Tibet is a region located on the Tibetan Plateau, the world’s highest region, Tibet is bordered on the north and east by China, on the west by the Kashmir Region of India and on the south by Nepal, Bangladesh and Bhutan. Tibet is the highest region on Earth, with an average elevation of 16,000 feet.
The Tibetan Empire came into existence in the seventh century when Emperor Songtsän Gampo united numerous tribes of the region. From 1578, leadership of Tibet has been in the hands of the Dalai Lamas, whose succession is based on the doctrine of reincarnation, and who are known as spiritual leaders, although their historical status as rulers is disputed.
In October 1950, Communist Chinese troops invaded Tibet. The 14th Dalai Lama, only 15 years old, was invested as leader, but poorly equipped Tibetan troops were soon crushed. An appeal by the Dalai Lama to the United Nations was denied, while Great Britain and India offered no help. In May 1951, a Tibetan delegation signed a dictated treaty that gave the Dalai Lama authority in domestic affairs, China control of Tibetan foreign and military affairs, and provided for the return from China of the Tibetan Buddhist spiritual leader, the Panchen Lama, allegedly a communist partisan. The Communist Chinese military entered Lhasa in October, and the Panchen Lama arrived there in April 1952.
During 1952 the Chinese built airfields and military roads. A purge of anti-communists was reportedly carried out early in 1953. India recognized Tibet as part of China in 1954 and withdrew its troops from two Tibetan frontier trading posts. The Dalai Lama was elected a vice-president of the National People’s Congress, the Chinese legislative body. A committee was set up in 1956 to prepare a constitution, the Dalai Lama was named chairman, and the Panchen Lama first vice-chairman.
An uprising broke out in Amdo and eastern Kham in June 1956. The resistance, supported by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), eventually spread to Lhasa, but was crushed by 1959. Tens of thousands of Tibetans were killed. The 14th Dalai Lama and other government principals then fled to exile in India, but isolated resistance continued in Tibet until 1969 when the CIA abruptly withdrew its support.
Although the Panchen Lama remained a virtual prisoner, the Chinese set him as a figurehead in Lhasa, claiming that he headed the legitimate Government of Tibet since the Dalai Lama had fled to India. In 1965, the area that had been under the Dalai Lama’s control from 1910 to 1959 (U-Tsang and western Kham) was set up as an autonomous region. The monastic estates were broken up and secular education introduced. During the Cultural Revolution, Chinese Red Guards inflicted a campaign of organized vandalism against cultural sites in the entire PRC, including Tibet. Some young Tibetans joined in the campaign of destruction, voluntarily due to the ideological fervor that was sweeping the entire PRC and involuntarily due to the fear of being denounced as enemies of the people. Over 6,500 monasteries were destroyed, and only a handful of the most important monasteries remained without damage. Hundreds of thousands of Buddhist monks and nuns were forced to return to secular life.
In 1989, the Panchen Lama was allowed to return to Shigatse, where he addressed a crowd of 30,000 and described what he saw as the suffering of Tibet and the harm being done to his country in terms reminiscent of a petition he had presented to Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai in 1962. Five days later, he mysteriously died of a massive heart attack at the age of 50.
In 1995 the Dalai Lama named six-year-old Gedhun Choekyi Nyima as the 11th Panchen Lama without Chinese approval, while the secular PRC named another child, Gyancain Norbu. Gyancain Norbu was raised in Beijing and has appeared occasionally on state media. Tibetans reject the PRC-selected Panchen Lama. Gedhun Choekyi Nyima and his family have gone missing – widely believed to be imprisoned by China.
According to Tibetan legend, the Tibetan people derived from the mating of a monkey and an ogress in Yarlung valley. The Fifth Dalai Lama embellished the story by adding that the monkey was an emanation of Avalokiteshvara, and the ogress was an emanation of goddess Tara. In Kham, the epic hero King Gesar is considered the founding ancestor of the Kham Tibetans. Linguists surmise that Chinese and the “proto-Tibeto-Burman” language may have split sometime before 4000 B.C.E., when the Chinese began growing millet in the Yellow River valley while the Tibeto-Burmans remained nomads. Tibetan split from Burman around 500 C.E.
Religion is extremely important to Tibetans. Tibetan Buddhism is a subset of Tantric Buddhism, also known as Vajrayana Buddhism, which is also related to the Shingon Buddhist tradition in Japan. Tibetan Buddhism is also practiced in Mongolia, the Buryat Republic, the Tuva Republic, and in the Republic of Kalmykia. Tibet is also home to the original spiritual tradition called Bön, the indigenous shamanistic religion of the Himalayas.
The Dalai Lama:
The Dalai Lama is believed to be the embodiment of a spiritual emanation of the bodhisattva—Avalokitesvara, the mythic progenitor of Tibetans. Succession passes to a child, born soon after the death of a Dalai Lama, who is believed to have received the spirit of the deceased. The present Dalai Lama is the 14th Dalai Lama. He is currently 80 years old and lives in exile in India.
According to a number of international non-governmental organizations, Tibetans are denied most rights guaranteed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, including the rights to self-determination, freedom of speech, assembly, expression, and travel; Tibetan monks and nuns who profess support for the Dalai Lama have been treated with extreme harshness by the PRC Chinese authorities.