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Posted October 22, 2007

Tibet Will Remain World’s Largest Colony Unless China Takes Action, Panelists Say

Sangay
Lobsang Sangay, Research Associate at Harvard Law School’s East Asian Legal Studies Program.

Photo courtesy of Nick Nelson '10.

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Emily Williams

The colonization of Africa and Asia mostly dissolved in the years following World War II. But for the past fifty years, the international community has essentially abandoned what two visiting scholars called the world’s largest remaining colony.

Though Americans celebrate Tibet’s culture and Buddhist religious traditions, the United States and other powerful nations have neglected to press China to withdraw from Tibet, the Asian territory that the Chinese People’s Liberation Army conquered in 1950, said Robert Sloane, a professor at Boston University School of Law and board chairman of the Tibet Justice Center, an organization advocating for Tibet’s right to self-determination.

“It’s nice that Hollywood movies have glorified Tibet,” Sloane said. “And it’s nice that people find its culture and its religion to be fascinating. But in practice, politically, the world has essentially ignored Tibet.”

Sloane was one of two guest speakers at “Tibet: The World’s Largest Remaining Colony? Problems and Prospects for a Political Settlement” held at the University of Virginia School of Law on Oct. 16. Lobsang Sangay, a research associate at Harvard Law School’s East Asian Legal Studies Program, also spoke at the event, which was sponsored by the Human Rights Program and the J.B. Moore Society of International Law.

Sloane and Sangay’s appearance in Charlottesville coincided with a visit to Washington, D.C. by the Dalai Lama, Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader, who received the Congressional Gold Medal last week.

According to Sloane, Tibetans constitute a distinct people who are unique from the Chinese because they have their own language, culture, history and identity. As such, under international law they have a right to self-determination, he said.

Sangay argued that the Chinese army’s entrance into Tibet in 1950 amounted to an invasion and colonization of a sovereign people because Tibet has never been part of China. Delivering what he jokingly referred to a 20-minute “fast-food” version of Tibetan history, Sangay, who event organizers said is the first Tibetan to receive a Ph.D. from Harvard, said the centuries-old relationship between Buddhist Tibetans and the Chinese emperors had been religious in nature rather than political. Tibetan rulers acted as spiritual gurus for Buddhist Chinese emperors, he said.

According to Sangay, in 1951 China forced Tibetan leaders to sign an agreement under duress that surrendered sovereignty of Tibet to the People’s Republic of China. He disputed what he said were China’s justifications for invading and remaining in Tibet, including the stated goals of liberating Tibetans from what had been a repressive feudal system and of improving the region through better education and economic development.

The fact that thousands of Tibetans annually try to flee through the treacherous Himalayan Mountains to take refuge in neighboring India is evidence of the difficulties and oppression Tibetans face under Chinese rule, Sangay said.

“Why would … parents send [their] … kids over the Himalayan Mountains to India?” he asked. “If they come to India, they’re deprived of their rights. This is evidence that [life in] Tibet is not hunky-dory.”

Neither speaker seemed optimistic about the prospects of improved conditions for Tibet. Sloane said China’s status as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council and as an economic powerhouse has deterred the international community from making a serious push to secure more freedoms for Tibetans. Though there are peaceful organizations and movements inside Tibet calling for greater freedoms, conditions won’t improve until China’s leaders decide to make changes, Sloane said.

In addition to the plight of Tibetans, Sloane said there other troubling implications of the international community’s lack of support for Tibet’s peaceful push for freedom. He said young Tibetans advocating peaceful means of change can’t help but notice the violent tactics employed by groups in other countries.

“They see that violence gets results,” he said. “Is that the message that we, the international community, at a time that we want to fight terrorism and de-legitimize it, want to be sending internationally, that violence gets results …. but peaceful efforts at negotiation will get your ignored?” he asked. “How can this view be anything but hypocritical?”
• Reported by Dena Sloan Kessler ‘09