By Tsering Passang, Founder and Chair of the Global Alliance for Tibet & Persecuted Minorities
Like many countries around the world, Tibet too had ups and downs in its 2150 years of recorded history. When Tibet was strong and powerful, especially from the 7th to the 9th century, it invaded some of its neighbouring countries. Historical documents show that the mighty Tibetan Kingdom had even invaded parts of today’s China and stretched across to central Asia. However, during the weak and internal turmoil periods, Tibet endured losses and faced foreign invasions, including from Great Britain. Tibetan leaders were forced to flee their homelands into exile, to Mongolia or to India.
A landlocked country the size of western Europe, Tibet is largely located above 3000 to 5000 metres. It is surrounded by China and Mongolia in the north, East Turkestan in the west and India in the south. When India was under the rule of Great Britain, Political Officer Colonel Francis Younghusband led an expedition to Tibet with an attempt to build up exclusive colonial influence in this hidden mountainous country in 1903-04.
Younghusband’s Expedition to Tibet consisted of around 1000 fighting troops – European officers plus Gurkhas, Punjabis and Pathans as well as Sikh Pioneers and Indian Army engineers – along with 2,000 support soldiers, 7,000 porters, and 2,953 yaks and 7,000 mules to carry baggage. Younghusband alone took 67 shirts and 18 pairs of boots and shoes.
When the Tibetans showed strong resistance against the incoming foreign forces from the south, the British deployed their well trained troops with arms to defeat the Tibetans quite easily. Of the Tibetan army – around 1,500 men – possibly 700 lay dead. It was a massacre of the time on the Tibetan plateau. The British, in contrast, suffered no fatalities and just 12 casualties in total. That pattern was repeated during further skirmishes as the expedition marched towards Lhasa; hundreds of Tibetans were killed in encounters, with few British losses. By the time British troops reached Lhasa, the Tibetan Leader His Holiness the 13th Dalai Lama had escaped to Mongolia.
After negotiations the Tibetan Government signed a convention with the British Government in 1904, which is well documented in the UK Foreign Office’s archives. China was not involved at the time of signing this international agreement. It confirmed the boundary and trading rights, and among other things, it undertook that no foreign power should be allowed to intervene in Tibetan affairs without the consent of the British government. As soon as the convention was signed, the British forces marched out of Tibet and never threatened Tibet again.
The British primary interest in Tibet was trade, which was enroute to China. They also suspected Tibetans’ ties with the Russians. Later, Younghusband realised that the Tibetans had no real ‘pact’ with the Russians.
It should also be noted that the British Trade Mission remained in Tibet, headed by the last British official, Hugh Richardson, until India regained its independence from Britain in 1947. The last British official later served as Indian Government’s Representative until his departure from Lhasa in 1950, when Communist China invaded Tibet.
For a brief period, the Qing Dynasty invaded Tibet in 1910 after the Manchus surged its influence in the region. The invasion forced the 13th Dalai Lama into exile, this time to India. However, good news came after a few years in Tibet, when internal political forces led to the collapse of the Manchus and the rise of the 1911 Revolution in China. Tibetans expelled the remaining Manchus out of Lhasa and other parts of Tibet.
The path was cleared for the 13th Dalai Lama’s return to his homelands after staying in exile in India for nearly three years. A month after his arrival in Lhasa, on 13th February 1913, in his Proclamation of Tibetan Independence, the 13th Dalai Lama declared:
“Tibet is a country with rich natural resources; but it is not scientifically advanced like other lands. We are a small, religious, and independent nation. To keep up with the rest of the world, we must defend our country. In view of past invasions by foreigners, our people may have to face certain difficulties, which they must disregard. To safeguard and maintain the independence of our country, one and all should voluntarily work hard. Our subject citizens residing near the borders should be alert and keep the government informed by special messenger of any suspicious developments. Our subjects must not create major clashes between two nations because of minor incidents.”
For nearly forty years afterwards, Tibetans enjoyed self-rule – only for it to come to an end in 1949, when after Mao Tsetung declared “peaceful liberation” of Tibet from foreign imperialists. For the Tibetans, Mao’s declaration was not only a brutal attack on the Buddhist religion and the Tibetan cultural heritage but an act of illegal occupation of their peaceful country by Communist China. The Tibetan people have a proud history of independence with the successive Dalai Lamas enjoying spiritual patronage over Mongols and Chinese emperors.
Just as it did more than a thousand years ago, today, a doring (pillar) stands outside the Jokhang Temple in central Lhasa. On its stone sides the Tibet-China Treaty of 821-822 AD is carved, signifying the legacy of a free and independent Tibet.
“Tibetans shall be happy in the land of Tibet, and Chinese shall be happy in the land of China,” reads a key text in the treaty, clearly describing the borders between Tibet and China.
Full Proclamation of Tibet’s Independence Issued by the Great 13th Dalai Lama on 13th February 1913:
PROCLAMATION ISSUED BY H.H. THE DALAI LAMA XIII, ON THE EIGHTH DAY OF THE FIRST MONTH OF THE WATER-OX YEAR (1913)
Translation of the Tibetan Text
“I, the Dalai Lama, most omniscient possessor of the Buddhist faith, whose title was conferred by the Lord Buddha’s command from the glorious land of India, speak to you as follows:
I am speaking to all classes of Tibetan people. Lord Buddha, from the glorious country of India, prophesied that the reincarnations of Avalokitesvara, through successive rulers from the early religious kings to the present day, would look after the welfare of Tibet.
