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Tibet: Exiled leader seeks autonomy on annexation day

October 7, 2020

The leader of the Tibetan government in exile has said he continues to fight for the autonomy of Tibet. He called China's annexation of Tibet 70 years ago "violent" and "illegal."

Lobsang Sangay
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/M. Doleza

The head of the Tibetan government in exile, Lobsang Sangay, told DW on Wednesday that on the 70th anniversary of the Chinese annexation of Tibet, he was still fighting for autonomy.

"It is difficult because you are in exile and whatever happens around the world affects you, including the American presidential election or change in prime ministership of Japan, or any country in Europe," he said. "But you do the best you can to impact the world. And so far, for the last 60 years, we are still standing on our feet and we are still pursuing non-violence as our principle and genuine autonomy as our goal. So we are still here."

Sangay said the anniversary was a painful reminder for exiled Tibetans.

"The anniversary means the destruction, the illegal occupation and the violent take-over of the Tibetan people," he told DW.

China started annexing then-de facto autonomous Tibet in October 1950, when the People's Liberation Army captured the border city of Chamdo. The 14th Dalai Lama formally accepted the so-called 17 Point Agreement in October 1951, which promised regional autonomy.

The Tibetan government in exile, called the Central Tibetan Administration, was formed in 1959. Based in India, it is elected by the Tibetan diaspora and refugees.

It rejects the 17 Point Agreement and maintains that Tibet should be an autonomous nation, and seeks what it calls"the middle way." Sangay became elected leader of the government in 2011, after the Dalai Lama stepped down as political leader.

China maintains that Tibet has been part of China for hundreds of years and that its period of de facto independence in the 1900s was an anomaly.

Flight of the Dalai Lama to India

Five Finger Policy

Speaking to DW, Sangay alleged that China had long been planning to use Tibet as a launching pad to take over regions of India, Bhutan and Kashmir.

"Chinese leaders like Mao Zedong said Tibet is the palm that we take over, then we go out to the Five Fingers of Ladar, Nepal, Sikkim, Bhutan and Arunachal (Pradesh)."

Sangay was referring to a policy attributed to Mao in the 1940s, but Sangay and others have fears of its revival in recent years. Analysts have pointed to it as a basis for the Sino-Indian border dispute flaring up again this year.

Read more: India-China tension: Soldier's death puts spotlight on Tibetans in India   

Sangay said claims that China was only seeking stability in the region for the benefit of the Chinese, and that Tibetans were being repressed.

"Xi Jinping himself has said that the stability and security of China is dependent on the stability and security of Tibet. So for China, Tibet is very, very important."

"When he says peace, it means assimilation of Tibetans, when he says stability it means the repression of the Tibetan people, the control of Tibet. That's what he means."

Speaking on Chinese investment in the region, Sangay said that it only benefited Chinese residents. China is reportedly planning to spend more than 1 trillion yuan ($147 billion / €125 billion) on infrastructure in the region, including major rail and road projects.

"The railway line brings more Chinese to Tibet and takes more natural resources from Tibet to China. Similarly, the roads mostly connect to our natural resources. The airport also brings more troops, more Chinese."

"This is an assimilation drive. So, yes, they talk about development. The question is, who benefits? And primarily Chinese people benefit from development projects in Tibet."

Editor's note: This story has been changed to replace "independence" with "autonomy," to more accurately reflect the status Sangay is seeking to preserve for Tibet.