More than a million Tibetans have died from the Chinese occupation of torture, starvation, and execution.
More than 6,000 monasteries and their contents, irreplaceable jewels of Tibetan culture, were destroyed.
Tibetans are routinely imprisoned and tortured for non-violently expressing their views. Freedom of religion is severely curtailed. Nuns are brutally raped in Chinese prisons.
In recent years, China has launched a "Final Solution" - a systematic state-sponsored movement and encouragement of ethnic Chinese into Tibet to overwhelm and expunge the Tibetan nation.
Today the situation in Tibet is increasingly tense. The influx of Chinese increases; peaceful demonstrations in Lhasa and elsewhere take place despite the strong and often violent reaction of Chinese security forces. Hundreds of Tibetans are imprisoned for their political or religious activities.
Asia Watch states in its 1994 report, "Detained in China and Tibet" that "The proportion of 'counterrevolutionaries' to common criminals in Tibetan jails today is almost 21 times higher than in China proper."
Detainees are regularly tortured and exiled Tibetans have only limited access to their country. Meanwhile, China has just opened Tibet to both individual and group tourism, and to wider economic development.
In recent years, and especially since the Dalai Lama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989, the concern shown by the governments in Europe and the U.S., in particular, has grown considerably. A number of parliamentary bodies have passed resolutions condemning human rights violations in Tibet and calling for peaceful resolution of the conflict in accordance with the Dalai Lama's plan.
This is the most critical time for the Tibetan people. Tibetans urge the world to support the Dalai Lama's proposal and put pressure on the Chinese government to begin negotiations with the Tibetan Government-in-exile, the true representatives of the Tibetan people.
History of Tibet before the Chinese Invasion of 1949
Tibet has a history dating back over 2,000 years. A good starting point in analyzing the country's status is the period referred to as Tibet's "imperial age", when the entire country was first united under one ruler. There is no serious dispute over the existence of Tibet as an independent state during this period. Even China's own historical records and the treaties Tibet and China concluded during that period refer to Tibet as a strong state with whom China was forced to deal on a footing of equality.
At what point in history, then, did Tibet cease to exist as a state to become an integral part of China? Tibet's history is not unlike that of other states. At times, Tibet extended its influence over neighboring countries and peoples and, in other periods, came itself under the influence of powerful foreign rulers - the Mongol Khans, the Gorkhas of Nepal, the Manchu emperors and the British rulers of India.
It should be noted, before examining the relevant history, that international law is a system of law created by states primarily for their own protection. As a result, international law protects the independence of states from attempts to destroy it and, therefore, the presumption is in favor of the continuation of statehood.
This means that, whereas an independent state that has existed for centuries, such as Tibet, does not need to prove its continued independence when challenged, a foreign state claiming sovereign rights over it needs to prove those rights by showing at what precise moment and by what legal means they were acquired.
China's present claim to Tibet is based entirely on the influence that Mongol and Manchuk emperors exercised over Tibet in the thirteenth and eighteenth centuries, respectively.
As Genghis Khan's Mongol Empire expanded toward Europe in the west and China in the east in the thirteenth century, the Tibetan leaders of the Sakya school of Tibetan Buddhism concluded an agreement with the Mongol rulers in order to avoid the otherwise inevitable conquest of Tibet.
They promised political allegiance and religious blessings and teachings in exchange for patronage and protection. The religious relationship became so important that when Kublai Khan conquered China and established the Yuan dynasty, he invited the Sakya Lama to become the Imperial Preceptor and supreme pontiff of his empire.
The relationship that developed and still exists today between the Mongols and Tibetans is a reflection of the close racial, cultural and especially religious affinity between the two Central Asian peoples. To claim that Tibet became a part of China because both countries were independently subjected to varying degrees of Mongol control, as the PRC does, is absurd.
The Mongol Empire was a world empire; no evidence exists to indicate that the Mongols integrated the administration of China and Tibet or appended Tibet to China in any manner. It is like claiming that France should belong to England because both came under Roman domination, or that Burma became a part of India when the British Empire extended its authority over both territories.
This relatively brief period of foreign domination over Tibet occurred 700 years ago. Tibet broke away from the Yuan emperor before China regained its independence from the Mongols with the establishment of the native Ming dynasty. Not until the eighteenth century did Tibet once again come under a degree of foreign influence.
