"...if the situation was such that there was only one learned lama or genuine practitioner alive, a person whose death would cause the whole of Tibet to lose all hope of keeping its Buddhist way of life, then it is conceivable that in order to protect that one person it might be justified for one or 10 enemies to be eliminated."--Tenzin Gyatso, 14th Dalai Lama
Acceptable Independence Movements
I ask the question about Tibetan independence not as an ideological proposition or statement, but as a search for when it is truly acceptable and legitimate for a group of people to seek independence from their government. There may be those who would say never, but even China once had to free itself from foreign control, as well as the US. At some level, most countries have to concede that there are some circumstances when it is acceptable.
Of course, the most obvious are those states that were invaded by an alien power, occupied, and their governments replaced by the invading authorities. These are not just cases of nations being occupied, but real existing independent states being targeted for elimination from a foreign invader. Those are classic cases for legitimate national liberation struggles, which engulfed much of the Third World around the time of de-colonization in the 20th century (and dating back to the 19th century, if you include Latin America, and maybe even the US, if you accept that the European settlers in North America were oppressed natives).
The second cause would be those nations who have lived under a state not of their making, have accepted over time its jurisdiction, but have seen its remaining rights taken away by that government. That in and of itself is not enough, of course--otherwise, the Confederacy during the American Civil War was right. The important feature of this scenario is that the national group is given no legal recourse to air their grievances. More importantly, on those occasions when they do try to deliver those grievances, their actions are met with a repressive reaction that further discriminates against the national grouping and enslaves them to the will of an oppressive government that allots the locals with no true political representation. National groups like this are abound and usually have existed as colonial tributaries or subjects of a dominant nation state (like the Tartars under the Russians or Africans under Arabicized Egypt).
The third cause would be those groups who actually retained autonomy, but then faced a rescinding of those rights by the home government. In such cases, the group’s appeals are met with greater repression to guarantee their acquiescence. Hence, the group would feel as though it had no choice but to rebel in some way against the overarching state. A prime example of this would be Kosovo, whose autonomy was repealed by the Yugoslavian government, precipitating an independence movement that culminated in Kosovo’s independence this last month (thanks to the KLA and its friends in NATO).
All of these scenarios have one theme in common. The national group lacks some kind of recourse to appeal its cause and rights. With no recourse, the group feels it must use some type of resistance to make its case.
A Nation By Any Other Name
The biggest feature of these movements is that they represent a nation with a territory to call its own (and a territory that the group in question has historical claims to). This is one of the greatest rooms for debate, as there are numerous groups whose claims to identity are disputed or denied. In addition, there is almost always more than one group with some kind of claim to a chunk of land. Poland at one time extended much further into eastern and central Europe, and at one time Germany encompassed much of today’s Poland. How do you decide which group has the most legitimate claim? There really is no right or wrong answer to this question. I suppose at the end of the day, the side who wins is able to write its history about how it was able to justly claim the land as their own. This is what has taken place in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but even there it is anyone’s guess what the results will be.
The other quandary of national liberation movements is what really constitutes a national group of people? Most of today’s Jews are descendants of Eastern European Jews, most of whom are not historically part of the original twelve tribes from ancient Israel. Palestinians are not even an ethnic group, but a hodgepodge of ancient Canaanites, Arabs, and neighboring groups, most of whom never even spoke Arabic until after the Middle Ages and were Christian into modern times. The Germanic tribe, the Huns, originally migrated into today’s Germany from the Volga River, in Russia--meaning that descendants of this German tribe are actually Slavic, something I am sure the bohemian corporal from Austria omitted when rhetorically exhorting his blonde-haired, blue-eyed beasts in their war against the Russians. Indeed, there are probably very few ethnic groups on this planet that can claim to be rightly pure or a product of their own national ethos without outside influence or bastardization.
So, when is a national group really a national group and not a bunch of interbred peoples? There is no acceptable standard to this, which means that it depends mostly on the ability of the movements to write their own culturally dominant and accepted narrative about the origins of their group. That is not exactly the same as saying your nation is truly a nation. The politics of nationhood means that such questions, more often than not, will be determined by some means of legitimization.
