Tibet, Palestine and the politics of failure

Fred Halliday
13 May 2008

Two current and high-profile events - the crisis in and around Tibet following the Lhasa riots of 14 March 2008, and the sixtieth anniversary of the establishment on 14 May 1948 of the state of Israel - have more in common than it may first appear. Indeed, their commonalities are shared to a degree by other political and ethnic disputes across the world, to the extent that they compose a distinct phenomenon - which may be termed "the syndrome of post-colonial sequestration". The category may sound abstract but the lived experience it denotes is real and multiple: that is, the cases where countries or peoples have - at a decisive moment of international change, amid the retreat of imperial or hegemonic powers - failed (through bad timing and / or bad leadership) to established their independence.

Tibet and Palestine (Israel's "other") are classic examples of the syndrome. The contrast is with other countries or peoples that have, as it were, managed "to get out in time". Kuwait is one such: a country that is (more than most) artificial and invented, yet which was able to receive widespread international support when invaded by Saddam Hussein's Iraq in 1990 - precisely because it had acquired independence in 1961, and had long been a member of the Arab League and of the United Nations.

The victims of "post-colonial sequestration", by contrast, failed to make it past the barrier of independence and international recognition. Instead they fell into a state of half-recognised, but contested, existence. After the war of 1948-49 the "Palestine question" disappeared almost entirely from the international scene, only to re-emerge with the defeat of the Arab armies in the six-day war of 1967. Tibet too has undergone long years of neglect in the international arena, punctuated by periodic (and notably near-half-century) reincarnations of interest: the bloody British occupation of Lhasa in 1904-05, the insurrection against Chinese rule and flight of the Dalai Lama in 1959, and now the uprising of March 2008 (see Gabriel Lafitte, "Tibet: revolt with memories", 18 March 2008).

An essential element in understanding this syndrome - both from "within" (the people or country concerned) and "outside" (the international order) - is to abandon the idea that the division of the world into today's "nation-states" corresponds to any fundamental principles. The map of the world, now containing around close to 200 independent entities, is not drawn according to ideas of natural justice, divine or even historic entitlement, nor even of the democratic and liberal self-realisation of "nations". It is, rather - as scholars of nationalism, from Ernest Gellner to Tom Nairn, have pointed out - also arbitrary and contingent - a result of power politics; accidents; wars; state crises; and hegemonic, colonial or (in the case of the central Asian republics of the former Soviet Union) ideology.

In this haphazard context, the chances of failure or success in achieving international recognition can be equally contingent. The arbitrary nature of states and frontiers in Africa, the middle east, central Asia and Latin America testifies to this, as do the examples of Belgium, Switzerland, and most recently Kosovo in Europe. Some entities gain established existence and recognition, others do not: there is no natural order in deciding their fate, even if larger political trends and dynamics may in some eras offer a more propitious context (see Tom Nairn, "Globalisation and nationalism: the new deal", 7 March 2008).

A clinching moment

In each case, however, it is usually international politics that plays the decisive role. In particular, the key moment of possibility - and danger - is the convulsive change that occurs when wars end or colonial powers prepare to withdraw. The end of the two world wars in the middle east is emblematic of the process.

In the aftermath of the "great war" of 1914-18, the Ottoman retreat was accompanied by the emergence of various de facto states and movements claiming independence. The Kurds of Turkey and Iraq were promised consultation on independence in the Treaty of Sèvres (1920); the former Ottoman province of the Hijaz, whose ruler Sharif Hussein had supported the British in their campaign against the Turks, and the western Arabian state of Asir, also profferred their claims. But newly assertive states - Kemalist Turkey, British-ruled Iraq and the newly expanding Kingdom of Najd (later Saudi Arabia) - occupied and annexed these territories, crushing the aspirations of the time.

A similar process occurred after the second world war. The British had ruled the administrative entity called "Palestine" since 1920, in effect transposing an imagined, Biblical, and 19th-century romantic term onto a slice of territory that had hitherto been divided up between three Ottoman provinces. A similar process of arbitrary delineation and nomenclature occurred with Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Iraq.

