There are two distinct issues here: separatism and multi-ethnic disharmony.
The first is inextricably bound up with history, which like elsewhere, has defined the modern sovereign states as they are in Europe. The declared independence of Kosovo has ignited concerns amongst a host of European nations with substantial ethnic minorities. These include Spain (with 2.5 million Basques in the northwest region and 7.2 million Catalans in the north-east region); Romania (with 1.4 million Hungarians (Magyars) mainly in Transylvania); Bulgaria (with 700,000 Turks mainly in the north); Slovakia (with 10% population being Hungarians); Greece (with Turks in Western Thrace); and Cyprus (250,000 Turkish Cypriots in a separate state only recognized by Turkey) (Speigel Online International 22 February 2008).
If we go further into history into the origin of modern states elsewhere, we will have to consider the cultural and ethnic dimensions of Australian aborigines and the American Red Indians.
Compared with the above, the administration of Tibet went back even longer, to the Yuan Dynasty in the 13th century and even beyond. The fact of the matter is that we cannot re-write history or turn back the clock. Even the Dalai Lama has repeatedly said openly that he does not support independence. It is therefore disingenuous for outsiders to demand what the Dalai Lama is against.
The second issue, which is of course not confined to China, is how a multi-ethnic, multi-religious, and multi-racial community can live together peacefully. This is closely related to the question of human rights and how it is being defined. China is a country of 56 different races and ethnic groups, virtually all living in harmony. As for Tibet, which is about four times as large as France, there is already a degree of autonomy as it has been governed as an Autonomous Region, where a great deal of the Tibetan cultural and religious heritage has been preserved. The situation, however, is different from other Chinese minorities.
Tibet has been relatively inaccessible from the rest of China for centuries until recent times. On the one hand, this greater integration with the Han Chinese has greatly improved the livelihood of the Tibetan people. According to the United Nations Development Indices, their life-expectancy, literacy and per-capita income have registered marked improvements. On the other hand, the impact of an influx of Han Chinese has raised racial and ethic tensions, as evident from the recent Tibetan riots. Furthermore, the Dalai Lama in exile still commands great respect and following amongst the Tibetan people and many countries worldwide.
What is important now is for the riots to stop. No society can and should tolerate using violence especially against innocent citizens to solve problems, whatever the cause. In doing so, China seems not to have used disproportionate force as she has vowed to act with restraint.
What is even more important is for China to address the underlying social, ethnic and religious tensions to see what improvements can be made to achieve a Harmonious Society in Tibet. The Dalai Lama has openly renounced independence and dissociated himself from the violence and unrests. Notwithstanding mutual distrust over many years, he should be held to his word. Premier Wen has said he is prepared to resume talks with the Dalai Lama on similar terms. A way should be found to see how the Dalai Lama could work with the Chinese authorities to help achieve ethnic and religious harmony in Tibet as an Autonomous Region of China.
Andrew K P Leung, SBS, FRSA