During the time of Genghis Khan and Altan Khan of the Mongols, the Ming dynasty of the Chinese, and the Ch’ing Dynasty of the Manchus, Tibet and China cooperated on the basis of benefactor and priest relationship. A few years ago, the Chinese authorities in Szechuan and Yunnan endeavored to colonize our territory. They brought large numbers of troops into central Tibet on the pretext of policing the trade marts. I, therefore, left Lhasa with my ministers for the Indo-Tibetan border, hoping to clarify to the Manchu emperor by wire that the existing relationship between Tibet and China had been that of patron and priest and had not been based on the subordination of one to the other. There was no other choice for me but to cross the border, because Chinese troops were following with the intention of taking me alive or dead.
On my arrival in India, I dispatched several telegrams to the Emperor; but his reply to my demands was delayed by corrupt officials at Peking. Meanwhile, the Manchu empire collapsed. The Tibetans were encouraged to expel the Chinese from central Tibet. I, too, returned safely to my rightful and sacred country, and I am now in the course of driving out the remnants of Chinese troops from DoKham in Eastern Tibet. Now, the Chinese intention of colonizing Tibet under the patron-priest relationship has faded like a rainbow in the sky. Having once again achieved for ourselves a period of happiness and peace, I have now allotted to all of you the following duties to be carried out without negligence:
- Peace and happiness in this world can only be maintained by preserving the faith of Buddhism. It is, therefore, essential to preserve all Buddhist institutions in Tibet, such as the Jokhang temple and Ramoche in Lhasa, Samye, and Traduk in southern Tibet, and the three great monasteries, etc.
- The various Buddhist sects in Tibet should be kept in a distinct and pure form. Buddhism should be taught, learned, and meditated upon properly. Except for special persons, the administrators of monasteries are forbidden to trade, loan money, deal in any kind of livestock, and/or subjugate another’s subjects.
- The Tibetan government’s civil and military officials, when collecting taxes or dealing with their subject citizens, should carry out their duties with fair and honest judgment so as to benefit the government without hurting the interests of the subject citizens. Some of the central government officials posted at Ngari Korsum in western Tibet, and Do Kham in eastern Tibet, are coercing their subject citizens to purchase commercial goods at high prices and have imposed transportation rights exceeding the limit permitted by the government. Houses, properties and lands belonging to subject citizens have been confiscated on the pretext of minor breaches of the law. Furthermore, the amputation of citizens’ limbs has been carried out as a form of punishment. Henceforth, such severe punishments are forbidden.
- Tibet is a country with rich natural resources; but it is not scientifically advanced like other lands. We are a small, religious, and independent nation. To keep up with the rest of the world, we must defend our country. In view of past invasions by foreigners, our people may have to face certain difficulties, which they must disregard. To safeguard and maintain the independence of our country, one and all should voluntarily work hard. Our subject citizens residing near the borders should be alert and keep the government informed by special messenger of any suspicious developments. Our subjects must not create major clashes between two nations because of minor incidents.
- Tibet, although thinly populated, is an extensive country. Some local officials and landholders are jealously obstructing other people from developing vacant lands, even though they are not doing so themselves. People with such intentions are enemies of the State and our progress. From now on, no one is allowed to obstruct anyone else from cultivating whatever vacant lands are available. Land taxes will not be collected until three years have passed; after that the land cultivator will have to pay taxes to the government and to the landlord every year, proportionate to the rent. The land will belong to the cultivator.
Your duties to the government and to the people will have been achieved when you have executed all that I have said here. This letter must be posted and proclaimed in every district of Tibet, and a copy kept in the records of the offices in every district.
From the Potala Palace.
(Seal of the Dalai Lama)”
The Way Ahead
In addition to Tibetans inside Tibet, many in the diaspora community, especially the youth, are calling for the independence of Tibet, which they believe would only bring a lasting political resolution to the Sino-Tibetan conflict.
Each year, on 13th February, Tibetans organise protests and commemorative events to mark this historical date whilst highlighting Tibet as an independent country before Communist China’s invasion in 1950.
Sikyong Penpa Tsering, President of the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA), has repeatedly stated that historically, Tibet was an independent country. He also cites that international lawyers and Chinese scholars have proven through historical and legal documents that Tibet was never a part of China.
However, the incumbent elected Tibetan leader says that the Central Tibetan Administration does not seek independence for Tibet. India-based Central Tibetan Administration (aka Tibetan Government-in-exile) pursues the “Middle-Way” Approach (MWA), proposed by His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, which was unanimously adopted by the Tibetan Parliament-in-exile.
From the Tibetan perspective, the end goal of the MWA is to remain within the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) with Beijing granting full autonomy to the Tibetans, to govern their own affairs within the Tibetan territory. This would then enable them to preserve their unique culture, language and religion.
The Chinese government has not responded favourably to the Dalai Lama’s “Middle-Way” proposal to end China’s invasion of Tibet. Tibetans continue their campaigns for the peaceful resolution of the China-Tibet conflict.
Source and further reading:
- Tibet: A Political History, Tsepon W.D. Shagapda, New Haven, 1967
- Central Tibetan Administration (aka Tibetan Government-in-exile)
- History Extra