhasa, with surveillance cameras mounted in the streets. Gatherings of three ot more Tibetans are broken up by police.

According to Amnesty International's most recent annual report, hundreds of people were detained in 1995 for peaceful pro-independence activities. Police and troops continue to raid monasteries and convents. AI says there are more than 650 Tibetan political prisoners.

Reflecting both the original backwardness of landlord-dominated Tibet and Beijing's anti-Tibet policies, official Chinese figures show Tibet to be languishing. In 1990, literacy was 56% compared to China's 74%; Tibet has the lowest life expectancy at 45 years, compared to China's 75; Tibet's per capita GDP for 1993 was US$242, compared to China's $462.

Tibet's problems have intensified with the Chinese bureaucracy's rush to restore capitalism. In 1992, Lhasa was declared a special economic zone. Waves of state-subsidised Chinese settlers took over new business opportunities, and Chinese skilled workers dominate jobs created by demand for new housing and services. Tibetans are being increasingly marginalised in their own homeland. The non-Tibetan population of Lhasa is now estimated at 50%. Racism towards Tibetans is reportedly rife.

After more than four decades of Chinese rule, Tibetans are seething with resentment at what they see as a systematic campaign to destroy and uproot their culture. This is the product of more than four decades of heavy handed, ill-directed and insensitive attempts by the Stalinist Chinese bureaucracy to suppress the influence of Tibet's former landlord class, now in exile in India.

But the harsh reality is that Beijing's indiscriminate and apolitical assaults — arbitrarily softened or hardened depending on the bureaucratic wind blowing from the capital — have served only to drive most Tibetans into the arms of their former oppressors, now able to wear the mantle of "freedom fighters".

The Dalai Lama's hidden past

September 25, 1996

Comment by Norm Dixon

Most solidarity and environmental groups supporting the Tibetan people's cause have not questioned the Dalai Lama's role in Tibetan history or addressed what it would mean for the Tibetan people if the Dalai Lama and his coterie returned to power.

A 1995 document distributed by the Dalai Lama's Office of Tibet aggressively states that "China tries to justify its occupation and repressive rule of Tibet by pretending that it 'liberated' Tibetan society from 'medieval feudal serfdom' and 'slavery'. Beijing trots out this myth to counter every international pressure to review its repressive policies in Tibet." It then coyly concedes: "Traditional Tibetan society was by no means perfect ... However, it was not as bad as China would have us believe."

Was this a myth? Tibet's Buddhist monastic nobility controlled all land on behalf of the "gods". They monopolised the country's wealth by exacting tribute and labour services from peasants and herders. This system was similar to how the medieval Catholic Church exploited peasants in feudal Europe.

Tibetan peasants and herders had little personal freedom. Without the permission of the priests, or lamas, they could not do anything. They were considered appendages to the monastery. The peasantry lived in dire poverty while enormous wealth accumulated in the monasteries and in the Dalai Lama's palace in Lhasa.

In 1956 the Dalai Lama, fearing that the Chinese government would soon move on Lhasa, issued an appeal for gold and jewels to construct another throne for himself. This, he argued, would help rid Tibet of "bad omens". One hundred and twenty tons were collected. When the Dalai Lama fled to India in 1959, he was preceded by more than 60 tons of treasure.


Romantic notions about the "peaceful" and "harmonious" nature of Tibetan Buddhist monastic life should be tested against reality. The Lithang Monastery in eastern Tibet was where a major rebellion against Chinese rule erupted in 1956. Beijing tried to levy taxes on its trade and wealth. The monastery housed 5000 monks and operated 113 "satellite" monasteries, all supported by the labour of the peasants.

Chris Mullin, writing in the Far Eastern Economic Review in 1975, described Lithang's monks as "not monks in the Western sense ... many were involved in private trade; some carried guns and spent much of their time violently feuding with rival monasteries. One former citizen describes Lithang as 'like the Wild West'."

The Tibetan "government" in Lhasa was composed of lamas selected for their religious piety. At the head of this theocracy was the Dalai Lama. The concepts democracy, human rights or universal education were unknown.

The Dalai Lama and the majority of the elite agreed to give away Tibet's de facto independence in 1950 once they were assured by Beijing their exploitative system would be maintained. Nine years later, only when they felt their privileges were threatened, did they revolt. Suddenly the words "democracy" and "human rights" entered the vocabulary of the government-in-exile, operating out of Dharamsala in India ever since.

Dharamsala and the Dalai Lama's commitment to democracy seems weak. An Office of Tibet document claims "soon after His Holiness the Dalai Lama's arrival in India, he re-established the Tibetan Government in exile, based on modern democratic principles". Yet it took more than 30 years for an Assembly of Tibetan People's Deputies to be directly elected from among the 130,000 exiles. Of 46 assembly members, only 30 are elected. The other 16 are appointed by religious authorities or directly by the Dalai Lama.

All assembly decisions must be approved by the Dalai Lama, whose sole claim to the status of head of state is that he has been selected by the gods. The separation of church and state is yet to be recognised by the Dalai Lama as a "modern democratic principle".

The right-wing nature of the Dalai Lama and the government-in-exile was further exposed by its relationship with the US CIA. The Dalai Lama concealed the CIA's role in the 1959 uprising until 1975.

Between 1956 and 1972 the CIA armed and trained Tibetan guerillas. The Dalai Lama's brothers acted as intermediaries. Before the 1959 uprising, the CIA parachuted arms and trained guerillas into eastern Tibet. The Dalai Lama maintained radio contact with the CIA during his 1959 escape to India.

Even the Dalai Lama's commitment to allowing the Tibetan people a genuine act of self-determination is debatable. Without consultation with the Tibetan people, the Dalai Lama openly abandoned his movement's demand for independence in 1987. This shift was first communicated to Beijing secretly in 1984. The Dalai Lama's proposals now amount to calling for negotiations with Beijing to allow him and his exiled government to resume administrative power in an "autonomous", albeit larger, Tibet. The Dalai Lama's call for international pressure on Beijing seeks only to achieve this.

There are indications that a younger generation of exiled Tibetans is now questioning the traditional leadership. In Dharamsala, the New Internationalist reported recently, young Tibetans have criticised the abandonment of the demand for independence and the Dalai Lama's rejection of armed struggle. They openly question the influence of religion, saying it holds back the struggle. Some have received death threats for challenging the old guard. Several recently-arrived refugees were elected to the Assembly of Tibetan People's Deputies.

The Tibetan people deserve the right to national self-determination. However, supporting their struggle should not mean that we uncritically support the self-proclaimed leadership of the Dalai Lama and his compromised "government-in-exile". Their commitment to human rights, democracy and support for genuine self-determination can only be judged from their actions and their willingness to tell the truth.

 

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