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world wide wednesdays :: the tale of tibet

tibet has long been a poster child for occupied territories worldwide. their cause has attracted a number of celebrity spokespersons because of its intimate connection with gelug or "yellow hat" buddhism, whose spiritual leader, the dalai lama, lives in exile and is perceived by many as a powerful figure of peace and restraint in the face of aggression. shortly after the chinese takeover of tibet in the early fifties, the current dalai lama, the fourteenth in a succession that dates back to the fourteenth century, fled his homeland in 1959 followed by eighty thousand of his closest friends and established a government-in-exile.

i should really have described that as "the latest chinese takeover of tibet", because there is a long-established history of tensions between the two, which has resulted in periodic annexations by china. the mongols also had their turn ruling the territory during their period of imperial grandeur. in fact, the entire history of tibet is a turbulent history of periods of independence and subjugation to foreign rule since the late eighth century. the modern idea of an independent tibet steamrolled under the communist chinese is exactly that- modern. tibet operated under a sort of independence from 1912 until 1951, before which it had been only loosely controlled by the chinese qing dynasty [who had ruled from with steadily decreasing interest since the late eighteenth century], but had become an extremely hot international property, the subject of disputes between numerous countries in asia and expanding european empires.

but really, it's a lot more complicated than that, because it always is. even basic questions have answers that can be quite involved. for instance:

where is tibet?

we can all agree that tibet is an area at the west of modern day china, bordered on the south and west by india and by myanmar [burma], nepal and bhutan, also to the south. it is a plateau to the north side of the himlayas with the highest altitude in the world- averaging over 4,700 feet above sea level. once we've established that, things start to get hairy, because there are at least two distinct tibets: ethno-cultural tibet, which are the lands traditionally inhabited by tibetan people and political tibet, which is the tibetan autonomous region, a province of china. [side note: no matter where you place it on a map, you'll be wrong soon enough, because tibet is moving. the austro-indian tectonic plate continues to press inexorably into the eurasian plate, squishing everything northward at a rate of about 5mm per year.]

for starters, tibetans claim that the areas of kham and amdo should be considered as part of their territory, and historically, there is truth to that. however, tibetan sovreignty over those lands has never been as clear as it was in the areas to the west and large parts of them were claimed by the chinese before they annexed the rest of tibet. sections of kham and amdo are currrently located in tibet province, sichuan province and qinghai province. the ethnic tibetan population is concentrated, of course, in the province of tibet, but there are also significant minorities within sichuan and qinghai, located near the borders with tibet. the current tibet government in exile claims kham and amdo as traditional lands. the chinese government regards them as anachronistic terms for areas that no longer really exist. clearly, we have a problem. [side note: although they live in proximity, tibetans are not closely related to the chinese. although both languages are part of the sino-tibetan family, it's like confusing iranians with americans in terms of the similarity level. the tibetan language, actual a group of languages in itself, is most closely related to burmese, but even that connection is distant. it appears that the people of tibet have been isolated for a long time. given their position on the far side of the biggest, scariest mountain range in the whole world, that might not be surprising. that proximity to the mountains and their incredible elevation have actually spurred evolutionary changes in the physique of tibetan people. their bodies have adapted to allow their blood to flow more easily in the oxygen-deficient atmosphere.]

but there's also a less discussed problem with defining tibet and for that, we have to turn to the one group who've managed to fuck everything up in the twentieth century, the one responsible for horrific examples of ethnic tension in europe, the middle east, africa and asia. you know the group of whom i speak.

white folks.

in the case of tibet, the problems can be blamed on one white guy named sir henry mcmahon. mcmahon was a british diplomat working in india in the early twentieth century. when the chinese qing dynasty collapsed in 1911, mcmahon and his government became concerned that tibet was a target for takeover by many different powers. britain was concerned that their frenemy russia would swoop in and assert themselves, but mostly, they were concerned about loot. they had discovered that there was a perfectly good commercial area called tawang sitting just on the tibetan side of the border with india and they felt entitled to it.

