The Status Of Tibet

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This text is published under the permission of
The Office of Tibet,
the official agency of His Holiness the Dalai Lama in London. 

The Status of Tibet


At the time of its invasion by troops of the People's Liberation Army of China in 1949, Tibet was an independent state in fact and law. The military invasion constituted an aggression on a sovereign state and a violation of international law. Today's continued occupation of Tibet by China, with the help of several hundred thousand troops, represents an ongoing violation of international law and of the fundamental rights of the Tibetan people to independence.

The Chinese Communist Government claims it has a right to "ownership" of Tibet. It does not claim this right on the basis of its military conquest in 1949 or alleged effective control over Tibet since then or since 1959. The Chinese Government also does not base its claim to "ownership" on the so-called "Seventeen Point Agreement for the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet" which it forced upon Tibet in 1951. Instead, China's alleged legal claim is based on historical relationships primarily of Mongol or Manchu rulers with Tibetan lamas and, to a lesser extent, of Chinese rulers and Tibetan lamas. The main events relied on by the Chinese Government occurred hundreds of years ago: during the height of Mongol imperial expansion, when the Mongol Emperors extended their political supremacy throughout most of Asia and large parts of Eastern Europe; and when Manchu Emperors ruled China and expanded their influence throughout East and Central Asia, including Tibet, particularly in the 18th century.

It is not disputed that at different times in its long history Tibet came under various degrees of foreign influence: that of the Mongols, the Gorkhas of Nepal, the Manchu Emperors of China and the British rulers of India. At other times in Tibet's history, it was Tibet which exercised power and influence on its neighbours, including China. It would be hard to find any state in the world today that has not been subjected to foreign domination or influence for some part of its history. In Tibet's case the degree and length of foreign influence and interference was quite limited. Moreover, relationship with the Mongol, Chinese and Manchu rulers, to the extent they had political significance, were personal in nature and did not at any time imply a union or integration of the Tibetan state with or into a Chinese state.

However fascinating Tibet's ancient history may be, it's status at the time of the Chinese invasion must, of course, be judged on the basis of its position in modern history, especially its relationship with China since 1911, when the Chinese overthrew the foreign Manchu rule and became the masters of their own country. Every country can go back to some period in history to justify territorial claims on neighbouring states. That is unacceptable in international law and practice.

The reader of China's White Paper "Tibet: Its Ownership and Human Rights Situation" will be struck by the scant attention its authors pay to Tibet's modern history in the decades before 1949. This is because from 1911 to the completion of the Chinese occupation in 1951, there is no evidence of Chinese authority or influence in Tibet which can support China's claim. In fact, the preponderance of the evidence shows precisely the opposite: that Tibet was to all intents and purposes a sovereign state, independent of China. This conclusion is supported by most legal scholars and experts on the subject.

The International Commission of Jurists' Legal Enquiry Committee on Tibet reported in its study on Tibet's legal status:


Tibet demonstrated from 1913 to 1950 the conditions of statehood as generally accepted under international law. In 1950, there was a people and a territory, and a government which functioned in that territory, conducting its own domestic affairs free from any outside authority. From 1913-1950, foreign relations of Tibet were conducted exclusively by the Government of Tibet, and countries with whom Tibet had foreign relations are shown by official documents to have treated Tibet in practice as an independent State.
[Tibet and Chinese People's Republic, Geneva, 1960, pp. 5,6]


Forty years of independence is clearly sufficient for a country to be regarded as such by the international community. Many members of the United Nations today have enjoyed a similar or even shorter period of independence. But in Tibet's case, even its ancient history has been selectively re-written by the Chinese Government's propaganda machine to serve the purpose of defending its claim to "ownership." Thus, even if it is not necessary to discuss Tibet's early history in order to understand its status on the eve of China's military invasion, we believe it is useful to review it briefly, just to set the record straight.

The status of Tibet: 1911-1951

There can be little argument that on the eve of China's military invasion, which started at the close of 1949, Tibet possessed all the attributes of independent statehood recognised under international law: a defined territory, a population inhabiting that territory, a government, and the ability to enter into international relations.

The territory of Tibet largely corresponds to the geological plateau of Tibet, which consists of 2.5 million square kilometre. At different times in history, wars were fought and treaties signed concerning the precise location of boundaries.

The population of Tibet at the time of the Chinese invasion was approximately six million. That population constituted the Tibetan people, a distinct people with a long history, rich culture and spiritual tradition. Tibetans are a people distinct from the Chinese and other neighbouring peoples. Not only have the Tibetans never considered themselves to be Chinese, the Chinese have also not regarded the Tibetans to be Chinese (hence, for example, the references to "barbarians" in Chinese historical annals).

The Government of Tibet was headquartered in Lhasa, the capital city of Tibet. It consisted of a Head of State (the Dalai Dalai Lama), a Cabinet of Ministers (the Kashag), a National Assembly (the Tsongdu), and an elaborate bureaucracy to administer the vast territory of Tibet. The Judicial system was based on that developed by Songtsen Gampo (7th Century), Jangchub Gyaltsen (14th Century), the Fifth Dalai Lama (17th Century) and the Thirteenth Dalai Lama (20th Century), and was administered by Magistrates appointed by the Government.

The Government of Tibet levied tax, issued its own currency, ran the country's postal system and issued postage stamps, commanded Tibet's small army, and generally conducted all affairs of Government. It was an ancient form of government which had served the needs of Tibet well in the past, but was in need of reform in order for the country to keep pace with the great political, social and economic changes that were taking place in the world. The Tibetan form of government was a highly de-centralised one, with many districts and principalities of Tibet enjoying a large degree of self-government. This was, to a large extent, inevitable due to the vastness of the territory and the lack of modern communication systems.

The international relations of Tibet were focused on the country's neighbours. Tibet maintained diplomatic, economic and cultural relations with countries in the region such as Nepal, Bhutan, Sikkim, Mongolia, China, British India, and, to a limited extent, with Russia and Japan.

Tibet's independent foreign policy is perhaps most obviously demonstrated by the country's neutrality during World War II. Despite strong pressures from Britain, the U.S. and China to allow the passage of military supplies through Tibet to China when Japan blocked the strategically vital "Burma Road," Tibet held fast to its declared neutrality, which the Allies were constrained to respect.

China today claims that "no country ever recognised Tibet." In international law, recognition can be obtained by an explicit act of recognition or by implicit act or behaviour. The conclusion of treaties, even the conduct of negotiations, and certainly the maintenance of diplomatic relations are forms of recognition. Mongolia and Tibet concluded a formal treaty of recognition in 1913; Nepal not only concluded peace treaties with Tibet, and maintained an Ambassador in Lhasa, but also formally stated to the United Nations in 1949, as part of its application for UN membership, that it maintained independent diplomatic relations with Tibet as it did with several other countries including the United Kingdom, the United States, India and Burma.

Nepal, Bhutan, Britain, China and India maintained diplomatic missions in Tibet's capital, Lhasa. Although China claimed in its propaganda that its mission in Tibet was a branch office of the so-called Commission of Tibetan and Mongolian Affairs of the Guomindang government, the Tibetan Government only recognised it as a diplomatic mission. Its status was no higher than the Nepalese Embassy (Nepal had a full Ambassador or "Vakil" in Lhasa) or the British Mission. The Tibetan Foreign Office also conducted limited relations with the United States when President Franklin D. Roosevelt sent emissaries to Lhasa to request assistance for the Allied war effort against Japan during the Second World War. Also, during the four UN General assembly debates on Tibet in 1959, 1960, 1961 and 1965, many countries expressly referred to Tibet as an independent country illegally occupied by China.

Relations with Nationalist China

China's position was ambiguous during this period (1911-49). On the one hand, the Nationalist Government unilaterally announced in its constitution and in communications to other countries that Tibet was a province of the Republic of China (one of the "five races" of the Republic). On the other hand, it recognised that Tibet was not part of the Republic of China in its official communications with the Government of Tibet. Thus, China's President repeatedly sent letters and envoys to the Dalai Lama and to the Tibetan Government asking that Tibet "join" the Republic of China. Similar messages were sent by China to the Government of Nepal. Both Tibet and Nepal consistently refused to join China. In response to the first letter of Chinese President Yuan Shih-kai, the Thirteenth Dalai Lama rejected the invitation to join the Republic, explaining courteously but firmly that Tibetans did "not approve" of the Chinese Government due to past injustices and stated:


The Republic has only just been proclaimed and the national foundations are far from strong. It behoves the President to exert his energies towards the maintenance of order. As for Thibet, the Thibetans are quite capable of preserving their existence intact and there is no occasion for the President to worry himself at this distance or to be discomposed. [Guomin Gongbao, 6 Jan. 1913]

In the White Paper, the Thirteenth Dalai Lama is quoted as having told the "envoy" sent by "Beijing" in 1919 that, "It is not my true intention to be on intimate terms with the British. ... I swear to be loyal to our country and jointly work for the happiness of the five races." In that year an unofficial delegation came to Lhasa ostensibly to present religious offerings to the Thirteenth Dalai Lama, but in reality to urge the Tibetan leader to negotiate an agreement with China. However, the Dalai Lama rejected the overture outright, and instead, called for tripartite negotiations in Lhasa.

Liu Man-qing, a woman of mixed Tibetan and Chinese parentage, did arrive in Lhasa in 1930. But her visit was described as personal. She also tried to approach the Tibetan Government with communications from the Chinese resident, but the Tibetan gave her no encouragement. In China's White Paper, it is stated that the Dalai Lama, in his communications through her, expressed his belief that Tibet is a part of China. The Dalai Lama is quoted as having said, "My greatest wish is for the real peace and unification of China", etc. There is no historical record of the Dalai Lama having made such statements in 1930. On the contrary, the official record of the Dalai Lama's reply to the Chinese President in 1930 contradicts this statement. The record refers to a list of eight questions submitted to the Dalai Lama on behalf of the Chinese President and contains each of the Dalai Lama's responses.

On relations with China and Chinese influence in Tibet, the Dalai Lama said:

For the stability of Tibet's religio-political order and happiness of its subjects, it may be better to hold negotiations and conclude treaties as this will result in dependable arrangements.

On Tibet's independence and the border territories Tibet wanted returned from China, the Dalai Lama said:

Under the priest-patron relationship that prevailed so far, Tibet has enjoyed wide independence. We wish to preserve this. We feel that there will be long-term stability if the territories we have lost to outsiders are returned to us. [Record of the 13th Dalai Lama's communication, dated 15th day of the 4th Tibetan Month, Iron-Horse Year 1930]

Other Chinese envoys to Tibet, such as General Huang Mu-sung (1934), and Wu Zhong-xin (1940), were also told in no uncertain terms by the Tibetan Government that Tibet was and wished to remain independent. It may be stated here that neither the Chinese Government, nor its "special envoy" (Huang Mu-sung), had any role in the appointment of Rading Rinpoche as the regent after the death of the Thirteenth Dalai Lama. Huang Mu-sung was the first Chinese to be permitted to enter Tibet in an official capacity since 1911. The Tibetans did not refuse him permission because he came to offer religious tribute and condolences for the late Dalai Lama. In the event, Huang Mu-sung arrived in Lhasa in April 1934, three months after Rading Rinpoche became the Regent. The Tsongdu (National Assembly) nominated three candidates for the regency, Rading Rinpoche, Gaden Tripa Yeshi Wangdhen and Phurchok Rinpoche. Out of them, Rading Rinpoche was selected through a lot-drawing ceremony conducted in front of the statue of Avalokitesvara in the Potala. [Thupten Tenthar Lhawutara in Bod kyi Lo rGyus Rig gNas dPyad gZhi'i rGyu cha bDams BsGrigs, Vol. 12, People's Publishing House, Beijing, 1990]

In the White Paper, China claims that Tibetan Government officials were sent to participate in China's national assembly sessions in 1931 and 1946 in Nanjing. In fact, in 1931, Khenpo Kunchok Jungne was appointed by the Dalai Lama to set up a temporary liaison office in Nanjing and maintain contact with the Chinese Government. Likewise, the 1946 Tibetan mission was sent to Delhi and Nanjing to congratulate Britain, the United States and China on the Allied victory in the Second World War. They had no instruction or authority to attend any Chinese national assembly. Speaking about this to the International Commission of Jurists' Legal Inquiry Committee on 29 August 1959, the Dalai Lama said, "They (Tibetan delegates in Nanjing) had no official part in the Assembly. When the propaganda came to the knowledge of our Government they were instructed by telegram not to attend."

