Just ahead of the Beijing Olympics, a group of white men were discussing Free Tibet in a Thamel pub. Sitting next to me, they seemed to make some interesting points about why Tibet should be free and how China had been violating human rights. I got into a heated debate with one of them, who was a Russian. When I started talking of how Russia had been committing graver crimes in Chechnya and other parts of its neighborhood, his arguments seemed to fade away. He then tried to persuade me, saying that after Tibet, it’s Nepal’s turn to come under Chinese scanner. Well, to be honest many in Nepal fear such moves from India rather than from China- given India’s historical motives with Sikkim and Bhutan (called Sikkimization and Bhutanization in Nepal) and with Nepal itself. International refugees don’t have the right to engage in political activities in the host country.
If indeed China has been violating human rights in Tibet, it is condemnable. It should allow free practice of religion, freedom of speech and organization and of dissent since economic progress can’t be a substitute for political progress (and vice versa). At the same time, China has the right to control violence inside it’s territory (Tibetan protests often are very violent, read more, please.), even more so, if Israel and America can deploy army and use excessive forces against a silent population in foreign lands. Tibet is recognized as Chinese territory by almost all of the world, including the United States.
Tibet shares a long border with Nepal, over 1200 km long. And many Nepalese from the Northern part have a Tibetan/Mongolian origin- meaning that their religious, cultural and linguistic practices have some similarities.
More than a century ago, Nepalese troops made a couple of attacks on Tibet. (Interestingly, I’ve been to one of the forts of Nepal-Tibet war ) Often, Chinese troops would also be engaged in those wars. Having defeated Tibet, Nepal used to enjoy huge annual tribute in the form of cash and gold. This continued till 1950, when Tibet came under the direct control of Communist China (Some Indian “analysts” like this wrongly state that Nepal used to pay tributes to China- there’s no record in history to suggest that).
There is a large population holding the idea that Tibet was never free and was always under Chinese control. Almost all of the Chinese population belongs to this group. As I wrote in Slashdot last year, they blame the western media and rulers for all the controversy surrounding Tibet. Similarly, there’s a larger group that believes that Tibet was always free and that’s how it ought to be in the future. Both of them are misled. Tibet and China have a very long history of coexistence and struggle. Tibet was under Chinese control for a large part of its history. Tibet also had annexed parts of the Chinese territory during this time. Incidentally, during Nepal-Tibet wars, Tibet occasionally won over some parts of Nepalese land too.
Most Tibetans practice Buddhism. Sometime in the 16th century, a group of Tibetan aristocrats invented the myth named “Dalai Lama”- who could incarnate and rule over the people; much like the King in Nepal who’s now overthrown. An overwhelming majority of Tibetans (some sources say, 95%) were servants and slaves to the small group of aristocrats represented by the Dalai Lama. Nepalese folklores portray Tibet as a very poor state. In one of the most famous works of Nepali literature- “Muna Madan” by Laxmi Prasad Devkota, the protagonist goes to Tibet (also known as Bhot in Nepal) and suffers a lot. Tibet was known to Nepalese primarily as trading place for salt. Despite such abject poverty and backwardness, the Dalai Lamas lived in big, sophisticated palaces, owned large amounts of gold (there’s a popular Nepali proverb indicating Lhasa-the Tibetan capital’s collection of gold) and ruled unquestioned. From 1950-59, the Chinese allowed Dalai Lama to continue unabated. When Communist China started to make some minor changes, these aristocrats had their privileged stripped, and had enough reasons to revolt. Dalai Lama fled in 1959 and it was only then that China started to implement its policies in a full-fledged way.
Dalai Lama, Free Tibet and Nepal
Free Tibet protestors in Bauddhanath, Kathmandu on 10th March 2009 (Picture:AFP)
Once in India, the Dalai Lama, then a celebrity, started a pseudo Tibetan government and parliament which runs till today. A few years later, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Today, to many people, he represents everything divine. Many Hollywood stars, western leaders and ordinary citizens are his devoted followers and fans. Not surprisingly, many children grow up feeding on the idea that Dalai Lama is the incarnation of god, who believes in Peace and Love while the Chinese government kills his followers in Tibet. On the contrary, after 1960, Tibet has developed in an unbelievable pace. The once despised cities of Tibet have today grown far more prosperous than their Nepalese counterparts. Many Nepalese workers go to Tibet in search of work and Nepal imports a huge supply of goods from Tibet.
