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Last Updated: Wednesday, 19 March 2008, 17:54 GMT
Tibet's unsettled borders
By Joe Boyle
BBC News

Many of the recent protests by Tibetans against Chinese rule have taken place outside the area often referred to as Tibet.

Tibetan monks in Xiahe, Gansu province, 16/03
Tibetans have many holy places outside of the TAR

Commentators usually consider "Tibet" to be the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) - which has Lhasa as its provincial capital.

The borders of the TAR, as defined by the Chinese government, are administrative boundaries and have no ethnic basis.

But currently about half of Tibetans are estimated to live outside the TAR - many of them in nearby Chinese provinces or surrounding countries like Nepal and India.

Tibet's government-in-exile, based in northern India, has a very different concept of its homeland.

A term often used is Greater Tibet, which covers the TAR, the whole of Qinghai province, western parts of Sichuan, areas of Yunnan and a corner of Gansu.

Unpicking the history of the area is complex because each group has its own version of history, seemingly irreconcilable with that of its rivals.

Broadly speaking, the TAR corresponds to the region ruled by the 13th Dalai Lama, who declared Tibet an independent republic in 1912.

His Tibet functioned as an independent state until China exerted its authority by sending in troops during 1950.

From the Tibetan point of view, it is all an integrated region
Dr Andrew Fischer
London School of Economics

Beijing had never recognised the independent Tibet - citing various moments in history going back more than 1,000 years to legitimise its claims.

Other parts of Greater Tibet remained outside Lhasa's authority during this period.

Even so, Dr Andrew Fischer from the London School of Economics explains that many Tibetans still feel that their homeland is much bigger than the TAR.

"From the Tibetan point of view, it is all an integrated region. It does not have a politically unified history, but definitely a socially integrated history."

He says it is a mistake to regard the TAR as Tibet, and cites the Chinese government's designation of 97.2% of the area of Qinghai province as Tibetan autonomous areas.

The only area not to be regarded as autonomous is the provincial capital Xining and its environs, where most of the region's population lives.

The Tibetans - who make up about 25% of the total population of Qinghai - live in the vast plains covering the rest of the province.

About half of Sichuan, 10% of Gansu and 10% of Yunnan are also designated as Tibetan autonomous areas.

And all of them have a history of violent protest against Chinese rule.

'Powder keg'

Dr Martin Mills, a Tibet expert from Aberdeen University, says the wider region played a key role in the major Tibetan uprising of the late 1950s.

The Dalai Lama (18 March 2008)
The Dalai Lama's predecessor declared an independent Tibet

"During the Tibetan resistance of 1956 to 1959, the government in Lhasa was slightly sitting on its hands, while the most ferocious fighting was occurring in Qinghai," he said.

Unrest in Lhasa during the late 1980s, which some analysts say prefigured the Tiananmen Square massacre, also spread to the other regions.

Tibet-watchers are not surprised that the protests which began in Lhasa on 10 March exploded so dramatically in areas hundreds of miles away.

Dr Fischer, who visited to the region last September, said local officials there had expressed serious concern about protest movements then.

He said the area was "like a powder keg waiting to go off".

Map of Tibet





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