The first important thing to know about Tibet is that not everyone agrees what “Tibet” is. When the Chinese government talks about Tibet it refers to the “Tibet Autonomous Region,” which is a province in the southwestern part of the nation. Tibetans define their land as “The Three Provinces,” a much larger chunk of what is now Chinese territory that covers the Tibet Autonomous Region as well as parts of several other Chinese provinces. (Take a look at this map for an idea of how confusing defining Tibet’s borders can be.)
The second is that Tibet unified as an independent, Buddhist empire about 1400 years ago, and only became part of China in the 18th century when the Qing Dynasty conquered it, though the Chinese generally left Tibetans alone. Only when the British started to express interest in Tibet did China actually assert control. When the Qing Dynasty fell in 1912, the Tibetan Buddhist spiritual leader, called the Dalai Lama (more about what a “Dalai Lama” is will come below) essentially declared Tibet’s independence by saying that the relationship between China and Tibet was “that of patron and priest and had not been based on the subordination of one to the other.” He went on to state, “We are a small, religious, and independent nation.” Unfortunately for Tibet, China never recognized Tibet as independent.
In 1950 Chinese troops actually invaded Tibet and in 1959, after a failed Tibetan revolt, the Dalai Lama (who is the man we now know as “the Dalai Lama” — more about him below too) and about 80,000 Tibetans went into exile in Dharmasala, India. A hundred years later, Tibetans are still declaring themselves independent and the Chinese still aren’t buying it. China has tightened its grip on the Tibet Autonomous Region, both through traditional heavy-handed political oppression and by encouraging the immigration of millions of Han Chinese people into the region, effectively marginalizing Tibetans.
Today, the Dalai Lama is the head of the Tibetan “government in exile,” the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA). The CTA espouses non-violence and officially says it doesn’t want independence, just true autonomy within China. There are others in the Tibetan exile community who are increasingly focused on independence and have assert themselves more and more, most recently rising up against China just before the Beijing Olympics in 2008. Most foreign supporters of Tibet, including high profile celebrities who have hobnob with the Dalai Lama, have demanded that the Chinese grant Tibet its freedom.
More information :
“FACTBOX: Who are Tibetans, what is Tibet?” | Human Rights Watch is watching Tibet | “The King of Tibet” is a teenager with a video camera | Not Everyone is a fan of Shangri-La | Buddhism vs. Bon? (a long article, but a fascinating look at a conflict between Tibetan Buddhism and a pre-Buddhist/shamanistic Tibetan Buddhist religion called Bon) | Western organizing for freedom in Tibet: Milarepa, the Beastie Boys and the Tibetan Freedom Concerts | FreeTibet.org | Students for a Free Tibet | Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy