Read Tibetan Foothold Online

Authors: Dervla Murphy

Tibetan Foothold

Tibetan Foothold


This book is dedicated to
the Tibetan refugees

When I first became involved with Tibetan refugees – in July 1963 – I knew no more about Tibet and her people than does the average European newspaper reader. The flight of the Dalai Lama in 1959 and China’s final annexation of Tibet were vividly remembered, but to me the consequent exodus of refugees to India was just one more facet of our contemporary tragedy. So, for the benefit of those who may be equally vague on this subject, here is a general outline of the
to Tibetan affairs.

As soon as one attempts to clarify the history of Tibet’s relations with China one is up against problems that refuse to be resolved in Western political terms. Doubts about whether a country is or is not an
state may seem ridiculous to us now; yet even a century ago things were not so relentlessly organised, especially in Central Asia, and for this reason well-meaning efforts to make a watertight case for Tibetan independence, as we understand the term, strike a slightly disingenuous note. Hugh Richardson writes: ‘The Tibetans are
by race, language, culture and religion a separate entity’ – but this is not quite the point. One might say the same of the Gilgitis, for example, or of the inhabitants of other remote areas, yet these peoples do not necessarily claim political independence because of their separateness. The Tibetan question was virtually a matter of honour, requiring for its solution the application of humanity and common sense, rather than legalistic argument, and it is this fact which now moves so many people to sympathise with Tibet in a special way.

Recorded Tibetan history begins about
625 when Srongtsen
became king of Tibet and encouraged Nepalese Buddhist preachers to replace the old animistic Bön religion. In 763 the Tibetans captured Ch’ang-an, the Chinese capital, and in 821 a treaty, carved on a stone pillar which may still be seen at Lhasa, fixed the Tibetan-Chinese
frontier near the present boundary of the Chinese province of Shensi. An anti-Buddhist movement followed the accession of King Lang Darma (
.838) and after his assassination in 842 the kingdom
into a number of minor monastic and lay principalities. Then came two hundred years of widespread reversion to the old religion, before the advent of the famous Bengali saint, Pandit Atisha, who revived Buddhism among the masses of the Tibetans.

In 1207 Tibet submitted to Chingis Khan, and in 1244 the Abbot of Sakya Monastery was made Viceroy of Tibet on behalf of the Mongols. This period of Mongol suzerainty lasted until 1368, when the Mongol Yuan dynasty of China, established by Kublai Khan, was deposed by the founders of the Ming dynasty and Tibet regained complete independence.

In 1578 the Lama Sonam Gyatso was given the title of Dalai Lama by the Mongol leader, Alton Khan, and in 1642 another Mongol leader, Gusri Khan, invaded Tibet, deposing the King and establishing the Fifth Dalai Lama, Ngawang Lobsang Gyatso, as ruler. Two years later the Manchu Ch’ing dynasty succeeded the Ming dynasty in China.

The next Mongol invasion of Tibet came in 1717, when Lhasa was seized, and three years later the Emperor Kiang Hsi sent an army to drive the Mongols out of Tibet and establish Imperial supervision over the Tibetan Government. These objectives achieved, the Chinese troops withdrew from Lhasa in 1723, but were back again in 1728, when civil war made the Emperor fear another Mongol invasion of the disunited country. On the restoration of peace the Tibetan Government was reorganised and Imperial representatives, known as Ambans, were posted to Lhasa and given a small military escort of Manchus. Twelve years later Sonam Topgye of Phola, who had been chief minister since the end of the civil war, was entitled King of Tibet. This ten-year reign was Tibet’s last monarchical period, and when Phola’s death in 1750 led to more unrest in Lhasa China again intervened and the Seventh Dalai Lama, Kesang Gyatso, was given the authority of supreme ruler.

China’s next intervention in Tibetan affairs came in 1791, when a Nepalese invasion was repelled by Chinese troops. Again, in 1855, war broke out between Tibet and Nepal, but this time China did not come
to the assistance of Tibet and the curious relationship which had existed between these two countries since 1720 was seen to be changing. This relationship had always been an informal and basically friendly
with Tibet accepting the nominal overlordship of the Emperor on the understanding that China would give military protection
the country or its religion was threatened. But until 1910 Tibetan administration was largely under Tibetan control, though it is difficult to assess what degree of influence the Ambans may have exerted from time to time.

