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Tibet: Britain's Chequered Past

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Matthew Grant, Today reporterMatthew Grant reports
Tony Blair urged to apologise for the British invasion of Tibet in 1904: Matthew Grant travelled to Tibet to find out how the invasion is viewed today.

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Should Tony Blair apologise for the invasion of Tibet exactly 100 years ago today? Matthew Grant reports.
The Tibetan flag

The 1904 Invasion: The fact British soldiers killed hundreds of Tibetans with machine guns is not disputed.
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Read and listen to Matthew's first report prepared in Tibet, where he was given rare access 45 years on from the Dalai Lama fleeing.

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Lhasa Temple

"What is hugely embarrassing for everybody is that (the British) finally get to Lhasa ... and they find not a trace of Russian influence": historian Charles Allen.
The Dalai Lama

A British Apology? The Prime Minister won’t even meet the Dalai Lama when the exiled spiritual leader comes to London later in the week.
Monks in Tibet (photo: AP)

Tibetan monks (photo: AP).
The Anti-British Memorial hall

The Anti-British Memorial hall.
The Memorial Hall of the Anti-British sits half-way up the fort in the southern Tibetan town of Gyantse. It offers visitors history with attitude - the clue is in the name.

The tour guide showed me a picture of British and Tibetan troops negotiating at the site of a battle, not far from the museum.

She says the British officer present suggested both sides unload their weapons before they start talking. But she claims when this happened, the British reloaded and massacred 500 Tibetans.

British accounts of the massacre are rather different. Witness accounts generally pin the blame for the start of the fighting on a Tibetan who shot a Sikh sepoy in the jaw.

The Tibetan swordsmen then rushed forward. Their first victim was the Daily Mail’s special correspondent, who lost a hand.

The British responded by opening fire with machine guns, killing hundreds in a matter of minutes, the first time these weapons had been used to bring destruction on such a scale.

What British troops were doing in Tibet in the first place is almost as controversial. At the start of the 20th century, the country had become the focus of the Great Game being played for control of central Asia.

“There were rumours that Russia was influencing the Tibetan government,” explains Alison Reynolds of the Free Tibet Campaign. “There were rumours that weapons were being stockpiled in Lhasa.”

The government in London wasn’t too worried by this. But for the viceroy of India, Lord Curzon, it became a preoccupation. He chose Colonel Francis Younghusband, a famous explorer with no military experience, to invade Tibet.

Charles Allen, the author of a recent book on the mission, says that while Younghusband shared his master’s concerns, he had other motives.

“Younghusband had his own agenda – and that agenda was to get to Lhasa,” he said. “It is hard to remember now what Lhasa meant to explorers at the time. It was the last bit of blank on the map.”

Younghusband was prepared to do whatever it took to get to Lhasa. Once he got inside Tibet, he sent home reports continuing to suggest the real threat was Russia. However, as soon as he did arrive in the city, the subject was quickly dropped.

“What is hugely embarrassing for everybody is that they finally get to Lhasa, the forbidden city, British troops march in – the Tibetans clap which the British think is a sign of acceptance, in fact you’re clapping away devils – and they find not a trace of Russian influence, no Russian rifles, not a trace of Russia,” Allen explained.

It seemed Younghusband had somewhat oversold his case. But he was happy. The sight of Lhasa at last had a profound effect upon him.

“It thrilled me with overpowering intensity,” he wrote at the time. “Never again could I think evil, or ever be at enmity with any man. That single hour on leaving Lhasa was worth all the rest of a lifetime.”

For Tibetans (and the Chinese who occupied the country nearly fifty years later) the memory is less rosy. Can Mucuo, the commissioner of Shigatze - near where the worst fighting took place - explains the local plans for the centenary.

“This year marks the one hundredth anniversary of the British invasion. The Gyantse people fought tough battles with the British invaders with backward weapons. Their spirit greatly encourages the Gyantse people even now.

“To mark the anniversary we are going to organise many propaganda events. We are going to make a big documentary about how the Gyantse people were against the British invaders.

“But the key project will be a big opera with the name of Gyantse spirit of anti-British invasion.”

And while the opera won’t be performed in Britain, Alison Reynolds thinks it’s time the Prime Minister said sorry.

“Britain, more than any other western country, knows and understands Tibet,” she says. “Therefore it should be at the forefront of efforts to promote a lasting solution to the occupation that China undertook in 1950.

“We think a good first step by Tony Blair is to acknowledge what British forces did in Tibet a hundred years ago and to apologise.”

It is unlikely to happen. The Prime Minister won’t even meet the Dalai Lama when the exiled spiritual leader comes to London later in the week.

Tibet’s moment at the centre of British foreign policy was brief and a long time ago.


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