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Mongolia and Tibet: Nation-building at the dawn of the nation-state era

On the evening of April 6th, 2013, the conference goers of the 20th Annual Central Eurasian Studies Conference filled a lecture room in Woodburn Hall for the keynote address.  This year’s keynote speaker was Professor Tsering Shakya, Canada Research Chair in Religion and Contemporary Society in Asia, Institute of Asian Research, University of British Columbia.

“Tsering Shakya is really one of the most, if not the most, eminent scholars in the study of modern Tibet,” said Professor Elliot Sperling from the Department of Central Eurasian Studies, Indiana University.

“His The Dragon in the Land of Snows is one of the classic works for the study of modern Tibet. He is a good friend, a brilliant scholar, and somebody who I am very, very proud to see here at Indiana University.”

Professor Shakya, in addition to being a leading scholar, has very personal ties and insights into the study of the modern history of Tibet.

“My interest in history actually stems from being with these British officials. Living with them, and growing up in England with them—they were talking all the time about everything Central Asia. So this is how I became interested in history—simply living with these really historical figures who really shaped what happened in Asia.”

Professor Shakya’s paper was entitled, “Tibet and Mongolia: The Search for Nationhood in the Early 20th Century.”

“For today’s talk, I am really interested in what happens when empires collapse.”

He observed that many of the modern nation-states in Asia, Africa, and even Europe emerged out the collapse of empires such as those of the British, Ottoman, and Austro-Hungarian. What, then, happened in the aftermath of the fall of the Qing Empire in 1911?

“The only nation that emerged as a fully independent nation was Mongolia. Why was Mongolia able to achieve nationhood and statehood? And compared to Tibet, why did Tibet fail?”

The irony of this outcome was that prior to the fall of the Qing, Mongolia was actually far more integrated within the Qing Empire than was Tibet. However, the world powers upon which each relied would importantly influence their respective positions in the new age of nation-states. While the Mongols relied upon the Russians, the Tibetans counted on the British. Professor Shakya quipped:

“The Russian national sport is chess and the British national sport is cricket. So you can just imagine which is better for the game of strategy.”

While the fall of the Qing in 1911 marked a major turning point for both Mongolia and Tibet, the development of Tibetan and Mongol ethno-nationalism was already underway even prior to this. Such aspirations for nationhood were in fact galvanized in reaction to a new Qing policy that sought to consolidate its control over peripheral territories in the face of encroaching Western powers. This new policy of consolidation was met with resistance in both Mongolia and Tibet.

“It was thus not the revolution in China in 1911 that was the cause of Tibetan and Mongolian separation. It was merely a catalyst that allowed the Tibetans and Mongolians to fulfill ambitions that were already on course.”

Yet even after the fall of the Qing, there was no clear path to independence. There was no roadmap for how new nations declared themselves as such.

“It is really interesting. Until Mongolia declared independence, Tibet declared independence, in 1911 and 1913, I cannot find any historical evidence of how nations declared themselves independent.”

Many declarations of independence came in the years after the First World War, after 1918. However, Mongolia and Tibet took this step prior to this date, even signing a joint Tibetan-Mongolian declaration of independence in 1913.

“So what most historians ignore is that what the Mongolians did, what the Tibetans did, was during a major historical, transitional period. Not enough attention has been paid to how Mongolia was able to create that idea of separating and declaring independence.”

Professor Shakya also argued that, unlike some theories that view nationalism as a product of the transition from feudal to capitalist societies, or as an appropriation of colonialism, such factors cannot explain the emergence of nationalism in Mongolia and Tibet.

“The nation may be imagined, but it is not predicated on the conditions envisioned by modern theorists. The Tibetans and Mongolians based their formation of national identity on the commonality among each of roots and culture, concepts which constituted powerful forces of social imagining and of opposition to China.”

The project of nation building was approached in very different ways in Mongolia and in Tibet. Mongolia had to unify a diverse society comprised of clans and tribes. Because they lacked an authoritative leader, they had to build alliances horizontally.

“The idea of Mongol unity therefore had to be fostered by the promise of social change.”

Tibet, meanwhile, had the authoritative figure of the 13th Dalai Lama and the central government in Lhasa.

“The attempts to bring Tibetans into a nation-state were primarily reliant on the extension and consolidation of the Dalai Lama’s personal authority. There was no fundamental shift in the nature of the polity…and no effort to mobilize the populace into a movement for the creation of a national state…power remained in the hands of the Lhasa elite.”

As a result, traditional local power holders in Tibet viewed the extension of Lhasa’s power not as a nation-building project that they should also be invested in, but as a threat to their own power that they would resist.

“The principal weakness of the Lhasa government was its failure to establish alliances or to inculcate a sense of national identity and governance.”

Another pivotal factor in the determination of nationhood was the nature of the bilateral or multilateral alliances that each became involved in. While Mongol leaders established direct and continuous high-level contacts with a foreign power, that of Russia, Tibetan leaders maintained contacts with the British through low-level officials who had little power to influence British policy in Tibet.

A primary interest of the Russians and the British in their relations with the Mongols and Tibetans was that of containing yet appeasing China. This resulted in the strategic signing of a treaty between the Russians and Mongolians in 1912, and a British-mediated attempt to sign a treaty between the Tibetans and Chinese in 1914. Both treaties effectively dealt with Mongolia and Tibet, respectively, as sovereign powers yet simultaneously affirmed Chinese suzerainty.

The period between 1912 and 1946 was one in which the international legal status of Tibet and Mongolia remained unclear, but was formative for what was to come.

“While Mongolian efforts were aimed at international recognition, Tibet turned inward and attempted to build the new nation from inside.”

“This seems to indicate that the Tibetans were not greatly concerned about whether Tibet was considered a part of China by the international community as long as there was no direct intervention in Tibet. The Mongols on the other hand made a strenuous effort to secure independence and were very much aware of the need for a clear legal definition of their status.”

Events on the international arena such as the Second World War would propel Mongolia and Tibet in different directions, in large part due to the interests, ideologies, and positions of their international allies in the new world order.

“The British, being a colonial power, could not advocate the idea of national self-determination because that would mean all their colonies would have to be given self-determination. Russia could use the idea of self-determination as the ideological basis for supporting Mongolian independence.”

Furthermore, by the eve of the Second World War, the Soviet Union was a rising world power while the British Empire was in decline.

“So this choice of international alliance made a fundamental difference. When Mongolia was finally recognized in 1946, it was done at Yalta under Stalin’s insistence.”

“In contrast, Britain had become a secondary power and its imperial ambitions had been eroded, leaving Tibet a minor concern on the international agenda.”

The 20th Annual Central Eurasian Studies Conference was organized entirely by officers and student volunteers of ACES and made possible by the generous support of the Indiana University Student Association, Department of Central Eurasian Studies, Inner Asian and Uralic National Resource Center, Ottoman and Turkish Studies Chair, Center for the Study of the Middle East, East Asian Studies Center, Center for the Study of Global Change, Russian and East European Institute, Department of Political Science, and Department of Linguistics.