Has the Himalayas protected India from the Chinese invasion

The Dalai Lama's spectacular escape from his Chinese captors

On March 17, 1959, the Dalai Lama had to leave his Tibetan homeland forever. He narrowly escaped the Chinese military. For Beijing, the Dalai Lama is still the personification of the evil separatist sixty years later.

The memories of the events sixty years ago will probably not let go of the spiritual head of the Tibetan Buddhists until the end of his life. On March 17, 1959, the then 23-year-old 14th Dalai Lama had to flee his homeland in a hurry. Since then, he has never been allowed to step on Tibetan soil.

Six decades after the flight, the charismatic Dalai Lama is still the personification of the evil separatist for the staid Chinese rulers. This despite the fact that he is in favor of the Tibetan areas remaining in the People's Republic. Due to Beijing's tough stance, there are currently no indications that the now 83-year-old Dalai Lama will be allowed to return to his homeland.

The escape was preceded by a seemingly harmless invitation from the Chinese People's Liberation Army, which had its headquarters just outside Lhasa. The leaders of the Chinese military, hated in Tibet, invited the Dalai Lama to a dance on March 10th. However, there was one condition: the armed bodyguard was not allowed to accompany the Dalai Lama.

The Tibetans sensed a trap. They feared that the Chinese would arrest their spiritual leader and take him to Beijing. Around 30,000 Tibetans then surrounded the Norbulingka Summer Palace and formed a human shield for the Dalai Lama. In the days that followed, protests against the Chinese occupiers intensified. The calls for Tibet's independence grew louder.

Disguised as a soldier through the Himalayas

On March 16, the People's Liberation Army deployed heavy artillery within range of Lhasa and near the summer residence. For the Tibetans, this was a sign that a Chinese attack was imminent. So it happened: On the afternoon of March 17th, the Chinese fired mortar shells at the palace.

In his autobiography “My Life and My People” the Dalai Lama writes: “Now the Chinese grenade launchers had given the warning sign of death. Every official within the palace, every modest member of the large entourage around, now thought only one thing: how my life could be protected. And that meant that I had to leave the palace and the city immediately. "

On March 17th at around 10 p.m. the Dalai Lama, wearing a soldier's uniform, set out for the Indian border. After the arduous journey through the Himalayas, he and his little entourage reached the Khenzimane Pass on March 31, where he finally entered Indian territory. On April 3, 1959, Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru declared in parliament that his government had granted the Dalai Lama asylum. At the end of April, the refugee set up the Tibetan government-in-exile in the north Indian city of Mussoorie, which was later relocated to Dharamsala.

In the meantime, fierce fighting between Tibetan and Chinese troops broke out in Lhasa on the evening of March 19. It is estimated that 86,000 Tibetans were killed in Lhasa in the following days. Numerous Tibetan cultural assets were destroyed. Thousands of monks were either killed on the spot, abducted for forced labor or deported, writes Tseten Samdup, the representative of the Dalai Lama in Geneva.

China has been criticized worldwide for decades for its repressive Tibet policy. However, this ricochets off the rulers. According to Beijing's reading, the Tibetan areas were incorporated into the Chinese state during the Yuan Dynasty - between 1279 and 1368. Later, during the Qing Dynasty (1616 to 1912), Tibet had the status of an area associated with China: Beijing was responsible for foreign policy and the military; otherwise Tibet administered itself. With the end of the Qing dynasty and the abdication of the last emperor, Puyi, the 13th Dalai Lama declared Tibet independent. When the young People's Republic of China occupied Tibet in 1950, no foreign government had recognized independent Tibet.

«Autonomy» only on paper

China expert Thomas Heberer writes that, according to Beijing, all peoples who had lived on Chinese territory up to 1911 were Chinese - regardless of their nationality. According to the Chinese understanding of law, only legitimate rights were restored in 1950, which China was unable to exercise between 1912 and 1949 due to temporary weakness and turmoil. However, there is also another point of view: According to the norms of international law that is valid today, the People's Republic of Tibet has occupied, writes Heberer.

Since the Dalai Lama's flight sixty years ago, Beijing has reshaped Tibet according to Han Chinese ideas and tried to destroy traditional culture. In 1965, the Tibet Autonomous Region was established. There are also twelve other autonomous Tibetan prefectures and districts in the provinces of Gansu, Qinghai, Sichuan and Yunnan. However, the word “autonomous” only applies on paper.

The province and the territories must implement the guidelines of the Chinese central government, and the local political actors are loyal to Beijing. However, the Han Chinese do not reach the hearts of the Tibetans with their repressive approach. If you ask the residents of the Tibetan areas whether they are Chinese or Tibetan, you usually get the terse answer: "Of course I am Tibetan."

Resistance to the Chinese occupiers has never died down among the Tibetans. The memory of the events of 1959 in Lhasa in March 2008 turned into fighting between the Chinese security authorities and Tibetans, with many dead. Between 2011 and 2013, numerous Buddhist clergymen burned themselves to death in the provinces of Gansu and Qinghai in protest against the Chinese policy on Tibet. Later lay people joined the action. The number of self-immolations has decreased since the beginning of 2014. However, this is mainly a result of the intensification of repression and surveillance by the Chinese authorities.

Nervousness before the anniversary

The case of the Tibetan Tashi Wangchuk, who comes from Qinghai Province, is an example of how bad things are in terms of human rights and the preservation of Tibetan culture. He was sentenced to five years in prison in May 2018 for allegedly calling for separatism.

His offense was to demand that schools in Tibetan-inhabited areas increase the teaching of the Tibetan language. In the social networks, Tashi Wangchuk had emphasized that most Tibetan children no longer speak their mother tongue fluently. According to the human rights organization Amnesty International, the evidence against him by the Chinese judiciary consisted primarily of the documentary “A Tibetan's Journey for Justice” produced by the New York Times in 2015.

The Chinese authorities, who are extremely sensitive to Tibetan issues, are currently a little more restless than usual. Foreign tourists are not allowed to travel to the Tibet Autonomous Province until the beginning of April. The security forces are worried that demonstrations will take place in Lhasa to mark the 60th anniversary of the Dalai Lama's flight and in memory of the victims of the protests in March 2008. Such images would not fit into the picture of the whole Tibetan world propagated by Beijing.