Nobel Legacy Corrodes Tibetan Cause


On December 10 1989  the Norwegian city of Oslo was covered in snow.  Fur coats, strong beer and hats kept alive the good people of the frozen north. Above the prestigious Grand Hotel the Tibetan flag snapped in the bone-chilling arctic wind. Tibet’s political leader, the Dalai Lama was to receive the Nobel Prize for Peace from the famous Nobel Institute. Norwegians and Tibetans marched through the streets in a torchlight parade greeted by the Tibetan leader from his balcony. The flames sparkled under the cold skies and hope burned brightly for Tibet that night. 


1989 had witnessed mass protests on the streets of Lhasa, as ever Tibetans were sustained in their struggle by a belief that one day Tibet would regain its independence. To world-wide condemnation the demonstrations were violently crushed, hundreds of Tibetans were gunned down and tanks and armoured-troop carriers patrolled the Tibetan capital.  It was such scenes which generated international attention and sympathy for Tibet, and no doubt served to partly influence the decision of the Nobel Committee to give its most valued award to the Dalai Lama. That recognition was greeted with joy by Tibetans, who understandably interpreted the event as an indication that their cause to regain Tibet’s freedom was receiving international acclaim and support.

As Liu Xiaobo, this year’s Nobel Peace Prize winner remains in a Chinese prison, and a number of servile and self-inetrested nations cynically support China’s call for a boycott of this ceremony,  Tibetans may care to briefly reflect upon how the objectives and solutions of their cause have changed since His Holiness received the award.


Casting-an-eye over the two decades since the Tibetan political leader was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize it is difficult not to consider that the hopes generated that night proved to be misplaced. The evidence for such a conclusion was to be found not in the understandable celebration, or the gilded rituals of the Nobel Committee, but within the pages of the controversial Strasbourg Speech, which had been made in 1988. This statement, which is wrongly understood as being a proposal (it was not a concrete or formal offer and never submitted as such) generated considerable outrage among Tibetans, since it signalled a willingness by the Tibetan Administration to concede Chinese sovereignty over Tibet, with its concept of Tibet becoming a self-governing political entity with associative status within China. Although not entirely an overwhelming declaration in support of Tibetan political and territorial independence it did contain one very critical element, which is worth quoting in full:

“I would like to emphasise, however that whatever the outcome of negotiations with the Chinese maybe , the Tibetan people themselves must be the ultimate deciding authority. Therefore any proposal will contain a comprehensive procedural plan to ascertain the wishes of the Tibetan people in a nationwide referendum”. (The Dalai Lama, Strasbourg June 15th 1988).

That important condition effectively asserted that nothing-in-fact had been conceded, since the ultimate decision, concerning the status of Tibet remained in the hands of the Tibetan people, who would not settle for anything less than complete independence. Interestingly this major implication was either overlooked or callously ignored by the international community which considered  the Strasbourg Speech to be a major concession that accepted Chinese sovereignty over Tibet. It would appear that on such selective or flawed understanding the Strasbourg Speech was instrumental in the decision to confer the Nobel Pace Prize to the Tibetan leader. Which was presented for his “..constructive and forward looking proposals for the solution of international conflicts..” and solutions which would “..preserve the historical and cultural and heritage of his people” (Nobel Committee October 5th 1989)


On accepting the award the Dalai Lama was in some ways stepping into a straight-jacket in which the issue of Tibet was subsequently defined not in terms of nation, self-determination and independence, but within the restrictive limitations of a resolution which ultimately conceded Tibetan nationhood for cultural heritage and religious expression. In regards to relations with Beijing this suited the political and diplomatic needs of the United States, Britain, and a number of European countries, who had long acknowledged China’s false claims over Tibet. These self-proclaimed champions of freedom and democracy had no interest in supporting the Tibetans in their cause for independence. Indeed they wanted Tibet as an international and political issue transformed into one of human rights, since this would avoid encroaching upon what remained a subject of incredible sensitivity for China, namely Tibet’s right to self-determination and questions concerning the legitimacy of Chinese rule in Tibet. That objective was given and emphatic and forceful approval when President Barack Obama submitted to Beijing’s demands that he publicly acknowledge China’s bogus claim of sovereignty over Tibet.


