Volume 1 Number 5
What Future for Tibet?
01 January 1988

My wife and I were back in the area and often met little groups of Tibetan refugees, straggling down through the Himalayan foothills, offering to sell their few possessions for Indian rupees. It was then I began to fear that the world might be losing a precious culture.

If a visitor from outer space, with a strategic turn of mind, were to look down on our globe, he might well pick out the high plateau between the Himalayan and Tien Shan ranges. He would not know, probably, that the three most populous countries of the world meet there; nor that, as far back as history goes, it has sent out successive waves of mounted marauders to the four corners; nor that, before records began, the Indians of North and South America may have had their origins there. But he would see that the area is like a gigantic mediaeval castle, surrounded on all sides by mountain ramparts, with lines of communication radiating out to all parts of the Euro-Asian land-mass.

A large portion of this high plateau is Tibet. My interest in the country has built up since the war, when I was stationed in Dehra Dun, India, near the border with Tibet. I was intrigued by the fine Tibetan silver and mysterious religious scrolls in the Regimental Mess of the 9th Gurkhas, brought back from the Younghusband expedition in 1904, and by the combination of hardiness and gentleness displayed by the two Tibetans in my command. Women traders would pass through on foot on their way from Lhasa to Teheran, carrying lapis lazuli to be exchanged for Persian gems. Years later, after the Dalai Lama's flight from Tibet in 1959, my wife and I were back in the area and often met little groups of Tibetan refugees, straggling down through the Himalayan foothills, offering to sell their few possessions for Indian rupees. It was then I began to fear that the world might be losing a precious culture.

Tibet is unique not only in its location, but also in its political heritage. Until 1950 it was governed for over 300 years by Buddhist High Priest Kings who were both mystics and skilful politicians.

Buddhism began to spread to Central Asia from India in the second century AD. It reached Tibet in the seventh century, during the reign of Songsten Gampo. Central Asia was then much more populous and fertile; the strange ghost cities along the ancient silk route in the Takla Makan and Gobi deserts speak of an era of great prosperity. In this vast area Songsten Gampo was no petty king. His descendants were spiritual and moral mentors to the rulers of China, a relationship which persisted into our own century.

In the 18th and 19th centuries Tibet's importance was highly rated by London, Calcutta, Moscow and Beijing. The `great game' of Curzon and Kipling was in part about the control of Tibet. Hence the Younghusband Expedition of 1904.
In 1950 Mao Tse-tung, having finally won control of China, sent the People's Liberation Army (PLA) into Tibet under a 17-point `agreement' to which the Dalai Lama appended neither his signature nor his seal. Believing that the Chinese were about to kill the Dalai Lama, the people of Lhasa rose in open rebellion on 10 March 1959. He escaped over the Himalayas to India. The Chinese stifled the uprising and contained subsequent guerrilla outbreaks. The Dalai Lama now leads a government-in-exile at Dharmsala in north-west India.
Before these events, in 1954, the Dalai Lama attended the Peoples' National Assembly in Beijing, despite the grave apprehensions of his people. Although not yet 20, he found himself faced with Krushchev and Bulganin, with Nehru, and, on the Chinese side, Chou En-lai and Mao Tse-tung. He had several tete-a-tetes with Mao, all amiable until Mao's final fierce whisper, `All this religious business is fine but you and I know that it is eyewash.'

The implications of Mao's remark became all too apparent after the 1959 rising and during the Cultural Revolution. Bitterness grew as first the PLA and then the Red Guards set out to destroy Buddhism. Thousands of monasteries, most of them priceless historical monuments full of magnificent works of art, were destroyed. The monks and nuns were dispersed amid great brutality, in which one in six Tibetans were killed. The educational system was given a purely atheistic basis.

From 1980 conditions for Tibetans became marginally better. Then in September and October, 1987, riots erupted in Lhasa. I heard the news while visiting Kazakhstan and Sinkiang, 500 miles to the north. Earlier, in March, I had visited Lhasa - and seen tense confrontations between young Tibetans and Chinese soldiers. The tinder was dry even then.

It is too early to say what approach to Tibet the new five- man Central Committee in Beijing will adopt; their only public statement so far is non-committal. In September in Washington and Strasbourg the Dalai Lama proposed an historic five-point peace plan, which includes the idea of transforming the whole of a decolonized and reunited Tibet into a zone of peace.

In January 1985 I spent three days in the Dalai Lama's company when he inaugurated a conference on Asian Development in India. His sensitivity and great -heartedness were impressive. He spoke of the good in socialism and said that Tibetans, in seeking the return of independence, should not dismiss the constructive things the Chinese had done in their country. He wanted to explore with the Chinese ways of shaping the future which would be acceptable to both nations.

This spirit, together with the knowledge that many Chinese already question the Politburo's Tibetan line, gives me hope that a way can be found, with God's help, to resolve a tragic conflict and save a unique culture.

William Peters, a former British Ambassador, is Chairman of the Tibet Society and Relief Fund of the UK.