On the Winding Road to Independence: Probing the Present Legal Status of Tibet in the Context of International Law (First Part)*

“There has always been a strong desire for independence on the part of the Tibetan
people. Throughout history this has been asserted on numerous occasions…
In any event, at all times, even when the suzerainty of China was imposed,
Tibet remained autonomous in control of its internal affairs.”[1]

The Dalai Lama, in his statement at Tezpur, India, 18 April 1959

“Tibet is a land of mystery and magic perched on the roof of the world, once known as forbidden land.” (Photo taken from http://www.thelivingmoon.com)

In common parlance, people might describe Tibet as a far-flung area situated amidst snow-capped mountains and uninhabited desserts. They might further add that, to borrow from a writer’s poetic description, “Tibet is a land of mystery and magic perched on the roof of the world, once known as forbidden land.”[2] In an attempt to provide a more plausible description, they might finally say that Tibet is an isolated place which still preserves its ancient civilization.

But, truth is, much has already been written about Tibet. A scholar of Asian and Tibetan Studies can attest to that. It has been known through the ages that Tibet is the highest plateau in the world as it holds an average altitude of 16,000 feet above sea level[3]. The lofty mountains which surround Tibet have added to its majesty all the more. These include the Chomo Langma, or Mount Everest at is more commonly called, which is being regarded as the highest mountain in the world and the Himalayas mountain range which border the southern part of the plateau[4]. Tibet boasts of its vast territory which measures 625,000 miles[5]. A landlocked area, Tibet is “bounded by India, Nepal, Bhutan and Burma on the south and the Chinese provinces of Shinkiang, Chinghai, Szechuan and Yunnan on the north and east.”[6] The strategic location of Tibet in Asia is the reason why it has become a subject of international political rivalry at present.

Tibet is divided into three geographical areas: (1) The central plateau; (2) The valleys of the Upper Indus and Brahmaputra river systems; and (3) the fertile regions of Eastern Tibet[7]. While some regions experience moderately dry climate, most of the regions are covered by snow all throughout the seasons. The economy of Tibet predominantly depends on agriculture and animal husbandry. The Tibetans are generally a “pastoral people [who] raise oxen, yaks, sheeps and horses.”[8]

Founded in Lamaist Tradition: Tibet’s Socio-Political Background

Though related to the Mongols and influenced by their neighboring states, the Tibetans have still managed to develop their distinct culture. The Tibetan language traces its roots back from the Tibeto-Burmese family of languages[9]. After the Chinese occupation in 1959, however, Chinese became the region’s dominant language. But it is interesting to note that the Tibetan language is still widely-spoken in the present despite the permeation of Chinese culture in the lives of the Tibetans.

A Tibetan Buddhist monk in the midst of contemplation. (Photo taken from http://www.photoflytravel.org)

Religion plays a tremendously fundamental role in the affairs of Tibet and even to the daily life of a Tibetan. The Tibetan Buddhism, also known as Lamaism, is the widely-practiced religion in Tibet which has been deemed as a branch of Mahayana Buddhism from India[10].  An overwhelming majority of male Tibetans live in monasteries. The Dalai Lama, who is being regarded as a reincarnation of Buddha, is the religious and spiritual leader of Tibet[11]. Also, the Dalai Lama is being considered as the head of Tibetan government who wields the power to govern the affairs of Tibet and rule the nation. As the preceding assertions imply, there are two primary features which make the Tibetan society peculiar: (1) As Tibet’s state religion, the Tibetan Buddhism itself is “a system of reincarnation by which the spirit of revered living Buddhas is reincarnated or reborn in living persons”[12]; and (2) The line of distinction between the religion and state in Tibet is nearly invisible since religion virtually identifies with the state[13].

The Beginnings of a State: Tibet’s Early Political History

When the advent of Buddhism commenced in Tibet, a great magnitude of change has inevitably followed. The policies which serve as rules of thumb for Tibet have rigidly adhered to the principles of amity, good will and nonviolence[14]. Though internal dissensions and external invasions have become rampant in recent Tibetan history, Tibet has maintained its composure and once more yielded itself to its policy of nonviolence.

However, the wealthy archives which shelve Tibet’s past affirm in unison that Tibet was once an expansionist power[15]. That is to say, it was once ruled by powerful emperors who planted vestiges of their power and influence within the foreign states and territories across Asia. It was once feared for its imperialist tendencies because the Tibetans of the past have been known as great conquerors who were deeply engrossed in the expansion of their own territory. More importantly, historical annals were a manifold witness to Tibet’s conduct of international relations between and among states as verified and supported by a number of treaties, agreements and conventions where Tibet was a signatory[16]. This might not be seen as a matter of importance by some since several states of the past have also engaged to similar relations just as what Tibet had done. But in the context of the unresolved question concerning Tibet’s international legal status, this underscores a simple yet highly significant fact: that Tibet, since time immemorial, was already a state[17].

