The Historical Status of Tibet:
A Summary


Introduction: The Roof of the World

Situated in the Himalayas, bordered by India in the south and west, Nepal and Bhutan in the south, and China in the north and east, Tibet sits on the highest plateau in the world, at an average of 12,000 feet.

Tibet has long been an independent country, dating back for centuries. It has its own unique culture, with its own spoken and written language, system of government, currency, postal system, its own style of Buddhism, costume, and architecture.

Tibet wished to live peacefully by itself, so much so that it became known to the outside world as 'Shangrila' - a mystical and magnetizing country to those people fascinated by its remoteness, inaccessibility, and tales of a people living in complete harmony with themselves and nature.

Sadly, this peace was not to last.

With the rise of the Communist Party in China and the formation of the Peoples Republic of China, the Chinese cast their eyes to the west and declared their intention to take Tibet for their own.

The invasion and subjugation of Tibet and its people and the subsequent flight of His Holiness the Dalai Lama to India in 1959 is well documented. The International Commission of Jurists charged the Chinese Government with genocide of Tibetans.

However, even after nearly 40 years of Chinese dominance, suppression and terrorism in Tibet, the Tibetan national spirit has not been broken. Tibetans both inside and outside Tibet have never given up hope of receiving the independence again, under the guidance of His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

The recent uprising in Lhasa, the Tibetan Capital, on 10 March to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the first uprising which led to the Dalai Lama's escape to India, is proof that Tibetans wish to rid themselves of the Chinese yoke.

On 10 December 1989, His Holiness The Dalai Lama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. This award was given to him in recognition of his work towards a peaceful solution for Tibet's independence from China, who occupied Tibet by force.

We Tibetans outside Tibet and those who live under the Chinese in Tibet are very proud of this achievement by His Holiness, and hope and pray that the Free World will not let this Nobel Peace Prize be just a gesture, but will help towards finding a peaceful solution to the question of Tibet and will ultimately result in Tibetans returning to their homeland, as free and independent, and once again live in peace and harmony with nature.

We are at a critical stage of Tibetan history. Unless we can return to our homeland, as a free and independent nation, within the next 10 years Tibet will cease to exist as we know it. The Chinese have transferred many Han Chinese into Tibet, with the result that the Tibetans are becoming a minority in their own homeland, in fact in parts of Tibet it has already happened. The world will lose a unique race of people. This must not be allowed to happen I., We therefore urge you to help the Tibetan race by asking your own government to help to find a peaceful solution to the Tibet question.

The Historical Status of Tibet: A summary

This is a synopsis of a book an the status of Tibet by a jurist, Dr. Michael C van Walt van Praag Dr van Walt obtained law degrees m the Netherlands and the United States and has taught International Law and Tibetan Studies. He is a former D~or of the Tibetan Affairs Co-Ordination Office in the Netherlands. He currently practices international law m Washington D. C and London.

The Tibetan Government in exile, headed by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Tibet's exiled Head of State and spiritual leader, has, consistently held that Tibet has been under illegal Chinese occupation since China invaded the independent state in 1949-1950. The People's Republic of China (PRC) insists that its relation with Tibet is a purely internal affair, because Tibet is, and has for centuries been, an integral part of China. The question of Tibet's status is essentially a legal question, albeit one of immediate political relevance.

The PRC makes no claim to sovereign rights over Tibet as a result of its military subjugation and occupation following its armed invasion in 1949-1950. Indeed, the PRC could hardly make that claim, since it categorically rejects as illegal claims to sovereignty put forward by other states based on conquest, occupation or the imposition of unequal treaties. Instead, the PRC bases its claim to Tibet solely on the theory that Tibet became an integral part of China seven hundred years ago.

Early history

Although the history of the Tibetan state began in 127 BC with the establishment of the Yarlung Dynasty, the country as we now know it was first unified in the AD 700 under King Songtsen Gampo and his successors. Tibet was one of the mightiest powers of Asia for the three centuries that followed, as a pillar inscription at the foot of the Potala Palace in Lhasa and the Chinese Tang histories of the period confirm. A formal peace treaty concluded between China and Tibet in 821-823 demarcated the borders between the two countries and ensured that, "Tibetans shall be happy in Tibet and Chinese shall be happy in China".

