At the outset of the First World War, the 13th Dalai Lama wrote a letter to the British Government offering 1,000 of his best warriors to the Allied forces. A symbolic gesture that was politely declined and seemingly forgotten just three decades later in 1950 when 30,000 Chinese troops invaded the Tibetan plateau. The young 14th Dalai Lama’s pleas for help from Britain and the International Community fell on deaf or unwilling ears. War-ravaged Europe was in no position to stand up to the Chinese not to mention the United Nations was occupied elsewhere in the Kashmiri and Palestinian conflicts at the time.
For a long time the Chinese Government has seen the mountain-locked kingdom of Tibet as just another of its outlying provincial regions. Funnily enough the Tibetans do not see it this way, as I discovered on a recent sojourn to the ‘Roof of the World.’ However in the post-war confusion that saw the birth of many nations (Pakistan, Bangladesh, North and South Korea and Israel) the world swept Tibetan independence under the rug. Apart from a short period of revival during the 1980s and 1990s, when it was cool to have a ‘Free Tibet’ bumper sticker and accompanying t-shirt, the struggle for Tibetan sovereignty has largely been left to the Tibetans themselves. So why has the ‘Free Tibet’ movement withered to the point of near death when the Palestinian and Kashmiri campaigns are still alive and kicking?
For a latecomer to the colonizing party, the Chinese were able to succeed where the great colonizers, the British, had failed. Instead of arriving guns blazing like the British did in 1904, the Chinese soldiers took up residence in the ancient capital, Lhasa, and then simply refused to leave. During the Great Leap Forward the Chinese attacked the Tibetans where it hurt most: their religion. Centuries-old monasteries and books were destroyed and thousands of monks were forced to renounce their god and take wives. The Dalai Lama was forced to flee as the Chinese garrison laid siege to his summer palace in 1969, which took care of both the Tibetans’ religious and political leader in one move. This cleared the way for the ‘Chinafication’ of Tibet which has proven key to maintaining the occupation.
Today the Chinese have refined the art of occupation. By controlling every facet of public life through micro-management, the Chinese have been able to successfully assimilate Tibet into greater China. Ethnically Han Chinese, who make up over 80 percent of China’s population are given economic incentives to move into the Tibetan region. This includes interest free loans to establish a home or business and subsidies for the first four years which is causing Tibet’s population to grow by almost one million every year. In Lhasa the Han already outnumber the Tibetans and this trend is being replicated in other large Tibetan towns like Shigatse. Chinese tourism figures showed that over 10 million tourists visited the Tibetan region in 2012 but almost 95 percent were domestic Chinese visitors. The Chinese Tourism Board is selling Tibet as a primitive but beautiful region of China and a ‘must visit’ for China’s rapidly growing middle class. It is clear that Tibetans are loosing the demographic war.
Any occupier worth their salt knows that a multi-front assault is the best approach. The British struggled to hold Lhasa because their supply line had to stretch all the way back to Darjeeling in British India. The Chinese have overcome this barren isolation of Tibet by connecting it with the rest of China via a high-speed train that can travel the 5,000 kilometers between Lhasa and Shanghai in under 48 hours. This train line, only completed in 2012, is a pulsating vein for the Chinese administration. Not only does it deliver thousands of tourists and immigrants every week but it allows for the extraction of the rich mineral deposits that sit beneath the Himalayan Range. The level of Chinese investment in Lhasa’s infrastructure does not demonstrate an intention to one day give the city back to the Tibetan’s. Wide sweeping roads and concrete bypasses now converge on the ancient capital and tunnels have been blasted through the Rocky Mountains to replace winding steep roads that used to crawl through the valleys and passes.
The Chinese argue that this has helped the medieval kingdom move into the 21st century. Companies like ChinaCell have brought the age of smartphones and connectivity to the Tibetans, boasting the best cell-phone coverage in all of Asia atop the Tibetan Plateau. But anyone hoping to update their Facebook status at Everest Base Camp will be left disappointed as social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter are banned. Controlling media and communication is only part of China’s management of Tibet. Freedom of movement is severely restricted with checkpoints maintained along central roads. Religion, while not prohibited anymore is also strictly controlled and freedom of assembly is non-existent. Given the severe limitations of the rights of the Tibetans it is somewhat confusing to see the red and yellow flag flying over each and every building. While by law the Chinese flag sits atop each public building and business, many local Tibetans say it is money that lures the Tibetans to fix the occupiers’ flag to their homes. For this act of support they are given 10,000RMB ($2,000), evidently an irresistible sum of money in Tibet. Those who refuse to to fly the Chinese flag are often punished severely.
Outwardly the Tibetans look to have accepted their fate as an occupied nation. I would argue however that Tibet is the hardest place in the world to be an ‘activist’ or ‘freedom fighter.’ A number of factors led me to this opinion least of which their religion, Buddhism, is against any form of armed resistance. Not to mention Tibet is controlled by a government who have one of the poorest human rights record among nations. China also holds the veto right in the UN Security Council, effectively ruling out internationally sanctioned intervention and the size of their military deters all other forms of intervention. Beijing has proven impervious to political attempts to remedy the situation and there have not been many. This is largely due to China’s economic power. The country has been ‘written off’ for fear that some lucrative trade agreement with the Chinese may be disturbed. Nearly every nation has been ready to spread a cloak of silence over events in Tibet for the sake of good relations with Beijing. The Tibetans are very largely or totally on their own.
This is evident in the fact that since 1948 there have been 461 UN Resolutions concerning the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, yet in the same 65 years just one has addressed the occupation of Tibet. While the Palestinians enjoy greater Arab and Islamic support from all corners of the world, as well as popular media support from most Western media outlets, the Tibetans are seemingly paying the price for centuries of isolation in their Himalayan fortress.