Traditional society and democratic framework for future Tibet


China has always justified its policy in Tibet by painting the darkest picture of traditional Tibetan society. The military invasion and occupation has been termed a "liberation" by China of Tibetan society from "medieval feudal serfdom" and "slavery". Today, this myth is repeatedly rehashed to justify China's own violations of human and political rights in Tibet, and to counter all international pressure on Beijing to review its repressive policies in occupied Tibet.

Traditional Tibetan society was, by no means, perfect and was in need of changes. The Dalai Lama and other Tibetan leaders have admitted as much. That is the reason why the Dalai Lama initiated far-reaching reforms in Tibet as soon as he assumed temporal authority. The traditional Tibetan society, however, was not nearly as bad as China would have us believe.

Whatever the case may be, for several reasons the Chinese justifications make no sense. First of all, international law does not accept justifications of this type. No country is allowed to invade, occupy, annex and colonize another country just because its social structure does not please it. Secondly, the PRC is responsible for bringing more suffering in the name of liberation. Thirdly, necessary reforms were initiated and Tibetans are quite capable of doing so.

In its 1960 report on Tibet, the International Commission of Jurists stated that:

Chinese allegations that the Tibetans enjoyed no human rights before the entry of the Chinese were found to be based on distorted and exaggerated accounts of life in Tibet. Accusations against the Tibetan "rebels" of rape, plunder and torture were found to have been deliberately fabricated and in other cases unworthy of belief for this and other reasons.

Traditional Society

In terms of social mobility and wealth distribution, independent Tibet compared favourably with most Asian countries. The Dalai Lama, head of both the spiritual and secular administration, was found through a system of reincarnation that ensured that the rule of Tibet did not become hereditary. Most of the Dalai Lamas, including the Thirteenth and the Fourteenth, came from common, peasant families in remote parts of Tibet.

Every administrative post below the Dalai Lama was held by an equal number of monk and lay officials. Although lay officials hereditarily held posts (however, the posts themselves were not hereditary), those of monks were open to all. A large proportion of monk officials came from non-privileged backgrounds. Tibet's monastic system provided unrestrained opportunities for social mobility. Admission to monastic institutions in Tibet was open to all and the large majority of monks, particularly those who rose through its ranks to the highest positions, came from humble backgrounds, often from far-flung villages in Kham and Amdo. This is because the monasteries offered equal opportunities to all to rise to any height through their own scholarship. A popular Tibetan aphorism says: "If the mother's son has the knowledge, the golden throne of Gaden (the highest position in the hierarchy of the Gelug School of Tibetan Buddhism) has no ownership."

The peasants, whom the Chinese White Paper insists on calling "serfs", had a legal identity, often with documents stating their rights, and also had access to courts of law. Peasants had the right to sue their masters and carry their case in appeal to higher authorities.

Ms Dhondup Chodon comes from a family that was among the poorest social strata in independent Tibet. Reminiscing her life before the Chinese occupation in her book, Life in the Red Flag People's Commune, she said:

I belong to what the Chinese now term as serfs of Tibet. ... There were six of us in the family. ... My home was a double-storeyed building with a walled compound. On the ground floor we used to keep our animals. We had four yaks, 27 sheep and goats, two donkeys and a land-holding of four and a half khel (0.37 hectares). ... We never had any difficulty earning our livelihood. There was not a single beggar in our area.

Throughout Tibetan history, the maltreatment and suppression of peasants by estate-holders was forbidden by law as well as by social convention. From the time of the seventh-century Tibetan Emperor Songtsen Gampo, many Tibetan rulers issued codes based on the Buddhist principle of "Ten Virtues of the Dharma". The essence of this was that the rulers should act as parents to their subjects. In 1909, the Thirteenth Dalai Lama issued a regulation conferring on all peasants the right to appeal directly to him in case of mistreatment by estate holders. As a matter of fact, Tibetan society frowns upon unkind acts. The Tibetan Buddhist belief in compassion acts as a check on uncharitable deeds - not only against fellow human beings, but even against animals.

Capital punishment was banned in Tibet, and physical mutilation was a punishment that could be inflicted by the Central government in Lhasa alone. In 1898, Tibet enacted a law abolishing such forms of punishment, except in cases of high treason or conspiracy against the state.

All land belonged to the state which granted estates, to monasteries and to individuals who had rendered service to the state. The state, in turn, received revenues and service from estate holders. Lay estate holders either paid land revenues or provided one male member in each generation to work as a government official. Monasteries performed religious functions for the state and, most vitally, served as schools, universities and centres for Tibetan art, craft, medicine and culture. The role of monasteries as highly disciplined centres of Tibetan education was the key to the traditional Tibetan way of life. Monasteries bore all expenses for their students and provided them with free board and lodging. Some monasteries had large estates, some had endowments which they invested. But other monasteries had neither of these. They received personal gifts and donations from devotees and patrons. The revenue from these sources were often insufficient to provide the basic needs of large monk populations in some monasteries. To supplement their income, some monasteries engaged in trade and acted as money lenders.