Mongol Influence

As Genghis Khan's Mongol Empire expanded towards Europe in the west and China in the east in the 13th century, Tibetan leaders of the powerful Sakya school of Tibetan Buddhism concluded an agreement with the Mongol rulers in order to avoid the conquest of Tibet. The Tibetan Lama promised political loyalty and religious blessings and instruction in exchange for patronage and protection. The religious relationship became so important that when, decades later, Kublai Khan conquered China and established the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368), he invited the Sakya Lama to become the Imperial Preceptor and supreme pontiff of his empire.

The relationship that developed and continued to exist into the 20th century between the Mongols and the Tibetans was a reflection of the close racial, cultural and especially religious, affinity between the two central Asian peoples. The Mongol Empire was a world empire and, whatever the relationship between its rulers and the Tibetans, the Mongols never integrated the administration of Tibet and China nor appended Tibet to China in any manner.

Tibet broke political ties with the Yuan emperor in 1350, before China had regained its independence from the Mongols. Not until the 18th century did Tibet again come under a degree of foreign influence.

Relations with Manchu, Gurkha, and British neighbours

Tibet developed no ties with the Chinese Ming Dynasty (1386-1644). On the other hand, the Dalai Lama, who had established his sovereign rule over Tibet with the help of a Mongol patron in 1642, did develop close religious ties with the Manchu emperors, who conquered China and established the Qing Dynasty (1644 - 191 1). The Dalai Lama agreed to become the spiritual guide of the Manchu emperor, and accepted patronage and protection in exchange. This "priest-patron" relationship (known in Tibetan as ChoeYoen), which the Dalai Lama also maintained with some Mongol princes and Tibetan nobles, was the only formal tie that existed between the Tibetans and the Manchus during the Qing Dynasty. It did not, in itself, affect Tibet's independence.

On the political level, some powerful Manchu emperors succeeded in exerting a degree of influence over Tibet. Thus, between 1720 and 1792, Emperors Kangxi, Yong Zhen and Qianglong sent imperial troops to Tibet four times to protect the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan people from foreign invasions by Mongols and Gurkhas or from internal unrest. These expeditions provided the Emperor with the means for establishing influence in Tibet. He sent representatives to the Tibetan capital, Lhasa, some of whom successfully exercised their influence, in his name, over the Tibetan Government, particularly with respect to the conduct of foreign relations. At the height of Manchu power, which lasted a few decades, the situation was not unlike that which can exist between a superpower and a satellite or protectorate, and therefore one which, though politically significant, does not extinguish the independent existence of the weaker state. Tibet was never incorporated into the Manchu empire, much less into China, and it continued to conduct its relations with neighbouring states largely alone.

Manchu influence did not last long. It was entirely ineffective by the time the British briefly invaded Lhasa and concluded a bilateral treaty with Tibet, the Lhasa Convention, in 1904. Despite this loss of influence, the imperial government in Peking continued to claim some authority over Tibet, particularly with respect to its international relations, an authority which the British imperial government termed (4 suzerainty" in its dealings with Peking and St. Petersburg (Leningrad). Imperial armies tried to reassert actual influence in 1910 by invading the country and occupying Lhasa. Following the 1911 revolution in China and the overthrow of the Manchu empire, troops surrendered to the Tibetan army and were repatriated under a Sino-Tibetan peace accord. The Dalai Lama reasserted Tibet's full independence internally, by issuing a proclamation, and externally, in communications to foreign rulers and in a treaty with Mongolia.

Tibet in the 20th Century

Tibet's status following the expulsion of Manchu troops is not subject to serious dispute. Whatever ties existed between the Dalai Lamas and the Manchu emperors of the Qing Dynasty were extinguished with the fall of that empire and dynasty. From 1911 to 1950, Tibet successfully avoided undue foreign influence and behaved, in every respect as a fully independent state.

Tibet maintained diplomatic relations with Nepal, Bhutan, Britain and later with independent India. Relations with China remained strained. The Chinese waged a border war with Tibet while formally urging Tibet to "join" the Chinese Republic, claiming to the rest of the world that Tibet already was one of China's "five races".

In an effort to reduce Sino-Tibetan tensions, the British convened a tripartite conference in Simla in 1913 where the three states met on equal terms. As the British delegate reminded his Chinese counterpart, Tibet entered the conference as "an independent nation recognizing no allegiance to China". The conference was unsuccessful in that it did not resolve the differences between Tibet and China. It was, nevertheless, significant in that Anglo-Tibetan friendship was reaffirmed with the conclusion of bilateral trade and border agreements. In a joint Declaration Great Britain and Tibet bound themselves not to recognize Chinese suzerainty or other special rights in Tibet unless China signed the draft Simla Convention which would have guaranteed Tibet's greater borders, its territorial integrity and full autonomy. China did not sign the Convention, however, leaving the terms of the joint Declaration in full force.

