Tibet’s Dalai Lama Receives the Nobel Peace Prize

The choice of Tibet’s exiled leader, the Dalai Lama, as recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize focused attention on the thirty-year military occupation and annexation of Tibet by the People’s Republic of China.

Summary of Event

In 1940, a four-year-old peasant boy, Tenzin Gyatso, who was born in a cowshed in the tiny farming village of Takster in 1935, was installed by Buddhist monks as the Fourteenth Dalai Lama (dalai lama means literally “ocean of wisdom”). In Tibet, the Dalai Lama was the absolute spiritual and temporal head of his country. The devotion of the intensely religious Tibetan people to the Dalai Lama was for the most part unquestioning. Nobel Peace Prize;Dalai Lama
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[kw]Nobel Peace Prize, Tibet’s Dalai Lama Receives the (Dec. 10, 1989)
[kw]Peace Prize, Tibet’s Dalai Lama Receives the Nobel (Dec. 10, 1989)
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The Tibetans had expelled Chinese invaders in 1911, and by June, 1912, a proclamation formally reasserting Tibetan independence from China was issued. The Chinese, however, never viewed Tibet as free and independent. With the proclaimed intention of “liberating” Tibet, on October 7, 1950, the People’s Liberation Army of the Chinese Communist government invaded the region. Tibet was easy prey for the Chinese because the Tibetans had few material resources, no proper army, no arms or ammunition, and no military experience. The Chinese did not dissolve the Tibetan political and religious system immediately. Although they promised Tibetan autonomy, the Chinese introduced reforms that systematically communized Tibet, weakening the religious and political authority there.

Subsequent actions by the Chinese were based on the Seventeen-Point Agreement for the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet, Seventeen-Point Agreement for the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet (1951)[Seventeen Point Agreement] which was signed in May, 1951. According to the Dalai Lama, Tibetan government officials signed the agreement under the threat of further military operations against Tibet. The Chinese maintained that the agreement was designed to free Tibetans to return to the People’s Republic of China and enjoy the same rights of national equality as all other nationalities in the country. It was never made clear from whom the Tibetans were being “freed.” The Chinese repeatedly went against their own agreement and began systematically to repress, torture, and, according to Tibetans, massacre the Tibetan people.

The Dalai Lama sought and received recognition of the plight of Tibet and the human rights violations being perpetrated there through a resolution passed by the General Assembly of the United Nations in September, 1959. The Chinese took no notice of the international resolution, however, and in spite of the Dalai Lama’s appeals, Great Britain, the United States, and India failed to provide military assistance to the Tibetans.

Although the Dalai Lama would not lend his name to a freedom movement, some Tibetans began to fight the Chinese. By 1956, sporadic outbreaks of fighting had occurred in Lithang and Chamdo. By late 1956, refugees were streaming out of Tibet, and by mid-1958, full-scale fighting was under way. Chinese censorship was so effective, however, that virtually no news of this massive uprising appeared in the Western press.

On March 10, 1959, guerrillas led the people of Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, in an abortive uprising against the Chinese. A crowd of thirty thousand surrounded the Norbulingka, the Dalai Lama’s summer palace, when they received word that the Dalai Lama was planning to accept an invitation to attend a theatrical performance in a neighboring Chinese military camp. Their simple message was that if the Chinese insisted that the Dalai Lama go to their camp, the Tibetans would form a barricade to prevent it. If the Chinese fought, the Tibetans would fight back.

Although the Dalai Lama would have given himself up to the Chinese in order to avoid a massacre, the Tibetan people denied him this option. The Dalai Lama’s life had to be saved, and he had to leave the palace and Lhasa at once. Dressed as a simple soldier, the Dalai Lama fled from Lhasa to northern India, where he was granted political asylum by Jawaharlal Nehru, the prime minister of India.

Even though the Dalai Lama had already escaped, the impasse in Lhasa continued until March 17, when two heavy mortar shells landed on the premises of the Norbulingka. The Tibetan people quickly realized that bravery and small arms were not enough against an opponent that did not hesitate to shoot women and children or to bomb villages and monasteries. Within one month of the March uprising, three million Tibetans, including religious leaders, were in prison camps. About twenty prison camps were scattered all over the mountain kingdom. Freedom of movement and freedom of speech were denied, and every Tibetan was required to carry an identity card.

The Dalai Lama (Tenzin Gyatso) at the time he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989.

(The Nobel Foundation)

Confrontation between Tibetans and Chinese occurred again on March 9, 1989, when Chinese troops imposed martial law in Lhasa. Martial law;Lhasa, Tibet Tourists reported that Chinese soldiers were shooting unarmed demonstrators, breaking into homes to drag people into police vans, and firing on women and children. Within days, the Chinese had expelled foreigners from Tibet and the press was quieted.

Conditions in Lhasa grew worse. Asia Watch, Amnesty International, the Dalai Lama’s government in exile in India, and several committees of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives documented and confirmed human rights violations perpetrated by the Chinese in Tibet. Human rights abuses;China Approximately 1.2 million people—20 percent of the population—died, many in armed conflict and as the result of famines caused by collectivized farming and the diversion of Tibetan grain to China. The Chinese launched a full-scale campaign to destroy Tibetan Buddhism through Communist indoctrination. Some six thousand monasteries, the centers of cultural and scholastic life in Tibet, were destroyed. Tibet’s forests were stripped, and some reports say that the land was used as a repository for nuclear wastes.

Most of the world was ignorant of China’s actions in Tibet, primarily because of the Chinese government’s strict control of information and constant efforts to discredit the Dalai Lama as a political leader. Although the Chinese government referred to him in derogatory terms, the few foreign journalists who managed to visit the Dalai Lama described him as warm and gently charismatic.