Although Tibet’s rightful claims to independence had received no political support since approaching the United Nations following 1959, the Tibetan people’s right to self-determination remained, and offered a possibly productive direction for the Tibetan cause. However, the Nobel Peace Prize and the resultant re-branding of Tibet as an issue would abandon that route, and the hopes of Tibetans for a free and independent state. Understandably not many Tibetans will be concerned or will refuse to acknowledge that their leader willingly drank from what was a poisoned chalice, they will be too busy coming together to celebrate with pride the international recognition which was conferred upon His Holiness on December 10, 1989. 

With world leaders and the international community applauding the Tibetan leader for his peaceful determination to resolve conflict and desire to preserve what was weakly, yet deliberately, defined as Tibet’s historic and cultural heritage, the direction of the Tibetan cause would be changed significantly. What had been an issue regarding a people’s struggle for national freedom and self-determination was transformed into conflict resolution, in which  the political aspirations of the Tibetan people were marginalized. The issue of Tibet’s status was clearly not upon the agenda of governments, or the Nobel Committee, while, whatever the shortcomings of the Strasbourg Speech; which was to be eventually jettisoned in 1991 by the Tibetan Administration in the face of Chinese rejection (which condemned it as a veiled bid for independence)  its contents provide an illuminating contrast to the current strategy as featured in the Memorandum on Genuine Autonomy For The Tibetan People. It also reveals the alarming nature and extent of concessions made by the Tibetan Administration in its efforts to appease Beijing. Take a look at some key areas of the Strasbourg Speech:

“The whole of Tibet known as Cholka-Sum (U-Tsang, Kham and Amdo) should become a self-governing democratic political entity….”

“The Government of Tibet should be founded on a constitution or basic law. The basic law should provide for a democratic system of government…”

“As individual freedom is the real source and potential of any society’s development, the Government of Tibet would seek to ensure this freedom by full adherence to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, including the rights to speech, assembly and religion.”

The emphasis on democratic governance, law and individual freedoms does not appear in the Memorandum on Genuine Autonomy For The Tibetan People. Instead the Tibetan Administration presses it willingness to accept  so called genuine autonomy within the communist Chinese constitution. Also absent is an unambiguous declaration of what territory would constitute a future Tibetan polity. That has been replaced with a more dilute and confused definition in which Tibet is described as  “comprising all the areas currently designated by the PRC as Tibetan autonomous areas”. This extends a worrying negotiating advantage to Beijing and leaves dangerous room for compromise and territorial surrender. Amdo, one of Tibet’s traditional regions (see map below)  although containing so-called Tibetan autonomous territories is, at a national level within communist Chinese law, not a designated autonomous region but a distinct Chinese province (so-called Qinghai).


Most crucially what stands out between the discarded Strasbourg Speech and the Memorandum on Genuine Autonomy For The Tibetan People is how the current proposals provide no engagement or guarantee for Tibetans in determining the future status of their country. This is a major and worrying retreat from the position of the Dalai Lama  since he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize twenty years ago to the day. His people inside Tibet, and the overwhelming majority in exile, remain determined to strive for an independent Tibetan nation, yet have been effectively sidelined by their own Administration, and completely excluded from any possibility of shaping their political and territorial destiny. 

While the Tibet movement has made some incredible progress since that night in Oslo, becoming far more sophisticated and effective in terms of campaigns, public relations and media management, it remains frustratingly conformist in regard to the policies promoted by the Tibetan Administration. Largely silent, as it watches in slow motion the exiled Tibetan Government seek a negotiated solution which would ensure the death of Tibetan national identity, and the extinction of any hopes of a free and independent Tibet.


Recalling the forceful and widespread reaction to the apparent concessions of the Strasbourg Speech, it is ironic that Tibetans now appear more compliant, (convinced perhaps by the doom-laden message of  despair and defeatism which their administration has been peddling to argue the correctness of its failed strategy of appeasement) and willing to accept the prevailing orthodoxy.  Yet the concessions and objectives of the Memorandum on Genuine Autonomy For The Tibetan People present far more dangerous compromises than the contents of the Strasbourg Speech. Where is the opposition to this insane surrender, which would extinguish any hopes of a free Tibetan nation? It is time to recapture the sprit of optimism and determination that inspired Tibetan hearts during 1989,  and continues to courageously resist Chinese occupation today, for the people of Tibet to assert their authority over what remains their legitimate cause for freedom and independence.


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