Seven days after the start of the Tibetan Uprising in 1959, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama awaited anxiously in the Potala Palace, his residence in Tibet’s capital city of Lhasa, as thousands of protestors gathered outside to revolt against the nine year Chinese occupation of the small Himalayan country. For the highest ranking Tibetan officials, the increasingly dangerous and hostile situation made clear that it was now vital to move their 23-year-old spiritual leader to safer lands. As the moon perched itself above the majestic Himalayas that night, the Dalai Lama dressed himself in the uniform of a solider, cunningly made his way through the impassioned crowds and disappear into the rugged mountain terrain. It wasn’t until after three long weeks of traveling through the treacherous Himalayas, however, when His Holiness along with an entourage of around 20 other Tibetan officials safely arrived at the Indian border.
Fast forward until today, nearly 60 years later, and the devastating effects of the Tibet China conflict become clear to see as the Dalai Lama still hasn’t been able to return to his home country. Fortunately for him and Buddhists around the globe, the Indian government has offered Tibetan leadership and over 100,000 additional Tibetans citizens permanent exile and safety in the northern city of Dharamsala. Yet still, when considering the fact that His Holiness just celebrating his 82nd birthday on July 26th, 2017, and also that prominent Tibetan Buddhist officials will eventually rely on complicated traditions and practices to identify his future reincarnation, Tibet’s precarious future comes into direct focus.
History of the Tibet China Conflict:
It was nine years before the 14th Dalai Lama’s infamous exile escape when the Chinese military initially descended upon Tibet, yet because nearly all Tibetans are devout Buddhists, living in accordance with teaching on compassion, non-violence and peace, this initial invasion was met with little resistance. It wasn’t until the Chinese presence continued to grow and their aggression towards Tibetan culture became more hostile did the Tibetan Uprising come to fruition. Nonetheless, the now infamous revolutionary attempt was quickly thwarted by the all powerful Chinese military after only 11 days. Unfortunately, China’s willingness to use violent force against uprising Tibetans left an estimated 85,000 dead with another 80,000 fleeing the country in the footsteps of their undisputed leader.
Although there has been on-again off-again dialogue aimed at resolving the Tibet China conflict since the initial invasion, there has also been reoccurring periods of violence which has left numerous dead. According to some humanitarian organizations and historians, many of whom see the situation as a mass genocide, over 1 million Tibetans have died at the hands of the Chinese military and hundreds of thousands more have been forced to flee into exile. Still today, the Tibetan people living in the autonomous region of Tibet are unable to openly practice their religion, show reverenced towards the Dalai Lama or celebrate their own unique culture, and many believe that China’s ultimate goal is to completely disseminate the Tibetan way-of-life.
In addition to these devastating outcomes of the nearly 70 year occupation, a number of more notarized events have been etched into the history of the Tibet China conflict. In 1966, China imposed their will once again, in what’s referred to as the Cultural Revolution, by closing Tibetan monasteries, destroying spiritual monuments and forcing monks and nuns to return to secular life. In 1989, martial law was imposed in Lhasa following the death of the second most important Tibetan Buddhist figure, the 10th Panchen Lama. Although China has gone to great lengths to keep stories of cultural destruction, oppression and violence from reaching the outside world, the courage of individuals such as the Panchen Lama, a revered monk who was publicly chastised and exonerated from his duties after his 70,000 Character Petition detailing China’s abusive governance was translated into English by Tibetan scholar Robert Barnett, and Palden Gyatso, a monk who was oppressively jailed and tortured for 33 years, have helped the Tibetan cause gaining some much needed international attention. Upon his release from prison in 1992, at the age of 61, Gyatso told of the vile and inhumane ways he was treated:
Paljor [a prison guard] took out his electric baton and shoved it into my mouth and then thrust it down my throat. I lost consciousness. When I woke up, I found myself lying in a pool of vomit and urine, I had lost twenty of my teeth.”
In regard to the ominous future of the Tibet China conflict, the Panchen Lama’s story illuminates the precarious place Tibetans find themselves in because they fear a similar reincarnation scenario, albeit a much more detrimental one, may play out in the future. It was on May 14th, 1995, when the 14th Dalai Lama, sticking to traditional reincarnation proceeding, recognized a six-year-old boy by the name of Gedhun Choekyi Nyima as the 11th Panchen Lama, the reincarnation of the 10th, before he was taken into custody by Chinese forces. Later that year, on December 8th, Chinese officially denounced the Dalai Lama’s appointment and proclaimed that a different child, Gyaincain Norbu, was in fact the reincarnated Panchen Lama. Still to this day, the whereabouts of the Panchen Lama rightfully appointed by the Dalai Lama remain a mystery. For Tibetans around the globe, the fear is that after their 82-year-old leader passes away, China will similarly chose an individual based upon his upbringing and their ability to mold him to think favorably of the Chinese way of life.
How Each Country Sees the Conflict:
Just like every other international conflict, China and Tibet offer strikingly different viewpoints about the governing rights of the now contested region. Where as Chinese leadership claims that Tibet has laid within China’s borders for over 800 years, since the time of the Yuan Dynasty, Tibetan leadership asserts that China unethically entered the country and used brute force to take over Lhasa and other populated cities. Additionally, although Tibet points to the fact that they previously had their own currency, flew their own flag and had signed numerous international treaties with other countries, Chinese officials tell us that Tibet has never been formally recognized as it’s own independent state. Yet still, what may be most astonishing is that China claims they liberated the Tibetan people from the governance of the Dalai Lama, a leader they believe is hiding a political agenda underneath his monk robes.