As an Expansionist Power: Early Political History

Professor Michael van Walt van Praag, a renowned scholar of Tibetan studies, writes that the Tibetans of the imperial age were thought as a force to reckon with by the expansionist states back then[18]. They were likened to silkworms who “gnawed away at their barbarian neighbors in order to expand their own territory.”[19] The grandeur of Tibet two thousand years ago was, beyond doubt, far reaching. As Professor van Walt van Praag affirms: “Tibet between the seventh and mid-ninth centuries is portrayed not only as a strong, independent and expansionist power but also a serious rival in Central Asia.”[20]

But long before the conquerors were born, Tibet was once a barren land inhabited by various nomadic tribes. When a man of determination and strength, in the persona of Songtsen Gampo, came to the land, he unified the tribes and thereby created a nation; thus commenced the imperial history of Tibet[21]. Songtsen Gampo, who has been regarded as the Father of Tibet, left an indelible mark to its history. In his rule as the first emperor (Tsanpo, in Tibetan) of the land, the military prowess of Tibet acquired an insurmountable strength. In the span of three centuries, the territorial expansion of the empire reached its apex[22].

The succeeding emperors, Trisong Detsen (755-797)[23] and Tritsug Detsen Ralpachen (817-836)[24], who ruled at diverse periods of Tibetan history, have equally reached or even surpassed Tsanpo Gampo’s greatness. Under Tsanpo Detsen, the territorial expansion efforts have been put into much intensity. The efforts, no doubt, have soon paid off. Across the mountain ranges of Pamirs up to the empires of the Arab nations and Turks to the west as well as Turkestan in the north and Nepal in the south, Tibet has caused the downfall of many empires and induced terror among other states[25].

In the later years to come, Tibet would be fostering relations between and among states despite of its rogue reputation. This was exemplified by the Sino-Tibetan Treaty of 821 AD. In essence, the Sino-Tibetan Treaty of 821 AD was a peace treaty which stipulates provisions asserting that both parties must agree to end their disputes and foster inter-state relations with one another[26]. This was signed by the “Ministers of the Great Tibet” and the “Ministers of Great China” as personified by their corresponding sovereigns during that time. However, it must be noted that seven bilateral treaties have already been concluded between Tibet and China long before the Sino-Tibetan Treaty of 821 AD was signed[27].

But inevitably, the imperial prowess of Tibet has lost its glimmer. The assassination of Tsanpo Ralpachen in 836 AD has contributed greatly to this decline but, by and large, this can be attributed to a certain event which altered the Tibetan society in greater extent[28]. This was the introduction of Buddhism in the Tibetan soil.

As a Theocratic Society: The Decline of Tibetan Expansionism

When the accomplished masters of Buddhism from India such as Atisha[29] came to Tibet in 1038 AD, the character of Tibetan society has immensely changed. It could be thought that social transformation has emerged at Tibet during that time but, considering the extent of changes which revolutionized almost all aspects of the nation, it would be proper to posit that it was much more than a mere transformation. It was nearly an overhaul of an existing socio-political system as all of the structures and institutions which were founded in Tibet for what it seemed an eternity have heavily, if not totally, adopted Buddhist features. As manifest consequences, monasteries have been built and religious aristocracy has emerged sooner. But the most evident of all these consequences was the gradual deterioration of the politico-military greatness of Tibet brought by its pursuit of spiritual and religious life which Buddhism promotes[30].

With the military power of the now-defunct Imperial Tibet gone, Tibet has become a theocratic state[31]. At the beginning of this episodic transition, there were no problems to worry upon, save for some internal contentions. But as other imperial powers surfaced, Tibet was greatly concerned for its welfare. Inevitable as it was, such concern was materialized when the Mongols, a newly-emerging Central Asian power, conquered Tangut, the neighboring territory of Tibet in the north[32]. In an effort to curb the conquest, the Tibetan leaders thought it best to enter into an agreement with Kublai Khan, the emperor of the Mongols during that time, where they would pledge their political allegiance and religious blessings in exchange for patronage and protection. Kublai Khan acceded to this Tibetan proposal. In the years to come, this kind of relationship which is sui generis in nature would be called the Cho-yon or “priest-patron” relationship[33]. The establishment of friendly contacts among apparent conquerors would later serve as basis for fostering ties not only with the Yuan emperors but more so to the Manchu emperors of China.

A deeper understanding of the Cho-yon relationship is of pivotal importance in the matter being studied. The Cho-yon relationship is a special type of relationship among states which was exclusively exemplified by Tibet. As what the Former Indian Ambassador to the United Nations Rikhi Jaipal states, to view this type of relationship between Tibet and its “patrons” in the present context and not to the historical context where it must apply is to misanalyze history[34]. In other words, it must not be interpreted in a way that a particular state confers on sovereignty of the other state nor should it be viewed in a way that a superior state and an inferior one exist. Rather, it must be seen as a relationship between equally sovereign states which mutually avowed to protect the interests of one another in their own peculiar ways and capacities. As Professor van Walt van Praag says[35]:

It suffices at present to draw attention to the personal nature of the relationship, underlined here by the fact that neither the Prince [Goden] nor the [Dalai] Lama represented the supreme power of his country. In the later, more politically-oriented Cho-yon relationships, the Patron typically was expected to provide military power to  protect the Lama and his Teachings (or his Church) and, at times, even his temporal prerogatives, in return for the Lama’s devotion to the religious needs of his Patron…
Thus, the first element is that of the Lama as the Cho-ne, the object of worship and offerings, and the respective Khans and emperors as Yon-daq, the Patron, the worshipper, and the giver of alms.

