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Why Tibet Matters To Southasia (Himal)

Himal, Nepal.

BY | Bhuchung K Tsering

When reports about the possible entry of China into SAARC first appeared a few years back, quite a few eyebrows went up. When China was subsequently given observer status to the organisation in 2005, some wondered whether SAARC would now be used as a forum for a proxy India-China battle for regional dominance. As a Tibetan living in Southasia, China's connection with SAARC has long held a particular interest for this writer. And indeed, if there is any direct relevance to China's involvement in SAARC, it is due to Tibet. In terms of physical geography alone, the main connection between today's People's Republic of China and Southasia is through Tibet.

But what has SAARC got to do with Tibet? Historically, Tibet and the Tibetan people have looked to the south for their spiritual and cultural heritage - to countries including India, Bangladesh and Nepal. But this is not necessarily why the rest of the Southasian countries should pay attention to Tibet. The political path on the plateau and beyond is taking its own route. Since 2002, there have been five rounds of discussions between envoys of the Dalai Lama and representatives of the Chinese government on the future of Tibet. As the Dalai Lama's special envoy, Lodi Gyari, said in recent testimony before the US Congress, "We have now reached the stage where if there is the political will on both sides, we have an opportunity to finally resolve this issue." So, we now just need the Chinese leadership to appreciate the vision and initiative of the Dalai Lama. Of course, a resolution of the Tibetan issue will certainly contribute to peace and stability in other parts of Southasia, as well.

However, Tibet should matter to Southasia because of its trade possibilities, as well as its strategic and environmentally sensitive location. At one time, within living memory, there was a robust trade relationship between Tibet and its southern neighbours - Nepal, Bhutan and India. A revival of such relations has considerable potential for helping to speed up the rise of the Southasian economy. If there is truth to the belief that China is a vast, tappable market, Southasia is well placed to tap it through Tibet.

Second, the management of Tibet's rich water resources and environment will have a long-term impact on the region as a whole. Critically, analysts speculate that the next big global crisis will be on the sharing of water resources. A report from 2000 by the Asian Development Bank on the "looming water crisis" found that globally, "The demand for freshwater increased sixfold between 1900 and 1995, twice the rate of population growth." Further, "The most accessible water is that which flows in river channels or is stored in freshwater lakes and reservoirs." In the Subcontinent, most of the major rivers have their source in Tibet. According to the Central Tibetan Administration in Dharamsala, "A substantial proportion of river flows in Tibet are stable or base flows coming from groundwater and glacial sources." Thus, the impact of changes in Tibet's glacial reserves - through either climate change or more direct human intervention - will affect regions far beyond Tibet.

Already some Southasian countries are experiencing the negative impact of improper management of Tibetan river systems. Frequent flooding of the Yarlung Tsangpo (Brahmaputra) continues to have devastating results in India and Bangladesh. According to a 2004 report, "The Brahmaputra is mainly responsible for the annual floods that hit the eastern region of the Subcontinent. Estimates say that [2004's] floods, the worst in a decade, claimed close to 2000 lives in Bangladesh and in the eastern Indian states of Bihar, West Bengal and Assam. Millions of people lost their homes in the region that includes the foothills of Nepal." The report continued, "International agencies once again began discussing the need for a regional approach of water-resource management of the Himalayan rivers that flow through China, India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh."

When reports appeared in 2006 about China building a dam on the Yarlung Tsangpo, strong reactions immediately arose from Assam and Arunachal Pradesh, which would be directly impacted by the move. China subsequently denied having any such plan, but the impact that the handling of Tibet's rivers would have on downstream countries was crystal clear. Now that China has an observer status to SAARC, the countries of Southasia have an increased need, but also a crucial ability, to pay direct attention to the situation in Tibet - environmental, political and social. Indeed, Southasia as a whole now has both the increased impetus and leverage to call for the opening up of Tibet, both physically and psychologically, to its southern neighbours.


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