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


“Because very little is known about Tibet many people think that it has
always been under the domination of China. They are surprised to
learn for instance, that the Tibetans have had their own passports,
currency, etc., and have had direct trade relations with other countries.”[1]

-from the Manifesto by Tibetan Leaders, 1958.

Chinese troops in Tibet (Photo taken from http://www.claudearpi.blogspot.com)

In the preceding part, the socio-political history of Tibet was insinuated. Commencing from its expansionist beginnings up to its transformation as a theocratic society, one can conclusively state that Tibet has remained an independent state. But, unfortunate as it may seem, history does not exist in a vacuum nor does it assume a static form. The pages of history will be flipped unceasingly, giving rise to changes of scenes.

Needless to say, there was a sudden change of scene which history has not failed to record. The People’s Republic of China (hereinafter referred as China), through its historical arguments, has consistently claimed that Tibet is an integral part of her as it has been for centuries.[2] The predominant sentiment of China on this matter has been time and again denounced by the Tibetan leaders who valiantly declare that Tibet has not lost its sovereignty at any period of its history[3]. In other words, Tibet has been autonomous and independent in controlling its own internal and external affairs since then[4]. But before delving further, one might ask: When did all of these events leading to the present Sino-Tibetan dispute commence? How does Tibet handle its affairs despite of its present situation? And more importantly, does China really hold the right of meddling with Tibetan affairs as this, China claims, falls in her exclusive jurisdiction? The following section will be shedding light in those questions aforesaid.
For Liberation’s Sake: History of the Sino-Tibetan Conflict

If one is attempting to formulate a substantive analysis of the history of the China-Tibet rivalry, it may be best to use the year 1873 as a vantage point of discussion. In 1873, a Representative from Great Britain was tasked to investigate the possibility of reestablishing trade relations with Tibet.[5] However, while fulfilling his mandate, he encountered a predicament. He was unsure if “whether he could negotiate directly with the Tibetan Government at Lhasa [Tibet’s capital] or whether it would be necessary to negotiate first through the Chinese Government.”[6] This incident connotes that as early as 1873, the question of Tibet has already surfaced but it was thirty years after when the contention between China and Tibet has physically materialized.

The Tibet Trade Regulations, an agreement which was initiated by the Governments of Manchurian China, the Great Britain and Tibet, was the precursor of the conflict[7]. As history narrates, the regulations which are assumed to be as beneficial to all the parties have turned otherwise as these appeared to lean substantively on the interests of China and the Great Britain only[8]. As for Tibet, she was given no voice in the matter and was further subjected to a degree of Manchurian authority which, without a bubble of doubt, was unacceptable for the Tibetans. To make things worse, the Manchurian troops headed by General Zhao Erfeng were sent to Tibet and ordered to police trade marts and routes as stipulated by the Trade Regulations[9]. As it turned out, what it seemed to be a mere adherence to the agreement was later transformed to a full-fledged territorial invasion. Upheavals have soon swarmed Tibet in a larger scale. A number of properties, including their much-revered monasteries, were destroyed and many Tibetans were mercilessly killed and massacred[10]. Throughout all these, it must be remarked that Tibet still holds a Cho-yon relationship with the Manchurian emperor. But when the latter issued an edict denouncing the Dalai Lama on 25 February 1910, the relationship soon shattered into pieces[11]. Much more, in 1911, the downfall of the Manchu Dynasty in China became inevitable as peasant rebellions in the countryside became uncontainable. The downfall signaled a new era to the history of China; the Chinese Republic was born.

In 1949, the year when the People’s Republic of China was founded, the Communist forces of the newly-established republic declared to the entire world that they wanted to “liberate” the people and defend the national patrimony and territorial integrity of the Motherland[12]. And so it was. All the territories on the Mainland were “liberated” save for one: Tibet. With a goal in mind, the Communist forces which was then headed by Mao Zedong and Zhu De promised that the Republic would be able to “liberate” Tibet sooner just as what they had done to other territories. Of course, by “liberation”, they meant integration.

