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Tibetan Agitation: Some Larger Issues

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s statement about the willingness of Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao “to enter into a dialogue with the Dalai Lama” in the light of the Tibetan leader’s assurance that he did not support total independence for Tibet and that he renounced violence, adds a new dimension to the agitation of Tibetans world over against Chinese rule in Tibet.

The agitation started on March 10, 2008 with a protest march by monks reminiscent of the saffron agitation last year in Myanmar against military dictatorship. This snowballed into a public protest two days later and spread outside among Tibetan community living in adjacent provinces of China and among Tibetan refugees the world over. Violence in Lhasa resulted in deaths estimated around 100, though the official figures are less. Between March 17 and 20, the Chinese came down hard on the protestors. They have made arrests and foreigners including tourists have been asked to leave Tibet.

Despite the Dalai Lama’s repeated appeal to his followers to desist from violence, it does not seem to be having the desired effect on them. So the focus will now be on how fast the Chinese control the agitation without courting further adverse publicity. This becomes a prestige issue for the Chinese as the Olympic flame is to travel through parts of the troubled region to put the Beijing Olympics on its first paces in two months. Even if the agitation is quelled or subsides, it has brought to the surface the simmering issue of Tibet. The timing of this agitation is critical as international media focus is shifting to Beijing for the Olympics. It also invites attention to a number of other issues impinging upon not only Tibet and China, but their neighbours and China’s global power equation.

Dalai Lama’s Status

The violence unleashed on Han population and on public assets by the Tibetan agitators despite the Dalai Lama’s repeated appeals have raised a question mark over the Dalai Lama’s monolithic influence over the Tibetan population living both at home and abroad. In particular, the agitators spearheaded by the Tibetan Youth Congress were clamouring for independence as against the Dalai Lama’s emphasis on autonomy for Tibet. The virulence of the agitation appears to have surprised the Dalai Lama and the Chinese. Is the Dalai Lama losing control over the younger generation of expatriates? The answer to this question would decide the fate of the institution of the Dalai Lama in the future. Any uncertainty in the future of Tibetan leadership is going to be a significant issue not only for China but also for countries like India, Nepal, and even Europe which have provided sanctuaries to large number of Tibetans.

The talks to resolve the Tibetan issue between the Dalai Lama and the Chinese Premier could be a long drawn affair. There are basic differences between the two sides on the territorial limits of Tibet as understood by them. Their perceptions on the scope and extent of autonomy are also different. The Chinese strategy in such talks is to stretch them as long as long as possible as seen from our own experience. During this period, if there are institutional changes in Tibetan leadership how far it would be acceptable to the younger generation of Tibetans? What if the Chinese try to identify an incarnation of the Dalai Lama on their own and install him as they did in the case of the Panchen Lama? These issues would affect the durability of any formulation worked out in the talks.

Strategic issues

Next to China, historically India had been having the closest links with Tibet. So turbulence in Tibet or Tibetan leadership could create problems for India both internally and internationally. Both India and China are slowly inching towards building a peaceful relationship between them as dictated by their own economic and diplomatic interests. This burgeoning relationship could be tested if Tibet remains unstable. This is perhaps the reason for the Indian Foreign Minister to carefully nuance his statement on the agitation and India’s stand on the Tibet question.

However, if China increases its force levels in Tibet it would become a matter of strategic concern for India. With a strongly pro-Chinese partner in the Maoists in the ruling Nepalese coalition any such large Chinese troop movements even in India’s neighbourhood could trigger further concerns for India.

Apart from that, India’s continuing dispute with China on the Tibetan boundary question has connotations for India’s coalition politics. Memories India’s war with China in 1962 over the disputed border still rankle the mind of large sections of Indian public, who consider it an act of betrayal by the Chinese leadership. This feeling will continue to condition Indian political perceptions to a certain extent. So if the Tibetan agitation persists it could find support among the Indian public and polity.

Similarly, the U.S. and the European Union had been taking special interest for a long time on the Tibet issue for various reasons ranging from strategic interests to the right of Tibetans to practice their religion, culture and language, to their human rights. They have been financially supporting Tibetans living overseas that had helped preserve their identity. The Chinese had always been keeping a watchful eye on such links, particularly with non-governmental organisations of these countries.

The U.S. – China relations are perhaps the closest than ever before. China’s export economy is largely dependent upon the U.S. markets. The U.S. had been a major investor in the Chinese growth story. However, there is mutual suspicion on both sides due to the unarticulated intentions that drive this relationship. The U.S. moves in recent years to build strategic linkages with India and bring it into a quadrilateral relationship with Japan and Australia as well, has been a source of some security concern for China.

The Tibetans have a strong lobby in the U.S. seats of power. In the early years of Chinese occupation of Tibet, the U.S. had financed and sponsored revolt by sections of Tibetans against the Chinese forces. This historic memory could aggravate latent suspicions of the Chinese leadership about the U.S. stand on the Tibetan agitation and its resolution. So the U.S. actions in the coming weeks would come under careful Chinese scrutiny.

India is unlikely to allow any move of Tibetan activists across its borders with Tibet, particularly if Chinese troops are moved into the autonomous region to control internal situation. In such a situation, Nepal becomes a vulnerable region. However, the Chinese appear to have forced the Nepalese rulers to toe the Chinese line to quell any build up of agitation. The Chinese intelligence representatives are probably operating in border areas to sanitize the Nepalese side of the border also.

Given this situation, Myanmar’s troubled northern borders with China become vulnerable to activities of anti-Chinese elements. With loose government control, this region is a haven for operation of insurgent groups, drug smugglers and gunrunners. In the past the U.S., either directly or through NGOs acting as proxies, has armed and infiltrated tribal insurgents to fight the Chinese incursions in the region. This option would always be available for any international sponsor of the Tibetan agitation. While this is in the realms of possibility only at present, the Chinese with long memories are unlikely to ignore it. Given this setting, China would probably like the present client regime of military dictatorship to continue to be in power in Myanmar rather than have democratic parties (which have strong U.S. links) as rulers. With a referendum of suspicious intent on the cards looming in Myanmar in the coming months, China’s role in Myanmar is likely to be more firm and in support of the Than Shwe regime in the coming months.

Of course, there are tertiary fall outs as well. The Tibetan agitation close on the heels of an “independent” Kosovo engineered by the NATO allies has larger implications. In the run up to the Taiwan elections, where the opposition Kuomintang party is rooting for closer links with China, the Tibetan agitation and Chinese crackdown have drawn strong reaction. There is even talk of Taiwanese athletes not participating in the Olympics. However, these are early days for the public opinion to gather mass in protest against the Chinese. Only the future will tell whether this happens or not. That would also depend upon how well the Chinese handle a tricky situation without loss of face when the Olympic flame lights up.

Lastly, the Buddhist monks appear to be increasingly asserting their political role in many countries. In Sri Lanka, already the monks’ party is an important factor of right wing politics to be counted among the hawks. In Myanmar, the Saffron agitation saw monks leading from the front triggering a nationwide agitation against military regime’s oppression. In Tibet, again the saffron clad monks are in the front lines of national confrontation. Is there a latent Buddhist fundamentalist upsurge in the offing, after Islamic, Christian, Jewish, and Hindu fundamentalists? Unlikely, but only time can tell.

(Col. R Hariharan, a retired MI officer, is associated with the South Asia Analysis Group and the Chennai Centre for China Studies. E-mail

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