As for the establishment of the Commission for Tibetan and Mongolian Affairs by the Nationalist Guomindang Government, that too served only to keep up appearances: to this day, the Guomindang Government in Taiwan maintains this Commission which, it claims, not only has jurisdiction over Tibet, but also over the whole of Mongolia, including Outer Mongolia, whose independence has been internationally recognised since 1924. In fact, this Commission was not recognised by the Tibetan Government and never had any authority with respect to Tibet.

United Nations Debates

When Chinese Communist armies started entering Tibet in 1949, the Tibetan Government sent an urgent appeal to the United Nations to help Tibet resist the aggression. The General Assembly was advised by Britain and India not to take any action for the time being in order not to provoke a full-scale attack by China. But to most countries, China's attack on Tibet was aggression. This became evident especially during the full debates on the issue in the United Nations General Assembly in 1959, 1960, 1961 and 1965, when many governments echoed the sentiments expressed by the Ambassador of the Philippines who referred to Tibet as an "independent nation" and added: "it is clear that on the eve of the Chinese invasion in 1950, Tibet was not under the rule of any foreign country." He described China's occupation as "the worst type of imperialism, and colonialism past or present." The Nicaraguan representative condemned the Chinese invasion of Tibet and said: "The people of America, born in freedom, must obviously be repelled by an act of aggression ... and particularly when it is perpetrated by a large state against a small and weak one." The Representative from Thailand reminded the Assembly that the majority of states "refute the contention that Tibet is part of China." Similarly, the Government of the United States condemned and denounced Chinese "aggression" and their "invasion" of Tibet.

Irish Representative Frank Aiken stated:


For thousands of years, or for a couple of thousand years at any rate, (Tibet) was as free and as fully in control of its own affairs as any nation in this Assembly, and a thousand times more free to look after its own affairs than many of the nations here. [UN GA Docs A/PV 898 1960);A/PV 1394, 1401 1965]

In fact, during those debates, it was only the Communist block which openly sided with China on the issue. From the official statements made during those debates, it is clear that China's assertion that no country ever recognised Tibet's independence or considered the military intervention to be aggression, is simply not true.


The Chinese Government cannot deny the fact that Tibet was independent between 1911 and 1951 without distorting history. Even China's last Head of Mission in Lhasa, Shen Tsung-Lien, wrote after leaving the country in 1948, "Since 1911 Lhasa (ie, the Tibetan Government in Lhasa) has to all practical purposes enjoyed full independence". [Tibet and the Tibetans, Shen, T. and Liu, S., New York, 1973, p.62] Mao Zedong himself, when he passed through the border regions of Tibet during the Long March and was given food and shelter by local Tibetans, remarked, "This is our only foreign debt, and some day we must pay the Mantzu (sic) and the Tibetans for the provisions we were obliged to take from them." [Red Star over China, Edgar Snow, New York, 1961, p.214. Emphasis added].

The origin and position of the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama

China's White Paper states, "In 1653 and 1713, the Qing emperors granted honorific titles to the 5th Dalai Lama and the 5th Bainqen (Panchen) Lama, henceforth establishing the titles of the Dalai Lama and the Bainqen Erdini and their political and religious status in Tibet. The Dalai Lama ruled the bulk of areas from Lhasa while the Bainqen Erdini ruled the remaining area of Tibet from Xigatse (Shigatse)." This claim is absolutely baseless.

The Tibetan religious scholar and sage, Tsongkhapa (1357-1419), founded the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism. It became the fourth major school of Tibetan Buddhism, the others being the Nyingma, the Sakya and the Kagyu. Panchen Gedun Drup was Tsongkhapa's principal disciple.

Panchen Gedun Drup's third reincarnation, Sonam Gyatso, was invited to the Mongol Court of Altan Khan who first conferred the title of "Talai (Dalai) Lama" on him. The title was applied retrospectively to his two previous incarnations, making him the Third Dalai Lama. Thus began the line of the Dalai Lamas. It is, therefore, not true, as Chinese propaganda claims, that the title "Dalai Lama" was first established by a Manchu emperor a century later.

The relationship established by the Third Dalai Lama with Altan Khan was a spiritual one, but it would have political repercussions two centuries later, in 1642, when the Mongol prince, Gushri Khan, helped the Fifth Dalai Lama (Ngawang Lobsang Gyatso 1617-1682) to become the supreme political and spiritual ruler of Tibet. The Fifth Dalai Lama, in his turn, conferred the title of "Chokyi Gyalpo" (Dharma Raja) to his Mongol Patron. From that time on, successive Dalai Lamas ruled Tibet as sovereign heads of state. The political position of the Dalai Lamas was, therefore, not established by a Manchu emperor of the Qing Dynasty as claimed in the White Paper, but by the Fifth Dalai Lama with the help of his Mongol patron, two years before the Qing Dynasty was even established.

Tashilhunpo Monastery was established in 1447 by Panchen Gedun Drup, retrospectively known as the First Dalai Lama. Successive abbots of Tashilhunpo monastery were given the title "Panchen" because of their scholarship. The Fifth Dalai Lama gave his teacher, Panchen Lobsang Chokyi Gyaltsen (1570-1662), the ownership of Tashilhunpo monastery and some additional estates. After that, the Panchen Lamas were selected on the basis of reincarnation, each successive Panchen Lama retaining ownership of the monastery and estates. This situation was common among many incarnate lamas, such as the Sakya, Phagpa-la, Dakyab Loden Sherab, etc, who had been given estates by the Tibetan Government. But this had absolutely no political significance. Contrary to Chinese Communist propaganda, the Panchen Lamas and other high lamas exercised religious authority only and were not involved in the political administration of any part of Tibet. In fact, the political authority of Shigatse and Tashilhunpo lay with the district governor appointed by Lhasa.

Thus, the Manchu emperor played no role in the establishment of the religious or political status of the Dalai Lama, and none with respect to the Panchen Lama's position either.

After the invasion of Tibet the Chinese Communist Government consistently tried to use the late Panchen Lama to legitimise its position in Tibet. Beijing appointed him to political positions and urged him to denounce and take the place of the Dalai Lama on a number of occasions. But the Panchen Lama refused to do so, and suffered many years of imprisonment and maltreatment as a result.

The Chinese Government claims in the White Paper, as did past Guomindang Governments, that it played a decisive role, through its envoy Wu Zhong-xin, in the selection and installation of the 14th Dalai Lama in 1940, and states, "... the simple reality that the installation of the 14th Dalai Lama needed the approval of the (Chinese) national government is sufficient proof that Tibet did not possess any independent power during that period (1911-1949)."

In reality, the Dalai Lama was selected according to the age-old religious beliefs and traditions of the Tibetans and no approval of the Chinese Government was needed or sought. As a matter of fact, it was in 1939, before Wu's arrival in Lhasa, that the Regent Rading announced the name of the present Dalai Lama in the Tibetan National Assembly, which unanimously confirmed the candidate.

When the enthronment ceremony took place on 22 February 1940, Wu, like envoys from Bhutan, Sikkim, Nepal and British India, had no special role. Sir Basil Gould, the British Political Officer who represented British India, explains that the official Chinese version of events was a fiction which had been prepared and published before the enthronement. That fictitious account by Wu Zhong-xin, which China today relies on, reflected what the Chinese had intended to happen, but what did not in fact occur. Chinese propaganda has also used a Chinese news report featuring a photograph of the Dalai Lama with Wu Zhong-xin, captioned as having been taken during the enthronement ceremony. But, according to Ngabo Ngawang Jigme, Vice-Chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress, this photo was taken a few days after the ceremony, when Wu had a private audience with the Dalai Lama.

"Wu Zhong-xin's claim of having presided over the enthronement ceremony on the basis of this photograph is a blatant distortion of historical facts," Ngabo said in Tibet Daily on 31 August 1989.

Early History

According to Tibetan annals, the first king of Tibet ruled from 127 BC, but it was only in the seventh century AD that Tibet emerged as a unified state and a mighty empire under Emperor Songtsen Gampo. With his rule, an era of political and military greatness and territorial expansion started that lasted for three centuries. The King of Nepal and the Emperor of China offered their daughters to the Tibetan Emperor in marriage. The wedding to the Nepalese and Chinese princesses were of particular importance, because they played important roles in the spread of Buddhism in Tibet. Chinese propaganda always refers to political implications of Songtsen Gampo's wedding to the Chinese imperial princess Wen Cheng, conveniently ignoring the Tibetan ruler's other wives, particularly his Nepalese one, whose influence was, if anything, greater than that of her Chinese counterpart.

Tibetan ruler Trisong Detsen (reign: 755-797) expanded the Tibetan empire by conquering parts of China. In 763, China's capital Chang'an (modern day Xian) was invaded and China had to pay an annual tribute to Tibet. In 783, a treaty was concluded which laid down the borders between Tibet and China. A pillar inscription at the foot of the Potala Palace in Lhasa bears witness to some of these conquests.

The peace treaty concluded between Tibet and China in 821, is of particular importance in illustrating the nature of relations between these two great powers of Asia. The text of this treaty, both in Tibetan and Chinese, was inscribed on three stone pillars: one was erected in Gungu Meru to demarcate the borders between the two nations, second in Lhasa where it still stands, and the third in the Chinese capital of Chang'an. Passages quoted from the pillars in the White Paper are inaccurate and out of context, and aimed at creating the impression that some sort of "union" resulted from the treaty. Nothing is further from the truth, as is clear from the following principal passage of that treaty:


Tibet and China shall abide by the frontiers of which they are now in occupation. All to the east is the country of great China; and all to the west is, without question, the country of great Tibet. Henceforth, on neither side shall there be waging of war nor seizing of territory.


It is hard to see how China can, in its White Paper, interpret these events as showing that "the Tibetans and Hans (Chinese) had, through marriage between royal families and meetings leading to alliances, cemented political and kinship ties of unity and political friendship, and formed close economic and cultural relations, laying a solid foundation for the ultimate founding of a unified nation." In fact, the historical records, both Tibetan and Chinese, contradict such an interpretation and refer to separate and powerful empires.

In the mid-ninth century, the Tibetan state fragmented into several principalities. Tibetan attention focused on India and Nepal from where a strong religious and cultural influence brought on a major spiritual and intellectual renaissance.

Relations with the Mongol Emperors (1240-1350)

The Mongol ruler Genghis Khan and his successors conquered vast territories in Asia and Europe creating one of the largest empires the world has ever known, stretching from the Pacific to eastern Europe. In 1207, the Tangut empire north of Tibet fell to the advancing Mongols, and in 1271, the Mongols announced the establishment of the Mongol Yuan Dynasty to rule the Eastern part of the Empire. By 1279, the Chinese Song dynasty in southern China fell before the advancing armies and the Mongols completed their conquest of China. Today, China claims the Yuan Dynasty to be its own dynasty because, by doing so, it lays claim to all Mongol conquests, at least in the eastern half of the Mongol Empire.

Prince Goden, grandson of Genghis Khan, dispatched an expedition to Tibet in 1240 and invited one of Tibet's leading religious hierarchs, Sakya Pandita Kunga Gyaltsen (1182-1251), to his court, thus establishing an enduring Tibetan-Mongol relationship. Here began the unique cho-yon (priest-patron) relationship. Kublai Khan, who succeeded Goden Khan, embraced Tibetan Buddhism and adopted Drogon Choegyal Phagpa, nephew of Sakya Pandita, as his spiritual mentor. This cho-yon relationship resulted in Kublai adopting Buddhism as his empire's state religion, and Phagpa became its highest spiritual authority. In gratitude, Kublai Khan offered his Tibetan lama political authority over Tibet in 1254, conferring various titles on him.

