Self-determination and the Tibetan issue


ANY discussion on the referendum should consider the goal of the Tibetan struggle and the means to achieve it. The aim of the Tibetan struggle is to convert Tibet into a zone of peace, to revive Tibetan people's freedom and to protect the Tibetan people and their rich traditional heritage. An amicable solution is possible provided the political and economic relationships between Tibet and China are based on mutual respect, benefit and equality to the full satisfaction of the Tibetan people. One way of determining this is through the exercise of the fundamental right of self determination.

Some people may feel that self-determination is more a means- to resolve an issue than a possible option for the referendum. The fact, however, remains that the right to self-determination is a basic right of all peoples--in conformity with enlightened democratic principles, recognised and enshrined in the United Nations Charter.

Political and legal Support:

ALTHOUGH the principle of basic rights and freedoms had been a part of much debate in Western political thinking for centuries, these have been widely recognised and implemented only in this century. The 20th century saw the birth of two important political ideologies: Capitalism and Communism. And although there are big contradictions between these two ideologies, they find a common ground in their recognition and support for peoples' rights. During the rising conflicts over people's sovereignty that surfaced in the wake of the First World War, the then American President Woodrow Wilson framed a new policy based on self-determination and said, "Every people has the right to choose the country under which it wishes to live." In 1941, while framing the Charter of North Atlanta, the U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt and the British Prime Minister Winston Churchill asserted this principle as a cornerstone of the charter.

On the other hand, the great communist leader Vladimir Lenin has also clearly recognised people's right to self-determination. In his speech to mark the beginning of communist rule in Russia, he said: "By annexation or seizure of foreign territory, the government understands any incorporation of a small and weak nationality by a large or powerful state....regardless also of how developed or how backward is the nation forcibly attacked or forcibly detained within the frontiers of the (larger) state....lf any nation whatsoever is detained by force within the boundaries of a certain state and if (that nation), contrary to its expressed desire-- whether such desire is made manifest in the press, national assembly, party decision, or in protest and uprisings against national oppression-- is not given the right to determine the form of its state life by free voting and completely free from the presence of troops of the annexing or stronger state or without the least pressure, than the adjoining of that nation by the stronger state is annexation, i.e. seizure by force and violence. No nation can be free if it oppresses other nations."

Stalin, from whom the Communist Party of China has borrowed the concept of people, has defined people as an aggregate of persons sharing historically universal language, geographical territory, economic livelihood, traditional [earnings and attitude.

In 1990, UNESCO framed the most comprehensive legal definition of the term "people" haying the following four attributes:

1. A group for the rights of peoples in international law, including the right to self-determination, has the following common features:

a. Common historical traditions; b. Racial or ethnic identity;

c. Cultural homogeneity;

d. Linguistic unity;

e. Religious or ideological affinity; f. Territorial connection;

g. Common economic life.

2. The group must be of a certain number which need not be large (e.g. the people of micro states) but must be more than a mere association of individuals within a state;

3. The group as a whole must have the will to be identified as a people or the consciousness of being a people....;

4. Possibly the group must have institutions or other means of expressing its common characteristics and will for identity.

Qualifying as "people"

THAT the Tibetans fulfil the above qualifications and are entitled to all the rights of a people was reaffirmed, after a careful analysis, by the Permanent Peoples' Tribunal consisting of

renowned international legal experts from Asia, Africa, Europe and America, during its special meeting on Tibet in Strasbourg in France in 1991. The same conclusion was also reached unanimously by the Conference of International Lawyers held in London in 1993, as well as by the International Committee for Lawyers on Tibet and the two conferences of scholars, including Indian legal experts on international affairs, held in India in 1995 and 1996. The Tibetan people's right to self-determination was also recognised by the conference of international political analysts and legal experts, held in Geneva in Switzerland in 1996, to discuss the rights to self-determination of the peoples of East Timor, Tibet and Western Sahara.

A resolution upholding the Tibetan people's right to self-determination was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 196 1. The same was reaffirmed in the resolution by the United Nations in 1965. This was supported by 60 countries, including India. As far as India is concerned, the Indian Prime Minister, Jawarharlal Nehru, said in a speech to the lower house of the parliament in 1959: "It is morally not right for a country to lay full or partial claim on its neighbouring state. I believe, just as propagated by China, that the last voice regarding Tibet should be the voice of the Tibetan people and nobody else's."