tibetans in the 1940s
so at the simla conference of 1914, where repesentatives of britain, tibet and china met to discuss the whole division of property thing, sir henry drew a line around tibet that handed tawan and about 9000km/sq of tibetan territory over to british india. somehow, he got everyone to sign off on this, but by the time the treaty reach beijing, someone noticed that they'd been had. china told the british where they could stick their treaty and have never recognised the so-called mcmahon line as the proper border of tibet. or rather, as the proper border of china, which includes tibet. [side note :: this wasn't the only notable cock-up of sir henry mcmahon's career. during world war i, in his capacity as british high commissioner in egypt, he engaged in extended communication with the sharif of mecca, husayn bin ali and encouraged him in his plans to stage an arab revolt against the german-allied ottoman empire, promising the british would support demands for arab sovereignty over their own lands. the british, of course, had no intention of fulfilling this promise and really just wanted the arabs to do the dirty work of kicking the ottomans out so that they could divide up the middle eastern spoils with france. it was an excellent example of imperial europe's sense of entitlement and helped ensure that no one from the arab world would ever trust a person from the west again.]

after the british pulled out of india, the new indian government wasn't about to just hand over territory to the chinese, which means that the border with tibet continues to be a diplomatic sore point, with the indians, tibetans and chinese all insisting that the area belongs to them. in 1961, the chinese seemed posed to retake the area, crushing the indian army and pushing them south of tawang, until the united states and the united kingdom made noises that they would back india and the chinese army hightailed it right back to the original border. decades of negotiations have gone precisely nowhere neither resolving the dispute nor redrawing the border.

oppressed, even in springfield
so what about that whole "free tibet" movement?

popular logic goes that china oppressed tibet by invading them in 1951 and forcing them to become part of the new people's republic, because communist republics like to invade other countries and stomp on their dreams. however, it's worth noting that part of china's justification for invading was that tibet still existed as more or less a feudal state, with a large part of the population living as indentured servants with limited rights to property ownership. slavery had only recently died out and the average life expectancy was about thirty-five years. it was decidedly not the idyllic buddhist haven we've been led to believe.

however, mao's "great leap forward" was a devastating policy for the region that caused widespread famine that, the buddhist panchen lama [second only to the dalai lama] pointed out, hadn't been a problem even when they were a "dark, barbaric" feudal state. the criticism was not particularly well received by the chinese government, who said that the famine was due to natural disasters and not government policy. then things got really, terribly, super ugly. the chinese insisted that the panchen lama had exaggerated the extent of the problem by visiting very limited areas. in response, they went on an anti-buddhist rampage, destroying thousands of monasteries and embarking on a campaign to assimilate tibetans in the new chinese nation.

in 1960, the international commission of jurists stepped in to evaluate what was going on. a nongovernmental organisation, they were to determine what china was actually doing in tibet and whether or not it contravened rules of the united nations. the report was beyond damning, accusing the chinese of genocide against the tibetan people, severe repression of their culture and violations of sixteen articles of the universal declaration of human rights. publicly shamed, the chinese agreed to offer limited but greater autonomy to the region, however ethnic tensions continue to flare up at frequent intervals. in 2008, violence broke out in and around lhasa and spread to tibetan dominated areas in the adjoining provinces. the chinese government attempted to bury the story to avoid another black eye as they prepared to host the summer olympics, but the point was made: relations between tibet and china continue to be rocky. [side note: it emerged years after the icj report was issued that they were for some time controlled by the american central intelligence agency, which has caused some to call into question their findings in tibet.]

also, when people talk about freeing tibet, they generally refer only to the parts located within china [whether it includes only the province of tibet or the province plus the portions of sichuan and qinghai]. no one talks about the significant portion that's still held by india, other than the chinese. but that part is absolutely part of ethno-cultural tibet, so if we're really to liberate the nation, we need to ask two separate countries to cede territory, neither of whom seems the least inclined to do so.

the possibility of a separate tibetan nation seems paradoxically inevitable, because it has enjoyed so much international attention and support and remote, because of the historical difficulties involved in defining the tibetan territory and the relative intransigence of the governments involved. as with all of these posts, i've done no more than gloss over the basics. there is far more to understand in order to approach the subject of a potential tibetan nation.

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