India has been an active center for Free Tibet supporters. Their government and parliament is located there and from where most of their activities are coordinated. Unfortunately, Nepal is also another center for such activities. Spend an evening near the Bauddhanath area in Kathmandu and you will perhaps get to observe the thick of events that go discretely in the city. An year ago, five ministers of Tibetan pseudo-government in India, all carrying Nepalese passports (illegally, of course), accompanied by the French ambassador to Nepal were reportedly meeting the Tibetans at Bauddhanath area. Nepal has been known as a route for ordinary citizens and criminals fleeing to India from Tibet. Apart from that, there are many Tibetan refugees in Nepal itself. Many years ago, the CIA-trained group of armed Tibetan rebels called Khampaas were disarmed by the Nepalese army. Some analysts think that similar armed groups might be on the move in Nepal. It is, therefore, imperative for Nepal’s government to curb any measures that might lead to violence in its neighborhood. China is one of the biggest sponsors of Nepal’s development projects and irking a neighbor as good as China is not in Nepal’s best interests.
So many Americans seem to be oblivious to human rights abuses by their government and allied nations. Debates regarding gross violation of Human Rights by Saudi Arabia and Israel are never allowed to gain mainstream attention. Similarly, suppression of dissident and civil right groups inside America itself through instruments like FBI and NSA (and activities like illegal wiretapping) are easily ignored and of course, Abu-Gharib and Guantanamo Bay don’t deserve much criticism. I have never heard of Americans or Britons protesting against the killings of over 5 million people in Congo in about a decade’s time. Talk of Chechnya, and a Russian cringes. Talk of Lebanon, Afganistan, Iraq, Syria, Palestine, Cuba and the rest of Latin America, of Israel and of Saudi Arabia- and you have to consider being anonymous on the internet. But if you talk of Free Tibet, suddenly, you become a freedom fighter, a proponent of a noble cause. In fact, you will have a larger mass that will listen to you - your stance will be hailed.
Many Indians and some Nepalese also back the idea of Free Tibet and subscribe to all the western media’s fodder. Surprisingly, the same people take it as a personal affront when asked about Indian army’s excesses in Kashmir and the North Eastern states like Assam, Manipur and Nagaland. None of them seem to support the decades old Gorkhaland movement (for a state, not independence) by ethnic Nepali-speaking population of Darjeeling, Dooars and Siliguri. There are about a million Nepali-speaking Bhutanese refugees in Nepal- all of them driven away from their country (via India) and demanding to be sent back home. Bhutan is also accused of attempting ethnic cleansing, yet none among the Indian, Nepalese or American establishment seem to pay heed to their completely peaceful struggle.
Why This Post?
It was exactly fifty years ago, on the 10th of March that Dalai Lama fled Tibet. As the day drew closer, authorities in Nepal and China had heightened security around the border. Nepalese police tried to curb anti-China protests in the capital. I don’t see anything wrong with that. I am for even stronger measures against Free Tibet activists working in Nepal- anywhere else is OK, but NO to such activities in Nepal.
To Free Tibet aspirants of South Asia: I detest China’s crimes in Tibet. I am a strong supporter of freedom, activism and liberties, but such values should not be viewed in absolute terms. The freedom fights in many other parts of the world and in South Asia itself are in need of global attention and support. People there have been subjected to much harsher conditions and prolonged durations of injustice. Human Rights standards should apply equally to all the countries. Ignoring such issues for a propaganda like Free Tibet is a harmful seduction. Free Tibet propaganda is largely artificial and unjustified.
Noam Chomsky on Tibet and Palestine
Was Tibet a peaceful paradise of spirituality and social order before the Chinese take over or was it just another feudal theocracy for the ordinary people who lived there?
The CIA’s secret war in Tibet
CBC, Canada - Tibet timeline
A Reuters reporter recalls the Dalai Lama’s escape to India
What does Free Tibet mean to you?
Comparing Kashmir with Tibet