During a debate on Tibet in the General Assembly of the United Nations in 1961, the Representative from the United States said: "The American government's historical standing on the Tibetan issue can be summed up by saying that it views Tibet as an autonomous country under China's suzerainty. Since the American government has a tradition of supporting the people's right to self-determination, it is believed that this right should also be entitled to the Tibetan people. We also believe that the Tibetans should have the right to decide political issues by themselves. "

The Tibetan people's right to self-determination has been supported by the parliaments of various countries, including the European Union. On 20 June 1996, the German Parliament adopted the following official resolution, "Starting with the inhuman military action since the invasion by China in 1950, the violent. suppression of Tibet and her aspirations for political, ethnic, cultural and religious self-determination has continued to this day."

The German Parliament resolution:

1. Considering that during its entire history, Tibet has preserved its own ethnic, cultural and religious identity,

2. Expressing its deep concern that this authentic identity is threatened with destruction by China's brute force of arms since 1950,

3. Considering that during the hearing of the German Bundestag on June 19, 1995, the status of Tibet under international law remained a controversial issue among experts,

4. Taking into consideration that it is the policy of the Federal Republic of Germany to globally support the realisation of the right to self-determination and in view of the historical-legal status of Tibet, her claim to autonomy is obvious.

Further support

APART from the international support for Tibetan people's right to self-determination it is also supported by both the Communist and National Chinese readerships and the Chinese intellectuals.

The resolution of the Kiangsi Soviet Republic drawn up by Mao Tsetung, Chairman of the Chinese Communist Party, in 1931, stated: "The Soviet Government of China recognizes the right of self-determination of the national minorities in China, their right to complete separation from China and to the formation of an independent state for each national minority. All Mongolians, Tibetan, ...others living on the territory of China shall enjoy the full right to self-determination i.e. they may either join the Union of Chinese Soviets or secede from it and form their own states as they may prefer."

In a public statement addressed to the Tibetan people in 1959, the President Chiang Kaishek said: "The Koumintang government has always respected the politics, social system, custom and religion of Tibet. Today, I want to make it clear that once the Communist government, that is navigated by foreign powers, is driven out and the Tibetan people gets to express their desire for freedom, our government will fulfil the Tibetan people's wishes through facilitating self-determination to them."

That the successive governments of China have recognised the Tibetans as a distinct people is apparent from the following official document of China. Being a member of the Security Council of the United Nations, the government of China is also obliged to uphold the people's rights.

During a meeting of the Ching Tao minority, the Chinese Prime Minister Chou En Lai, while delivering a speech on "a few points on the minorities' policy," said: "With the knowledge that all the minorities are entitled to certain recognised rights, any minority wishing to form a republic can do so."

While dwelling on the Tibetan issue, he said: "During the Tang Dynasty, the Tibetan government was very powerful and its expansionist sweep reached the northern part of Gongzhou of Sanxi province and even near Chang-an. Not only did the Tibetan army reach the southern part of Gansu, but they also landed near Yunnan and Sichuan."

He clearly said in his statement that, unlike other territories under Chinese rule, "Tibet is mostly occupied by Tibetans only."

During the Second Tibet Work Forum on the Tibetan issue in Beijing from 27 February to 28 March 1984, it is mentioned in its document number six and in 'Collective Issues', an official document of Chinese government, that: "Tibet is a universally distinct territory of the mainland. It not only differs drastically from the provinces within China's mainland, it is also unlike the people's autonomous regions like Inner Mongolia and Xinjiang."

In a speech by Hu Yaobang, General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, during the Second Tibet Work Forum on the Tibetan issue in Beijing, he said: "Considering the universal distinct features of Tibet as a matter of great importance, it is not only Manchuria and Mongolia which have great historical records. Tibet too has a historical record that is glorious and great. Although I cannot list each and every to illustrate the unique features of Tibet, I think the following few will suffice:

1. Tibet is the roof of the world. Tibet is not only a vast and cold plateau located on high altitude, it is sparsely populated and has an unfavourable transportation scope. On account of these characteristics of Tibet's topography, Tibet remained an isolated country for a long time.