The Ming dynasty, which ruled China from 1368 to 1644, had few ties to and no authority over Tibet. On the other hand, the Manchus, who conquered China and established the Qing dynasty in the seventeenth century, embraced Tibetan Buddhism as the Mongols had and developed close ties with the Tibetans. The Dalai Lama, who had by then become the spiritual and temporal ruler of Tibet, agreed to become the spiritual guide of the Manchu emperor.
He accepted patronage and protection in exchange. This "priest-patron" relationship, which the Dalai Lama also maintained with numerous Mongol Khans and Tibetan nobles, was the only formal tie that existed between the Tibetans and Manchus during the Qing dynasty. It did not, in itself, affect Tibet`s independence.
On the political level, some powerful Manchu emperors succeeded in exerting a degree of influence over Tibet. Thus, between 1720 and 1792 the Manchu emperors Kangxi, Yong Zhen and Qianlong sent imperial troops into Tibet four times to protect the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan people from foreign invasion or internal unrest.
It was these expeditions that provided them with influence in Tibet. The emperor sent representatives to the Tibetan capital, Lhasa, some of whom successfully exercised their influence, in his name, over the Tibetan government, particularly with respect to the conduct of foreign relations.
At the height of Manchu power, which lasted a few decades, the situation was not unlike that which can exist between a superpower and a neighboring satellite or protectorate. The subjection of a state to foreign influence and even intervention in foreign or domestic affairs, however significant this may be politically, does not in itself entail the legal extinction of that state.
Consequently, although some Manchu emperors exerted considerable influence over Tibet, they did not thereby incorporate Tibet into their empire, much less China.
Manchu influence did not last for very long. It was entirely ineffective by the time the British briefly invaded Tibet in 1904, and ceased entirely with the overthrow of the Qing dynasty in 1911, and its replacement in China by a native republican government. Whatever ties existed between the Dalai Lama and the Qing emperor were extinguished with the dissolution of the Manchu Empire.
From 1911 to 1950, Tibet successfully avoided undue foreign influence and behaved, in every respect, as a fully independent state. The 13th Dalai Lama emphasized his country's independent status externally, in formal communications to foreign rulers, and internally, by issuing a proclamation reaffirming Tibet's independence and by strengthening the country's defenses.
Tibet remained neutral during the Second World War, despite strong pressure from China and its allies, Britain and the U.S.A. The Tibetan government maintained independent international relations with all neighboring countries, most of whom had diplomatic representatives in Lhasa.
The attitude of most foreign governments with whom Tibet maintained relations implied their recognition of Tibet's independent status. The British government bound itself not to recognize Chinese suzerainty or any other rights over Tibet unless China signed the draft Simla Convention of 1914 with Britain and Tibet, which China never did. Nepal's recognition was confirmed by the Nepalese government in 1949, in documents presented to the United Nations in support of that governments application for membership.
The turning point in Tibet's history came in 1949, when the People's Liberation Army of the PRC first crossed into Tibet. After defeating the small Tibetan army, the Chinese government imposed the so-called "17-Point Agreement for the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet" on the Tibetan government in May 1951.
Because it was signed under duress, the agreement was void under international law. The presence of 40,000 troops in Tibet, the threat of an immediate occupation of Lhasa and the prospect of the total obliteration of the Tibetan state left Tibetans little choice.
It should be noted that numerous countries made statements in the course of UN General Assembly debates following the invasion of Tibet that reflected their recognition of Tibet's independent status. Thus, for example, the delegate from the Philippines declared: "It is clear that on the eve of the invasion 1950, Tibet was not under the rule of any foreign country."
The delegate from Thailand reminded the assembly that the majority of states "refute the contention that Tibet is part of China." The US joined most other UN members in condemning the Chinese "aggression" and "invasion" of Tibet.
In the course of Tibet's 2,000-year history, the country came under a degree of foreign influence only for short periods of time in the thirteenth and eighteenth centuries. Few independent countries today can claim as impressive a record.
As the ambassador for Ireland at the UN remarked during the General Assembly debates on the question of Tibet," 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."
From a legal standpoint, Tibet has to this day not lost its statehood. It is an independent state under illegal occupation. Neither China's military invasion nor the continuing occupation has transferred the sovereignty of Tibet to China. As pointed out earlier, the Chinese government has never claimed to have acquired sovereignty over Tibet by conquest.
Indeed, China recognizes that the use or threat of force (outside the exceptional circumstances provided for in the UN Charter), the imposition of an unequal treaty or the continued illegal occupation of a country can never grant an invader legal title to territory.
