The Telegraph
Friday , April 18 , 2014
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Tibet: An Unfinished Story By Lezlee Brown Halper and Stefan Halper, Hachette, Rs 599

I was living in Beijing when Lhasa erupted in its last big anti-Chinese riot. This was on the eve of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. It was China’s moment to display itself on the big global stage. What struck me most about the mayhem in Lhasa was how the Chinese State had failed to prevent it. For, Beijing knew that it was also a moment that Tibetan agitators were desperate to seize in order to attract the world’s attention to their cause.

There have been other protests in Tibet before and after the 2008 violence. The past two years have seen nearly a hundred people, mostly monks, immolate themselves in their desperation to make the world speak and act on Tibet’s behalf. All these protests — in Tibet and elsewhere in the world — prove one thing more than anything else — that Tibet is, as the authors of this book call it, “an unfinished story”.

But the world’s response to the Tibetan cause has been a mixed one. This book actually is a chronicle of how the world betrayed Tibet. Before it chronicles how the betrayal took place, it briefly recounts how the Western world created its myth of the Shangri-La, a land of fantasy in the hidden Himalaya that offers a timeless refuge from the problems and pains of modern, materialistic life.

Few myths have haunted the Western imagination like the one surrounding Tibet ever since James Hilton presented it in his 1933 novel, Lost Horizon. The mystery and magic that the West sought to find in Tibet even led some leaders of Nazi Germany, especially Heinrich Himmler, to think that Tibet held the key to understanding the roots of “pure Aryan blood” and Asiatic mysticism.

Ironically, the earliest Western encounters with Tibet were less about magic and mystery than about trade and imperialism, whether it was George Bogle’s 1774 encounter with the Panchen Lama or Francis Younghusband’s 1904 expedition, when force was first used by a Western power to compel Lhasa to sign a trade treaty with the outside world.

The authors, both Cambridge academics, recall that history of early European encounters with Tibet. But the book’s focus is the free world’s twisted history of using Tibet as a pawn in global geopolitics for many years and then abandoning it in its quest for engaging with communist China.

There have been other books on how Tibet became enmeshed in the Cold War game of chess. Mikel Dunham’s 2004 book, Buddha’s Warriors, offers the most detailed account of the Tibetan freedom struggle, which was planned, financed and armed by the Central Intelligence Agency in the 1950s and 1960s.

But few books capture the story of the world’s engagement with the Tibetan cause and its eventual betrayal of it in greater detail than this one. With the help of recently declassified archival material from the US and the Chinese governments, the authors weave a narrative that reads almost like a spy thriller. Interviews with some of the most important characters in the Tibetan tale give the book a rare ring of authenticity.

Vivid portraits of the “ruthless and cunning” Zhou Enlai, a “vulnerable” Jawaharlal Nehru, K. M. Panikkar, India’s first ambassador to China, Loy Henderson, the US ambassador in New Delhi, John Foster Dulles, the US secretary of State, and the three US presidents — Roosevelt, Truman and Eisenhower — and of Gyalo Thondup, the “enigmatic” elder brother of the Dalai Lama, emerge from the pages of the book. Above all, there is the Dalai Lama, who is portrayed as a man doomed by the Tibetan religious tradition, his own god-like status and by his “naivety”.

In the authors’ judgment, Nehru’s ambition to emerge as the leader of the non-aligned countries, his distrust of the US and his anxiety to befriend New China led him to distance himself — and India — from the Tibetan cause. The Panchsheel agreement between India and China in 1954, they argue, signed the “death warrant” for Tibet, just as Henry Kissinger’s dramatic encounter with Zhou Enlai in July, 1971, which paved the way for the historic Nixon-Mao meeting next year, ended the US role in the Tibetan resistance. “Tibet’s troubled dream of autonomy was now cast in sepia”, the authors remark.

Yet, the story goes on. Not just the protests inside Tibet or the Free Tibet campaign elsewhere, but also the “soft power” that the Dalai Lama continues to exert globally keep the hope alive for a Tibet that may regain its lost horizon even while China retains its “sovereignty” or “suzerainty” over the land.