At the request of the organizers of the TIBETAN INDEPENDENCE DAY celebration at New York City, on the 13 of February 2013, I was asked to give a talk on the background story, as it were, of the events and personalities that contributed to the creation of an independent Tibet in 1913. JN.
The profound historical events that led to the 13th Dalai Lama’s decree of Tibetan independence on February 13th 1913, came about because of the intersection of Tibetan history with that of two major imperial powers in the world, the first, a powerful and aggressive British Empire, the other a weak decaying Manchu empire, attempting to maintain a shaky protectorate in Tibet.
A seemingly innocuous diplomatic agreement led to the unfolding of these events and the first military conflict between Tibet and Britain. In 1876 Britain and Imperial China signed the Chefoo convention, one article of which permitted the British to send an exploratory mission through Tibet. But since Tibet had not been consulted, the Tibetan parliament the Tsongdu refused to allow the British mission entry to Tibet. The Tibetan response also reflected its anger at Britain’s advances into Sikkim which Tibet regarded as within its own sphere of influence.
As a gesture of defiance to Britain and China, Tibetans erected fortifications at Lungthur thirteen miles into what the British regarded as Sikkim territory and garrisoned the fort with nine hundred soldiers. According to the English scholar L. A. Waddell the Tibetans actually invaded Sikkim “and advanced to within sixty miles of Darjeeling, causing a panic in that European sanitarium.” The British sent two thousand soldiers and artillery under Brigadier Graham to expel the Tibetans. Artillery bombardment and infantry charges finally drove Tibetans back from Lungthur. “But the Tibetans, despite their primitive equipment were not dismayed by this show of force.”
In May they attempted a surprise attack on the British camp at Nak-thang and “…nearly succeeded in capturing the Lieutenant-Governor of Bengal, who was visiting the frontier; but they were repulsed with severe losses.” Waddell mentions that the Tibetans fought fiercely and showed “great courage and determination.” In spite of the major setbacks the Tibetans stubbornly refused to acknowledge Britain’s right to send a mission to Tibet, nor China’s right to grant permission for such a venture.
Tibetan intransigence persuaded the British to give up their exploratory mission into Tibet. Instead Britain secured China’s recognition of its military takeover of Burma, and reciprocated by recognizing China’s claim of suzerainty over Tibet.
Tibetans were deliberately excluded from all the conventions and discussions that took place in those years between the British and China concerning Tibet or Sikkim. In 1893 when the Trade Regulation talks were held in Darjeeling, the Tibetan cabinet sent a senior official, Paljor Dorje Shatra to keep an eye on the proceedings. Shatra’s presence appears to have been resented by the British. Some English subalterns dragged him off his horse and threw him into a public fountain in the Chowrasta square.
It should be noted that Tibet’s rejection of Britain’s Tibet policy was maintained consistently for nearly three decades. Finally in 1904 the Viceroy of India Lord Curzon sent the Younghusband expedition to Tibet. The British invasion force with its repeating rifles, artillery and maxim heavy machine guns massacred seven hundred Tibetan country levees at the hot springs of Chumi Shengo, in the space of two hours. “Despite this withering attack, the Tibetan forces fell back in good order, refusing to turn their backs or run, and holding off cavalry pursuit at bayonet point” A few thousand more Tibetans died for their Homeland in subsequent battles at Samada, Gangmar, Neyning, Zamdang, and most significantly at Gyangtse, where the Tibetans besieged the British force for a time before the conflict ended and the British marched into Lhasa. But the Thirteenth Dalai Lama had already escaped to Mongolia, so the British forced a treaty, the Lhasa convention, on the Tibetan cabinet in August 1904, and then returned to India.
Tibetans can legitimately view the events from 1876 to 1904 as the first chapter in their modern history. Most accounts of this period, largely written by British officials or scholars tend to downplay native resistance and patriotism and ascribe them instead to Tibetan ignorance and religious fanaticism, fanned by sinister monks and xenophobic lamas.
The destruction of the small Tibetan army and the undermining of the Lhasa government created a dangerous power vacuum in Tibet, which was exacerbated by the hasty withdrawal of British forces. The next year, in 1905, the energetic and ruthless Imperial viceroy of Sichuan province, Zhao Erhfeng, invaded and captured large areas of Eastern Tibet, burned down many monasteries, butchered thousands of monks and quite literally extinguished the lines of a number of ancient independent and semi-independent Tibetan kings and rulers on the Sino-Tibetan frontier. The people of Kham were terrorized by the Chinese army. I came across an old National Geographic magazine which had an eyewitness account by the American missionary Dr Albert Shelton, of Chinese atrocities. Shelton writes of Chinese soldiers boiling Khampas alive in a giant brass cauldron normally used for making tea for the monk congregation of Drayak monastery. An actual photograph of the cauldron is provided.