More significant events followed thereafter. From 1949-1950, the Chinese troops advanced to invade Tibet[13]. In 1951, an agreement known as the Seventeen-Point Agreement was imposed on the Tibetan government acknowledging Chinese sovereignty over Tibet but recognizing the Tibetan government’s autonomy in conducting Tibet’s internal affairs[14]. But as the succeeding section will discuss, the agreement has been violated a number of times by China herself in varying degrees. Such episode made the resistance to the Chinese invasion much intensified, leading to the National Uprising of 1959 and the flight of the Dalai Lama and his Kashag (Cabinet) at Dharamsala, India where they established the Tibetan Government-in-Exile[15].
For the Furtherance of Personal Interests: The Situation at Tibet

Chinese troops arresting a Tibetan Buddhist monk (Photo taken from www.asianews.it).
Chinese troops arresting a Tibetan Buddhist monk (Photo taken from http://www.asianews.it).

When the idea of liberating Tibet was never viewed anymore as an ephemeral matter but rather an injurious one, the Tibetan Government, in its attempt to correct the Chinese allegations, wrote to Mao Zedong stating that “Tibet has, from the earliest time up to now, been an independent country whose political administration had never been taken over by any Foreign Country; and Tibet also defended her own territories form Foreign invasions and always remained a religious nation.”[16] This has been the decisive stance of Tibet with regard to the issue but China continued to depose the idea of Tibetan independence, asserting that Tibet has become a part of China’s territory since time immemorial, even long before the invasion of the Mongol Khans in Central Asia. But the persistent objection of Tibet to submit to China’s whims becomes firmer as time passes[17]. This, on a negative note, brought into fore tumults which bombarded the once-peaceful nation of Tibet.

As an essential component of the policies of then Chinese Community Party (CCP) Chairman Mao Zedong, the “liberation” of territories which border China was basically governed by strategic and security considerations.[18] But from the eyes of Tibet, it is not really liberation which the Chinese are up to but rather, it is Tibet’s subjugation.

A number of sources, reports and researches are corroborating that the desperate actions of China to “reclaim” Tibet have led to massive devastation of monasteries, nunneries and temples, wanton killings of hundreds of thousands of Tibetans, unlawful incarceration and torture of thousand Tibetans and some other atrocities[19]. As one report describes the present situation in Tibet[20]:

Invaded by China in 1949, the independent country of Tibet was forced to face the direct loss of life that comes from military invasion and, soon after, the loss of universal freedoms that stemmed from Communist ideology and its programs such as the Cultural Revolution (1966-76). However, it is erroneous to believe that the worst has passed. The fate of Tibet’s unique national, cultural and religious identity is seriously threatened and manipulated by the Chinese.

As communism invades Tibet like a pestilence infests bountiful harvests, the Tibetans fear for the destruction of their culture and religion. Indeed, the Tibetans have done all their efforts to preserve their religion, much more their established way of life. But as the situation reaches at its worst, the loss of the Tibetan culture should not only be feared but more so, the probable disintegration of the Tibetan nation brought by the rogue actions of China. The Fourteenth Dalai Lama, in his press statement dated 20 June 1959, has attested to the numerous violations which the Chinese Government had done to the people of Tibet and, more so, to him[21]:

Although they had solemnly undertaken to maintain my status and power as the Dalai Lama, they did not lose any opportunity to undermine my authority and sow dissensions among my people. In fact, they compelled me, situated as I was, to dismiss my Prime Ministers under threat of their execution without trial, because they had in all honesty and sincerity resisted the unjustified usurpations of power by representatives of the Chinese Government in Tibet.
…Thus commenced a reign of terror which finds few parallels in the history of Tibet. Forced labour and compulsory exactions, a systematic persecution of the people, plunder and confiscation of property belonging to individuals and monasteries and execution of certain leading men in Tibet, these are the glorious achievements of the Chinese rule in Tibet [Emphasis supplied].

The Tibetan leaders themselves, in a memorandum, have also narrated the nation’s ordeal during this critical point of their history[22]:

The country has suffered tremendously since that fateful invasion by the communist land-hunters, and our people have been treated like dumb, driven cattle. To describe the plight of the country would have been an awful narrative. Untold suffering has been the lot of the people since the influx of the so-called “liberation army”.

If one will attempt to write in detail the awful narratives of the present situations of the citizens of Tibet, a mountful of papers would not suffice to fulfill this tedious task. But at this juncture, suffice it to say that the violations of the Tibetans’ rights exist, and such violations are rampant and inconceivable. The International Commission of Jurists (ICJ), in a very comprehensive report, classified the allegations against China into three broad local categories[23]: (1) Systematic disregard for the obligations under the Seventeen-Point Agreement of 1951; (2) Systematic violation of the fundamental rights and freedoms of the people of Tibet; and (3) Wanton killing of Tibetans and other acts of leading to the extinction of the Tibetans as a national and religious group, to the extent that it becomes necessary to consider the question of genocide.

