Despite its unique culture, language and religion Tibet was a vassal state of the Chinese Empire for centuries, but only under Mao Zedong was it defined as an integral part of China following its invasion in 1950.
When Tibetans rose up in 1959 they were violently crushed by China and the Dalai Lama was forced to flee to India, becoming the world’s most famous refugee.
For Beijing the Dalai Lama is a wolf in sheep’s clothing; a political leader, not the religious head of a minority; a globetrotting character who wants the world to support Tibet’s secession and independence.
In reality for years the Dalai Lama has been calling for Tibet’s cultural and religious autonomy, leaving power and territory to China. But that is not enough for Beijing. Not only are photos of Tibet’s spiritual leader and songs in his honour banned but China controls monks and reincarnations, and as soon a demonstration takes place, it unleashes its repressive might as it did last year before the Olympics when some 200 people were violently killed.
China’s interest in Tibet is first of all economic. In addition to tourism, the Himalayan region is rich in minerals like copper, aluminium and uranium. But nationalism also plays a role because China’s Communist Party is concerned that if Tibet gets its autonomy, other regions might make the same demand, breaking the unity of the country and undermining the power of the party.
President Hu Jintao yesterday said that it was urgent to “build up a Great Wall in our fight against separatism and safeguard the unity of the motherland.” As party boss in Tibet he imposed martial law on the region in 1989, militarily crushing Tibetan demonstrations.
As it currently enforces martial law, China through its foreign minister, Yang Jiechi, has warned the rest of the world not to play host to the Dalai Lama, not even in his capacity as a religious leader.
Given its importance in the world economy more and more nations are towing the mainland’s line, including India, Nepal, and South Korea. There are signs that some European countries as well as the United States might be doing the same as well.
Still desperation and impatience are driving many Tibetans, especially the young, to envisage armed struggle.
Only the Dalai lama could lead them back to the path of peace. Without him, and given Beijing’s totalitarian demands, only more blood and violence can be expected.