This is where the starting point of the analysis sets off. The recent history was plagued by a dispute which has long served a subject of debates and discussions all around the globe. The question of whether China has exclusive claim over Tibet provided an impetus to launch multifarious investigations, formulate researches and studies, conduct symposia and conferences on the matter and carry out actions calling for the independence of Tibet. China, to justify its dominion over Tibet, uses its historical arguments; one of which essentially states that Tibet’s relationship with the Manchu emperors is a symbol of conferral on the Chinese sovereignty. But Tibet rejects it consistently and stands for Tibet’s full independence.  As one might go further, this issue will delve down on three complex questions: (1) Does China, by virtue of its historical arguments, hold the right of claiming Tibet as part of its territory?; (2) What are the implications of the Chinese claim of sovereignty over Tibet?; and (3) What is the present legal status of Tibet in the international realm? These and more will be discussed in the succeeding part of this blog.


[1] See “The Dalai Lama’s Statement in Tezpur, India on April 18, 1959” from the International Commission of Jurists. (1959). The Question of Tibet and the Rule of Law. Geneva, Switzerland. (Hereafter referred as ICJ). p.192.

[2] Michael van Walt van Praag (1987). The Status of Tibet: History, Rights and Prospects in International Law. Colorado:  Westview Press. Quoting the Former Indian Ambassador to the United Nations Rikhi Jaipal from the book’s introduction (p. xxiii).

[3]  James Wang (2002). Contemporary Chinese Politics. New Jersey: Prentice Hall. p. 181.

[4]  Ibid, p. 181.

[5]  Hajime Nakamura (1964). Ways of Thinking of Eastern Peoples: India-China-Tibet-Japan. Hawaii: East Center Press. p. 297.

[6]  ICJ, op. cit.,.  p. 1.

[7]  ICJ, op. cit., p. 1.

[8]  ICJ, loc. cit.

[9]  _______. Save Tibet!: A Forum on Human Rights Violations in Tibet. Pamphlet presented during a forum held at the University of the Philippines College of Law on 27 July 2012. p. 6. (Hereafter referred as ‘Save Tibet:’)

[10]  Wang, op. cit., p. 181.

[11]  Nakamura, op. cit., p. 298.

[12]  ICJ, op.cit, p. 1.

[13]  ICJ, op. cit., p.2.

[14]  van Walt van Praag, op. cit., p. xxiii

[15]  See van Walt van Praag, op. cit., pp. 1-9. See Sir Charles Bell (1924). [reprinted 1968]. Tibet: Past and Present. Oxford. pp. 273-274. See Wang, op. cit., p.181. Also, see W. Wood (1926). A History of Siam from Earliest Times to the Year AD 1781. London. p. 33.

[16]  van Walt van Praag, op. cit., pp. 1-4.

[17]  To quote Mr Rikhi Jaipal: “…Throughout its history, Tibet possessed the essential attributes of statehood.” See van Walt van Praag, op. cit., p. xxiii.

[18]  See van Walt van Praag, op. cit., p. 2.

[19]  van Walt van Praag, loc. cit.

[20]  van Walt van Praag, loc. cit.

[21]  Songtsen Gampo unified the nomadic tribes that inhabited the Tibetan plateau in the early seventh century. See van Walt van Praag, loc. cit.

[22]  van Walt van Praag, op. cit., pp. 2-3. As Professor van Walt van Praag points out: “Songtsen Gampo conquered or subdued most of the people and States on Tibet’s borders and entered into matrimonial alliances with neighboring rulers.” (p. 2).

[23]  van Walt van Praag, op. cit., p. 2

[24]  van Walt van Praag, loc. cit.

[25]  van Walt van Praag, loc. cit. It is noteworthy that a treaty was signed in 783 to lay down the frontiers of China and Tibet in response to incorporate all territories acquired by Tibet during its conquests.

[26]  van Walt van Praag, op. cit., p. 1. Taken from P. Pelliot (1961). Histoire Ancienne du Tibet. Paris. p. 143.

[27]  van Walt van Praag,  loc. cit.

[28]  van Walt van Praag, op. cit., p. 4

[29]  Nakamura, op. cit., p. 299.

[30]  ICJ, op.cit., p.3.

[31]  van Walt van Praag, op. cit., p. 7.

[32]  van Walt van Praag, op. cit., p. 4.

[33]  van Walt van Praag, op. cit., p. 5.

[34] Quoting Mr Rhiki Jaipal: “For the Chinese to interpret Tibet’s special relationship with the Manchu emperors as conferring on China sovereignty over Tibet is to distort history.” See van Walt van Praag, op. cit., p. xxiii.

[35] van Walt van Praag, op. cit., pp. 5-6, p. 12.


*Paper submitted during our Political Science 185 (Public International Law) class.


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