Tibet conducted its international relations primarily by dealing with the British, Chinese, Nepalese and Bhutanese diplomatic missions in Lhasa, but also through government delegations travelling abroad. When India became independent, the British Mission in Lhasa was replaced by an Indian one. During World War II Tibet remained neutral, despite strong pressure from the USA, Britain and China to allow the passage of raw materials through Tibet.

Tibet has never maintained extensive international relations, but those countries with whom it did maintain relations treated Tibet as they would have any sovereign state. Its international status was in fact no different, say, than that of Nepal. Thus, when Nepal applied for membership to the United Nations in 1949, it cited its treaty and diplomatic relations with Tibet to demonstrate its full international personality.

The Invasion of Tibet

The turning point in Tibet's history came in 1949, when the People's Liberation Army of the PRC first crossed into Tibet. After defeating the small Tibetan army and occupying half the country, the Chinese government, in May 1951, imposed the so-called " 17-Point Agreement for the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet" on the Tibetan government. Because it was signed under duress, the agreement lacked validity under international law. The presence of 40000 troops in Tibet, the threat of the immediate occupation of Lhasa, and the prospect of the total obliteration of the Tibetan state, left Tibetans little choice.

As open resistance to the Chinese occupation escalated, particularly in eastern Tibet, the Chinese repression, which included the destruction of religious buildings and the imprisonment of monks and other community leaders, increased dramatically. By 1959, popular uprisings culminated in massive demonstrations in Lhasa. By the time China crushed the uprising, 87000 Tibetans were dead in the Lhasa region alone, and the Dalai Lama had fled to India, where he now resides with the Tibetan Government in Exile.

In 1963 the Dalai Lama promulgated a constitution for a democratic Tibet. It has been successfully implemented, to the extent possible, by the government in exile.

Meanwhile, in Tibet religious persecution, consistent violations of human rights, and the wholesale destruction of religious and historic buildings by the occupying authorities has not succeeded in destroying the spirit of the Tibetan people to resist the destruction of their national identity. 1.2 million Tibetans have lost their lives (more than one sixth of the population) as a result of the Chinese occupation. But the new generation of Tibetans are just as determined to regain the country's independence as the older generation was.


In the course of Tibet's 2000-year history, the country came under a degree of foreign influence only for short periods of time in the thirteenth and eighteenth centuries. Few independent countries today can claim as impressive a record. As the ambassador for Ireland at the UN remarked during General Assembly debates on the question of Tibet, " [for thousands of years, or for a couple of thousand years at any rate, [Tibet] was as free and as fully in control of its own affairs as any nation in this Assembly, and a thousand times more free to look after its own affairs than many of the nations here. "

Numerous other countries made statements in the course of the UN debates that reflected similar recognition of Tibet's independent status. Thus, for example, the delegate from the Philippines declared: " [It is clear that on the eve of the invasion in 1950, Tibet was not under the rule of any foreign country. " The delegate from Thailand reminded the assembly that the majority of states " refute the convention that Tibet is part of China. " The USA joined most other UN members in condemning the Chinese "aggression" and "invasion" of Tibet. In 1959, 1960 and again in 1961, the UN General Assembly passed resolutions (1353-XIV, 1723-XVI and 2079-XX) condemning Chinese human rights abuses in Tibet and calling on China to respect and implement the human rights and fundamental freedoms of the Tibetan people, including their right to self-determination.

From a legal standpoint, Tibet to this day has not lost its statehood. It is an independent state under illegal occupation. Neither China's military invasion nor the continuing occupation by the PLA has transferred the sovereignty of Tibet to China. As pointed out earlier, the Chinese government has not claimed to have acquired sovereignty over Tibet by conquest. Indeed, China recognizes that the use or threat of force (outside the exceptional circumstances provided for in the UN Charter), the imposition of an unequal treaty or the continued illegal occupation of a country can never grant an invader legal title to territory. Its claims are based solely on the alleged subjection of Tibet to a few of China's strongest foreign rulers in the thirteenth and eighteenth centuries.

How can China - one of the most ardent opponents of imperialism and colonialism - excuse its continued presence in Tibet, against the wishes of the Tibetan people, by citing as justification Mongol and Manchu imperialism and its own colonial policies ?

Michael C Van Wait Van Praag

History, Rights
and Prospects in International Law (Westview, 1987)
Reproduced from LUNGTA December 1989

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