Yet if the colonial creation was arbitrary, the development inside the colonial box of two ethnic communities and two corresponding nationalist movements - Jewish / Zionist and Arab / Palestinian respectively - was real. The unilateral (and profoundly irresponsible) British retreat in 1948 was followed by war, in which the Zionists successfully fought to achieve their independence and the Palestinians (earlier defeated in the 1936-39 insurrection) failed to secure theirs and were occupied by the armies of neighbouring Arab states, Egypt and Jordan. The result, by 1949, was the sequestration by Israeli and Arab states of the former British colony.

For two decades, until Israel expelled the Arab states in the 1967 war, Palestine was divided between three regional powers. Since 1967, the unity of the British colonial artefact has been re-established and, in effect, a civil war within that territory has continued. In the face of Israeli power on one side, and the weakness and accommodations of Arab states on the other, Palestine failed to make it (see Avi Shlaim, "Israel at 60: the 'iron wall' revisited", 8 May 2008).

Lhasa in the world

For all the differences of region and political context, a comparable process was taking place at that time over Tibet, where aspirations to independence were crushed as the forces of the victorious Chinese revolution of 1949 subordinated and incorporated the territory into the "People's Republic of China".

Here, much of the energetic debate about Tibet's "historical status" - whether (as Tibetan nationalists and their supporters claim) it was an independent state before China occupied it in 1950-51 or whether it is (in Chinese nationalist terminology) an "inalienable part" of historic China - is based on a dubious premise. For "history" and its associations is not the unarguable source of judgment that both sides see it as.

Even if Tibet had been an integral part of China for centuries, this would not gainsay its contemporary right - as a territory with a clearly distinct language and culture, and with several decades of de facto and modern sovereignty before 1950 - from claiming independence. After all, Ireland was long ruled by England, Norway by Sweden, and Finland, Ukraine and the Baltic countries by Russia, without this contradicting their right to independence in the 20th century.

It is not essential to this line of argument, but worth saying anyway, that even on historical grounds the Tibetans have as good or better case for independence as these other lands (see Donald S Lopez Jr, "How to think about Tibet", 31 March 2008). Chinese armies have certainly occupied Tibet on various occasions in past centuries, as English armies occupied much of France. But from the mid-18th century, Tibet was in practice independent under its Dalai Lama rulers based in their capital, Lhasa. The few European travellers who reached this "forbidden city" in the 1840s (such as the French travelling priests, Père Huc and Père Gabet), the Chinese presence was purely formal, the two ambans (Beijing officials) posted there having no more power than, say, a British high commissioner has in independent Australia or India.

A question of judgment

The Tibetans were able to achieve and sustain this de facto independence for two reasons: the weakness of the Manchu empire in Beijing (which, in the course of the 19th century, lost control of parts of Mongolia, Korea, and Taiwan); and the fact that Tibet came, again in the 19th century, to be part of a string of independent, but virtually unexplored, Asian states which acquired neutral - "buffer" - status between the British and Russian empires.

In a swathe of countries - from Persia in the west through Afghanistan to Tibet - this was a period of Anglo-Russian rivalry, scheming and exaggeration of threat. The occasional military incursions by the British (against Persia over Herat in 1856, in the Afghanistan wars of the 1840s and 1870s, and in the Younghusband expedition to Lhasa in 1904) were designed not to annex these states to the Raj but (often on the basis of grossly inflated reports of Russian influence) to re-establish a strategic status quo.

The problem for Tibet was that its leaders preferred - in a judgment good in the short-term and catastrophic in the long - to avoid international diplomatic contact, in some cases even recognition. Even in the 1940s there was no direct radio contact between the authorities in Lhasa and the outside world. This approach was shared by some other aristocratic states which had remained free of colonisation well into the 20th century (Haile Selassie's Ethiopia, the Imams of Yemen, the Sultan of Muscat, the kings of Afghanistan). But when international circumstances changed, their remoteness turned from protection into danger: the ending of the 1939-45 war transformed the world around Tibet, with Britain's departure from India in 1947, and the Chinese communist triumph of 1949.