The vagueness surrounding Tibet’s status at the end of the last century is revealed by British actions at the time. It was initially impossible to determine who was actually in authority over the country, but when the Chinese failed to implement those treaties concerning Tibet which had been signed by their Imperial Government and the British Government, Britain decided to negotiate with Tibet as an independent state, while simultaneously attempting to respect the historic, if ill-defined links between that country and China.

During the first decade of this century the situation remained confused. In 1904 Britain, fearing a Russian invasion of her Indian Empire, invaded Tibet, occupied Lhasa and caused the flight of the Thirteenth Dalai Lama to China and Mongolia. An Anglo-Tibetan treaty was then signed, without reference to China; but two years later the Anglo-Chinese Convention gained Chinese agreement to this treaty, which Britain and China proceeded to modify, without reference to Tibet. These odd diplomatic manoeuvres were followed, in 1908, by Chinese aggression on the eastern borders of Tibet and, in 1910, China staged its first invasion of Tibet for the purpose of incorporating that country into the Empire. This cleared the air considerably because the Dalai Lama, having taken refuge in India, vigorously repudiated the ancient tacit agreement between the two countries and pronounced Tibet to be an independent state. Two years later the overthrow of the Manchu dynasty enabled Tibet to free herself, and in January 1913 His Holiness returned to Lhasa.

Nine months later representatives of the Tibetan, Chinese and British Governments met at Simla on an equal footing. The British aim in
organising this conference was to achieve a stable and clear-cut
between China and Tibet, but the outcome – not altogether surprisingly – merely reclouded the issue.

At first Tibet reluctantly agreed to forgo a part of its newly
independence by acknowledging the suzerainty of China, provided that China guaranteed the autonomy of Tibet and agreed on a common frontier. But though the Chinese had initialled the draft convention they refused to give it a full signature so, when the British and Tibetan Governments finally signed, they declared the Convention to be valid only between themselves. The chief benefit thus withheld from China was recognition of a strictly limited Chinese suzerainty over Tibet, and from 1914 to 1947 the British Government treated Tibet as an independent state.

During this period Tibet also acted as an independent state. Her troops pushed the Chinese army east of the Yangtse in 1918 and in 1919, 1930, 1934 and 1940 she rejected China’s attempts to establish her claims to suzerainty. During the Second World War both the Chinese and British Governments exerted pressure to have a free passage through Tibet for war-supplies to China, but Tibet insisted on remaining neutral, just as Ireland did when Sir Winston Churchill sought the use of Irish ports in 1940. In 1948 a Tibetan Mission, with Tibetan passports, visited Britain and America, and in July 1949, the Tibetan Government expelled the Chinese Nationalist Mission from Lhasa, two months before the Communist Government took over in Peking.

The Indian Government recognised the new Chinese regime in January 1950, but when the Communists announced that they intended to ‘liberate’ Tibet Pandit Nehru replied, ‘Liberate from whom?’ On 7 October 1950 the Chinese began their ‘liberation’, and when the Indian Government protested the reply was that ‘Tibet is part of China’. Exactly a month later the Tibetan Government appealed to the United Nations, but a discussion on their appeal was postponed and their request for a Commission of Enquiry was ignored. Then, on 23 May 1951, Tibet was forced to capitulate to the might of China and the ‘Seventeen Point Agreement’ was signed in Peking.

Fourteen months later the Chinese set up their military and civil
headquarters at Lhasa, and in September 1952 their troops began to occupy strategic points throughout Tibet. It was at this time also that they installed their ‘stooge’ in the Panchen Lama’s See of Shigatse. (After the Sixth Panchen Lama’s quarrel with the Thirteenth Dalai Lama in 1923 he left for China, and died there in 1937. His successor, appointed by the Chinese Nationalist Government in 1949, was not acceptable to the Tibetans on religious grounds.)

In 1956 the people of the Amdo and Kham regions rebelled against the Chinese and by 1958 guerrilla warfare had spread to the Lhasa area. Chinese atrocities in Tibet had been steadily increasing and, though it was manifestly impossible for this tiny nation to repel China, it was inspired by the courage of despair to fight such oppression as best it could. The International Commission of Jurists, whose report
Tibet and the Chinese People’s Republic
was published from Geneva in July 1960, found unanimously that the Chinese in Tibet had been guilty of genocide.

