Rethink the Status of Tibet

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Nearly 100 Tibetans have committed suicide over the past three years in protest of conditions under Chinese rule. At first, the self-immolators were mostly monks and nuns. Now more lay people, women and parents of young children are joining them.

In response, Beijing has intensified the policies that have already caused so much despair. It continues to denigrate the Dalai Lama and Tibetan religion and language. It has increased already harsh security measures, and imposed criminal penalties on relatives of the suicide protestors.

What is to be done in the face of such repression? For starters, the world must re-examine how it acquiesced to China's Tibet policies.

When the People's Liberation Army invaded Tibet in 1950, Washington, along with London and Delhi, stood aside. This despite the fact that all three countries then believed Tibet to be de facto independent. The U.S. even considered making this case at the United Nations.

As Tsering Shakya recounts in his 2000 book "The Dragon in the Land of Snows," the U.S. went so far as draft a diplomatic memorandum for Great Britain. It argued that "the Tibetan people has the [same] inherent right as any other to have the determining voice in its political destiny…. [S]hould developments warrant, consideration could be given to recognition of Tibet as an independent State."

That never came to pass. Britain was sounding its colonial retreat, leaving its prerogatives in Tibet to newly independent India. Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru dreamed of cooperation on world affairs with China's communists, and believed he could deal effectively with Beijing on Tibet.

As for Washington, it soon became preoccupied with the war in Korea and once again subordinated Tibet to perceived larger interests. In the 19th century, Tibet was ignored in favor of commercial prospects in China and the Open Door Policy. Over the last century, the priority was setting up China as a counterweight to Japan and then the Soviet Union.

What if Tibet's claim to independence had been preserved rather than conceded? The U.S. and other countries would be in a much better position today to resist China's increasingly assertive claims of Tibet as a "core interest" and rebut Beijing's insistence on sovereignty as a complete bar to pressure on human rights. This claim has an impact on international affairs well beyond Tibet, permeating diplomacy and gutting the effectiveness of the United Nations on other crises like Syria.

The first step toward a new approach to Tibet is simple, although not easy. The U.S., its European allies, Japan and India should coordinate to reverse the dynamic of pressure and concession that China itself uses so effectively. This means backing those leaders who, like Estonian President Toomas Ilves, dared to meet the Dalai Lama. The religious leader's access in other capitals must be expanded.

Democracies must also respond to the Dalai Lama's plans for the future. After his death, Beijing will appoint a bogus successor through "guidelines on reincarnation" issued by the communist government's religious affairs department. It is not too soon for world governments to respond to Beijing's plan to destroy the most important institution in Tibetan Buddhism, a figure of inestimable importance to Tibetans both inside Tibet and in exile.

This should include endorsing the Dalai Lama's plan for his succession, a matter which might normally be outside the purview of governments. But under the circumstances is vital to the mission of preserving Tibetan religion and identity.

The U.S., Europe, India and Japan should also work together to establish regular contacts with the elected leader of the Tibetan exile government, Lobsang Sangay. This would help Tibetans to press for an easing of conditions inside Tibet and to engage with Beijing on solutions for the future.

All of these steps could reverse what now seems to be a never ending cycle of repression. Historically, the U.S. has subordinated its policy on Tibet to what it considered a larger strategic interest. It is time for a review of these policies and their effectiveness as well as new thinking to address the escalating suffering in Tibet.

Such a review need not endorse Tibetan independence, a goal which the Dalai Lama himself renounced in the 1970s and which many Tibetans also do not see as a priority. But understanding how the world acquiesced in communist China's subjugation of Tibet and the ineffective policies that flowed from that decision should enable the U.S. and other democracies to recover the principle American diplomats expressed in the 1950s, the right of Tibetans to determine the future of their homeland.

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