These early cho-yon relationships were followed by many similar relationships between Mongol princes or Tibetan noble families and Tibetan lamas. This unique Central Asian relationship also formed the basis of later relations between Manchu emperors and successive Dalai Lamas. The cho-yon relationship itself was purely a personal one arising from the religious devotion of the Patron for the Priest and continued to exist even if the political status of the Patron changed. This was evident in the Mongol-Tibetan relationship, which continued to exist even after the fall of the Yuan Dynasty.

An essential element of the cho-yon relationship was the protection that the Patron provided his Lama in return, not for the latter's allegiance, but for his religious teachings and blessings. Some cho-yon relationships acquired important political dimensions and the Patron was expected to provide military support to protect the Lama and his Teaching or "church". Superiority of the protector was not implied, as the Chinese propaganda suggests, since the lay patron was the student and worshipper of his Lama.

When Buddhism became the State religion in the eastern part of the Mongol empire and the Sakya Lama (Phagpa) its highest spiritual authority, the Mongol-Tibetan relationship could be best described in terms of mutual interdependence. This concept provided for dual political and religious paramountcy of the worldly emperor and the spiritual leader on the basis of equality and interdependence. While the spiritual leader depended on the emperor for protection and for backing in ruling Tibet, the conquering emperor depended on the lama to provide the legitimacy for his rule of the Mongol Empire.

It is undeniable that Mongol Emperors spread their influence over Tibet. But, contrary to the assertion made in the Chinese White Paper that,"In the mid 13th century Tibet was officially incorporated into the territory of China's Yuan Dynasty", none of the Mongol rulers ever made any attempt to administer Tibet directly; Tibet did not even pay tax to the Mongol Empire, and it certainly was never considered part of China by the Mongol emperors.

Tibet broke its political relationship with the Mongols in 1350 when the Tibetan king, Jangchub Gyaltsen (reign: 1350-1364), replaced the Sakya Lamas as the most powerful ruler of Tibet. Jangchub Gyaltsen did away with Mongol influences in the Tibetan administrative system and introduced a new and distinctly Tibetan one. He also enacted a Code of Law (Trimyig Shelchey Cho-nga, 15 Article Code), for the administration of justice in the kingdom. The Chinese regained their independence from Mongol rule and established the Ming dynasty eighteen years after that.

Relations with Chinese Emperors (1368-1644)

The White Paper claims that the Chinese Ming Dynasty "replaced the Yuan Dynasty in China and inherited the right to rule Tibet". But, there is no historical basis for this assertion. As shown above, the relationship established between Mongol Khans or emperors and Tibetan lamas predated the Mongol conquest of China. Similarly, Tibet broke with the Mongol emperors before China regained its independence from them. The Chinese emperors of the Ming inherited no relationship from the Mongols. On the other hand, Mongol Khans continued to maintain their intensive religious and cultural ties with Tibetans, often in the form of cho-yon relationships, for centuries afterwards.

Even if the Mongols did exercise influence in Tibet, it is still too presumptious on the part of China to claim Mongol inheritence when an independent Outer Mongolia exists as the only legitimate representative of the Mongolian people and nation.

Contacts between Tibet and Ming China were scarce and largely limited to visits by individual lamas of various, sometimes rival, monasteries to China, and the granting of honorific imperial titles or gifts by the Chinese Emperor to them. These visits are recorded in Tibetan histories of the fifteenth to seventeenth century, but there is no evidence whatsoever of political subordination of Tibet or its rulers to China or the Ming emperors. In its White Paper, the Chinese Government alleges that these contacts with individual lamas demonstrate Ming authority in and over Tibet. But since Tibet was not ruled by any of those lamas, whatever the nature of their contacts may have been, they could not affect the independent status of Tibet.

From 1350, Tibet was ruled by the princes of Phagmodru and then, from about 1481, by the Rinpung dynasty. In 1406, the ruling Phagmodru prince, Dakpa Gyaltsen, turned down the Imperial invitation to him to visit China. This clearly shows the sovereign authority of Tibetan rulers at that time. From about 1565 until the rise to power of the Fifth Dalai Lama in 1642 (two years before the fall of the Ming Dynasty), the kings of Tsang ruled Tibet. There are indications of sporadic diplomatic relations between some of these rulers and Ming emperors, but the latter exercised neither authority nor influence over them.

In 1644, the Chinese emperors were once again overthrown by foreign conquerors. The Manchus succeeded in establishing their own imperial dynasty, which ruled over a large empire, the most important part of which was China. They called it the Qing Dynasty.

Relations with the Manchus (1639-1911)

In 1642, the Great Fifth Dalai Lama, with the help of his Mongol patron Gushri Khan, became the supreme political and religious ruler of unified Tibet. Since then, Tibetans accepted him as their "Gongsa Chenpo" or "The Supreme Sovereign". His prestige was recognised far beyond Tibet's borders.

The Fifth Dalai Lama not only maintained a close relationship with the Mongols but also developed close ties with the Manchu rulers. In 1639, before the Dalai Lama acquired supreme political power and also before the Manchu conquest of China and the establishment of the Qing Dynasty, Manchu Emperor Tai Tsung invited the Dalai Lama to his capital, Mukden (present-day Shenyang). Unable to accept the invitation personally, the Dalai Lama sent his envoy who was treated with great respect by the Emperor. Thus the Cho-yon relationship between the Dalai Lama and the Manchu rulers was established. As was true of the Tibetan relationship with the Mongol emperors, the links developed between Tibetans and the Manchu emperors did not involve China. As Owen Lattimore points out in reference to the Qing Dynasty, "What existed in fact was a Manchu Empire, of which China formed only one part." [Studies in Frontier History]

Having conquered China and annexed it to the Manchu empire, Emperor Shunzi invited the Fifth Dalai Lama in 1653 for a state visit to the Imperial capital. In an unprecedented sign of respect, the Manchu Emperor made a four-day journey outside his capital (Beijing) to receive the Tibetan sovereign and foremost spiritual leader of Central Asian Buddhists. Commenting on the Dalai Lama's visit, W.W. Rockhill, an American scholar and diplomat in China, wrote:


(The Dalai Lama) had been treated with all the ceremony which could have been accorded to any independent sovereign, and nothing can be found in Chinese works to indicate that he was looked upon in any other light; at this period of China's relations with Tibet, the temporal power of the Lama, backed by the arms of Gusri Khan and the devotion of all Mongolia, was not a thing for the Emperor of China to question. [The Dalai Lamas of Lhasa and Their Relations With Emperors of China, 1644-1908, T'oung Pao 11, 1910, p.37]


On this occasion, the Fifth Dalai Lama and the Manchu Emperor bestowed unprecedented high complimentary titles upon each other and the cho-yon relationship was reaffirmed. In the White Paper, the Chinese Government refers only to the honorific title given by the Emperor to the Dalai Lama, but conveniently leaves out any mention of the similar honorific title granted by the Dalai Lama to the Emperor. Chinese propaganda infers that it was this deed by the Manchu Emperor which conferred the legal right to the Dalai Lama to rule Tibet. This interpretation intentionally misses the point of the event, namely that titles were exchanged by two sovereign leaders. If the Dalai Lama was dependent on his imperial title for the exercise of his authority, then so was the Manchu Emperor dependent on the title granted by the Dalai Lama for the exercise of his authority.

Throughout the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) relations between Tibet and the Manchu emperors remained formally based on the cho-yon relationship. The Manchu Emperor readily responded to the appeals for help to drive out invading Dzungar Mongols and escort the newly discovered Seventh Dalai Lama to the Tibetan capital in 1720.

Manchu forces entered Tibet on three more times in the eighteenth century, once to protect Tibet against invading Gorkha forces from Nepal (1792), and twice to restore order after civil wars (1728 and 1751). Each time they came at the request of the Tibetans, and each time the cho-yon relationship was invoked.

The Manchus did succeed in establishing some degree of influence in Tibet during those crisis periods. But their influence declined rapidly afterwards, rendering them unable to play any role when Tibet fought wars against invaders from Jammu (1841- 1842), Nepal (1855-1856), and British India (1903-04). By the mid 19th century the Manchu Emperor's role (and the related role of the Amban) was only nominal.

The White Paper devotes considerable attention to Emperor Qianlong's so-called 29-article edict, or regulations, of 1793 concerning Tibet, and to the appointment of Ambans (ambassadors). It presents the "regulations" as if they were an imperial order proving extensive Manchu authority in Tibet. In reality, the 29 points were suggestions made by the Emperor for certain reforms of the Government of Tibet following its war with Nepal. The Ambans were not viceroys or administrators, but were essentially ambassadors appointed to look after Manchu interests, and to protect the Dalai Lama on behalf of the Emperor.

In 1792, the Gorkhas of Nepal invaded Tibet following a dispute between Tibet and Nepal and the Dalai Lama appealed to the Manchu Emperor for help. The Emperor sent a large army which helped Tibet drive out the Gorkhas, and mediated a treaty of peace between Tibet and Nepal. Since this was the fourth time the Emperor was asked to send troops to fight for the Tibetan Government, he wanted some say in Tibetan affairs in order to prevent Tibetans from becoming involved in conflicts which might again precipitate requests for Manchu military involvement. The "regulations" were suggestions made in the context of the Emperor's protector role, rather than an order from a ruler to his subjects. This emerges clearly from the statement made by the Imperial envoy and commander of the Manchu army, General Fu K'ang-an, to the Eighth Dalai Lama:


The Emperor issued detailed instructions to me, the Great General, to discuss all the points, one by one, in great length. This demonstrates the Emperor's concern that Tibetans come to no harm and that their welfare be ensured in perpetuity. There is no doubt that the Dalai Lama,acknowledging his gratitude to the Emperor, will accept these suggestions once all the points are discussed and agreed upon.However, if the Tibetans insist on clinging to their age-old habits, the Emperor will withdraw the Ambans and the garrison after the troops are pulled out. Moreover, if similar incidents occur in the future, the Emperor will have nothing to do with them. The Tibetans may, therefore, decide for themselves as to what is in their favour and what is not or what is heavy and what is light, and make a choice on their own. [Quoted from Ya Han Chang's Biography of the Dalai Lamas in Bod kyi Lo rGyus Rag Rim g-Yu Yi Preng ba, Vol 2, Published by Tibet Institute of Social Science, Lhasa, 1991, p.316]


Rather than accepting or rejecting the Emperor's points, Tibetans adopted some of the 29 points which were perceived to be beneficial to them, and disregarded those they thought to be unsuitable. As Panchen Choekyi Nyima, the predecessor of the Late Panchen Lama, said: "Where Chinese policy was in accordance with their own views, the Tibetans were ready to accept the Amban's advice; but ... if this advice ran counter in any respect to their national prejudices, the Chinese Emperor himself would be powerless to influence them. [Diary of Capt. O'Connor, 4 September 1903]

Among the important points of this "29-point edict" was the Emperor's proposal for the selection of great incarnate lamas, including the Dalai Lamas and Panchen Lamas, by drawing lots from a golden urn. This important task, however, was the responsibility of the Tibetan Government and high lamas, who continued to select them according to religious traditions. Thus, already on the first occasion when the golden urn should have been employed, namely for the selection of the Ninth Dalai Lama in 1808, Tibetans disregarded it.

Another important point of this "edict" was the role of Ambans. The Amban's role resembled that of an ambassador, at times, and that of a Resident in a classical protectorate relationship, at other times. It is best understood in the explanation Amban Yu Tai gave in 1903 to Mortimer Durand, the Foreign Secretary of the Government of India (as reported by him) that, "he was only a guest in Lhasa - not a master - and he could not put aside the real masters, and as such he had no force to speak of." [Sir Mortimer Durand: A Biography, by Sir Percy Sykes, London 1926, p.166] In the same sense, two Lazarist missionaries, Huc and Gabet, who were in Lhasa in the mid-nineteenth century, described the position of the Ambans as follows: "the Government of Tibet resembles that of the Pope and the position occupied by the Chinese Ambassadors was the same as that of the Austrian Ambassador at Rome." [Decouverte du Thibet, 1845-1846, M. Huc, 1933, p.50] The reference to "Chinese Ambassadors" is a common mistake, because the Manchu Emperors were careful not to appoint Chinese Ambans but Manchus or Mongolians, a fact which stressed that the appointment of the Amban was also viewed in the context of the protector's role in the cho-yon relationship, a relationship from which the Chinese were excluded.

