Updated: Oct 18, 2021
Tibet sits nestled between Bhutan, Nepal, and India in southern Asia. The country is filled with vast plateaus and mountain ranges. Due to its unique landscape, the region is often referred to as the “roof of the world” and attracts tourists worldwide.
Tibetan history traces back more than 2,000 years. Like China, Tibet had an“imperial age” when its whole was united under one leader. During this time, Tibet was an independent state and was even noted in China’s records as being a strong state, which China was forced to deal with on equal footing.
However, Tibet is now governed as an autonomous region of China. Its theocratic leader is the exiled Dali Lama.
Tibet’s Rocky History With Independence
As Genghis Khan’s Empire stretched into Europe and China in the thirteenth century, Tibetan leaders came to an agreement with Mongol rulers to avoid their otherwise inevitable conquest. They agreed to political allegiance, religious teachings, and blessings for protection.
This religious relationship grew to be so crucial that when Kublai Khan took over China to form the Yuan dynasty, he invited the then Sakaya Lama to work as an Imperial Preceptor and pontiff on his empire.
Mongol control over Tibet lasted relatively briefly, breaking away from the Yuan emperor before China regained independence from the Mongols to establish the Ming Dynasty. The Ming Dynasty (1368, 1644) had no authority and few ties to Tibet.
On the other hand, the Manchus, who created the Quing Dynasty after conquering China, welcomed Tibetan Buddhism and formed close ties with Tibet. The then Dalai Lama agreed to be the spiritual guide for the Qing Dynasty. This did not affect Tibet’s independence, although, on four occasions, Manchu emperors sent imperial troops into Tibet to protect the Tibetan people from attackers. “At the height of Manchu power, which lasted a few decades, the situation was not unlike that which can exist between a superpower and a neighboring satellite or protectorate,” according to Walt Van Pragg, of Cultural Survival.
The British invaded Tibet in 1904. By this point, Manchu’s influence was almost entirely void. The Qing Dynasty was overthrown, and any and all ties between the Dalai Lama and the Manchus were cut.
Following this takeover, Tibet and China’s ties to one another completely dissolved.
China Claims Tibet As Its Own
The central turning point for Tibet’s sovereignty struck in 1949 when the People’s Liberation Army of the People’s Republic of China invaded Tibet. The Chinese defeated the Tibetan army and forced the Tibetan government to sign their “17-Point Agreement for the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet.” “Many Tibetans (especially those outside China) consider China’s action to be an invasion of a sovereign country, and the continued Chinese presence in Tibet is deemed an occupation by a foreign power,” according to Britannica.
China opposes this view, believing that Tibet has been a part of China for hundreds of years. They argue that they liberated Tibet from an oppressive regime, where the people lived like peasants. Most western countries, however, side with Tibet.
Ongoing Human Rights Violations in Tibet
Aside from the debate over Tibet’s national status, the Human Rights Watch also noted that “Tibet has been, for more than a decade, a place where some of the most visible and egregious human rights violations committed by the Chinese state have occurred.”
The Dalai Lama says that around 1.2 million Tibetans were killed while under Chinese rule. He also says that China has actively suppressed Tibetan identity and favors Han Chinese immigrants. China disputes claims of murdering Tibetans, although they do acknowledge some abuses.
Religious oppression also runs rampant in Tibet. One prominent example of this is Chinese patriotic education which aims to eliminate and undermine the Dali Lama’s word. Another well-known case is the oppression of Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, the chosen reincarnation of the Dali Lama. The child and their family have been kept under house arrest by the Chinese government for over five years.
“Disturbing evidence that torture of prisoners in Tibet continues, [with] a number of cases resulting in death in custody. Torture has become entrenched in Tibet as part of the price that political activists must pay,” the Human Rights Watch further wrote. Furthermore, of the estimated 600 political prisoners being held in Tibet, the majority of them monks and nuns.
China also has limited Tibetans’ access to technology and information. Apple has been granting the Chinese request to block 1000+ VPN’s in Tibet and regions of China around it. Specific news media outlets have been blocked from Tibetans as well.
Free Tibet Movement
In response to the hostile takeover and oppression of the Tibetan people, the Free Tibet movement was formed in 1987.
The Free Tibet movement asserts that a free Tibet is one “in which Tibetans are able to determine their own future and the human rights of all are respected.” They advocate for an end to China’s occupation of Tibet, and for the international recognition of Tibetans’ rights to freedom.
There are four pillars of the movement: sharing accurate information, challenging China, lobbying and campaigning, and growing support for Tibet. The movement works closely with Tibet Watch to obtain the most recent news about Tibet and pressures world leaders to expose Tibet’s reality. They also collect and provide evidence of ongoing human rights abuses in Tibet, and lobby political leaders to take action.