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Published on September 3rd, 2013 | by Usman Butt
Image © Lucag. 2013


Tibet: China’s Secret War

Events in Egypt remind the world about the fragility of the Middle East and North Africa region (MENA), post Arab-Spring. Events there dominate our news agendas, and for good reason, but throughout the world there are conflicts which have raged for generations. These conflicts do not feature very highly on the news agenda and very few people, outside the region in question, have any idea that any such conflict is going on.

In the last few years, fears about the emergence of a cyber war with China have been making headlines. The US government is under constant cyber-attack and a lot of these cyber-attacks originate from China. Last week the Chinese-language website of the Tibetan government in exile was attacked by ‘malicious software’, the software would sit on the website and download itself to any computer that visited the site. It was effectively an attempt to spy on whoever visited the website. The website, as well as the Tibetan government is in exile in India which is a cause in tension between India and China as I wrote about last week. Inside China, internet searches for Tibet-related causes are heavily censored and, in some cases, internet search engines will return no results.

Tibet is a hot ‘issue’ and one that has gone-on for over 60 years. Tibet use to be an independent country with its own language, government, postal system and legal system. China invaded and annexed Tibet in 1949. They claimed that Tibet is a historic Chinese province, a claim which the Tibetan exile government disputes. The Tibetans initially agreed to Chinese sovereignty, in exchange for regional autonomy, when the Chinese invaded. They made this agreement with Tenzin Gyastso, the 14th and current Dalai Lama, who became both a religious and political leader of Tibet. However, this relationship broke down following the 1959 Tibetan uprising, which the Dalai Lama supported and, after Chinese tanks rolled in, he went into exile. He travelled, along with others, to Dharamsala, India- where the government in-exile still resides.

Since the Chinese takeover of Tibet, 6,000 Buddhist monasteries have been destroyed and one million nomadic herdsmen have been forcefully re-settled away from their traditional lands as part of a Chinese policy. Illiteracy in Tibet is at 45% compared to 10% for the rest of China and torture and murder are widespread. Despite this, and the favourable image the Dalai Lama has in the West and the occasional criticism that comes from Western media about Chinese actions,  Tibet remains a secret war.

The Dalai Lama is seen as this loveable figure who represents ancient spirituality but this has shielded him from criticism in the West. The Dalai Lama has in the past received funding from the CIA, a fact which China seizes upon as proof of why their ‘security-measures’ in Tibet are ‘necessary’. The West itself only ever seems to bring up Tibet, when it wants to hit the Chinese government over the head about something. This effectively means that, in the secret war, the Tibetan leadership is on its own.

The Dalai Lama gave up his position as ‘head of state’ for Tibet, two years ago, following mounting criticism of the effectiveness of his leadership. Some Tibetan activists have argued that the Dalai Lama’s presence as both a religious leader and head of Tibet- stifled secular and youthful Tibetan leadership. Many felt that Tibetan politics was underdeveloped and that the West’s view of Tibet as having an endless aura of spirituality has only harmed rather than helped the cause. In addition to this, the Dalai Lama’s 50+ years of absences mean he does not understand the on-the-ground changes that has occurred.

Understanding the internal criticism is important. Otherwise we risk over simplifying and down playing important issues in Tibet. What happens in Tibet does matter, for the sake of justice and peace in our world that we all share. But also China is a rising power and how it behaves will influence how other states behave towards ‘troublesome’ populations. In our globalised world, the local is the international. The secret war must not remain so.


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About the Author

Usman Butt

Usman graduated in 2012 with an MA in Palestine Studies from the University Of Exeter. Before that he read Arabic Language and International Relations at the University of Westminster. Amongst his proudest achievements include winning a muffin for public speaking, winning a Lego set at age 5 and helping Palestinian refugees learn English. Usually writes about genocide, ethnic cleansing, war crimes, Israel/Palestinian politics, Iranian/Syrian/Lebanese politics, the Arab Spring, philosophy, religion, British politics, Foreign Policy, history and social issues. He enjoys writing as he sees it as an outlet to express his opinions about the public discourse on these issues. He believes writing is a good way of keeping productive and teaching yourself new things.

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