The first large-scale population transfer of Chinese peasants, ex-soldiers and lumpen elements from cities as Chengdu and Yaan to Tibet was, with European and American missionary support, set in motion. Zhao in a memorial to the throne described his grand enterprise in Eastern Tibet “…as a colonial one, comparable to those of the British, French, Japanese and Americans in Asia and Africa.”
Finally on 12 February 1910, the Chinese invasion force approached Lhasa. The Thirteenth Dalai Lama had hardly returned to his own capital city a little more than a month earlier. His Holiness, accompanied by a few ministers, some officials and a small detachment of soldiers, once again fled the city. The Dalai Lama took with him his new seal of office, which the National Assembly had presented to him some day earlier on behalf of the Tibetan people. This time the Dalai Lama and his entourage headed southwest towards British India.
Since Tibet had signed the Lhasa convention and now allowed the British a number of trade and diplomatic privileges, the Dalai Lama hoped for some support from Britain. But he was badly disappointed. His overtures to Russia also proved fruitless. In India he and his exile court used their time to see new things: for instance factories, hospitals, British warships and other developments of modern British India. One might speculate that the 13th Dalai Lama and his officials were influenced by the spirit of modernization, social reform and nationalism that was spreading throughout Asia at the time, exemplified by the Meiji Ishin, the dramatic and revolutionary modernization of a formerly feudal and xenophobic Japan. Around the same period in India, a profound social and intellectual awakening took place within educated Indian society. Referred to as the Bengal Renaissance this movement can be seen as a precursor to India’s independence struggle. It would be reasonable to speculate that this social awakening in India did have some impact on the exile Tibetans; after all they were based in the township of Darjeeling, which was the summer capital of the Bengal government.
Behind the young and, might we say “nationalist” Dalai Lama there were a number of loyal, capable, even relatively progressive officials who formed the “Nationalist party” that Waddell describes as having saved His Holiness from the machinations of the Demo Regent and the Chinese Amban in Lhasa. The foremost member of this unique company was certainly the Lonchen Shatra, Paljor Dorje, intelligent, sophisticated, meticulous, “ever the trained diplomatist”, according to Sir Henry MacMahon.
Another important personality of this period, who might be considered a seminal figure in bringing about the reformist and nationalist awakening in the court of the young Dalai Lama, has by and large been overlooked.
The Buriat lama, Agvan Dorjiev’s role in modern Tibetan history has thus far not been sufficiently acknowledged, thanks in large part to British reports and accounts, which invariably relegate him to the role of a sinister Russian spy. He first came to Lhasa in 1873, to study at Drepung monastery where he obtained his geshe degree. Dorjiev, whose Tibetan name was Ngawang Lobsang, became one of the seven tsenshabs or debating partners of the young Dalai Lama. In 1888 he became a confidant and tutor to the Dalai Lama.
The young Dalai Lama’s tutor, according to his biographer John Snelling, “… was very much a man of the world. Dorjiev’s “modern, progressive turn of mind” gained from his extensive travels. He visited St. Petersburg, Paris, London, and major cities in India and China. The scholarly consensus now is that Dorjiev was no foreign spy but a patriot who worked tirelessly to free Tibet and Mongolia. Dorjiev was one of the main authors of the historic Tibet Mongolia Treaty signed on 29th of December 1912. The treaty is emphatic in declaring the complete independence of Tibet and Mongolia, their rejection of Manchu rule, and their absolute severance of political ties to China.
Two years into the Dalai Lama’s exile in Darjeeling revolution broke out in China, and Imperial troops in Tibet unleashed a reign of terror on the population. From Darjeeling the 13th Dalai Lama sent his trusted officials to Lhasa to take charge of the resistance. On the 26th of March 1912 Tibetans formally declared war. After nearly a year of hard and brutal fighting, the Chinese surrendered, and Tibet became an independent nation.
The Thirteenth Dalai Lama returned to Tibet on the 10th day of the 5th month of the Water Mouse Year (June 1912). There is a photograph of him taken at Bhutan House in Kalimpong just before his departure. He is wearing the broad-brimmed thangshu or thangsha hat for protection against the sun. There is another photograph of His Holiness wearing the same hat and riding a mule in July of 1912 when he arrived at Ralung in Tsang province and met the Panchen Lama. His Holiness entered Lhasa on the 16th day of the twelfth month of the Water Mouse Year (January 1913) where thousands lined the streets to greet him.
One month later he promulgated the decree reasserting the independence of Tibet. The same decree whose centenary we are celebrating today.