Tibetan Rights as Indigenous Rights

On Thursday, July 30, 2009, in Archives, by Laura Kittel

There are a lot of discussions, including some in China, about Chinese government policies concerning ethnic minorities. The extraordinary Gongmeng report on the failure of these policies in Tibet and the early-July demonstrations of Uighurs in Xinjiang have brought new and deserved attention to the autonomy structures in these regions. It is increasingly evident that the crisis situations in Tibet and Xinjiang are, above all, the results of long-festering problems related to Chinese misrule of distinct peoples, and scholars and activists debate whether the implementation of genuine autonomy is even possible within the current Chinese state and its Communist Party structure. Recently, the envoys of the Dalai Lama were criticized by an American academic as “functionally illiterate” for allegedly misconstruing the promise of dialogue with Chinese officials on autonomy for Tibetans, and a Chinese scholar proposed that autonomy laws be abolished altogether in favor of assimilating minorities into the national Chinese culture.

Tibetans bristle at being referred to as an ethnic minority of China, even though it is true that Tibetans, as a distinct ethnic people, are a minority in relation to the Chinese who make up 90 percent of the population of the People’s Republic of China. This sensitivity to nomenclature among Tibetans is rooted in the complex issues of culture, religion and national identity, race and history. Few Tibetans make any claim on the five thousand glorious years of Chinese cultural history about which the Chinese wax poetically.

Tibetans are indigenous to a geographic area roughly analogous to the Tibetan plateau, and they continue to live primarily within those boundaries. Would then a discussion of regional autonomy based on the principles of indigenous rights, rather than minorities’ rights, be a significantly different discussion? For example, as indigenous people, Tibetans are not an ethnic minority agitating for special distinction within the majority population; they are an indigenous people struggling for the actualization of their internationally recognized rights, including self-determination, within the boundaries of an historic homeland.

This switch from Tibetans as an ethnic minority to an indigenous people would threaten the basic tenet of China’s official storyline on Tibet—its claim that Tibet has always been a part of China. Moreover, as a signatory of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (2007), the People’s Republic of China is pledged to honor its commitment to the rights of indigenous people. Consider the following articles:

Article 3
Indigenous peoples have the right to self-determination. By virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development.

Article 4
Indigenous peoples, in exercising their right to self-determination, have the right to autonomy or self-government in matters relating to their internal and local affairs, as well as ways and means for financing their autonomous functions.

Article 5
Indigenous peoples have the right to maintain and strengthen their distinct political, legal, economic, social, and cultural institutions, while retaining their right to participate fully, if they so choose, in the political, economic, social, and cultural life of the State.

Article 8
1.  Indigenous peoples and individuals have the right not to be subjected to forced assimilation or destruction of their culture.

2.  States shall provide effective mechanisms for prevention of, and redress for:

(a) Any action which has the aim or effect of depriving them of their integrity as distinct peoples, or of their cultural values or ethnic identities;

(b) Any action which has the aim or effect of dispossessing them of their lands, territories or resources;

(c) Any form of forced population transfer which has the aim or effect of violating or undermining any of their rights;

(d) Any form of forced assimilation or integration;

(e) Any form of propaganda designed to promote or incite racial or ethnic discrimination directed against them.

While the full implications of a new approach must be determined by the stakeholders in the future of Tibet (i.e., the Tibetan people), it is clear that there is more to the issue of autonomy than minority rights.

2 Responses to “Tibetan Rights as Indigenous Rights”

  1. If Tibet continues to be defined as an Autonomous Region within the state structure of the People’s Republic of China, and the Tibetan People as minorities within a Han Chinese state, there is scant hope for an meaningful dialogue with Beijing’s Politboro.

    In 1994 the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York authored and passed a resolution in the United States Senate declaring Tibet and occupied country and the Dalai Lama’s Tibetan Government in Exile as the rightful representatives of the Tibetan people. Therefore to define the TIbetan struggle as a quest for minority rights within a totalitarian state condemns the ancient Tibetan nation and its six million people to repression and subordination to its colonial masters, the Chinese Communist Party.