The unprecedented invasion of Tibet by Manchu troops in 1908 was a turning point in relations between Tibet and the Manchu Emperor. Previous imperial military expeditions had come to assist the Dalai Lama or the Tibetan Government and at their invitation. But this time, the Manchu Emperor attempted to establish his authority in Tibet by force, largely in order to remove increasing British influence in Tibet. The Dalai Lama fled to neighbouring India, and the occupation of Tibet was short-lived. When the Manchu Emperor tried to "depose" the Dalai Lama in 1910, the Dalai Lama declared the termination of the cho- yon relationship. The protector had attacked his Lama and thereby violated the very foundation of their relationship.

Resistance to the invasion succeeded when the Manchu Empire collapsed and Tibetans forced the occupying army to surrender. In the summer of 1912, Nepalese mediation between Tibet and China resulted in the conclusion of the "Three Point Agreement" providing for formal surrender and expulsion of all remaining Imperial troops. After returning to Lhasa, the Thirteenth Dalai Lama issued a proclamation reaffirming the independence of Tibet on 14 February 1913.

Relations with British India (1857-1911)

Since the end of the eighteenth Century, Britain developed a keen interest to open up trade with Tibet. Since all the Himalayan states which were closely linked to Lhasa had gradually been tied to British India by means of treaties and other agreements, Tibet feared it would also lose its independence if it did not resist British efforts to gain access to Tibet. The Thirteenth Dalai Lama steered Tibet on an independent course. This policy frustrated the British who feared, more than anything, a Russian infiltration into Tibet, which would tip the balance of power in Central Asia.

Unable to communicate effectively with Tibet, Britain approached the Manchu Court for assistance in forcing Tibet to cooperate. The result was the conclusion, without Tibet's participation or knowledge, of two treaties (1890 and 1893) between Britain and China which had provisions regarding Tibet.

The Tibetan Government rejected these treaties as ultra vires, and this precipitated the British invasion of Tibet in 1903. The Manchu Emperor did not come to the assistance of Tibet and, as noted by Amban Yu Tai, disclaimed any responsibility for the action of the Tibetans. British troops left Lhasa within a year, after concluding a bilateral treaty, the Lhasa Convention, with the Tibetan Government.

The provisions of the Lhasa Convention necessarily pre-supposed the unrestricted sovereignty of Tibet in internal and external matters, otherwise, Tibet could not legitimately have transferred to Britain the powers specified in the treaty. The Lhasa Convention did not even acknowledge the existence of any special relationship between the Manchu Emperor and Tibet and constituted an implicit recognition by Britain of Tibet as a state competent to conclude treaties.

In an effort to persuade China to cooperate, Britain convinced it to sign the Adhesion Agreement in 1906, once again, without participation of Tibet. That agreement and the 1907 agreement concluded between Britain and Russia, confirmed the existence of a sphere of British influence in Tibet and introduced the concept of Chinese "suzerainty" over Tibet, something neither Tibet, nor the Manchu Court accepted. In 1908, during Tibet's brief invasion by the Manchu army, Britain, once again, signed a treaty with the Manchus, with no independent Tibetan participation, concerning trade with Tibet.

Referring to the British concept of Suzerainty, Lord Curzon, the Viceroy of India, explained:


Chinese suzerainty over Tibet is a constitutional fiction -a political affectation which has only been maintained because of its convenience to both parties. ... As a matter of fact, the two Chinese (ie, Manchu) Ambans at Lhasa are there not as Viceroys, but as Ambassadors. [Papers CD 1920, No.66, GoI to IO, 8 Jan. 1903. India Office Library]

Relations with India

When India became independent in 1947, it took over the British diplomatic Mission in Lhasa, and inherited the treaty relations of Britain with Tibet. Its recognition of Tibet was clear from the official communication the Indian Government sent to the Tibetan Foreign Office:


The Government of India would be glad to have an assurance that it is the intention of the Tibetan Government to continue relations on the existing basis until new arrangements are reached on matters that either party may wish to take up. This is the procedure adopted by all other countries with which India has inherited treaty relations from His Majesty's Government. [Notes, Memoranda and Letters Exchanged and Agreements Signed by the Governments of India and China, Vol 2, 1959, p.39]


China's White Paper speaks about its alleged "ownership" of Tibet, it discusses broad issues relating to human rights, including social, economic and cultural rights, but does not address the fundamental question of the right of the Tibetan people to self-determination.

Under international law, populations which meet the criteria of "a people", possess the right to self-determination. Governments may not deny that right, and must act in accordance with it. In past decades, the right to self-determination has primarily been applied to colonial countries and peoples, but, particularly in recent years, the right has been applied outside the context of decolonisation also.

The Tibetan people clearly constitute a people under international law, as defined, among others, by the UNESCO International Meeting of Experts on Further Study of the Concept of the Rights of Peoples. It is difficult to conceive of a better example of a distinct people, with all the characteristics fulfilled: commonalities in history, language, culture, ethnicity and other manifestations of shared identity and experience; numerousness, ie, enough persons sharing common identity and experience to warrant recognition by the international community; the existence of institutions to give expression and effect to these commonalities; the will of a people to assert the right to self-determination.

The right to self-determination means the right of a people to "determine their own political status and to determine their economic, social and cultural development" free of outside interference. [International Covenants on Civil and Political Rights, Art. 1; and International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, Art. 1;] Tibetans have been denied the exercise of this right since their country's invasion and occupation by China. Under international law, the PRC has the obligation to permit its exercise.

The implementation of the right to self-determination can lead to integration with a state, association with a state or independence, but the choice must be made by the people exercising their right to self-determination. This choice must be made freely, without any interference from outside that people. Thus, it is for the Tibetan people alone, without interference from China, to make the choice.

The Dalai Lama has, for many years, called on China to agree on the holding of an internationally-supervised plebiscite to determine the wishes of the Tibetan people. This, indeed, is the most desirable approach, which is entirely in accordance with the requirements of international law and practice.

Recognition of Tibet's right to self-determination

In 1961, the United Nations General Assembly adopted Resolution 1723 (XVI), in which it explicitly recognised the right of the Tibetan people to self-determination. The UN called on the PRC to cease "practices which deprive the Tibetan people of their fundamental human rights and freedoms, including their right to self-determination." Four years later, in 1965, the UN General Assembly expressly reaffirmed this resolution in UNGA Res. 2079 (XX).

Earlier, in 1959, the first Prime Minister of independent India, Jawaharlal Nehru, expressed his strong support for the Tibetan people's right to self-determination. Addressing the Lok Sabha, Lower House of Indian Parliament, he said, "the last voice in regard to Tibet should be the voice of the people of Tibet and nobody else."

Recently, on two separate occasions, experts on the question of rights of peoples and international law met to consider the question of Tibet's claim to self-determination.

The Permanent Peoples Tribunal, which met in Strasbourg for a week to hear extensive testimony and arguments in November 1992, found that the Tibetans meet the generally accepted legal criteria of "a people" with the right to self-determination and "are therefore entitled to exercise the right to self- determination." The Tribunal concluded that "the presence of the Chinese administration on Tibetan territory must be considered as foreign domination of the Tibetan people." Finally, in its Verdict, the Tribunal decided that, "the Tibetan people have from 1950 been, continuously, deprived of their right to self- determination." [Session on Tibet, Verdict, Permanent Tribunal of Peoples, Strasbourg, 20 Nov., 1992, pp.15 and 23, resp.]

In an unrelated conference, several weeks later, thirty eminent international lawyers from many countries in Europe, Africa, Asia and the Americas - among them some of the world's foremost authorities on self-determination - met in London for four days, to consider issues relating to the exercise of the right to self- determination by the Tibetan people. After extensive consideration of evidence, including China's White Paper, and after a lively legal debate, the conference participants concluded, in a written Statement, that:

1. under international law the Tibetan people are entitled to the right to self-determination, that this right "belongs to the Tibetan people" and that "(i)t is not for the state apparatus of the PRC, or any other nation or state, to deny the Tibetan people's right to self-determination."

2. "(s)ince the military action of 1949-50, Tibet has been under the alien occupation and domination of the PRC and has been administered with the characteristics of an oppressive colonial administration."

3. "in the particular case of Tibet and having regard to its long history of separate existence," the Tibetan people's claim to self-determination, including independence, is compatible with the principles of national unity and territorial integrity of states. [International Lawyers' Statement on Tibet - London 1993, London, 10 Jan. 1993, pp. 6-8].

The international conference statement called on the United Nations and the members of the international community urgently to take measures to promote an early implementation and realisation of the Tibetan people's right to self-determination.

In both discussions, that of the Peoples' Tribunal and that of the International Lawyer's Conference, the points of view of the Chinese Government, in particular as expressed in the White Paper, were discussed at length and fully considered. The Chinese Government was invited to participate in both events, but declined to do so. It did, however, submit to the meetings for consideration the White Paper and numerous other publications stating its point of view and arguments.


The Tibetan people undoubtedly possess the right to self- determination, by virtue of which Tibetans have the right to determine their political status and their economic, social and cultural development. Even if self-determination is primarily applicable to peoples under colonial domination or occupation, Tibetans fully qualify. The time has come for the PRC to accept its international obligations and to agree to the holding of a plebiscite in Tibet under international supervision.

Invasion and illegal annexation of Tibet: 1949-1951


Treaties in international law are binding on the countries signing them, unless they are imposed by force or a country is coerced into signing the agreement by the threat of force. This is reflected in the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, which is regarded as a reflection of customary international law. The People's Republic of China (PRC) feels strongly about this principle, particularly as it applies to treaties and other agreements China was pressured to sign by Western powers at a time when China was weak. The PRC is particularly adamant that such "unequal" treaties and other agreements cannot be valid, no matter who signed them or for what reasons.

After the military invasion of Tibet had started and the small Tibetan army was defeated, the PRC imposed a treaty on the Tibetan Government under the terms of which Tibet was declared to be a part of China, albeit enjoying a large degree of autonomy. In the White Paper, China claims this treaty was entered into entirely voluntarily by the Tibetan Government, and that the Dalai Lama, his Government and the Tibetan people as a whole welcomed it. The facts show a very different story, leading to the conclusion that the so-called "17 Point Agreement for the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet" was never validly concluded and was rejected by Tibetans. The Dalai Lama stated Tibetan Prime Minister Lukhangwa as having told Chinese General Zhang Jin-wu in 1952:


It was absurd to refer to the terms of the Seventeen-Point Agreement. Our people did not accept the agreement and the Chinese themselves had repeatedly broken the terms of it. Their army was still in occupation of eastern Tibet; the area had not been returned to the government of Tibet, as it should have been. [My Land and My People, Dalai Lama, New York, Fourth Edition, 1992, p.95]


Diplomatic activity and military threats

Soon after the Communist victory against the Guomindang and the founding of the PRC on 1 October 1949, Radio Beijing began to announce that "the People's Liberation Army must liberate all Chinese territories, including Tibet, Xinjiang, Hainan and Taiwan." Partly in response to this threat, and in order to resolve long-standing border disputes with China, the Foreign Office of the Tibetan Government, on 2 November 1949, wrote to Mao Zedong proposing negotiations to settle all territorial disputes. Copies of this letter were sent to the Governments of India, Great Britain and the United States. Although these three Governments considered the spread of Communism to be a threat to the stability of South Asia, they advised the Tibetan Government to enter into direct negotiations with Chinese Government as any other course of action might provoke military retaliation.

The Tibetan Government decided to send two senior officials, Tsepon Shakabpa and Tsechag Thubten Gyalpo, to negotiate with representatives of the PRC in a third country, possibly the USSR, Singapore or Hong Kong. These officials were to take up with the Chinese Government the content of the Tibetan Foreign Office's letter to Chairman Mao Zedong and the threatening Chinese radio announcements still being made about an imminent "liberation of Tibet"; they were to secure an assurance that the territorial integrity of Tibet would not be violated and to state that Tibet would not tolerate interference.

When the Tibetan delegates in Delhi applied for visas to Hong Kong, the Chinese told them that their new Ambassador to India was due to arrive in the capital shortly and that negotiations should be opened through him.