On 10 March 1959 a special session of the National Assembly of Tibet met at Lhasa and denounced the ‘Seventeen Point Agreement’, many of whose articles had been contravened by the Chinese. It also reaffirmed – rather pathetically – Tibet’s right to independence. During the following week tension increased daily in Lhasa and on 17 March the Dalai Lama fled to India and the Lhasa uprising began. Eleven days later the Chinese replaced the Tibetan Government by a military dictatorship.

Now the world at last became aware of Tibet’s tragedy and, in October 1959, the General Assembly of the United Nations debated the question and passed, by 46 votes to 9 (with 26 abstentions), a kindly but ineffectual resolution demanding respect for human rights in Tibet. This resolution was sponsored by Malaya and Ireland and it makes me proud to quote from Hugh Richardson’s pamphlet on the subject. He writes:

The Resolution was proposed with ability and feeling by Dato Nik Kamil, of the Federation of Malaya; but the most memorable figure in the discussions was Mr Frank Aiken of Ireland, who made a deep
impression both in the Steering Committee and in the General Assembly by the dignity, humanity and sincere conviction with which he spoke. The Tibetans should be grateful to him and to the whole Irish delegation for the spirit and energy they devoted to studying the facts and making them known.

Two of the countries which might have been expected to give Tibet full support – Britain and India – were among those who abstained. Though Britain had treated Tibet as an independent state since 1914 her delegate, Sir Pierson Dixon, now said that his Government ‘did not take up a final or definite position on the matter’. To Tibet’s many friends in Britain this giving the benefit of the doubt to the bully in the case came as a bitter disappointment and was a grim illustration of the dominance of expediency over honour in political circles.

India’s betrayal of Tibet in the Assembly was less unexpected because the Indian Government had already censured the Dalai Lama for appealing to the United Nations. Yet in 1947 this same Government had inherited Britain’s attitude to Tibet and, until the Sino-Indian agreement of 1954, had acted upon the assumption that Tibet was an independent nation. India and Britain were the two countries who best knew the truth about Tibet, but Mr Krishna Menon’s speech showed either inexcusable ignorance or deliberate malice. He said that ‘India inherited the British position in Tibet in 1947 – that is to say, that Tibet was under Chinese suzerainty’. This blatant misrepresentation of the facts, which could – and should – have been contradicted by Sir Pierson, was allowed to confuse the issue further, and the British delegate continued to play China’s game by proposing that, ‘as full discussions had taken place, a resolution was not really necessary’. This idea was given the reception it deserved.

In its 1960 report the International Commission of Jurists found that ‘Tibet demonstrated from 1913 to 1950 the conditions of statehood as generally accepted under International Law’. The Commission did not find it necessary to declare whether Tibet’s independence was
de jure or de facto
, but no disinterested student of the case could disagree with their verdict. However, it came too late to affect the situation
materially; in 1950, when Tibet first appealed to the United Nations, no government – except, curiously, that of El Salvador – had any knowledge of Tibet’s status.

Undeniably Tibet’s deliberate isolationism helped to make it convenient for the free world to ignore the Chinese threat. She has never wished to project a flattering image of herself onto the world-screen nor to ‘keep up with the Joneses’ in material advance. Foreigners and their ideas were severely discouraged from entering Tibet, no diplomatic missions were maintained abroad and the country did not even belong to the World Postal Union. With characteristic simplicity she believed that by minding her own business and doing no harm to anyone she could escape involvement in the nasty complexities of the modern world – though history should have taught her that no country can stand alone.


Numerically the Tibetan refugee problem is a minor one. It is impossible to give accurate figures, but the most reliable estimate says that there are 4000 Tibetan refugees in Bhutan, 5000 in Sikkim, 7000 in Nepal and 60,000 in India. This gives a total of only 76,000, yet the singularity of Tibetan traditions complicates the situation out of all proportion to the numbers involved; for these refugees resettlement means adjusting not only to an alien country but to an alien century, in which current values are sadly antipathetic to the Tibetan way.

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