These salient points will be reiterated in the succeeding part. But for now, some points are noteworthy. First, from a nation of peace and nonviolence, Tibet has radically become a place of turmoil and violence. Second, China is an integral part of the international community of States. She does not exist in solitude no matter how she wants. Therefore, whatever action she may incur in the future which can be detrimental to the interests of other States, she is entirely accountable to it. Third, when an individual’s rights are being trampled upon by any entity, it is considered a violation of that individual’s inherent rights.  Fourth, when States are established, all rights and privileges being accorded to a State must be duly given to them. And lastly, it is assumed that a State, when entering upon agreements, would abide to the provisions stipulated provided that the agreements were formulated in good faith. As the succeeding section tackles now the conclusions of this analysis, it would be best to keep the above-mentioned points in mind.


[1]  See the “Manifesto by Tibetan Leaders” at ICJ, op. cit., p. 145.
[2]  Save Tibet, op. cit. p. 7.
[3]  Save Tibet, op. cit., p. 2.
[4]  The Dalai Lama, at his statement in Tezpur, India on 18 April 1959, said that “Tibet remained autonomous in control of its own affairs. See “The Dalai Lama’s Statement in Tezpur, India on April 18, 1959” at ICJ, op. cit., pp. 192-194 [DOCUMENT 17].
[5]  The Position of Tibet in International Law, at ICJ, op. cit., p. 75.
[6]  The Position of Tibet in International Law, at ICJ, loc. cit.
[7]  van Walt van Praag, op. cit., pp. 42-44.
[8]  van Walt van Praag, op. cit., p. 44.
[9] van Walt van Praag, op. cit., p. 45.
[10] van Walt van Praag, op. cit., p. 45, citing the Tibet Blue Book (1910) from Bell, p. 9.
[11] van Walt van Praag, loc. cit.
[12]  See Wang, op. cit., p. 181. Also, see van Walt van Praag, op. cit., pp. 88-89.
[13]  Wang, op. cit., pp. 181-182.  As Wang (2002) writes: “In 1950, the Chinese communist government sent its PLA troops to Tibet for the purpose of retaining Tibet as an integral part of China and ending Tibet’s declaration of independence, which dated back to 1911.”
[14]  See Save Tibet, op. cit., p. 6.
[15]  See Save Tibet, op. cit. p. 6; Wang, op. cit., p. 182; “The Tibetan Uprising and the Flight of the Dalai Lama” at ICJ, op. cit. pp. 11-15.
[16]  For the full text of the letter, see van Walt van Praag, op. cit., pp. 89-90.
[17]  Wang, op. cit., pp. 181-182.
[18]  van Walt van Praag, op. cit., pp. 88-89. As Mao declared: “The point of departure for the [Chinese] Soviet national policy is the capture of all the oppressed minorities around the Soviets [of China] as a means to increase the strength of the revolution against imperialism an KMT [Kuomintang].”
[19]  The documents from the ICJ report are of vital importance. Namely, these are: (1) Violations by the Chinese People’s Republic of Obligations Under the Seventeen-Point Agreement of May 23rd, 1951 (pp. 17-57).; (2) Violations of Human Rights and Question of Genocide (pp. 58-74); (3) Letter from Tibetan Leaders to Mr Jawaharlal Nehru (pp. 143-144); (4) Manifesto by Tibetan Leaders (pp. 145-149); (5) Memorandum by Tibetan Leaders (pp. 150-162);  and (6) Statement by Mr Nehru in the Indian Parliament, April 27, 1959 (pp. 171-176).
[20] See Save Tibet, op. cit., p. 2.
[21] See “The Tibetan Uprising and the Flight of the Dalai Lama” at ICJ, op. cit., p. 11
[22] Quoted from “Memorandum by Tibetan Leaders” at ICJ, op. cit., p. 151.
[23] See “Violations by the Chinese People’s Republic of Obligations Under the Seventeen-Point Agreement of May 23rd, 1951” at ICJ, op. cit. p. 17.


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

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