In the course of negotiations, the Chinese Ambassador, Yuan Zhong-xian, demanded that the Tibetan delegation accept a Two- point Proposal: i) Tibetan national defence will be handled by China; and ii) Tibet should be recognised as a part of China. They were then to proceed to China in confirmation of the agreement. On being informed of the Chinese demands, the Tibetan Government instructed its delegates to reject the proposal. So negotiations were suspended.

On 7 October 1950, 40,000 Chinese troops under Political Commissar, Wang Qiemi, attacked Eastern Tibet's provincial capital of Chamdo, from eight directions. The small Tibetan force, consisting of 8,000 troops and militia, were defeated. After two days, Chamdo was taken and Kalon (Minister) Ngapo Ngawang Jigme, the Regional Governor, was captured. Over 4,000 Tibetan fighters were killed.

The Chinese aggression came as a rude shock to India. In a sharp note to Beijing on 26 October 1950, the Indian Foreign Ministry wrote:


Now that the invasion of Tibet has been ordered by Chinese government, peaceful negotiations can hardly be synchronized with it and there naturally will be fear on the part of Tibetans that negotiations will be under duress. In the present context of world events, invasion by Chinese troops of Tibet cannot but be regarded as deplorable and in the considered judgement of the Government of India, not in the interest of China or peace.


A number of countries, including the United States and Britain, expressed their support for the Indian position.

The Tibetan National Assembly convened an emergency session in November 1950 at which it requested the Dalai Lama, only 16 at that time, to assume full authority as Head of State. The Dalai Lama was then requested to leave Lhasa for Dromo, near the Indian border, so that he would be out of personal danger.At the same time the Tibetan Foreign Office issued the followingstatement:


Tibet is united as one man behind the Dalai Lama who has taken over full powers. ... We have appealed to the world for peaceful intervention in (the face of this) clear case of unprovoked aggression.


The Tibetan Government also wrote to the Secretary General of the United Nations on 7 November 1950, appealing for the world body's intervention. The letter said, in part:
Tibet recognises that it is in no position to resist the Chinese advance. It is thus that it agreed to negotiate on friendly terms with the Chinese Government. ...Though there is little hope that a nation dedicated to peace will be able to resist the brutal effort of men trained to war, we understand that the United Nations has decided to stop aggression wherever it takes place.


On 17 November 1950, El Salvador formally asked that the aggression against Tibet be put on the General Assembly agenda. However, the issue was not discussed in the UN General Assembly at the suggestion of the Indian delegation who asserted that a peaceful solution which is mutually advantageous to Tibet, India and China could be reached between the parties concerned. A second letter by the Tibetan delegation to the United Nations on 8 December 1950 did not change the situation.

Faced with the military occupation of Eastern and Northern Tibet, the defeat and destruction of its small army, the advance of tens of thousands of more PLA troops into Central Tibet, and the lack of active support from the international community, the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan Government decided to send a delegation to Beijing for negotiations with the new Chinese leadership.


"Seventeen-Point Agreement"

In April 1951, the Tibetan Government sent a five-member delegation to Beijing, led by Kalon Ngapo Ngawang Jigme. The Tibetan Government authorised its delegation to put forward the Tibetan stand and listen to the Chinese position. But, contrary to the claim made in the White Paper that the delegation had "full powers," it was expressly not given the plenipotentiary authority to conclude an agreement. In fact, it was instructed to refer all important matters to the Government.

On 29 April negotiations opened with the presentation of a draft agreement by the leader of the Chinese delegation. The Tibetan delegation rejected the Chinese proposal in toto, after which the Chinese tabled a modified draft that was equally unacceptable to the Tibetan delegation. At this point, the Chinese delegates, Li Weihan and Zhang Jin-wu, made it plain that the terms, as they now stood, were final and amounted to an ultimatum. The Tibetan delegation was addressed in harsh and insulting terms, threatened with physical violence, and members were virtually kept prisoners. No further discussion was permitted, and, contrary to Chinese claims, the Tibetan delegation was prevented from contacting its Government for instructions. It was given the onerous choice of either signing the "Agreement" on its own authority or accepting responsibility for an immediate military advance on Lhasa.

Under immense Chinese pressure the Tibetan delegation signed the "Agreement of the Central People's Government and the Local Government of Tibet on Measures for the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet" on 23 May 1951, without being able to inform the Tibetan Government. The delegation warned the Chinese that they were signing only in their personal capacity and had no authority to bind either the Dalai Lama or the Tibetan Government to the "Agreement".

None of this posed an obstacle to the Chinese Government to proceed with a signing ceremony and to announce to the world that an "agreement" had been concluded for the "peaceful liberation of Tibet". Even the seals affixed to the document were forged by the Chinese Government to give it the necessary semblance of authenticity. The seventeen clauses of the "Agreement", among other things, authorised the entry into Tibet of Chinese forces and empowered the Chinese Government to handle Tibet's external affairs. On the other hand, it guaranteed that China would not alter the existing political system in Tibet and not interfere with the established status, function, and powers of the Dalai Lama or the Panchen Lama. The Tibetan people were to have regional autonomy, and their religious beliefs and customs were to be respected. Internal reforms in Tibet would be effected after consultation with leading Tibetans and without compulsion.

The full text of what came to be known as the "Seventeen-Point Agreement" was broadcast by Radio Beijing on 27 May 1951. This was the first time the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan Government heard of the devastating document. The reaction in Dromo (where the Dalai Lama was staying at that time) and Lhasa was one of shock and disbelief.

A message was immediately sent to the delegation in Beijing, reprimanding them for signing the "Agreement" without consulting the Government for instructions. The delegation was asked to send the text of the document they had signed, and wait in Beijing for further instructions. In the meantime, a telegraphic message was received from the delegation to say that the Chinese Government representative, General Zhang Jin-wu, was already on his way to Dromo, via India. It added that some of the delegation members were returning, via India, and the leader of the delegation was returning directly to Lhasa.

The Dalai Lama and the Tibetan Government withheld the public repudiation of the "Agreement". The Dalai Lama returned to Lhasa on 17 August 1951 in the hope of re-negotiating a more favourable treaty with the Chinese.

On 9 September 1951, around 3,000 Chinese troops marched into Lhasa, soon followed by some 20,000 more, from eastern Tibet and from Eastern Turkestan (Xinjiang) in the north. The PLA occupied the principal cities of Ruthok and Gartok, and then Gyangtse and Shigatse. With the occupation of all the major cities of Tibet, including Lhasa, and large concentration of troops throughout eastern and western Tibet, the military control of Tibet was virtually complete. From this position, China refused to re-open negotiations and the Dalai Lama had effectively lost the ability to either accept or reject any Tibet-China agreement. However, on the first occasion he had of expressing himself freely again, which came only on 20 June 1959, after his flight to India, the Dalai Lama formally repudiated the "Seventeen-Point Agreement", as having been "thrust upon Tibetan Government and people by the threat of arms".

In assessing the "17-Point Agreement on Measures for the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet" and the occupation of Tibet two factors are crucial. First, the extent to which China was violating international law when the PLA marched into Tibet, and second, the effect of the signing of the "Agreement".

The law governing treaties is based on the universally recognised principle that the foundation of conventional obligations is the free and mutual consent of contracting parties and, conversely, that freedom of consent is essential to the validity of an agreement. Treaties brought about by the threat or the use of force lack legal validity, particularly if the coercion is applied to the country and government in question rather than only on the negotiators themselves. With China occupying large portions of Tibet and openly threatening a full military advance to Lhasa unless the treaty was signed, the "agreement" was invalid ab initio, meaning that it could not even be validated by a later act of acquiescence by the Tibetan Government.

Contrary to China's claim in its White Paper, the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan Government did not act voluntarily in signing the "Agreement". In fact, Mao Zedong himself, in the Directive of Central Committee of CPC on the Policies for our Work in Tibet, issued on 6 April 1952, admitted:


(N)ot only the two Silons (i.e., prime ministers) but also the Dalai and most of his clique were reluctant to accept the Agreement and are unwilling to carry it out. ... As yet we do not have a material base for fully implementing the agreement, nor do we have a base for this purpose in terms of support among the masses or in the upper stratum. [Selected Works of Mao Tsetung, Vol. 5, Foreign Language Press, Peking, 1977, p.75]

National Uprising


When people are oppressed, they are likely to rise up against the oppressor. There was never a popular uprising in Tibet until the 1950s. Tibetan resistance movement against the Chinese started right from the time of invasion. By 1956 open fighting broke out in the Eastern Tibetan provinces of Kham and Amdo. Three years later the uprising took on national proportions, leading to the massive demonstrations in Lhasa in March 1959, the flight of the Dalai Lama and some 80,000 refugees to neighbouring countries. Tens of thousands of Tibetans were slaughtered by the PLA. Since then, Tibetan uprising and demonstrations have continued. Between 1987 and 1992 alone, there had been over 150 demonstrations in Lhasa and other parts of Tibet, some small but others very large. The Chinese troops suppressed most of these demonstrations with brutal force. In March 1989 Tibet was put under Martial Law for the second time in its history: the first time was in 1959.

The Chinese Government tries to depict the popular resistance of Tibetans as the work of a few disgruntled aristocrats who wish to restore the old system of exploitation and oppression of the Tibetan masses. It depicts 95 per cent of the Tibetans as having been serfs, brutally oppressed by a small number of aristocrats and lamas. What China cannot explain is why these allegedly oppressed masses never rose up against their masters, despite the fact that Tibet did not have a national police force and for most of its history had no strong army. Yet, these same Tibetans did rise up, and still do today, against the massive security apparatus and army of China, knowing the tremendous risk they take. If we look at the social composition of the Tibetans involved in the successive uprisings and demonstrations, more than 80 per cent of them are not aristocrats and high lamas. Furthermore, more than 85 per cent of Tibetans in exile belong to what the Chinese would call "serf class".

Events leading up to the 1959 National Uprising

Let us look briefly at the main causes of the Tibetan people's uprising against China in 1959. Following the entry of Chinese troops into Lhasa, every effort was made to undermine the sovereign authority of the Tibetan Government and impose Chinese authority. This was carried out in three ways: First, political and regional divisions were created among Tibetans under the policy of divide and rule. Secondly, certain social and economic reforms, calculated to change the fabric of Tibetan society, were instituted against the wishes of Tibetans. Thirdly, various organs of the Chinese Government, and new bodies under their authority, were set up alongside the existing Tibetan institutions.


Between 24 November 1950 and 19 October 1953, China incorporated a large portion of Kham province into neighbouring Chinese Sichuan province. Kham was divided into two so-called Tibetan Autonomous Prefectures and one Tibetan Autonomous District. On 13 September 1957, another portion of southern Kham was named the Dechen Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture and put under Yunnan Province.

The bulk of Amdo, together with a small area of Kham, was reduced to the status of a Chinese province, and named as Qinghai. One portion of Amdo was named Ngapa Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, and merged with Sichuan Province. The remaining area of Amdo was sub-divided into Tianzhu Tibetan Autonomous District (6 May 1950), and Kanlho Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture (1 October 1953), and incorporated into the Chinese province of Gansu.

On 9 September 1965, China formally established the so-called Tibet Autonomous Regional government, placing under its administration the whole of U-Tsang and parts of Kham area.

China stripped numerous ethnic Tibetans like the Sherpas, Monpas, Lhopas, Tengpas, Jangpas, etc, who consider themselves to be Tibetan, of their Tibetan identity, classifying them as distinct Chinese minorities.


The appropriation by the People's Liberation Army of thousands of tons of barley and other foodstuffs pushed the Tibetans to the brink of famine for the first time in history and prompted protest meetings in Lhasa. The first major popular resistance group, the Mimang Tsongdu (People's Assembly), banded together spontaneously and handed the Chinese Military Command a petition demanding withdrawal of the PLA and an end to Chinese interference in Tibetan affairs. The Chinese reaction was swift: the two Tibetan Prime Ministers, Lukhangwa and Ven. Lobsang Tashi, who had made no secret of their opposition to Chinese rule and opposed the "17-Point Agreement", were forced to resign and five Mimang Tsongdu leaders were jailed, driving the organisation underground.

