`The melancholy chapter of Tibet'

THE present rebellion by the Tibetans demanding greater autonomy or even independence from China has its more recent roots in the Sino-Indian Treaty on Tibet signed in April 1954 by Prime Ministers Jawaharlal Nehru and Chou En-lai. The treaty, while ostensibly establishing Sino-Indian friendship under the rubric of ``Panchshil'' (the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence), signed away the autonomy of Tibet without reference to the wishes of the Tibetan people, who had enjoyed virtual independence since a 1913 agreement between British India, China, and Tibet. The Sino-Indian Treaty was signed in 1954 despite Nehru's own doubts regarding Chinese declarations of ``liberating'' Tibet.

In the negotiations leading to the 1954 Sino-Indian Treaty on Tibet, India had insisted on the term ``the Autonomous Region of Tibet'' and demanded that such autonomy be guaranteed. Yet when the treaty was finalized, it referred instead to the ``Tibet Region of China.'' This most critical Indian concession eventually led to a minor revolt in Tibet in 1956, then a major rebellion in 1959, and eventually to the Sino-Indian war of 1962. The deterioration in Sino-Indian relations began with the 1959 Tibetan revolt, when the young Dalai Lama and large numbers of Tibetan refugees fled to India.

The Sino-Indian border dispute over the McMahon Line in the northeast sector, which led to war in 1962, may be traced back to the same Simla Conference of 1913-14 which had acknowledged the autonomy of Tibet. The Sino-Indian border dispute over the Aksai Chin Plateau in the northwest sector, through which China had built a road linking Tibet with Sinkiang, stemmed from disputes regarding control of this region by the past maharajahs of Kashmir.

At the 1913-14 Simla Conference, the Tibetan plenipotentiary had sat on equal terms with the plenipotentiaries of British India and China, thereby tacitly indicating Chinese acquiescence to the independence of Tibet. Although China later repudiated the Simla Convention, in effect, Tibet enjoyed total independence for 40 years thereafter. To be sure, Tibet did not have diplomatic relations with any country during this time. But there was a British ``resident'' from India stationed in Lhasa.

Even before the 20th century, Tibet was only a ``semi-independent feudatory'' of the Manchu Empire. The Manchus took nominal control of Tibet in the 17th century after their victory over the Mongol armies which had first invaded and occupied Tibet in the 13th century under Genghis Khan. The Manchus maintained a resident in Lhasa (similar to the British resident) and about 3,000 troops to protect the road that linked Lhasa with China. It was not until 1905 that China formally conquered Tibet under Gen. Chao Erh-feng, and the conquest lasted until the Chinese Nationalist revolution of 1911. This would imply that China's right to ``liberate'' Tibet in 1950 was based on less than eight years of occupation in the early part of this century, and then only by armed conquest.

The signing of the 1954 Sino-Indian Treaty compromising Tibet's autonomy led to an uproar in the Indian Parliament. There were cries of ``Shame! Shame!'' by both opposition and ruling party members. Nehru, however, argued that the treaty guaranteed peace between two Asian giants with radically different political and economic systems and with 1,800 miles of common frontier: ``Several Honourable Members have referred to the `Melancholy Chapter of Tibet.' I really do not understand.... What did any Honourable Member of this House expect us to do in regard to Tibet at any time? Did we fail, or did we do a wrong thing?... The fact is, and it is a major fact of the middle of the 20th century, that China has become a great power, united and strong.''

Yet the fact is, the independence of Tibet was signed away in 1954 by two great Asian powers and without peace being guaranteed in Asia, either. Nobody gained. Tibet was deprived of its devoutly religious and cultural way of life, based on its adherence to Buddhism for more than 2,000 years. This consequence should have been a foregone conclusion ever since the Chinese communists talked of ``liberating'' Tibet after their own revolution of 1949.

Again, within eight years of the treaty, India and China fought a war along their Himalayan frontiers that ended in the crushing defeat and humiliation of the Indian Army. The Sino-Indian border dispute was the outcome of the failure to grant Tibet even limited autonomy, since this erased the ``buffer'' and brought the new Chinese state to the borders of India. The Sino-Indian border dispute is still unresolved, and with yet another Tibetan revolt in progress - albeit more subdued - the prospects of a settlement look dim.

Perhaps little can be done now to unwrite the ``melancholy chapter of Tibet.'' Please observe, however, the many parallels between Tibet and Afghanistan, both of which have been invaded and occupied by communist armies. Unlike the warlike Afghans, the peaceful Tibetans did not attract sufficient world attention to help them defend their country and their national identity.

Raju G. C. Thomas, professor of political science at Marquette University, is the author of ``Indian Security Policy'' (Princeton, 1986) and ``The Defense of India'' (Macmillan, 1978).

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