A newly independent India, mindful of the dangers of fragmentary forces within its own territory, did not adopt the Tibetan cause, and this served further to alter the strategic situation to Tibet's disadvantage (see Dibyesh Anand, "Tibet, China and the west: empires of the mind", 3 April 2008). The Lhasa government - presided over by a teenage and inexperienced Dalai Lama, and riven with internal conflicts - made a belated attempt to turn de facto pre-modern independence into international recognition, by despatching a mission to the United Nations. It was too late: Tibet, like Palestine, was crushed by the shifts in regional power and imperial readjustment of the post-1945 world. The Tibetan uprising of March 1959 attracted international sympathy, and some CIA support, but to no avail.

This "sequestration syndrome" applies in other more recent cases: Eritrea and East Timor, respectively post-colonial victims of Ethiopia and Indonesia. They did manage after bloody wars to secure independence, Eritrea's in 1993 and East Timor's in 1999 - but only when the oppressor-state's regime (Mengistu's Derg and Suharto's New Order) had fallen. An example on the other side is the former Spanish colony of Western Sahara, seized by Morocco at the moment of decolonisation in 1975. The world is full of other areas whose future remains open: from Aceh to Somaliland, Abkhazia to West Papua, Baluchistan to Taiwan, Bolivia's "half-moon" to Greenland, the United States's Hawaii to Tonga's Vava'u.

A realistic pessimism

The gathering of such diverse places under one rubric may seem forced, even preposterous - particularly to hegemonic nationalists from Tel Aviv and Beijing, Ankara and Rabat, Moscow and Belgrade, and many other capitals (which is not to ignore the fact that the leaderships of independent and often small states that have "got out in time" can be among the most virulent of nationalists, and distinctly hegemonic towards their own minorities and/or colonial components). But it speaks to the realities of the modern world, and indeed suggests a realistic pessimism about the possibility today of resolving many of these disputes. If the concept of "post-colonial sequestration" holds, then it carries a vital lesson: only if there is a major political shift in the hegemonic state that has committed the sequestration, and which has secured some international indulgence for it, is there a realistic prospect of post-colonial annexation being reversed.

This implies that the granting of - or even, in the end, the demand for - independence is in the short and medium term less important than respect for regional and cultural rights within a democratic framework. The reason why such entities as Bavaria, Catalonia, Crete and California (among others) do not in their majority favour independence is less because they lack a good case in principle and precedence, and more because their major goals (including democracy, respect and economic prosperity) are deemed by the great majority of their citizens to be better realised by remaining part of the larger entity. The same may apply, in the end, to Scotland.

Hence the solution to the problems of Palestine, Kurdistan, Western Sahara and Tibet - and the other cases referred to above - needs to do two things: discard sterile and polemical (thus exclusionary to those with independent minds and those not directly involved) disputes about historic claims - as opposed to objective, grounded, careful and respectful historical argument; and focus on the attempt to secure a measure of democratic (including federal) freedoms for subject peoples and territories.

The first is self-explanatory, except to nationalist partisans and political sectarians. The second requires a larger change in the whole political system of the country of which aspirants to autonomy, sovereignty and recognition (and possibly, in the end, independence) are a part. If Israel were prepared to grant democratic rights and freedoms to the Palestinians whose lives it controls, and China to permit the same to its citizens (including Tibetan and Uighur), then all options - negotiated independence, democratic federalism, new states or refounded states - can be freely placed on the table. The current inclinations of these dominant states and their publics, and the foreseeable international distribution of power, suggest that the prospect of "de-sequestration" is at present dim. The time for a realistic optimism, for Tibet and Palestine at least, is not yet at hand.

Fred Halliday's many "global politics" columns on openDemocracy include:

"Crises of the middle east: 1914, 1967, 2003" (15 June 2007)

"Yemen: murder in Arabia Felix" (13 July 2007)

"Eternal Euzkadi, enduring ETA" (3 August 2007)

"Islam and Europe: a debate in Amsterdam" (1 October 2007)

"The mysteries of the US empire" (30 November 2007)

"The assassin's age: Pakistan in the world" (28 December 2007)

"Islam, law and finance: the elusive divine" (12 February 2008)

"Stolen Wealth Funds: fantasies of control" (4 March 2008)

"Two feminist pioneers: Iranian, Lebanese, universal" (20 April 2008)

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