In 1954, the the Dalai Lama visited Beijing on China's invitation. The "special" autonomous position of Tibet, embodied in the "Seventeen-Point Agreement," was formally abolished with the adoption of the new Constitution by the Chinese People's Congress. This was followed by the adoption of the "Resolution on the Establishment of the Preparatory Committee for the Autonomous Region of Tibet (PCART)", a measure designed to further integrate the administration of Tibet into that of PRC. The Preparatory Committee was to function as the central administration of Tibet instead of the Tibetan Government. The Dalai Lama was made its Chairman, but without any authority. As the Dalai Lama explained in his autobiography:


The Committee was powerless - a mere facade of Tibetan representation behind which all the effective power was exercised by the Chinese. In fact, all basic policy was decided by another body called the Committee of the Chinese Communist Party in Tibet, which had no Tibetan members. [Dalai Lama, Ibid, p.133]


In 1956, PCART was set up and the Tashilhunpo estate, and those regions under the jurisdiction of the Governor-General of Chamdo (a Tibetan Government appointee) in Eastern Tibet, were separated from the jurisdiction of the Tibetan Government in Lhasa and their administrative organs given equal status as the Tibetan Government, thereby reducing the authority of the Tibetan Government.

Social, political, and agrarian reforms were imposed by the Chinese Government in Amdo and Kham and, to a much lesser degree, in the rest of the country. Frequent attacks were launched on religious personages and monasteries. All of these led to increasingly violent reactions. The "17-Point Agreement" guaranteed that no reforms would be forced on the Tibetans. But in Eastern Tibet they were introduced and enforced at once. Mounting impatience and belligerence of the Chinese administrators provoked violent reactions and rapidly culminated into armed conflicts in a widening spiral of resistance and military repression that engulfed the entire eastern Tibetan provinces of Kham and Amdo.

As the violence spilled over to other areas of Tibet, a full- scale guerrilla warfare broke out in the summer of 1956. Refugees from eastern and northeastern Tibet began to arrive in Lhasa in large numbers. Within a year, the uprising had spread to Central Tibet, and in 1958 Tensung Dhanglang Magar, (the Voluntary Force for the Defense of the Faith), a union of the Mimang Tsongdu and Chushi Gangduk (Four Rivers Six Ranges) organisations, was founded. By the autumn of that year this popular army, estimated at 80,000 men, was in control of most districts of Southern Tibet and parts of Eastern Tibet.

The Dalai Lama took pains to calm his people so as to prevent worse bloodbath. Nevertheless, the situation in Tibet deteriorated rapidly while the Dalai Lama visited India, in 1956, to take part in the Buddha Jayanti celebration at the invitation of independent India's first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. In meetings with Nehru and Zhou Enlai in Delhi, the Dalai Lama expressed his deep concern at the explosive situation in his homeland and admitted he was contemplating seeking political asylum in India. Nehru advised the Dalai Lama against it. To induce the Dalai Lama to return home, the Chinese Government promptly announced that the "socialist and democratic reforms" would be postponed in Tibet for the time being. It was also agreed that a number of Chinese civil personnel would be withdrawn, and the PCART's departments would be reduced by half. This turned out to be a false promise.

In the years that followed, the Chinese intensified socialist campaigns and purges against Tibetans and sent considerable army reinforcements to Tibet, thus more than offsetting the earlier modest reduction of Chinese cadres.

National Uprising and flight of the Dalai Lama

The inevitable showdown occurred in March 1959. There was general fear that the Chinese were planning to abduct the Dalai Lama and take him away to Beijing. The Tibetan people already had bitter experiences in Kham and Amdo, where important lamas and local leaders disappeared mysteriously after being invited to Chinese cultural shows and other functions. Fears for the safety of the Dalai Lama became acute when the Chinese Army Command invited the Tibetan leader to a theatrical show in the military barracks on 10 March. Tibetans became even more suspicious when the Chinese instructed that the Dalai Lama be not accompanied by bodyguards as was the tradition. The people in Lhasa would not allow the Dalai Lama to give in to the Chinese subterfuge.

On 10 March 1959, a massive demonstration was held and thousands of people surrounded the Dalai Lama's Summer Palace, the Norbulingkha, to prevent the Dalai Lama from attending the Chinese show. For the next few days, mass meetings were held in Lhasa with the citizens demanding that the Chinese quit Tibet and restore the country's full independence. The Dalai Lama, fearing the explosive consequences of these mass demonstrations, urged the large crowd before the Norbulingkha to disperse and wrote three letters to the principal Chinese General, Tian Guan-san, in an effort to placate the Chinese and stave off impending violence. Explaining the circumstances in which he wrote these letters, the Dalai Lama says in his autobiography:


I replied to all his letters to gain time - time for anger to cool on both sides and time for me to urge moderation of the Lhasa people... my most urgent moral duty at that moment was to prevent a totally disastrous clash between my unarmed people and the Chinese army. [Dalai Lama, Ibid, p.187]


But, despite the Dalai Lama's efforts, open fighting broke out in Lhasa soon afterwards, with disastrous consequences to the Tibetans.

Seeing that all efforts to prevent open confrontation and bloodshed had ultimately failed, and that cooperation with the Chinese authorities to minimise their oppression was no longer possible, the Dalai Lama decided to escape to India to appeal for international help to save his people. He left Lhasa on the night of 17 March.

On 28 March 1959, Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai issued an Order of State Council "dissolving" the Government of Tibet. The Dalai Lama and his ministers, while still en route to India, reacted promptly by declaring that the new administration installed in Lhasa, which was totally controlled by the Chinese, would never be recognised by the people of Tibet. Upon his arrival in India, the Dalai Lama re-established the Tibetan Government in exile and publicly declared, "Wherever I am, accompanied by my government, the Tibetan people recognise us as the Government of Tibet."

Within months, around 80,000 Tibetans reached the borders of India, Nepal, Bhutan and Sikkim after arduous escapes. Many more could not even make it to the border.

China's White Paper tries to portray these events as the work of a handful of Tibetan reactionaries who, with the help of the CIA, created an armed "rebellion" which was "resolutely" opposed by the masses. The Dalai Lama was "carried away under duress" to India, the White Paper states. The resistance, they claim, amounted to no more than 7,000 "rebels," and was put down easily in two days.

This view is hardly credible and has been contradicted even by the Chinese authorities themselves. Chinese army intelligence reports admit that the PLA killed 87,000 members of the Tibetan resistance in Lhasa and surrounding areas between March and October 1959 alone. [Xizang Xingshi he Renwu Jiaoyu de Jiben Jiaocai, PLA Military District's Political Report, 1960] The CIA's half-hearted assistance to the Tibetan resistance started in earnest only after the uprising, and, though welcomed by Tibetans, amounted to little. All the evidence shows that the uprising was massive, popular and widespread. The brutal repression which followed in all regions of Tibet only confirms this

Traditional society and democratic framework for future Tibet


China has always justified its policy in Tibet by painting the darkest picture of traditional Tibetan society. The military invasion and occupation has been termed a "liberation" by China of Tibetan society from "medieval feudal serfdom" and "slavery". Today, this myth is repeatedly rehashed to justify China's own violations of human and political rights in Tibet, and to counter all international pressure on Beijing to review its repressive policies in occupied Tibet.

Traditional Tibetan society was, by no means, perfect and was in need of changes. The Dalai Lama and other Tibetan leaders have admitted as much. That is the reason why the Dalai Lama initiated far-reaching reforms in Tibet as soon as he assumed temporal authority. The traditional Tibetan society, however, was not nearly as bad as China would have us believe.

Whatever the case may be, for several reasons the Chinese justifications make no sense. First of all, international law does not accept justifications of this type. No country is allowed to invade, occupy, annex and colonize another country just because its social structure does not please it. Secondly, the PRC is responsible for bringing more suffering in the name of liberation. Thirdly, necessary reforms were initiated and Tibetans are quite capable of doing so.

In its 1960 report on Tibet, the International Commission of Jurists stated that:


Chinese allegations that the Tibetans enjoyed no human rights before the entry of the Chinese were found to be based on distorted and exaggerated accounts of life in Tibet. Accusations against the Tibetan "rebels" of rape, plunder and torture were found to have been deliberately fabricated and in other cases unworthy of belief for this and other reasons.


Traditional Society

In terms of social mobility and wealth distribution, independent Tibet compared favourably with most Asian countries. The Dalai Lama, head of both the spiritual and secular administration, was found through a system of reincarnation that ensured that the rule of Tibet did not become hereditary. Most of the Dalai Lamas, including the Thirteenth and the Fourteenth, came from common, peasant families in remote parts of Tibet.

Every administrative post below the Dalai Lama was held by an equal number of monk and lay officials. Although lay officials hereditarily held posts (however, the posts themselves were not hereditary), those of monks were open to all. A large proportion of monk officials came from non-privileged backgrounds. Tibet's monastic system provided unrestrained opportunities for social mobility. Admission to monastic institutions in Tibet was open to all and the large majority of monks, particularly those who rose through its ranks to the highest positions, came from humble backgrounds, often from far-flung villages in Kham and Amdo. This is because the monasteries offered equal opportunities to all to rise to any height through their own scholarship. A popular Tibetan aphorism says: "If the mother's son has the knowledge, the golden throne of Gaden (the highest position in the hierarchy of the Gelug School of Tibetan Buddhism) has no ownership."

The peasants, whom the Chinese White Paper insists on calling "serfs", had a legal identity, often with documents stating their rights, and also had access to courts of law. Peasants had the right to sue their masters and carry their case in appeal to higher authorities.

Ms Dhondup Chodon comes from a family that was among the poorest social strata in independent Tibet. Reminiscing her life before the Chinese occupation in her book, Life in the Red Flag People's Commune, she said:


I belong to what the Chinese now term as serfs of Tibet. ... There were six of us in the family. ... My home was a double-storeyed building with a walled compound. On the ground floor we used to keep our animals. We had four yaks, 27 sheep and goats, two donkeys and a land-holding of four and a half khel (0.37 hectares). ... We never had any difficulty earning our livelihood. There was not a single beggar in our area.

Throughout Tibetan history, the maltreatment and suppression of peasants by estate-holders was forbidden by law as well as by social convention. From the time of the seventh-century Tibetan Emperor Songtsen Gampo, many Tibetan rulers issued codes based on the Buddhist principle of "Ten Virtues of the Dharma". The essence of this was that the rulers should act as parents to their subjects. In 1909, the Thirteenth Dalai Lama issued a regulation conferring on all peasants the right to appeal directly to him in case of mistreatment by estate holders. As a matter of fact, Tibetan society frowns upon unkind acts. The Tibetan Buddhist belief in compassion acts as a check on uncharitable deeds - not only against fellow human beings, but even against animals.

Capital punishment was banned in Tibet, and physical mutilation was a punishment that could be inflicted by the Central government in Lhasa alone. In 1898, Tibet enacted a law abolishing such forms of punishment, except in cases of high treason or conspiracy against the state.

All land belonged to the state which granted estates, to monasteries and to individuals who had rendered service to the state. The state, in turn, received revenues and service from estate holders. Lay estate holders either paid land revenues or provided one male member in each generation to work as a government official. Monasteries performed religious functions for the state and, most vitally, served as schools, universities and centres for Tibetan art, craft, medicine and culture. The role of monasteries as highly disciplined centres of Tibetan education was the key to the traditional Tibetan way of life. Monasteries bore all expenses for their students and provided them with free board and lodging. Some monasteries had large estates, some had endowments which they invested. But other monasteries had neither of these. They received personal gifts and donations from devotees and patrons. The revenue from these sources were often insufficient to provide the basic needs of large monk populations in some monasteries. To supplement their income, some monasteries engaged in trade and acted as money lenders.

The largest proportion of land in old Tibet was held by peasants who paid their revenue directly to the state, and this became the main source of the government food stocks which were distributed to monasteries, the army, and officials without estates. Some paid in labour, and some were required to provide transport service to government officials, and in some cases to monasteries. Land held by the peasant was heritable. He could lease it to others or mortgage it. He could be dispossessed of his land only if he failed to pay the dues of produce or labour, which were not excessive. In practice, he had the rights of a free-holder, and dues to the state were a form of land tax paid in kind rather than rent.