The largest proportion of land in old Tibet was held by peasants who paid their revenue directly to the state, and this became the main source of the government food stocks which were distributed to monasteries, the army, and officials without estates. Some paid in labour, and some were required to provide transport service to government officials, and in some cases to monasteries. Land held by the peasant was heritable. He could lease it to others or mortgage it. He could be dispossessed of his land only if he failed to pay the dues of produce or labour, which were not excessive. In practice, he had the rights of a free-holder, and dues to the state were a form of land tax paid in kind rather than rent.

A small section of the Tibetan population, mostly in U-Tsang province, were tenants. They held their lands on the estates of aristocrats and monasteries, and paid rent to the estate-holders either in kind or they sent one member of the family to work as a domestic servant or an agricultural labourer. Some of these tenant farmers rose to the powerful position of estate secretary. (For this, they were labelled by the Chinese as "agents of feudal lords".) Other members of these families had complete freedom. They were entitled to engage in any business, follow any profession, join any monastery or work on their own lands. Although they were known as tenants, they could not be evicted from their lands at the whim of estate holders. Some of the tenants were quite wealthy.

The present Fourteenth Dalai Lama attempted to introduce far- reaching administrative and land reforms. He proposed that all large estate holdings of monasteries and individuals be acquired by the state for distribution amongst peasants. He created a special reform committee which reduced land tax on peasants. The reform committee was authorised to hear and redress complaints by individuals against the district or local authorities. He approved the proposal for debt exemption submitted by this committee. Peasant debtors were categorised into three groups: those who could not pay either their accumulated interest or repay capital were freed from debt altogether; those who could not pay the interest out of their annual earnings, but had saved up enough to repay the capital, were ordered to make repayments in instalments and those who had become wealthy over the course of years were made to pay both capital and interest in instalments. The Dalai Lama ordered that in future no transport service should be demanded without the special sanction of the government. He also increased the rates to be paid for transport service.

Famine and starvation were unheard of in independent Tibet. There were, of course, years of poor harvest and crop failures. But people could easily borrow from the buffer stock held by the district administrations, monasteries, aristocrats and rich farmers. From 1950 onwards, the Chinese military and civilian personnel were fed on the state buffer stocks and forced the Tibetan populace to sell their personal holding of grains to them for nominal prices. "Liberation" was, in reality, the right to equal poverty for all. Palden Gyatso, a 61-year-old monk who escaped from Tibet in 1992 after serving 33 years in Chinese jails and labour camps, puts it succinctly: "The Chinese definitely succeeded in making the rich poor. But they did not help the poor. The poor became poorer and we were reduced to a nation of tsampa beggars."

In his book, Tibet and its History, Hugh Richardson wrote: "Even communist writers have had to admit there was no great difference between rich and poor in (pre-1949) Tibet." In fact, when Hu Yaobang saw the extent of the poverty in Central Tibet in 1980, he stated that the living standard should be brought up at least to the pre-1959 level.

Democratic reforms

In 1959, the Dalai Lama re-established his Government in India, soon after his flight from Tibet, and a series of democratic changes were initiated. A popularly elected body of people's representatives, parliament-in-exile, was constituted. In 1961 the Dalai Lama prepared a draft constitution for future Tibet and sought the opinion of Tibetans on this matter.

In 1963, a detailed draft constitution for a future Tibet was promulgated. Despite strong opposition, the Dalai Lama insisted on the inclusion of a clause which stated that the executive powers of the Dalai Lama shall be exercised by the Council of Regents when the National Assembly, by majority of two-thirds of its total members in consultation with the Supreme Court, decides that this is in the highest interests of the State.

On 10 March 1969, the Dalai Lama announced that on the day Tibet regained its independence the Tibetan people must decide for themselves as to what kind of system of government they wanted.

In 1990, further changes were introduced by increasing the strength of the Assembly of Tibetan People's Deputies (ATPD) from 12 to 46. It was given more constitutional powers such as the election of the kalons (ministers), who were previously appointed directly by the Dalai Lama. The Supreme Justice Commission was set up to look into people's grievances against the Administration.

In January 1992, the Dalai Lama announced the Guidelines for future Tibet's Polity and the Basic Features of its Constitution, wherein he stated that he would not "play any role in the future government of Tibet, let alone seek the Dalai Lama's traditional political position." The future government of Tibet, the Dalai Lama said, would be elected by the people on the basis of adult franchise. The Dalai Lama also announced that during the transition period, between withdrawal of the repressive Chinese troops from Tibet and the final promulgation of the Constitution, the administrative responsibilities of the state will be entrusted to the Tibetan functionaries presently working in Tibet. During this transitional period, an interim president will be appointed to whom the Dalai Lama will delegate all his political powers and responsibilities. The Tibetan Government-in- Exile will ipso facto cease to exist.

The guidelines for Tibet's future polity also stated:

Future Tibet shall be a peace-loving nation, adhering to the principle of ahimsa (non-violence). It shall have a democratic system of government committed to preserving a clean, healthy and beautiful environment. Tibet shall be a completely demilitarised nation.

The Tibetan struggle is, thus, not for the resurrection of the traditional system as the Chinese claim. The continuous Chinese attempts at personalising the Tibetan issue to hinge upon the Dalai Lama's own status is a subterfuge to mask the main issue of the Tibetan national struggle.

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Last updated: 2-Feb-96