2. Basically, the people of only one nationality inhabit Tibet. They are Tibetans. The Tibetan nationality has lived together as a homogenous unit for a very long period of time. However, being the only nationality in their land, as the Tibetans were, they became very inward looking and did not interact with other nationalities. This meant they neither knew much about others, nor did others know much about them. Therefore, they demonstrate a strong commonality. Speaking about the four major characteristics of a nationality, Stalin pointed out that one of them is the sense of commonality. Unless you appreciate the sensitivity of a nationality, you cannot earn its friendship since that nationality will not trust you. Have we seriously studied the sensitivity of the Tibetan nationality?

3. For many years Tibet's Buddhist religion has left a deep imprint on its people. For several centuries, its polity has been a union of spiritual and secular values. Nowhere in the world is the influence of Buddhism as strong and deep as in Tibet. The Buddhist influence in Tibet surpasses that in Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Burma. It surpasses even that in Nepal and India where Buddhism was born. The current discipline and life in Tibet's monasteries are almost similar to those in the Middle Ages.

4. Tibet's unique topography, history, nationality and religion have captured the imagination of a great many people in the world. It generates huge concerns at international fore. An event of the slightest importance in Tibet is reflected immediately in international fore. While a minor event in Beijing goes unnoticed, the slightest of events in Lhasa and Shigatse generates all kinds of coverage in international media. Moreover, the foreign religious and anti-China forces never tire of interfering in China's affairs.

The above five a minimum number of factors driving home the uniqueness of Tibet. I would like to put together these five factors and stress this perspective: One, the nature of Tibet's uniqueness is extremely well-pronounced. Its uniqueness is more special than that of any other province, city and autonomous region. Two, this uniqueness is here to stay for a long time to come."

In the same meeting, two Chinese leaders, Hu Qili and Tian Jiyuan, are quoted to have commented, "Historically, Tibet had a huge population. For example, in 1737 Tibet's population was in excess of 8 million."

Thus, that both the Chinese Communist and Koumintang leaders have recognised Tibetans as a distinct people.

In 1994 a group of Chinese intellectuals brought out a draft constitution for future China. Article 39 of that draft constitution recognized the special characteristics of Tibet and offered it the right to self-determination. This article reads: "The position of the Autonomous State of Tibet will be reviewed 25 years after this Constitution is promulgated. The review will be in the form of a referendum by the citizens in the state and not subject to Article 36 of this Constitution."

Tibet's right to self-determination

IN conclusion, Tibetans must have the right to self-determination, a point which has been supported by the United Nations and governments and parliaments. This is also in keeping with the publicly-expressed ideology and policy of both the Nationalist and Communist governments of China. Although Tibet's historical and legal status as an independent nation cannot be disputed, it does not necessarily mean that the exercise of this right will lead to the separation of Tibet from China. If it serves mutual interest, two or more independent nations may join together out of their free will. This may indeed be the trend in the 21st century for economic and defence reasons.

Tibet's uniqueness, if respected in practice as purportedly recognised by China, will be appreciated by the people of Tibet. As His Holiness the Dalai Lama said, if the six million Tibetans see that they will benefit more by staying with one billion Chinese people, they will definitely choose this. The late Panchen Lama exhorted the Chinese leadership to follow a policy of winning the hearts and minds of the Tibetan people if Tibet was to remain a part of China. The Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, Hu Yaobang, made a statement in 1984 which has some bearing on this point. Speaking to the Second Work Forum on Tibet, he. asked that special respect be shown to Tibet and said: "The more jealously you hold for something, the more easily it will slip out of your grip. Instead, if you liberate your mind, broaden its horizon, and loosen your jealous grip, not only will you not lose what you had previously feared of losing, you will also achieve success and build a firm foundation as you move forward." This is indeed a very deep reflection.

This is also in-keeping with His Holiness the Dalai Lama's statement in the Strasbourg Proposal, wherein he said that the final decision regarding the future of Tibet must be made by the people of Tibet. It is thus clear that the problem of Tibet must be resolved through the exercise of the right to self-determination by the people of Tibet. This is the only reasonable course, which enjoys widespread support from all quarters.

While implementing the right to self-determination we must keep in mind the visions of His Holiness the Dalai Lama as well as the draft constitution proposed by the Chinese intellectuals. In determining our goal, we should not be obsessed by the policy of the present Chinese leadership to forgetting the opinions of the Chinese people as a whole and the economic and political developments taking place in the world today. When we talk about the right to self-determination of the Tibetan people, we mean that this right accrues only to Tibetans and not the Chinese people residing in Tibet.

*Minister for the Department of Home

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