A small section of the Tibetan population, mostly in U-Tsang province, were tenants. They held their lands on the estates of aristocrats and monasteries, and paid rent to the estate-holders either in kind or they sent one member of the family to work as a domestic servant or an agricultural labourer. Some of these tenant farmers rose to the powerful position of estate secretary. (For this, they were labelled by the Chinese as "agents of feudal lords".) Other members of these families had complete freedom. They were entitled to engage in any business, follow any profession, join any monastery or work on their own lands. Although they were known as tenants, they could not be evicted from their lands at the whim of estate holders. Some of the tenants were quite wealthy.

The present Fourteenth Dalai Lama attempted to introduce far- reaching administrative and land reforms. He proposed that all large estate holdings of monasteries and individuals be acquired by the state for distribution amongst peasants. He created a special reform committee which reduced land tax on peasants. The reform committee was authorised to hear and redress complaints by individuals against the district or local authorities. He approved the proposal for debt exemption submitted by this committee. Peasant debtors were categorised into three groups: those who could not pay either their accumulated interest or repay capital were freed from debt altogether; those who could not pay the interest out of their annual earnings, but had saved up enough to repay the capital, were ordered to make repayments in instalments and those who had become wealthy over the course of years were made to pay both capital and interest in instalments. The Dalai Lama ordered that in future no transport service should be demanded without the special sanction of the government. He also increased the rates to be paid for transport service.

Famine and starvation were unheard of in independent Tibet. There were, of course, years of poor harvest and crop failures. But people could easily borrow from the buffer stock held by the district administrations, monasteries, aristocrats and rich farmers. From 1950 onwards, the Chinese military and civilian personnel were fed on the state buffer stocks and forced the Tibetan populace to sell their personal holding of grains to them for nominal prices. "Liberation" was, in reality, the right to equal poverty for all. Palden Gyatso, a 61-year-old monk who escaped from Tibet in 1992 after serving 33 years in Chinese jails and labour camps, puts it succinctly: "The Chinese definitely succeeded in making the rich poor. But they did not help the poor. The poor became poorer and we were reduced to a nation of tsampa beggars."

In his book, Tibet and its History, Hugh Richardson wrote: "Even communist writers have had to admit there was no great difference between rich and poor in (pre-1949) Tibet." In fact, when Hu Yaobang saw the extent of the poverty in Central Tibet in 1980, he stated that the living standard should be brought up at least to the pre-1959 level.

Democratic reforms

In 1959, the Dalai Lama re-established his Government in India, soon after his flight from Tibet, and a series of democratic changes were initiated. A popularly elected body of people's representatives, parliament-in-exile, was constituted. In 1961 the Dalai Lama prepared a draft constitution for future Tibet and sought the opinion of Tibetans on this matter.

In 1963, a detailed draft constitution for a future Tibet was promulgated. Despite strong opposition, the Dalai Lama insisted on the inclusion of a clause which stated that the executive powers of the Dalai Lama shall be exercised by the Council of Regents when the National Assembly, by majority of two-thirds of its total members in consultation with the Supreme Court, decides that this is in the highest interests of the State.

On 10 March 1969, the Dalai Lama announced that on the day Tibet regained its independence the Tibetan people must decide for themselves as to what kind of system of government they wanted.

In 1990, further changes were introduced by increasing the strength of the Assembly of Tibetan People's Deputies (ATPD) from 12 to 46. It was given more constitutional powers such as the election of the kalons (ministers), who were previously appointed directly by the Dalai Lama. The Supreme Justice Commission was set up to look into people's grievances against the Administration.

In January 1992, the Dalai Lama announced the Guidelines for future Tibet's Polity and the Basic Features of its Constitution, wherein he stated that he would not "play any role in the future government of Tibet, let alone seek the Dalai Lama's traditional political position." The future government of Tibet, the Dalai Lama said, would be elected by the people on the basis of adult franchise. The Dalai Lama also announced that during the transition period, between withdrawal of the repressive Chinese troops from Tibet and the final promulgation of the Constitution, the administrative responsibilities of the state will be entrusted to the Tibetan functionaries presently working in Tibet. During this transitional period, an interim president will be appointed to whom the Dalai Lama will delegate all his political powers and responsibilities. The Tibetan Government-in- Exile will ipso facto cease to exist.

The guidelines for Tibet's future polity also stated:


Future Tibet shall be a peace-loving nation, adhering to the principle of ahimsa (non-violence). It shall have a democratic system of government committed to preserving a clean, healthy and beautiful environment. Tibet shall be a completely demilitarised nation.

The Tibetan struggle is, thus, not for the resurrection of the traditional system as the Chinese claim. The continuous Chinese attempts at personalising the Tibetan issue to hinge upon the Dalai Lama's own status is a subterfuge to mask the main issue of the Tibetan national struggle.

Religion and national identity


Tibet's earliest religion is Bön, founded by Shenrab Miwo of Shangshung in Western Tibet. With the advent of Buddhism, the Bön religion diminished in influence, but it continues to thrive today with an active community of Tibetan refugees still practising their faith in India and Nepal. Tashi Menri, Yungdrungling, and Kharna were some of the major Bön monasteries in Tibet. The Bön religion has imbibed many characteristics of Buddhism over the course of its historical development. Tibetan Buddhism, in turn, has also taken much from Bön.

Buddhism flourished in Tibet in the seventh century. Receiving royal patronage, it spread throughout Tibet. With the assumption of power by the Dalai Lamas from 1642 onwards, the era of "harmonious blend of religion and politics" was established in Tibet. Since then, for three-and-a-half centuries, ten successive Dalai Lamas have been the spiritual and temporal rulers of Tibet.

The cumulative effect of its long patronage by successive kings of Tibet, and the country being later ruled by successive religious heads, has been immense, both to Tibet as a nation and to its people. Buddhism has not been a mere system of belief to the Tibetans; it encompasses the entirety of their culture and civilisation and constitutes the very essence of their lives. Buddhism permeated the daily lives of the Tibetan people and formed the social fabric connecting them to the land. Of all the bonds which defined Tibetans as a people and as a nation, religion was undoubtedly the strongest.

Through the centuries, highly qualified Tibetans studied, practised, expounded, preserved, and taught the meaning of this religion and its social and spiritual relevance to peoples throughout the Asian regions sharing the Tibetan cultural tradition, including Mongolia.

In the words of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, Buddhism thus caused the "metamorphosis that changed the entire course of Tibet's history. Generations of Tibetan intellectuals studied and developed a profound culture that closely accorded with the original principles and philosophy of the Dharma. Down through the centuries their dedicated services brought about extraordinary developments which are unique among the literary and cultural achievements of the nations of the world."

Monasteries, temples, and hermitages were founded in every village and town throughout Tibet, together with resident monks and, as the case may be, nuns. Every Tibetan Buddhist home had its altar. Huge monasteries, which were more like monastic cities, such as Drepung, Sera, and Gaden in Lhasa, Tashilhunpo in Shigatse, Sakya Monastery in Sakya, Tsurphu in central Tibet, Mindroling in central Tibet, Tashi-kyil in Amdo Labrang, Gaden Jampaling in Chamdo, Lithang Gonchen, etc, became high seats of learning.

By 1959 there were more than a total of 6,259 monasteries with about 592,558 resident monks and nuns. These religious centres also housed tens and thousands of statues, religious artifacts made of gold, silver and other metals - studded with jewels. Similarly, tens and thousands of chorten (stupas) were built out of precious metal. Besides texts on Buddhism, these centres were store-houses of works on literature, medicine, astrology, art, politics, etc, and thus were the real "treasure houses" of the Tibetan people.

Tibetan national identity became indistinguishable from its religion. Buddhist folklore and teachings regulated the people's lives, festivals, holidays, work ethics, family chores as well as national issues. Tibet remained a proud and independent Buddhist nation until its occupation by China. Tibet also had a compact community of Muslims, who had their own mosques. These, too, suffered damage at the hands of the Chinese. In addition, there were small numbers of followers of Hinduism and Christianity. They were all tolerated and given equal rights.

Violation of religious freedom: 1949-79

The Chinese Government initially proclaimed that while complete consolidation of its annexation of Tibet was underway, no restrictions would be imposed on the practice of religion. Their formal pledge to protect and respect Tibet's religious tradition was set forth even in the "17-Point Agreement" of 1951. This "Agreement" explicitly stated that the traditional status, functions and powers of the Dalai Lama would not be altered and that "the policy of freedom of religious beliefs laid down in the Common Programme of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference will be protected."

However, the Chinese soon began to undermine the traditional social system and religion of Tibet. People were told that "Religion is the enemy of our materialist ideology and believing in religion is blind faith. Therefore, you should not only not have faith in religion but should also condemn it." While the Chinese constitution and initial assurances made to the Tibetans purported to allow a semblance of religious freedom, their resolve to undermine Tibetan religion was absolute from the very beginning. The Chinese Government pronounced:


The Chinese Communist Party considers that its ideology and that of religion are two forces that cannot co-exist and occupy the same spot at the same time. ... the differences between the two (ie, science and religion) can be likened to those between light and darkness, between truth and falsehood. There is absolutely no possibility to reconcile the mutually-opposed world views of science and religion.


This Communist Chinese view was all-pervasive. In Mao Zedong's own words, "... but of course, religion is poison. It has two great defects: It undermines the race ...(and) retards the progress of the country. Tibet and Mongolia have both been poisoned by it."

By the middle of the 1950s, the Chinese authorities realised that religion was the principal obstacle to their control of Tibet. Therefore, from the beginning of 1956, a so-called "Democratic Reform" was carried out, first in Kham and Amdo, and later (in 1959) in Central Tibet. Monasteries, temples, and cultural centres were systematically looted of all articles of value and then dismantled.

First, special teams of mineralogists visited religious buildings to locate and extract all the precious stones. Next came the metallurgists who marked all metal objects which were subsequently carted away in trucks requisitioned from army head- quarters. The walls were then dynamited and all the wooden beams and pillars taken away. Clay images were destroyed in the expectation of finding precious metals inside. Finally, whatever remained - bits of wood and stone - were removed. Literally, hundreds of tons of valuable religious statues, thangkas (scroll paintings), metal artifacts, and other treasures were shipped to China either to be sold in international antique markets or to be melted down.

When a team of Tibetans visited China in 1982-83 to retrieve Tibetan artifacts, a Chinese man in Beijing told them that "(m)ost of the Tibetan cultural artifacts carted to China were destroyed. The statues and ritual objects of pure gold and silver were never seen again. Those of gilded copper, bell-metal, red copper, brass, etc, were ferried to Luyun, from where they were eventually sold to foundries in Shanghai, Sichuan, Tai Yun, Beijing, Tianjin, etc. The foundry called Xi-you Qing-shu Tie (precious metal foundry) situated about five kilometers to the east of Beijing city, alone purchased about 600 tons of Tibetan crafted metals." The team found out that almost all artifacts taken by other foundries had already been melted down.

This physical desecration and destruction was accompanied by public condemnation of religion, and humiliation and ridicule of religious persons. Religious texts were burnt and mixed with field manure; the sacred mani stones (stones or slates with prayer inscriptions) were used for making toilets and pavements; monks and nuns were forced to have sex in public and demanded to perform miracles; ruined monasteries and temples were turned into pigsties; starving monks and nuns in Chinese prisons were told to get "food from the Buddha".

Destructions before the Cultural Revolution

Contrary to official Chinese assertions, much of Tibet's culture and religion was destroyed between 1955 and 1961, and not during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) alone. This was confirmed by Bhuchung, the then Vice-President of the so-called TAR People's Government, at a press conference on 17 July 1987, when he stated that what little remained to be destroyed was obliterated during the Cultural Revolution under the slogan "Smash the Four Olds".

Out of Tibet's total of 6,259 monasteries and nunneries only about eight remained by 1976. Among those destroyed were the seventh-century Samye, the first monastery in Tibet; Gaden, the earliest and holiest monastic university of the Gelugpas; Sakya, the main seat of the Sakyas; Tsurphu, one of the holiest monasteries of the Kagyus; Mindroling, one of the most famous monasteries of the Nyingmapas; Menri, the earliest and most sacred Bön monastery, etc. Out of 592,558 monks, nuns, rinpoches (reincarnates) and ngagpas (tantric practitioners), over 110,000 were tortured and put to death, and over 250,000 were forcibly disrobed.

