Along the winding road: The question of Tibet’s legal status*

ImageA plethora of utterly divergent voices cannot just blend in unison. On one end, one can clearly hear the reverberating Chinese clamor for reclaiming Tibet, louder as it was before, as they assert with all their souls and hearts that Tibet has long been an autonomous part of China. On the other, one can barely hear the undying whisper of a devastated Tibet, softer as it went through the ages, as they proclaim resiliently that Tibet has been a sovereign and independent state. From the eyes of the Tibetans, it is not liberation which the Chinese are up to but it is Tibet’s annexation to the Mainland. The Tibetans are one in declaring that theirs is a State which never ceased to exist.

This article sheds some light on the present legal status of Tibet and the challenges besetting its resolution.

The beginnings of a state

The wealthy archives which shelve Tibet’s past affirm that Tibet was once an expansionist power. It was once ruled by powerful emperors who planted vestiges of their power and influence within states and territories across Asia. It was once feared for its imperialist tendencies because the Tibetans of the past were known to be as great conquerors deeply engrossed in the expansion of their own territory. Despite of its rogue reputation, Tibet had managed to foster relations between and among its neighboring states.

Inevitably, the expansionist prowess of Tibet lost its glimmer when the accomplished masters of Buddhism from India such as Atisha came to Tibet in 1038 AD. Since then, the character of the Tibetan society immensely changed. There was an overhaul of existing socio-political system as all the structures and institutions founded in Tibet for what it seemed an eternity have heavily, if not totally, adopted Buddhist features. Sooner, a number of monasteries were built, religious aristocracy emerged, and people were pursuing the spiritual and religious way of life. With the military power of the now-defunct Imperial Tibet gone, Tibet became a theocratic state.

This historical account is noteworthy as it underscores a simple yet highly important fact: that Tibet, since time immemorial, has already been a state.

A decisive stance

In its attempt to correct the Chinese allegations, the Tibetan Government 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.”[1] This is, and has been, the decisive stance of Tibet with regard to the issue. In response, China continued to reject the idea of Tibetan independence, asserting that Tibet has become a part of China’s territory even long before the invasion of the Mongol Khans in Central Asia. The persistent objection of Tibet to submit to China’s whims became firmer in time’s passage. Consequently, this brought chaos to the once-peaceful nation of Tibet. The desperate actions of China to “reclaim” Tibet led to massive devastation of monasteries, nunneries, and temples; wanton killings of hundreds of thousands of Tibetans; unlawful incarceration; and torture of thousand Tibetans.

The recognition of neighboring states

Ever since China occupied Tibet, the Tibetan Government never accepted Chinese domination over its land. The Dalai Lama has been firm in stating that his is the only legitimate government, and other than it, there is none[2]. Though the incumbent Tibetan Government was established in exile at Dharamsala, India (which exists for almost forty years now), it never lost its political supremacy over the Tibetan population. Amidst the physical presence of the Chinese troops in Tibet, an overwhelming majority of Tibetans still recognize the Government-in-Exile at its legitimate government.
The persistent assertion of independence from China’s grasp was always epitomized by the Tibetan people and their Government.  In 1912, the Dalai Lama himself reaffirmed that Tibet is and has been independent. He campaigned vigorously to various parts of the globe to propose that Tibet be recognized as an independent state. This he has achieved with success.

Though recognition of foreign states can neither create nor extinguish a state, the attitude of most foreign governments with whom Tibet maintained relations implies the recognition of Tibet’s independent status. For instance, in 1950, former Philippine Ambassador Salvador Lopez referred to Tibet as an independent nation and added that “…on the eve of the Chinese invasion in 1950, Tibet was not under the rule of any foreign country.” As Tibetans did not profess submission to Chinese rule nor did it surrender to any other foreign power, it follows then that Tibet is, at present, an independent state suffering from unlawful occupation.

All throughout its history, Tibet remained as a state with a legitimate Government in exile at Dharamsala, India. Commencing from the Imperial Era up to the present, Tibet never ceased to be a state. In fact, it also maintained diplomatic relations with other sovereign states. Though facts are crystal clear, China’s interests make them barely visible.

With a rogue colonial power obstructing the path to its destination, Tibet must be willing to face and defy all the odds. In reclaiming the peace which was grabbed from them, the Tibetans may have to traverse a very long and winding road. For the Tibetans, there is only one destination: that is independence.

_________________
[1] For the full text of the letter, see van Walt van Praag (1987), The Status of Tibet: History, Rights and Prospects in International Law pp. 89-90.
[2] Professor van Walt van Praag writes that “to this day, the Dalai Lama and his government challenge the legitimacy of the Chinese presence in Tibet and claim to be the sole legitimate government of the country.”

*This article was published at ‘A Different View’, the official online blog of the International Association for Political Science Students (IAPSS), on 29 August 2013. To read the articles written by my colleagues, just click this link: http://iapss.org/index.php/publications/blog-a-different-view/articles

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