Helping Tibet in its Struggle for Freedom
by Michael C. Van Walt
WASHINGTON - The Dalai Lama, Tibet's exiled head of state, recently
completed visits to European countries. Despite strong Chinese pressure,
this year's Nobel Peace laureate was received by senior government and party
leaders in most of the countries he visited. In September he will visit the
United States. Will the U.S. government welcome this advocate of peace and
nonviolence? Or will the Bush administration continue to appease Beijing's
aging dictator by refusing to do so? Will President Bush join Presidents
Vaclav Havel, Oscar Arias, Carlos Salinas, V. P. Sing and others to welcome
the Tibetan leader? Will he receive him as he received Nelson Mandela and
Lithuanian Prime Minister Kazimeira Prunskiene, or will he miss the
opportunity to play a constructive role in promoting a negotiated solution
to the occupation of Tibet?
Mandela and Prunskiene both represent struggles for freedom, one from a
racist regime, the other from an alien occupation. The Tibetan struggle is
against both, racist oppression and foreign communist occupation. The
leaders of all three movements have called for negotiation and peaceful
democratic change. The South African and Baltic struggles are by no means
over, but F. W. de Klerk and Mikhail Gorbachev are responding with at least
a willingness to consider reform. However, Deng Xiaoping, Li Peng and their
colleagues respond with force; tanks, arrests, executions and torture.
Just as the South African issue cannot be resolved until apartheid is
dismantled, there can be no lasting solution to the Tibetan problem without
a dismantling of the colonial Chinese system in Tibet.
The similarities between the Baltic states and Tibet are striking. Both
represent highly strategic areas. Both were forcibly occupied by a giant
communist neighbor; the Baltic states in 1939, Tibet in 1949-50. Both have
suffered demographic aggression (the transfer of millions of Russians and
Chinese to the Baltic states and Tibet, respectively). The people and
governments of the Baltic states claim, as do the Tibetan people and their
government, that their nations are illegally occupied independent countries
that were never legitimately annexed by the aggressor. The Baltic states
are in the process of reclaiming the full sovereignty which such
independence entitles them to recover. The course Tibet is following is not
always as clear to the observer.
Unlike the Baltic governments and citizen's representative bodies elected in
each country, the Tibetan government and its elected parliament operate in
exile, in India. They have been operating remarkably effectively from the
North Indian town of Dharamsala for 31 years, keeping the struggle for
freedom alive and rebuilding a nation in exile. The Tibetan government's
objective has always been to regain Tibet's sovereignty in accordance with
the wishes of the Tibetan people.
In 1987, the Dalai Lama announced a five-point peace plan for the
restoration of peace and human rights in Tibet. That plan called for
respect for human rights and democratic freedoms; protection of the
environment; and end to China's population transfer policy; and the
transformation of Tibet into a demilitarized zone of peace and nonviolence.
The plan also called for earnest negotiations between Tibet and China over
the future of Tibet.
The Dalai Lama expanded on his proposal for a negotiated settlement by
suggesting the possibility of a "middle way" between the restoration of
total independence for Tibet and its present complete absorption by China.
These thoughts, which had been conveyed to Chinese leaders on numerous
occasions by Tibetan officials, were made public during a visit to the
European Parliament in Strasbourg, in June 1988. Essentially, the Strasbourg
Proposal, as it later came to be known, suggested the restoration of
complete self-government for Tibet but provided that China could retain
overall responsibility for Tibet's foreign policy. The proposal was not a
departure from the peace plan, but an elaboration of it.
The international community reacted positively to the Dalai Lama's
initiatives, but China rejected them and refused to open negotiations
despite declaring publicly that it was willing to do so. Today, China still
refuses to discuss the Dalai Lama's proposal and the repression of Tibetans
by Chinese forces has increased. Following more demonstrations in Tibet and
a massacre of hundreds of Tibetans in Lhasa, the army took control in March
of 1989 and put Tibet under martial law for over a year. After the Beijing
massacre, Chinese officials stopped responding to any Tibetan government
It will be difficult for the Dalai Lama to persist in his attempt for a
negotiated solution along the lines he proposed in Strasbourg.
China's leaders are clearly unwilling to discuss even a "middle way"
proposal, and many Tibetans have voiced their opposition to any arrangement
that could give China any rights in or over Tibet. They believe China would
abuse those rights at the first opportunity; if the Chinese are not even
willing to discuss the Dalai Lama's proposal, why would they every
voluntarily implement it?
Today, the question of Tibet's illegal occupation can no longer be ignored.
This year's Nobel Peace Prize was a strong endorsement not only of the Dalai
Lama himself, but also of the legitimacy of the Tibetan struggle for
freedom. Even Chinese exiles are increasingly siding with the Tibetans and
recognizing that Tibetans have a right to determine their own destiny. So
there is reason for optimism.
The Baltic states have declared their intention to reestablish the full
sovereignty which is theirs by law and by moral right. Their path is a
difficult one, but their goal no longer so remote. The challege Tibet faces
is, if anything, more formidable. Its oppressor is more intractable, and
the West is less willing to help bring China to its senses that it is to
encourage an equitable end to the Soviet occupation. But Tibetans are
determined. With a new and stronger elected government in place in exile
and a Nobel laureate to lead the peaceful struggle into a new phase,
Tibetans should be next to assert their rights, and Tibet should become the
next focus of world attention, sympathy and support. President Bush should
place the U.S. on the right side of the issue. He has the opportunity of
learning firsthand what that side is.
Source: The Boston Globe, July 14, 1990
(Michael C. van Walt is the legal advisor of the Dalai Lama.)