The extent of religious destruction in Tibet was referred to by the late Panchen Lama in 1988 in Beijing during the first General Meeting of China's Institute of Tibetology. He said:


The destruction suffered by monasteries in the Tibetan inhabited areas was total and hundred per cent. About 99 percent suffered total destruction. Those seven or eight which remained also did not escape damage. The condition of the Potala Palace was the best among those which remained. But it too suffered damage. Therefore, I say that the destruction caused was hundred per cent.


1979-92: Religious freedom, a ritualistic facade

Since 1979, a much-heralded programme of "liberalisation" began in Tibet under which some superficial facade of religious freedom was allowed. This included limited and selective renovation of places of worship, and allowing people a degree of ritual practices - such as making prostrations, circumambulating places of worship, offering butter lamps, reciting mantras, turning prayer wheels, burning incense, putting up prayer flags, etc. These are only external acts of worship. But propagation of the teachings of the Buddha is either banned or, when permitted, strictly controlled.

The essence of Buddhism lies in mental and spiritual development achieved through intensive study with qualified lamas, understanding and practice. But the Chinese discourage this in their campaign to misrepresent the Tibetan religion as nothing more than practices in superstition and blind faith rather than what it really is: a functional and scientific philosophy. The Dalai Lama, in his 10 March 1987 statement, said:


The so-called religious freedom in Tibet today amounts to permitting our people to worship and practice religion in a merely ritualistic and devotional way. There are both direct and indirect restrictions on the teaching and study of Buddhist philosophy. Buddhism, thus, is being reduced to blind faith which is exactly how the Communist Chinese view and define religion.


Today's Chinese policy is aimed at bringing about a gradual and natural death of Tibetan culture and religion, thus reducing the Tibetans to an uncultured, superstitious nation, fit only to be ruled and reformed by them. In this way they hope to validate their "liberation" of - and claim to - Tibet.

Reconstruction and renovation

Almost all Chinese state-sponsored reconstruction of Tibetan monuments has been highly selective, intended only to serve their political and economic aims. These serve as museums for tourist attraction rather than living cultural and religious institutions. Also, contrary to the Chinese claim, most of the rebuilt or renovated monasteries, including the "state-sponsored" ones, came through the initiative of Tibetans who contributed their labour and finances. The aid sanctioned by the Chinese Government forms only a very small fraction of the total expenses incurred. On the other hand, China confiscates income of the monasteries from entry fees (imposed by the Chinese) and offerings made by pilgrims. Reconstruction and renovation of monasteries can be done only after receiving permission from the Chinese Bureau of Religious Affairs. Such permission is given with great reluctance following a long period of bureaucratic red tape during which Tibetans have to make repeated appeals and listen, in return, to constant lectures about the negative influences of religion to "national interest". The limited number of monks allowed in them serve more as showpieces and, in most cases, caretakers rather than religious students and practitioners.

In independent Tibet, the major Tibetan monastic universities served as cultural and learning centres for large numbers of students from Inner Asia. These institutions each had from three to ten thousand students and the rigorous curriculum began around the age of eighteen and culminated around the age of forty-five. The basic units of Tibet's monastic universities were its colleges, each university having at least two. These had their own administration, faculty and textbooks. For centuries, the monastic colleges functioned to promote critical and creative spiritual thoughts.

Chinese government control over religious institutions

China today refuses to let the colleges - the functioning units of the monastic universities - to continue in the traditional way. It has also placed a ceiling on the number of monks allowed in each university. Before the Chinese invasion, Sera had 7,997 monks on its rolls; it is now permitted to have only about 300; Drepung which used to have 10,000 monks is now permitted only 400; and Gaden which numbered 5,600 monks is now permitted only 150. In addition, the daily functions of the monasteries are regimented through a maze of state bureaucracies, such as the United Front Work Department, Religious Affairs Bureau, Tibetan Buddhist Association, Democratic Management Committee, political education and investigation Work Inspection Teams, security organs, etc.

China has, in part, laid down the following criteria for admission in a monastery: The candidate should be at least 18 years old; should "love" the country and the Communist Party; should have the consent of parents; should obtain formal approval from the monasteries' Democratic Management Committee; should have consent of local authorities; should have consent of county or provincial authorities; should obtain clearance from Public Security Bureau; the candidate and the candidate's parents should have "good political background"; should have been raised in a certain geographical area (eg, Tibetans from Kham and Amdo may not be admitted to monasteries in Central Tibet); should study Marxism; should be aware that materialism and spiritualism are contradictory, etc, etc.

Admit only the "politically correct"

China's guiding principle behind admission is that "We must foster a large number of fervent patriots in every religion who accept the leadership of the Party and government, firmly support the Socialist path, and safeguard national and ethnic unity", and that "seminaries should hold entrance examinations and admit upright, patriotic young people ... who have reached a certain level of cultural development." These principles are clearly laid down in the Chinese "Basic Viewpoint and Policy on the Religious Question during Our Country's Socialist Period," and "Rules for Democratic Management of Temples," etc. Yet another organ known as the Tibetan Buddhism Guidance Committee is being set up to "oversee the practice of Buddhism in Tibet (TAR), Qinghai, Gansu, Sichuan, and Yunnan (Amdo and Kham parts of Tibet incorporated into Chinese provinces). Foremost among its tasks will be the implementation of government policies, education of monks and nuns in the patriotic mould, and supervision over monastery management."

In addition to the above, there are other subtle and insidious methods of undermining religion which are not easily discerned by the uninformed. These include: persistent anti-religious publications and theatrical performances, restricting religious teachings, educating Tibetan youths along Marxist lines with heavy anti-religious overtones, lack of regular curriculum in the monasteries, lack of textbooks and teachers, forcing monks to perform for tourists, keeping police and para-military forces at the monasteries, arresting and torturing those suspected of having independent thoughts, planting informers in the monasteries, conducting political education and investigation in the monasteries by Work Inspection teams, ban on prayers composed by the Dalai Lama though being utterly devoid of any political overtone, etc. On account of such restrictions, the Panchen Lama, on 28 September 1988, called for the eradication of Chinese "administrative interference in the religious activities in Tibet (read TAR) and other Tibetan-inhabited regions and increased Tibetan regulation of religious affairs."


Though China no longer bombs or sends Red Guards to destroy Tibet's monasteries, its aim still remains the same as before: total elimination of Tibetan religion and culture. This is clear official document, Policy on Religious Freedom, prepared by Ganze (Kanze) Prefectural Propaganda Committee and dated February 1990, which states: "With the development of our socialist system, the social system for the natural extinction of religion was established." Yet, another official document licy on Nationalities and Religion brought out in 1991, states: "We should oppose all those who work to split the motherland in the name of nationality and religion. There should be no hesitation in taking harsh decision to deal with any political disturbance carried out in the name of nationality and religion, and in doing so the state's political, judiciary, and even military powers should be used."

In carrying out its unremitting persecution of Tibetan religion, China continues to violate not only the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights but also all the clauses of the United Nation's Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion and Belief. In its reports of 1959 and 1960, the Legal Inquiry Committee of the International Commission of Jurists said:


The Committee found that acts of Genocide had been committed in Tibet in an attempt to destroy the Tibetans as a religious group, and that such acts are acts of genocide independently of any conventional obligation."

WORLD IN FOCUS: Interview with His Holiness The Dalai Lama

Australian Broadcasting Corporation Television (ABC TV),
Broadcast: 22/5/2002 Interviewer: Jennifer Byrne

Exiled leader of Tibet, His Holiness The Dalai Lama, spoke to Jennifer Byrne in Melbourne during his Australian tour.


Byrne: Thank you very much for joining us on Foreign Correspondent. The Chinese as you've said... they are the guests who came with guns... Now they come with money, is it even harder to stop the conquest of Tibet ?

His Holiness: (laughs) Your question's quite sharp. Now, actually the Chinese government you see, they are putting..... pouring more and more money into Tibet with hope eventually that the Tibetan spirit will diminish.

Byrne: What do you believe?

His Holiness: Two years ago I received one letter from Tibet. It said the Chinese government now decided to make a railroad to Tibet - a railway link - and then within thirty years twenty million Chinese were going to settle in Tibet. So if that kind of situation happened, then Tibet would finish.

Byrne: I'd like to ask yourself Your Holiness, even though you've been insulted by experts - by our own politicians who won't meet you, by the Chinese, by Rupert Murdoch. do you ever allow yourself the luxury of being offended?

His Holiness: Sometimes there is a little irritation, but then, of course, one of the main practices you see is to try to cultivate respect towards one 's own enemy, or the people who create problems or harm to you.

Byrne: Even to Rupert Murdoch?

His Holiness: Oh certainly....

Byrne: ... when he talks about your Gucci shoes - rudely.

His Holiness: Okay... I don't think it's true. Out of his ignorance, I think. It doesn't matter. When sometimes the Chinese accuse me as a murderer, or as a rapist - it doesn't matter. Mainly they are ignorant. And in some cases they have to say things like that.

Byrne: What is the time that you have been offended, when it actually wounds you?

His Holiness: When I heard this story of torture and beating inside Tibet, then sometimes I feel I think besides sadness, a little irritation. Sometimes a little anger, I also succumb. But then I consciously say this is not right. I am a Buddhist. I am a practitioner of altruism. So I try to minimise these negative feelings.

Byrne: As you have said, people have tried to paint you as a living God - as a living Buddha - a man God... you say you are very much a human...?

His Holiness: (laughs) If it is some Tibetan, you see - they say or I think believe, the Tibetan sort of bright future can be achieved through just praying to the Dalai Lama. That is nonsense.

Byrne: So they should not pray to the Dalai Lama?

His Holiness: It is useless. We work hard... we have to work hard, even Dalai himself. Through prayer nothing can be achieved. I'm always telling people prayer of course is good, but through prayer we can't change the reality. Very different. So change reality through heart, through action!

Byrne: Through work?

His Holiness: Yes. Karma means action. So things change through action not by prayer... not by wish.

Byrne: But it's a long time coming isn't it - will they ever leave you be?

His Holiness: Well firstly I'm not seeking independence. I'm not seeking complete separation from China. Tibet's a landlocked country - materially backward. Of course spiritually very rich - I think very rich - but spirituality alone cannot fill our stomachs. So we need money. We need more material development. For that reason if we remain within the Peoples Republic of China, providing the Chinese government treat us or respect us, respect our culture, respect our own basic right, then as far as material development is concerned we might get greater benefit if we remain in the Peoples Republic of China.

Byrne: You have said that your successor will come from outside China... China has said that it will come from inside China - is this also a worry for you? Can you be sure that the Dalai Lama will continue as you wish? Forgive me for asking about your death like this, but...

His Holiness: No, no... I's okay... it's okay... no problem. Now whether the Dalai Lama institution should continue or not is entirely up to the Tibetan people. If under present circumstances, if I die and the Tibetan people want another sort of reincarnation, then the genuine reincarnation will appear outside of Tibet because the main purpose of reincarnation is to fulfil the task which was started by the previous life but is not yet fulfilled. So logically, if, you see, the reincarnation is in Chinese hands and becomes a puppet, it will not help. But of course they have their power, they have their force. So one artificial Dalai Lama - I think one Dalai Lama in Tibetan has mouth service - lip service, but in heart there's another genuine Dalai Lama who is outside Tibet. So, that is the reality.

Byrne: Do you feel in any way that you have failed the People of Tibet because they are still not free - they are have to fight for their belief and their freedom?

His Holiness: Yes... I give one example - reunion inside Tibet, outside of Tibet - now for the three years past.... anyway, failed. But at same time preserved Tibetan culture heritage on this planet. Not only amongst Tibetans, but also among Tibetan friends - including some Australians. I think we achieved something. I think that we created some kind of source - of hope - for Tibetans inside Tibet. So that's our achievement.... so it's not a complete failure. I think there always is some failure, some field, some aspect.... achievement. So that's I think, the nature of life.

Byrne: Your holiness it's a great pleasure to meet you - thank you.

His Holiness: Thank you. Thank you very much.