    In the past 50 years China has repeatedly shown that it will not honor its own laws on “minorities”, has accelerated population transfer, has viciously punished Tibetans and Uyghers for the mildest expressions of ethnic and religious identity, has slandered the Dalai Lama and threatened his supporters in western governments. The Chinese Communist Party is not moving towards democratic reform; it is invigorating Marxist ideology to strengthen the Communist Party’s hold on power. It is foolish to assume that a totalitarian government can possible negotiate in good faith, unless one ignores every lesson of history.

    There are innumerable testimonies from survivors of Latvia, Lithuania, Ukraine, Estonia, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and other nations captured by the USSR, which detail how a communist state treats minority subjects: with discrimination, repression, torture and murder if needed, to surpress and erase ethnicity.

    Chairman Mao famously stated that all of China’s people must become “red and expert Chinese citizens”. Mao’s empire and policies remain intact. Karl Marx hoped communism would erase ethnic and class idetity to create a “new man”. To define Tibet as a minority group within the PRC is consign Tibet to extinction.

  2. tibettruth says:

    Anyone supportive of the Tibetan people’s right to self-determination and independence would challenge that trend which describe Tibetans, not as a people, with all the political and territorial rights that flows from such a definition, but as an ‘ethnic minority’.

    Employing this description concedes in effect that Tibetans have none of the aforementioned rights as a distinct people, but are an ‘ethnic-minority’ of communist China. Eroding this nebulous and dangerous condition further, to a status similar to that experienced by the suppressed and disinfranchised native Americans, hardly constitutes progress for Tibetans across Tibet who are sacrificing themselves for nothing less than independence.

    Autonomy and opting for some reservation style indigenous option would leave communist China in control and the shackles firmly on! Besides there are other courses of action, including working towards a solution based upon international law.

    The Conference of International Lawyers on Issues Relating to Self-Determination and Independence For Tibet (London January 6 to 10 1993) had the central objectives of determining, under international law, if Tibetans were indeed a people, and as such enjoyed the right to self-determination.

    The conference attracted some of the world’s most eminent legal authorities and academics in the field of international law, and had a number of Tibetan participants and advisors including; Lobsang Dhargye (then Chief Supreme Justice Commissioner of the Tibetan Government in Exile) Samdhong Rinpoche (then Chair of the Assembly of Tibetan People’s Deputies), Gyaltsen Gyaltag (then Representative of the Tibet Offfice in Zurich) Mrs Kesang Takla (then head of the Office of Tibet-London) and Sonam Frasi (at that time Chair of the Tibetan Community on Britain).

    These Tibetans actively participated and endorsed the findings of the conference, which amongst a number of conclusions and recommendations agreed that:

    “..the Tibetan people satisfied the requirements and are a “people” for international law purposes” Paragraph 4.5

    “..three resolutions of the United Nations General Assembly (Nos 1353, 1723 and 2079) have recognised the status of Tibetans as a “people”. Resolution No. 1723 expressly refers to the right of the Tibetan people to self-determination” Paragraph 4.6

    The Conference also concluded that the Tibetan people possessed an “abiding desire” for:

    “The establishment of an independent Tibetan state” Paragraph 4.10

    It was also agreed that:

    “The Tibetan people are entitled to..the exercise of the right to self-determination” Paragraph 4.11

    Chaired by the Honourable Michael Kirby (then Chair of the Executive Committee of the International Commission of Jurists) the Conference made a recommendation to communist China and the Tibetan Government in Exile to begin negotiations to:

    “..facilitate the exercise of the Tibetan people’s right to self-determination” Paragraph 8.9

    Now why all this talk of so-called ‘autonomy’ and now ‘indigenous rights’, when so much more could be realised?

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