Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The Little Town of Tawang: the Dalai Lama’s Headache

I have an article up at Asia Times, China yearns for peace on southern flank, that covers China’s efforts at the BRICS conference in Hainan to rebrand itself as “regional leader” (instead of the contentious “***hole of Asia”) as it hunkers down for a politically difficult and dangerous summer of simmering discontent in Tibet and in the Han areas.

Part of this effort appears to involve making nice with India on the issues of trade and the perennial border disputes in the Aksai Chin region of Kashmir in the west and Arunachal Pradesh in the east.

In the article, I tweak the Dalai Lama for the Tibetan government’s century-long gyration over the town of Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh.

Arunachal Pradesh is a mixed bag of ethnicities and confessions: Burmese to the east, local animists/Buddhists in the center, and, on the western boundary, Tibetan Buddhist.  The major market town in the Tibetan region is Tawang.

You might call Tawang triple-Tibetan: it’s in a Tibetan cultural area, it has been a major center of Gelugpa Tibetan Buddhist practice for centuries (the 6th Dalai Lama was reincarnated there; the town hosts a large monastery); and it holds a special place in the history of the modern Tibetan resistance.  The Dalai Lama entered India from the PRC at Tawang in 1959, and actively patronizes the monastery and the town.  In addition to its ethnically Tibetan residents, Tawang also hosts a considerable number of Tibetan refugees.

In 1914, at Simla, the Tibetan government acquiesced to the inclusion of Tawang into British India by endorsing the McMahon Line.  The British wanted to alienate a piece of Tibet from China to create a buffer zone; the Tibetan government wanted to gain international recognition by treating directly with Great Britain, and apparently decided that giving up Tawang was an acceptable price to pay.

The Chinese government never accepted the Simla accord or the McMahon Line, and that rejection forms the basis of the PRC’s outstanding claim on Arunachal Pradesh—which it calls South Tibet.

It appears that, regardless of who was claiming what, governance in the remote town was in the hands of the Tawang monastery.

Anyway, in 1947, India achieved independence and the Tibetan government in Lhasa decided to try its luck with the new administration.  It wrote a letter asserting that Tawang should be administered by Lhasa.

India had other ideas.

An article in the Guardian indicates that the Tibetan government flip-flopped on Tawang again in 1950, while in the process providing an interesting picture of the dismal governance record of Tibetan elites before the Dalai Lama fled to India and was recognized as humanity’s shining light:

Pema Gombu says he has lived under three flags: Tibetan, Chinese and Indian. Although his living room is decked with pictures of the current Dalai Lama, the 81-year-old says the Tibetan administration in the early 20th century was the worst.

"The [Tibetan] officials in that time were corrupt and cruel. I am sure his holiness did not know this. In those days if a Tibetan stopped you they could ask you to work for them like a slave. They forced us to pay taxes. Poor farmers like me had to give over a quarter of our crops to them. We had to carry the loads 40km [25 miles] to a Tibetan town as tribute every year."

It was this treatment that turned Tawang away from Tibet. Mr Gombu said he helped guide Indian soldiers into the town in 1950 who carried papers signed by the Tibetan government which transferred Arunachal's 35,000 square miles to India. "It was the happiest day of my life."

Judging from Pema Gombu’s references to Tibetans, he’s probably ethnic Monpa.  Monpa are an ethnic group that adopted Gelugpa Tibetan Buddhism in the 17th century and center their religious practices on Tawang.  They form the demographic backbone of Tawang.

Although they are “Tibetan Buddhists” i.e. followers of the Gelugpa sect, they aren’t Tibetans, as the history of Tawang makes clear.

The India-friendly Wikipedia entry on Tawang states:

[Tawang] came under effective Indian administration on February 12, 1951, when Major R Khating led Indian Army troops to relocate Chinese squatters. India assumed control and sovereignty of the area and established democratic rule therein to end the oppression of the Monpa.

It would appear that the Indian government used the same justification to take control of its Tibetan areas as Beijing did: to rescue the local inhabitants from the corrupt and brutal rule of their Tibetan overlords—possibly the government in Lhasa, but more likely the overbearing bosses of the monastery in Tawang.

In best divide-and-conquer fashion, I suspect the Indian occupiers aligned themselves with the disenfranchised Manpo majority in order to erode the local standing of the Tibetan elites—and Tibet’s claim on the area.

Which makes it pretty clear that the the Dalai Lama is now called upon to confirm Indian rule over a place his people used to run until the Indian government kicked them out until 1951, and which the Indian government has been working actively to alienate from Tibetan influence ever since then.


Anyway, in 1986, the territory—previously the North East Frontier Authority-- was organized as the state of Arunachal Pradesh.

In 2003, as the Times of India tells us, HHDL went “off the res” and once again asserted that Tawang was part of Tibet, but later back-pedaled:

NEW DELHI: For the first-time, Tibetan spiritual leader Dalai Lama has said that Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh, a territory that's still claimed by China, is part of India.

Acknowledging the validity of the MacMohan Line as per the 1914 Simla Agreement in an interview to Navbharat Times , he said that Arunchal Pradesh was a part of India under the agreement signed by Tibetan and British representatives.

In 2003, while touring Tawang, the Dalai Lama had been asked to comment on the issue, but had refused to give a direct answer, saying that Arunachal was actually part of Tibet. China doesn't recognize the MacMohan Line and claims that Tawang and Arunachal Pradesh are part of its territory.

The statement is bound to impact the India-China dialogue, as Beijing has already stated that if Tawang is handed to it, it will rescind claim on the rest of Arunachal Pradesh. The Chinese proposal is strategically unacceptable to India, as Tawang is close not just to the northeastern states but also to Bhutan.

After the Dalai Lama’s 2009 trips to Japan and Arunachal Pradesh, the Indian press reported that he had stated categorically that Arunachal Pradesh and Tawang are part of India.

I suspect that his statements are really more nuanced.  Tawang is obviously part of the traditional Tibetan cultural and administrative sphere, and the Dalai Lama’s preferred position, I think, would be that the Tibetan government and people agree that India administers the area at present, while implying that the issue would merit revisiting at a future date.

As I say in the article, going along with Indian claims to Arunachal Pradesh are simply the cost of doing business for the Tibetan government-in-exile, reliant as it is upon Indian good offices for a haven in northern India.

The Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government have been given a home in Himachal Pradesh, which shares a boundary with the Tibetan Autonomous Region but way out west and remote from the heartland of the Lhasa and the Tibetan plateau.  Himachal Pradesh itself is 95% Hindu and no hotbed of Tibetan independence sentiment.

The emigres are thereby quarantined, appeasing Beijing and also making sure that the Dalai Lama’s leadership of the emigre community does not translate into incitement of Tibetan nationalism vis a vis China or the Manpo—and the Manpo’s patron, India--as it might in Arunachal Pradesh.

The Indian government keeps the Dalai Lama on a tight leash concerning Arunachal Pradesh, rarely allowing him to travel there—except apparently, when the Indian government wants to tweak China, and when it feels confident that the Dalai Lama will not assert Tawang’s Tibetan character in an inconvenient fashion.