What About Tibet?
It is undeniable that Tibetans are a national group with a claim to a land that they call their own, and have done so for centuries. Even the Chinese government recognizes this, as Tibetans are one of the 55 state-sanctioned ethnic minorities of the PRC (and the province of Tibet encompasses the same historical land as its ancestors). There is even less doubt the autonomy that Tibet possessed was forcibly wrestled away by the Chinese government, through a military invasion that inflicted much greater damage on Tibet than any of its monks could have dreamt of.
Politically and legally, the lack of recourse for Tibetans is something that is not even a consideration, because it is self-evident to anyone in Tibet, or for that matter in Beijing, that it is non-existent. The PRC has a federal system on paper, but the locals, no matter how local, are always tied in some way with the CCP or someone in a position of political leadership. And while the central government would love nothing more than to placate its minorities (after all, the PRC’s ethnic minorities, including the Tibetans, are not subject to the One Child policy), it is not a government that values highly what it perceives to be any challenge to its authority.
The ultimate problem with Tibetan independence is that it is a movement that has no chance of politically and strategically succeeding in the PRC. This is a government that has no qualms about crushing dissent and dissenters when it feels it necessary. The Tibetan independence movement has nothing outside of its message and some sympathizers, most of whom are not even in the Tibet or China to begin with.
The best the Tibetan independence movement can hope to do is to embarrass the Chinese, now and later at the Olympics, but even then it is questionable how successful such tactics will be. The Chinese, for their part, have made it clear that they will respond to such criticism by clamping down on any pro-independence expressions--be it tightening the regulations on outside entertainers who visit China, access to Tibet by foreigners, and a sustained campaign of denial and reverse victimology when attacking the Dalai Lama for being a clandestine terrorist.
The history of Tibetan autonomy has always been intertwined with political changes in China itself. When the Empire of China collapsed, the Republic of China deemed it advantageous to grant Tibet greater self-rule. When the People’s Republic was declared, the Communists quickly reversed this policy to invade and formally annex Tibet. Thus, for the current situation in Tibet to change, because of its lack of size and inability to project itself in a meaningful way (outside of the living room of Steven Seagal), the change will have to start with the government in Beijing. If the Tiananmen Square incident has illustrated anything, it is that the central government of Beijing does not care much of what the outside world thinks of it. That is as true now as it was in 1989.
So, for the Tibetans, what is to be done? This is an open question. Even if their cause is right, their movement is polluted by a theocratic leadership that makes the Kosovo Liberation Army appear legitimate by comparison. For over four decades, the Dalai Lama was on the payroll of the American taxpayer through the Central Intelligence Agency (and that is by the Dalai Lama’s own admission). And what kind of government would the Tibetans have, even if they replaced the CCP in Tibet? Considering its past, there is no guarantee that it would be democratic.
Lastly, if the Dalai Lama did come back, under perfect circumstances, and become the philosopher king of an independent Tibet, what kind of ruler would he be? He might pass himself off as a Gandhian pacifist to useful idiots in the West, but this is a man who has within the last several years reaffirmed his hatred of gays, abortion, and rationalized the potential violent elimination of opponents of Buddhism in Tibet. And note the Dalai Lama’s recent comments about how the Chinese government was committing “cultural genocide” in China--this would seemingly mean that revolutionary violence was not only acceptable but a must to preserve what they believe constitutes their Buddhist culture in Tibet.
And how is it exactly that the Chinese can invade Tibet, kill a million of its people, import hundreds of thousands of ethnic Hans, to the point that they have become the dominant economic actors inside of Tibet, and the Dalai Lama waits until a couple of monks are arrested to accuse the government of committing genocide? These are the kinds of questions that people should be asking, but of course they do not. Being a historical victim of some wrong does not obfuscate the political responsibility of any party. If the national liberation movements in the Third World in the 20th century have taught us anything, it is that the process of independence is more important than gaining independence itself, because it will dictate what kind of government (for better or worse) that the national group will have upon gaining their independence. At this point, as a non-Buddhist and believer in disbelief, I cannot say that I would prefer to live under the likes of a Dalai Lama or any of his tolerantly intolerant monks.