By Sarah Weber (guest writer) –
It is now almost seventy years ago that China annexed Tibet and ever since the Tibetans have suffered repression, injustice and loss of individual freedom. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) invaded Tibet in 1950, referring to it as the “peaceful liberation of Tibet”. Initially, the PRC granted national regional autonomy and cultural freedom. The seventeen point agreement, the document that is seen to affirm Chinese sovereignty over Tibet, guaranteed that the existing political system and the authority of the Dalai Lama would not be altered. In reality, Tibet’s whole structure has changed and in fact a slow cultural genocide is taking place.
Today, Tibetans are confronted with forced assimilation and the destruction of their cultural heritage. Those who demand independence or oppose the Chinese rule are arrested, tortured and given long prison terms on charges of Disturbing National Security. Moreover, the Chinese government encourages a large number of ethnic Han Chinese immigrants to settle in Tibet, reducing the Tibetans to a minority in their own country. This in turn leads to an economic marginalization; 70% of business in the capital, Lhasa, are now owned or run by ethnic Chinese. In schools, the Tibetan language has been severely restricted and Tibetan textbooks replaced by Chinese ones.
Regarding the religious infrastructure, the Cultural Revolution has caused the destruction of over 6000 monasteries and religious institutions, equating to 95% of the overall total. Only a few monasteries are left and they function more as tourist attractions than spiritual centers. On top of that, since the occupation, an estimated number of 1.2 Million Tibetans have been killed in labour camps and prisons and around 130,000 live in exile today. 6 Million Tibetans still live inside Tibet.
It seems that the international community has abandoned its outspoken commitment to human rights in the case of Tibet and hardly any country’s leadership is willing to oppose China. Gains in commerce and trade are considered far more important than the cessation of human rights violations or preservation of an ancient culture. For the Tibetans, however, the issue is pressing and whether they live in exile or not, it is of utmost importance that there is a movement that protects the struggle for freedom, the culture and its people.
The 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, escaped to India on March 10, 1959 followed by some 80.000 Tibetans. Upon arrival, he immediately introduced democratic reforms including the foundation of a government in exile, the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA), currently seated in Dharamsala, India. The CTA’s task is to rehabilitate refugees, to protect Tibetan culture and language by promoting an efficient school system and to oversee religious affairs. Additionally, it attempts to draw the attention of the world to the crisis unfolding in Tibet whilst ensuring the continuity of the freedom struggle. The CTA’s ongoing focus on education as a central tenant of the state stands in stark contrast to the worldwide trend of shrinking the welfare state and demonstrates its commitment to social values. The CTA is composed of seven different departments representing priorities of the Tibetan community at large namely Religion & Culture, Home, Finance, Education, Security, Information & International Relations and Health.
Next to a popularly elected prime minister and a parliament of 43 members, this government includes a judiciary. The highest judicial authority in the exile community is the “Tibetan Supreme Justice Commission”. The Commission is responsible for adjudicating civil disputes within the community but does not handle criminal cases, as this is recognized as the preserve of host governments. The function of the CTA is governed by a constitution, “The Charter of Tibetans in Exile”. The charter ensures a clear separation of power among the three branches of government and it professes to adhere to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The prime minister is elected for a period of five years and the next election is due to take place in March 2016.
The CTA’s experiment with modern democracy is a preparation for a future free Tibet. Yet, it is not designed to be the institution that will take power thereafter. The Dalai Lama has announced that the exile government will be dissolved as soon as Tibet attains freedom and that power will be transferred to a transitional government headed by an interim-president for at most two years. Thereafter, power will be handed over to a popularly elected government.
The challenge of every exile government is to exercise legal power whilst residing in another country and to run a state that effectively does not exist. Any government, whether in exile or not, matters mainly when it is recognized by other governments and a majority of the people it claims to represent. For the Tibetans, both inside and outside Tibet, the CTA is recognized as the sole and legitimate representation and the CTA maintains that Tibet is an independent state under unlawful occupation. Yet, the question is whether an exile government can ever be legitimate according to international law. The notion remains a relative concept, as every state can decide who it accepts as a legitimate government. Officially, Tibet is an integral part of China so the government in exile is internationally not considered legitimate, since that would imply a change in the legal status of Tibet. Most countries maintain friendship with China and therefore avoid taking a position in favor of the Tibetan cause for fear of commercial ramifications. So practically, the CTA’s mandate is legally void. Yet, for the Tibetans its existence is essential for survival.
The establishment of the CTA is a rather unique example in the history of statesmanship. The Dalai Lama had to convince Tibetans to accept a democratic administration in which he would no longer be the head of state, as was traditionally his role. Step by step, he ceded power until he eventually stepped down in 2001. Compared to other cases, where the head of state clinches on to power, unwilling to step down, even ready to unleash a civil war, the Tibetan democratization process is a particular example as the process has been top-down in contrast to normal democratization processes. Moreover, the mandate of exile governments is mostly temporary and only transitional, often set up for a time of war and for the redevelopments thereafter. The CTA, however, has existed for almost seventy years and can be expected to exist for the indefinite future.
An international community should prioritize the protection of human rights and the prevention of a cultural genocide over economic interests. Unfortunately this is not the case. So even if the CTA is currently not able to influence the situation in Tibet directly, with its work it guarantees that the struggle for existence goes on. It is the voice of a muted people that makes sure that those silenced by circumstance and injustice are given the most basic of rights; a voice to be heard with.