Diplomat reveals Britain's betrayal of Tibet

Click to follow
The Independent Online
THIS AFTERNOON hundreds of Tibetans and their supporters will stand outside the Chinese Embassy in Portland Place, central London and yell "Free Tibet! China Out!" It is an annual ritual which will be enacted with extra vigour on this, the 40th anniversary of the Tibetan uprising against theChinese occupiers in 1959.

The door of the Embassy will remain closed and apart from the occasional glint of a video camera peeping from a window to record the faces of the demonstrators, it will give every impression of being deserted. The Chinese say there is no case to answer on Tibet - it is and always has been part of the Motherland.

The demonstrators, some of whom have travelled from India for the occasion, believe London is the appropriate venue in which to vent their frustrations because Britain shares some of the blame for the continued occupation of Tibet. Others admit that Tibet too was guilty of enabling the Chinese invasion although nothing can justify the brutality that has followed.

Prior to the Chinese invasion in 1950, the Tibetans did not welcome visitors. The tales of nineteenth century travellers are filled with attempts to reach Lhasa, the country's capital, which were foiled by the Dalai Lama's patrolling scouts. Captain Francis Younghusband, who served in the British army on the North West Frontier, was among the many who dreamed of visiting the city.

With the confidence of a servant of the Raj, he simply got permission from the India Office to invade Tibet in 1904. After that there was a permanent British representative in Lhasa who claimed to promote trade but whose real job was to look out for untoward Russian or Chinese interference.

Apart from the Chinese, the British were the only witnesses to the de facto independence which Tibet enjoyed from 1913 until the Chinese crossed the river Drichu in October 1950. Hugh Richardson, now 93 and living in St Andrew's, was Britain's man in Lhasa from 1946 to 1950 (after India's independence in 1947, he officially represented the Government of India).

"The Chinese had a small office in Lhasa but it was the same size as our own diplomatic mission", he recalls. "There was no trace of Chinese influence on Tibetan affairs or on the Tibetan Government."

The Tibetan word for foreigner is "Injie", that is, "English". Apart from the Chinese, the Tibetans knew no other foreign power and, more significantly, no other foreign power knew them. In his recent history of modern Tibet, The Dragon in the Land of the Snows, Tsering Shakya says that his people must share the blame for Tibet's diplomatic isolation. Although they enjoyed all the trappings of statehood, the Tibetans did not apply to the United Nations for membership because they did not want to encourage foreigners in Lhasa.

"Safeguarding their religion and customs was all that mattered." Mr Shakya says. "When the radio operator in Chengdu warned Lhasa that the Chinese were on their way, he was told that the Cabinet members could not be disturbed because they were on a picnic".

After the People's Liberation Army invaded to "liberate Tibet from imperialist forces" (there were six Westerners in Tibet at the time), the Tibetans saw the erosion of the authority of their God-King. Monasteries were bombed and hundreds of monks and resistance fighters were killed. When the people of Lhasa believed that the Chinese were planning to kidnap the Dalai Lama in March 1959, they rebelled. The Dalai Lama fled to India and thousands more Tibetans were killed in the brutal reprisals which followed.

It was at this point that the Tibetans called on Britain to help. A delegation travelled to the UN in New York to request a debate on their plight, a move they believed Britain would support. The British made sure the debate never happened.

Mr Richardson, who has written copiously on this sorry episode in Britain's diplomatic history, is still furious. "I believe that the conduct of the British and Indian Governments amounted to an evasion of their moral duty to make plain what they alone had special reason to know - that there was no legal justification for the Chinese invasion of Tibet."

So how do we account for Britain's actions? The government, the historians say, was anxious to get rid of its interests in India and there were more urgent problems like Korea and the Cold War to address. "Tibet is redundant to Britain's interests", says a Foreign Office document of the Fifties. "We therefore consider any attempt to intervene in Tibet would be impracticable and unwise. We have no interest in the area sufficiently strong to justify the certain risks involved in our embroiling ourselves with the Chinese on this question."

Mr Shakya says this is still the motivation guiding Britain in its dealings over Tibet.

"Tibet has become one of the great moral issues of our time", he says, "and to appease their constituencies, Tony Blair and Bill Clinton always bring it up when they meet the Chinese leader, Jiang Zemin. But they do it in an embarrassed way saying, 'we're sorry, but we've got to say this, let's get it over with', No wonder the Chinese don't take them seriously."

The Dalai Lama says that so long as Britain has no commercial interest in Tibet and China remains a vast potential market, it is all shadow boxing.

Derek Fatchett, the Foreign minister, rejects this. "Yes we could have done more in the past but we have to put all that behind us now. There is not a playoff between the commercial side and human rights. The British Government is robust in championing human rights and the Tibetan culture in our discussions with Beijing and we shall continue to do so."

Hugh Richardson concludes, "Tibet had an ancient civilisation, a deep religious base and a good administration although, on reflection, the monasteries may have exercised too much control. But it deserved to survive. I am very ashamed of Britain. It is too late now."

The protestors outside the Chinese Embassy can shout "Free Tibet! China Out!" until they are hoarse but it is doubtful whether anyone will listen.