Its claims are based solely on the alleged subjection of Tibet to a few of China's strongest foreign rulers in the thirteenth and eighteenth centuries. 1f other countries were to make such tenuous claims based on their imperial past, how seriously would they be taken? Are we not, in even considering the merits of China's arguments, accepting the right of powerful modern rulers to invade foreign countries in order to recreate lost empires of their ancestors?
History of Tibet Since the Chinese Invasion
Despite more than sixty years of Chinese occupation and various policies designed to assimilate or sinify Tibetans and to destroy their separate national, cultural and religious identity, the Tibetan people's determination to preserve their heritage and regain their freedom is as strong as ever. The situation has led to confrontation inside Tibet and to large scale Chinese propaganda efforts internationally.
1949-1951 The Chinese Invasion
China's newly established communist government sent troops to invade Tibet in 1949-1950. A treaty was imposed on the Tibetan government in May of that year, acknowledging sovereignty over Tibet but recognizing the Tibetan government's autonomy with respect to Tibet's internal affairs.
As the Chinese consolidated their control, they repeatedly violated the treaty and open resistance to their rule grew, leading to the National Uprising in 1959 and the flight into India of Tibet's head of state and spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama.
The international community reacted with shock at the events in Tibet. The question of Tibet was discussed on numerous occasions by the U.N. General Assembly between 1959 and 1965. Three resolutions were passed by the General Assembly condemning China's violations of human rights in Tibet and calling upon China to respect those rights, including Tibet's right to self-determination.
After 1959: Destruction
The destruction of Tibet's culture and oppression of its people was brutal during the twenty years following the uprising. 1.2 million Tibetans, one-fifth of the country's population, died as a result of China's policies; many more languished in prisons and labor camps; and more than 6000 monasteries, temples and other cultural and historic buildings were destroyed and their contents pillaged.
In 1980 Hu Yao Bang, General Secretary of the Communist Party, visited Tibet - the first senior official to do so since the invasion. Alarmed by the extent of the destruction he saw there, he called for a series of drastic reforms and for a policy of "recuperation".
His forced resignation in 1987 was said partially to result from his views on Tibet. In 1981, Alexander Solzhenytsin still described the Chinese regime in Tibet as "more brutal and inhumane than any other communist regime in the world." Relaxation of China's policies in Tibet came very slowly after 1979 and remains severely limited.
Attempted Tibet-China Dialogue
Two delegations were sent by the Dalai Lama to hold high-level exploratory talks with the Chinese government and party leaders in Beijing between 1979 and 1984. The talks were unsuccessful because the Chinese were, at that time, not prepared to discuss anything of substance except the return of the Dalai Lama from exile.
The Dalai Lama has always insisted that his return is not the issue; instead, the question that needs to be addressed is the future of the six million Tibetans inside Tibet. It is the Dalai Lama's opinion that his own return will depend entirely upon resolving the question of the status and rights of Tibet and its people.
Alarming Chinese Influx
In recent years the situation in Tibet has once again deteriorated, leading in 1987 to open demonstrations against Chinese rule in Lhasa and other parts of the country.
One of the principle factors leading to this deterioration has been the large influx of Chinese into Tibet, particularly into its major towns. The exact number of Chinese is difficult to assess, because the vast majority have moved without obtaining official residence permits to do so.
Thus, Chinese statistics are entirely misleading, counting as they do only the small numbers of registered immigrants. In Tibet's cities and fertile valleys, particularly in eastern Tibet, Chinese outnumber Tibetans by two and sometimes three to one. In certain rural areas, particularly in western Tibet, there are very few Chinese.
Regardless of the figures, the overall impact of the influx is devastating because the Chinese not only control the political and military power in Tibet, but also the economic life and even cultural and religious life of the people.
The Chinese military as well as the civilian build up in Tibet has been a source of great concern to India, as it impacts directly on India's security. Tibet acted for centuries as a vital buffer between China and India.
It is only when Chinese troops faced Indian troops on the Indo-Tibetan border that tensions, and even war, developed between the world's most populous powers.
The more Tibet is converted into a Chinese province, populated by Chinese, the stronger China's strategic position along the Himalayas will be. China's growing military reach has now become a source of concern to many Asian nations as well as to India, which just set off five nuclear tests to assert it's intentions to resist.
- Michael C. van Walt is an international legal scholar and a board member of the International Campaign for Tibet.