While there are a variety of religious and political differences between the two countries, especially in how their leadership views freedoms of worship and expression, many scholar believe there to be more significant factors underlying the Chinese take over and continuous occupation. Because the geographical landscape of Tibet is considered to be some of the most mineral rich lands in the world, lands that China obtains vast economic benefits from, it’s easy to see why people think China’s continued occupation revolves around access to an abundance of minerals such as copper, gold, silver, lead, zinc, lithium and uranium.
Recent Happenings of the Conflict:
Over the past ten years, a number of additionally bothersome events have added to the great tragedy that is the Tibet China conflict. When considering the numerous instances of self-immolation, the destruction of iconic Tibetan Buddhist monasteries and a continuous drumbeat of harsh rhetoric from Chinese officials, it becomes clearer to see why the impartial independence of Tibet, and Tibetan Buddhism, is in such a perilous state. Unfortunately, the combination of China’s position as a predominant global power and their starch views on the governance of Tibet has discouraged other nations from taking political steps to ensure the liberties of Tibetans.
To protest the now nearly 70-year Chinese occupation, with hopes of regaining their nation’s sovereignty, many Tibetans living in what is now considered an autonomous region of China have went to the most extreme lengths. Since 2009, more than 140 Tibetans have showed their dissatisfaction with Chinese rule by burning themselves alive. Unfortunately, every instance of self-immolation, carried out by monks, nuns, spiritual teachers and laypeople, is the direct result of Tibetans’ unfulfillable desire to live freely amongst their fellow countrymen and women. Before taking his life in July, 2015, a 27-year-old monk by the name of Sonam Topgyal left a note illuminating this truth, in which he wrote:
Chinese authorities repress [Tibetans] with their violent and brutal law, by demolishing our religion, tradition and culture and causing environmental devastation. Meanwhile, people absolutely have no freedom of expression nor can they convey their grievances.”
Even with the fiery outcries to regain the freedoms they once enjoyed, China’s stance on the dispute remains unchanged and their actions to dismantle Tibetan culture continue till this day. Starting in July, 2016, Chinese construction crews began demolishing parts of the cherished Larung Gar Buddhist Academy in the autonomous region of Tibet, with officials citing the need for ‘ideological guidance’. Although the Academy’s complex once housed 10,000 monastics, the year long demolition of over 7,000 monastic dwelling has displaced nearly half of them. On July 19th, 2017, TibetTV released this short video which illuminates the stories of the nuns at Larung Gar:
Tibet’s Precarious Future:
In 2011, with hopes of securing his people’s future religious and political freedoms, the 14th Dalai Lama relinquished his post as the political leader of Tibet, vowing only to focus on his spiritual responsibilities. Since stepping down, a accomplished Tibetan legal scholar and politician named Lobsang Sangay has taken on the role as chief executive of the Central Tibetan Administration, yet the outlook for the country and their national religion remains uncertain at best. As the 14th Dalai Lama has now moved into the later years of his life, China has amped up their efforts to gain further power over Tibetan culture and traditions.
Because the Tibetan Buddhist theology is based upon the premise that a team of highly ranked monks and officials undertakes a lengthy search process to find the reincarnations of their most important spiritual leaders, and also because 98% of Tibetans reside within Chinese boarders, Beijing has went to great lengths to politically influence this process. In addition to their calculated actions with the 11th Panchen Lama, the Chinese government recently enacted the 2007 State Administration for Religious Affairs (SARA) regulation aimed at excluding foreign organizations and individuals from partaking in the reincarnation selection process. Additionally, China has done its best to undermine the Dalai Lama’s ability to freely choose where he reincarnates, ’determining’ that it must be within China’s boarders, and even stepped up political pressure on India to relinquish control of a disputed district in the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, known as Tawang, which is a potential birthplace for the 15th Dalai Lama.
Despite the fact that the Tibet China conflict remains in a perilous place, His Holiness has largely been able to maintain the compassionate and playful disposition that’s made him a beloved figure around the globe. When discussing his future reincarnation, however, he quickly points to long standing Tibetan traditions that tell us that only the spiritual figures going through the reincarnation process can freely choose where and when they will be born. Furthermore, although the conflict remains in the back of Buddhists’ minds around the globe, the 14th Dalai Lama continuously strives to lift the spirits of his followers with joyful words for the future. At the 34th Kalachakra Empowerment, an elaborate Buddhist initiation ritual, which took place in January of this year, His Holiness told the audience:
My dreams and other indications have shown that I could live to be 113. I don’t know about that, but I think I can say I’ll live to be 100. So, be happy, be at ease.”
While there isn’t a single way to predict the future of the Tibet China conflict, a nearly 70-year history of cunning hostility illuminates what China’s future intentions are. Despite the fact that none of us can individually change the course of the dispute, together we can certainly make a difference by brining attention to the atrocities that’ve already taken place and promoting the future liberties of Tibetans. If you are interested in supporting the cause, you can find a plethora of organizations, such as Free Tibet and the International Campaign for Tibet, where you can turn your intentions into actions for the Tibetan people.