The Dalai Lama's Dilemma
Melvyn C. Goldstein is John Reynolds Harkness Professor of Anthropology and Director of the Center for Research on Tibet at Case Western Reserve University. His most recent book is The Snow Lion and the Dragon: China, Tibet, and the Dalai Lama, from which this essay is adapted.See more by this author
THE TIBET QUESTION
The conflict over the political status of Tibet vis-à-vis China has reached a critical juncture in its long history. The exiled Dalai Lama finds himself standing on the sidelines unable to impede or reverse changes in his country that he deplores, and the frustration engendered by this impotence has seriously heightened the danger of violence.
As a classic nationalistic dispute, the Tibet question pits the right of a people, Tibetans, to self-determination and independence against the right of a multiethnic state, the People's Republic of China, to maintain what it sees as its historical territorial integrity. Such disputes are difficult to resolve because there is no clear international consensus about the respective rights of nationalities and states. The U.N. Charter, for example, states that the purpose of the world body is to ensure friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination, but it also states that nothing contained in the charter shall authorize the United Nations to intervene in matters that are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state. The ambiguity about when entities have the right to seek self- determination has made international opinion an important dimension of such disputes, and the struggle to control representations of history and current events is often as intense as the struggle to control territory. In the case of Tibet, both sides have selectively patched bits and pieces of the historical record together to support their viewpoints. The ensuing avalanche of charges and countercharges is difficult to assess, even for specialists.
ROOTS OF THE CONFLICT
Sino-Tibetan relations can be traced back almost 1,500 years, but the contemporary conflict is rooted in the chaotic religious and political disputes of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. During this period Tibet became a protectorate of Manchu-ruled China, although Tibet maintained its own language, officials, legal system, and army, and paid no taxes to China. China's loose control over Tibet weakened during the nineteenth century as China itself encountered more and more external and internal assaults, and by the turn of the century its protectorate was largely symbolic.