At the foot of the stunning red-and-white Potala Palace, under the five-star flag, pilgrims prostrate themselves on the ground, falling to their knees and then lying flat on their stomachs.

It is a usual, quiet Sunday morning in Lhasa. Devout Buddhists are constantly seen, walking clockwise around the holy Potala and the Porgor Street near the Jokhang Temple. But Monday will be somewhat unique. The signing of the agreement on the peaceful liberation of Tibet on May 23, 1951 was the beginning of an endless debate among politicians and academia throughout the world over Tibet's status and the 14th Dalai Lama who went into exile in India eight years later.

The document, known as the 17-point agreement, was signed between the Chinese central government and representatives sent by the 14th Dalai Lama to decide the plateau region's future.

According to the document, the Tibetan people should “unite and drive out imperialist aggressive forces from Tibet and return to the big family of the People's Republic of China”. The document further said the Tibetan local government should assist the People's Liberation Army (PLA) to enter Tibet and consolidate the national defence. It also pledged to keep the status of the Dalai Lama and ensure religious freedom in Tibet.

In matters relating to various reforms in Tibet, it said Tibet's local government should carry out reforms of its own accord, and, when the people raised demands for reform they should be settled by means of consultation with the leading personnel of Tibet.

The agreement was followed, five months later, by the arrival of PLA troops in Lhasa on Oct. 26.

Trinley Dondrup (80) said he was “secretly delighted” at the PLA's coming. A serf sold to a local aristocratic family near the Potala, he was constantly whipped for minor offences and in dire need of a full meal and his freedom.

The number of serfs and slaves accounted for 95 per cent of the Tibetan population in 1951. The lords, including the Dalai Lama's relatives, owned all the land, forests, rivers and slaves. The lords could torture and even kill the serfs and slaves freely, though all were devout Buddhists. Tseten Dorje (76) said unlike other troops — such as the British — these soldiers never plundered local Tibetan's food. Instead, they planted wheat themselves, he said. The Dalai Lama, 16 at the time, did not witness the PLA's arrival. He was staying in Dromo, today's Yadong County on the China-India border, perplexed over whether he should go into exile to India or the United States.

But it was the Dalai Lama himself who decided to send negotiators to Beijing after he obtained more information about what was going on. Several months later, he was further assured after the central government sent a representative to Yadong to explain to him the signing process of the agreement. Then the Dalai Lama decided to return to Lhasa.

On October 24, the Dalai Lama said in a telegram to Mao Zedong he supported the leadership of the central government led by the Chinese Communist Party. “Tibet's local government, monks and people supported stationing of the PLA in Tibet.” This, he said, was to consolidate national defence, drive out imperialist powers and protect the sovereignty of China's territory.

But after his exile to India in 1959, the Dalai Lama insisted the agreement had been signed under duress. In his autobiography, “My Land and My People,” he said it was a “terrible shock” when he heard the 17-point agreement over the radio.

Kyizom Gyaltsen Phuntsog, however, said otherwise.

“When our five-member delegation arrived in Beijing, Zhou Enlai personally welcomed us at the railway station,” he said. “We had pleasant and candid talks and exchanged ideas freely. No one forced us to say or do anything.” Kyizom Gyaltsen Phuntsog was an aide to Ngapoi Ngawang Jigme, Tibet's chief negotiator to Beijing in 1951.

Ngapoi Ngawang Jigme himself wrote in an article entitled “Return to the warm embrace of the Motherland” published in 1981: “We held earnest and friendly negotiations on the basis of equality and consultation...and correctly resolved all complicated issues according to the policy of the Chinese Communist Party on resolving issues related to domestic ethnic groups and in line with the special conditions in Tibet.” The Dalai Lama was later to become director of the Preparatory Committee for the Tibet Autonomous Region, and vice-chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress, China's top legislative body. He was the first Dalai Lama in history to take the post of a state leader of China.

While Mao Zedong claimed the 1951 liberation of Tibet prevented the territory from being reduced to a colony of the aggressive super powers, including Britain and Russia, the Dalai Lama and his followers criticised the move as an “invasion,” saying Tibet had been an independent state.

Chinese historians insist that Tibet came under the direct rule of the Chinese central government in the Yuan Dynasty in the 13th century. In 1288, the Yuan regime formalised a ministry-level agency to administer the entire Tibetan region.

During the Qing Dynasty, all the Dalai Lama reincarnations required approval from Beijing. “In other words, the Dalai Lama was only as good as a local governor, appointed by the central government,” said Prof. Huo Wei, a specialist on Tibetan studies with Sichuan University in Chengdu.

After the Republic of China was founded in 1911, it reaffirmed the central government's authority over Tibet in the republic's first Constitution. Tibet elected 20 delegates to the National Congress in 1913.

The 13th Dalai Lama and the 9th Panchen Lama both sent representatives to the national leadership conference of the Republic of China in 1931. In 1940, the national government set up its Lhasa branch of the Mongolian and Tibetan Affairs Commission. “These all indicated the Tibetans were heavily involved in the country's political life and Tibet was an inseparable part of China,” said Li Decheng, a scholar with China Tibetology Research Center.

The “Tibet independence” claim, which evolved during the late 19th century, was actually a product of imperialist invasions, with the British invaders in Tibet as the culprits, said Zhang Yun, head of the centre's history institute. In 1888 and 1904 British troops invaded Tibet twice and were resisted by local Tibetan people. In the 1904 war, British troops, led by colonel Francis Younghusband, occupied Lhasa after killing about 4,000 Tibetans. Further, they forced the local government to sign the Lhasa Treaty to include Tibet into the sphere of the British Empire.

“At least four times during the Kuomintang's rule, the British offered military supplies to Tibet's local government to instigate uprisings,” said Mr. Zhang.

Representatives of Great Britain and China met in 1914 to negotiate a treaty marking out the boundary lines between India and its northern neighbours.

The Simla Convention granted China secular control over “Inner Tibet,” while recognising the autonomy of “Outer Tibet” under the Dalai Lama's rule. The Chinese government refused to sign the agreement and declared the document null and void.

Behind the back of the Chinese delegates, the British, headed by Henry McMahon, clinched an agreement with Tibetan representative Xazha in which Tibet was to cede 90,000 sq km of Chinese territory to Britain in return for further British pressure on China to allow Tibet to become independent. The “McMahon Line” was created against this backdrop, but it was never agreed to by the Chinese government.

From 1923 to 1924, the British set up a school for army officers in Gyangze, Xigaze Prefecture. The young pro-British officers proposed to overthrow the theological rule of the 13th Dalai Lama and plotted a coup, hoping to forcibly introduce a British-style political system. Their plot, however, was reported to the 13th Dalai Lama and stopped before it could be carried out.

The attempted coup warned the Dalai Lama of the imminent possibility of Britain poking its nose in Tibet's internal affairs and potential threat to his ruling position. He closed the British schools in Gyangze and banned Tibetan officials and civilians from wearing Western clothing. He also ordered the dismantling of a Western-style villa the British built for him at Norbulingka, the Dalai Lama's summer residence. Meanwhile, he sought to improve ties with the Chinese central government.

According to Mr. Zhang, the CIA provided arms and financial aid to “Four Rivers and Six Ranges,” a group of pro-independence Tibetan rebels. Following a failed uprising by the rebels in 1959, the 14th Dalai Lama went into exile in India. — Xinhua

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