(This article was specially written for Tibet Foundation Newsletter Spring 2019 Issue No. 74 by Tsering Passang.)
Soon after the Communist Party of China (CPC) came to power in October 1949, the People’s Republic of China was established and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers marched into Tibet.
On 23rd May 1951, the “Seventeen-Point Agreement” was signed between the representatives of the independent Tibetan Government in Lhasa and the Chinese Communist Government in Peking. Tibetans have always maintained that the agreement was signed by the Tibetan representatives under the duress. His Excellency Lukhangwa, the lay Tibetan Prime Minister, plainly told Chinese Representative Zhang Jingwu in 1952 that the Tibetan “people did not accept the agreement”.
Nevertheless His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet, who was a young teenager at the time, decided to work with the Chinese “in order to save my people and country from total destruction”, wrote in his memoir. For eight years, the Dalai Lama tried to abide by the terms of that document. He even relieved his Prime Minister Lukhangwa from the post, who made no secret of his staunch opposition to Chinese rule.
In 1954, the Dalai Lama visited Peking. During his nearly 6 months’ stay he had met with many Chinese leaders including Chairman Mao Zedong and Premier Chou En-lai on a few occasions. Both of them gave assurances to him on Tibet’s good future.
In 1956, at the invitation of the Mahabodhi Society of India, the Dalai Lama travelled to India to join the 2500th Birth Anniversary Celebrations of Lord Buddha. During his India trip, the Dalai Lama met the Indian Prime Minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru and expressed his intention to seek asylum in India. Nehru advised the Dalai Lama to return to Tibet. At the same time the Chinese Premier Chou En-lai travelled to Delhi where he met both Nehru and the Dalai Lama and had urged the young Tibetan leader to return to Tibet. Finally, the Dalai Lama returned to Lhasa.
By early 1959 a large number of PLA soldiers, about 20,000 were stationed in Lhasa alone. The tension was now rising in Tibet’s capital, Lhasa. Tens of thousands of Tibetans from east Tibet were retreating towards Lhasa while fighting continued in the east. In early March 1959, the PLA invited the Dalai Lama to attend a planned cultural show at its headquarters without any Tibetan bodyguards. The date for the theatrical show was set for 10th March. The general public in Lhasa became suspicious and over 30,000 Tibetans gathered at the Norbu Lingkha, the summer palace for his security and requested him not to attend.
The Dalai Lama, who was then 24, faced a difficult dilemma. In his autobiography, ‘My Land and My People’ the Dalai Lama wrote, “…as if I was standing between two volcanoes, each likely to erupt at any moment. On one side, there was the vehement, unequivocal, unanimous protest of my people against the Chinese regime; on the other hand, there was the armed might of a powerful and aggressive occupying force.” Three Tibetan ministers tried to reach some agreements with Chinese generals but failed.
With the huge crowd surrounding the Norbu Lingkha palace, it was almost impossible for the Dalai Lama to leave. On the night of 17th March, the Dalai Lama decided to leave Lhasa. According to his autobiography, the Dalai Lama disguised as an ordinary soldier and marched out of his summer palace on a horseback “unchallenged [and moved] towards the dark road beyond”. He reached safely into exile in India on 31st March 1959 after two weeks of treacherous journey. Some 80,000 Tibetan refugees followed him into India, Nepal and Bhutan.
The young and charismatic Dalai Lama re-established Tibetan Government-in-exile based in Dharamsala, northern India. A staunch believer in democracy, the Dalai Lama introduced this western democratic system into the Tibetan society, stage by stage since 1960. In 2011, the Dalai Lama decided to fully relinquish his previously inherited political leadership, for nearly 400 years by the Dalai Lama Institution, by passing the historic seal to the directly elected Sikyong (or otherwise known as the President) Dr. Lobsang Sangay (a legal scholar from Harvard University), of the Central Tibetan Administration (de facto Tibetan Government-in-exile).
Under his amazing leadership, the Dalai Lama established a network of Tibetan settlements, schools, hospitals, monasteries, nunneries as well as cultural institutions to provide vital education, healthcare, welfare needs and cultural preservation in India, Nepal, and Bhutan. Internally, his visionary leadership in exile for the Tibetan society has kept its identity and culture alive. Externally, especially after receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989, exactly 30 years ago, the Dalai Lama gained new celebrity status on the global stage which helped to promote the Tibetan issue. His message of peace and non-violence for resolving conflicts, promotion of religious harmony and human values got greater recognition. Today, the Dalai Lama, aged 83, is not only a Tibetan spiritual leader but he is a highly respected moral leader too on the world stage.
Since coming into exile, Tibetans in India and around the world observe this poignant 10th March anniversary every year to condemn China’s repression in Tibet whilst remembering those who died in their struggle for freedom. In Dharamsala as well as in major Tibetan settlements across India, the official functions include recitation of Buddhist prayers and singing of political Tibetan songs. Every year, the President of the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) and the Speaker of the Tibetan Parliament in exile issue official political statements on this day. These are available on the CTA website www.tibet.net and also it’s live webcast on http://www.TibetOnline.tv.
Non-governmental Tibetan organisations such as the Tibetan Youth Congress, which call for Rangzen (Independence of Tibet), often organises political demonstrations around this historic date. This can include demonstrations at the Chinese Embassy in Delhi or engaging in hunger strikes in front of the United Nations buildings in New York to draw their attention to the Tibetan plight.
Nepal is currently home to about 10,000 Tibetan refugees. Due to the Chinese pressure on Nepal, their activities including the celebration of the Dalai Lama’s birthday are strictly controlled. Unable to observe this year’s 10th March commemoration event, many Tibetan youth activists from Nepal travelled to Delhi to join the political demonstrations organised by the Tibetan Youth Congress.
In London, this year, several hundred members of the Tibetan Community and Tibet supporters gathered opposite Downing Street. After a short rally with speeches, the demonstrators marched through central London to the Chinese Embassy by chanting loud slogans – calling for human rights, religious and political freedoms in Tibet. Later, an evening function was organised at the Indian YMCA where the visiting Deputy Speaker of the Tibetan Parliament from Dharamsala and London-based Dalai Lama’s Representative gave addresses.
Tibetans in the UK often try to reach out to the British politicians to secure their support. Messages of support from several British MPs and MEP were read out at the evening function. In addition to the statement of support from the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Tibet (APPGT), Ms Karen Lee, a Shadow Minister from the Labour Party sent her support in her own words. She wrote:
“I’d like to apologise for my absence today, but I’d like to send my solidarity to all of those still struggling for the freedoms of Tibetans.
Today is a historic day of commemoration. This year marks the 60th anniversary of the uprising in Lhasa. Together we remember 85,000 people who gave their lives for their beliefs and in order for future generations to be proud Tibetans.
As a socialist, I wholeheartedly believe in a community’s right to self-determination. The right of Tibetans to determine their own political, economic and cultural future.
The courage of peaceful protesters across Tibetan territory is admirable, especially at a time when Tibet is being squeezed and oppressive measures are tightened. The current struggle is in aid of advancing freedoms and human rights, but in the 21st century, these should already be afforded to Tibetans.
Many do not remember a time before Chinese rule, but this does not deter them from protecting Tibet’s proud cultural heritage.
I’d like to end by sending my support to His Holiness the Dalai Lama and all of you in attendance today. I am sorry for my absence, but my thoughts, and those of many others around the world, are with those in Tibet, and one day you will be free.”