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Why Tibet Should Be Independent And Why This Will Never Happen

Updated on November 6, 2009

A Long Time to Wait for Tibetan Independence

The independence movement for Tibet is extremely interesting in that it is one of the very few independence movements which gets a lot of coverage and support in the West. Its not often, for example, that you will see a ‘Free Kurdistan’ bumper sticker.

By comparison, Tibet has one of the most media-friendly independence campaigns, due to its pristine landscapes, its vital culture and the international recognition of the Dalai Lama. This is magnified by the brutality shown by the Chinese Army in clamping down on any form of protest within Tibet.

Within the People’s Republic of China (PRC), the historical argument for occupation is a mish-mash of historical claims and a denunciation of the pre-conquest Tibetan regime. Briefly, pro-PRC commentators note that Tibet has long been a ‘part’ of China and note some of the abuses and the relative backwardness of Tibet’s political system at the time of the 1951 conquest.

However, these arguments are unconvincing, not least due to Tibet’s lengthy period of independence from 1911 to 1951, but also due to the type of relations that prevailed between Tibet and China prior to 1911 as one of a client (but separate) state towards an imperial power. The argument that China helped to liberate the Tibetan peasants is also clearly nonsensical as the PRC pursued very few reforms in the first 10 years of occupation.

Even if the pro-PRC arguments were coherent and accurate, they are ultimately irrelevant. This is because it is vital part of democracy that groups of people be allowed to follow the principle of self-determination. Self-determination holds that peoples should be allowed to choose their own governments. It is a vital truth that peoples should have this democratic freedom and that might does not make right. Just as the Chinese were right in defending their country against Japanese invasion in the 1930s, so the Tibetans have a right to seek independence to protect their culture and way of life.

As clear-cut as this message is, it is unfortunate that it seems unlikely that Tibet will ever be free. There are several reasons for this:

Firstly, Tibet is significant strategically, despite its remoteness. This is because it occupies an area full of water which is vital for the PRC to maintain control, especially as water shortages seem more likely in the coming century.

Secondly, Tibet provides an important strategic buffer between China and neighbouring India and Pakistan.

Thirdly, giving independence to Tibet would open up serious problems for the PRC as it would weaken its hold on Xinjiang and promote full de jure independence demands from Taiwan. The PRC leadership is also worried about the effect Tibetan independence would have on other ethnic minorities within China.

As a recognition of this problem, even the Dalai Lama is only seeking political ‘autonomy’ for Tibet, not full independence. This is in the hope that a softer approach will be more amenable to China’s communist government. Unfortunately, the level of propaganda directed at the Dalai Lama and the hatred of him by ordinary Chinese resulting from this propaganda would make it very politically difficult to allow Tibetan autonomy.

Even if China were to become democratic at some point during the next century, these political facts would still remain the same. Any Chinese government would be loath to sign away 1.2 million square km of territory. Moreover, the sparsely populated nature of the region makes it difficult for an armed revolt against Chinese rule, given the breadth of Chinese military resources.

Sadly it seems as though the best Tibet can hope for is some form of autonomy in a future Chinese Democracy. Unfortunately for Tibet, democracy for China currently seems as far away as democracy for Tibet.


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