The Chinese government for decades managed to avoid accountability for atrocities meted out in Tibet. Its violent suppression of prodemocracy demonstrations within its own borders, in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989, received international television coverage. On that date, the Chinese army turned its guns on citizens in the streets, massacred thousands, drove student demonstrators from Tiananmen Square, Tiananmen Square massacre and put an end to seven weeks of political protest.

In late 1989, the Nobel Committee announced that it was awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to the Dalai Lama. The prize, given more for idealism than for results, was a recognition of the Dalai Lama’s nonviolent efforts to end China’s forty-year control of Tibet while he led a government in exile. The Nobel Committee praised the Buddhist monk for advocating “peaceful solutions based upon tolerance and mutual respect in order to preserve the historical and cultural heritage of his people.” One example of the Dalai Lama’s efforts was a proposal for a compromise on independence that he made in 1988. Under the compromise, Tibet would have become an autonomous state within China, allowing the Chinese government to continue control of the region’s defense and foreign policy.

In announcing the Dalai Lama as the recipient of the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize, the Nobel Committee insisted that the selection was not motivated by the crackdown on prodemocracy student demonstrations in China. Committee chair Egil Aarvik Aarvik, Egil allowed that the award could be interpreted as an encouragement to democracy-seeking Chinese students, and he also stated, “If I were a Chinese student, I would be fully in support of the decision.”


The selection of the Dalai Lama as recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989 was widely viewed as a symbol of international condemnation of the Chinese government for its crackdown on the student democracy movement in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square and the imposition of martial law in the Tibetan capital, Lhasa, following anti-Chinese riots of March, 1989. The protest movement posed new challenges to Deng Xiaoping, the leader of China, and the resulting crackdown created unprecedented anger, suspicion, and recalcitrance among the Chinese people. The repressive tactics of the Chinese government, both at home and in Tibet, were exposed to the world.

As might be expected, the Dalai Lama’s selection for the prize was denounced by the Chinese embassy in Oslo as intervention into the internal affairs of the Chinese government. An embassy press attaché denounced the Dalai Lama as upsetting the unity of the nation. In contrast, when the exiled Tibetans at the Dalai Lama’s headquarters in Dharmsala, India, heard the news of the Nobel Peace Prize, a thousand of them danced in the streets. The Dalai Lama’s selection was hailed by the Tibet Society of London as “the most significant international statement of support the Tibetans have ever received.”

Although the Nobel Committee commended the Buddhist monk for advocating peaceful solutions, after the Tiananmen Square incident, moderates in the Chinese government lost control, and willingness to talk with the Dalai Lama regarding his proposals diminished, at least for a time. The Dalai Lama persisted in refusing to advocate violence against the Chinese, although many young Tibetans wanted their leader to take more direct action. They noted that the Chinese were holding more than three thousand political prisoners in central Tibet and had some 300,000 troops in Tibet.

The Dalai Lama traveled internationally to publicize the continuing plight of the Tibetans and to rally opposition against the unlawful occupation of Tibet. Unfortunately, many Western countries continued to support China’s claim on Tibet. In the United States, for example, the Dalai Lama received an audience with President George H. W. Bush, but no more than that.

The Chinese lifted martial law in Lhasa in May, 1990, but arrests and repressive measures continued. Prisoners were tortured with cattle prods, and tourists were not allowed to leave their hotels without Chinese guides and military passes. More than 250,000 Chinese soldiers remained in Tibet, and more than three hundred monks and nuns had been expelled from monasteries and nunneries in Lhasa. Ethnic Chinese outnumbered Tibetans in the region by about 7.5 million, and it appeared that the continued existence of the Tibetan culture itself was threatened.

More than a decade later, however, as China itself began to institute significant economic reforms and to become more open to international commercial activity, a gradual improvement in Chinese-Tibetan relations could be observed. Hope for the people and culture of Tibet was furthered in the early twenty-first century by tentative talks between the Dalai Lama’s representatives and representatives of the People’s Republic of China. Nobel Peace Prize;Dalai Lama
Tibet, Chinese occupation
China;occupation of Tibet

Further Reading

  • Bilski, Andrew. “A God-King in Exile: The Dalai Lama Appeals for Democracy in Tibet.” Maclean’s 103 (October, 1990): 50-51. Presents a rare interview with the Dalai Lama that he gave while on a visit to Toronto, Canada. Topics include the impact of the violent suppression of prodemocracy, the demonstrations in China’s Tiananmen Square in June, 1989, the situation in Tibet, and the monk’s commitment to nonviolence.
  • Chopra, Pran Nath. The Ocean of Wisdom: The Life of Dalai Lama XIV. New Delhi: Allied Publishers, 1986. Comprehensive biography is informative, although obviously biased in favor of the Dalai Lama. Includes details of the Dalai Lama’s numerous projects for his people in exile and in Tibet. Includes photographs, glossary, bibliography, and index.
  • Goldstein, Melvyn C. The Snow Lion and the Dragon: China, Tibet, and the Dalai Lama. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997. Presents the history of the dispute over Tibet and suggests a plan for compromise. Includes bibliography and index.
  • Hicks, Roger, and Ngakpa Chogyam. Great Ocean: An Authorized Biography of the Buddhist Monk Tenzin Gyatso His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama. Longmead, Dorset, England: Element Books, 1984. Inspirational account of the life and works of the Dalai Lama presents numerous anecdotes from his relatives and friends. Includes photographs, bibliography, and index.
  • Laird, Thomas. The Story of Tibet: Conversations with the Dalai Lama. New York: Grove Press, 2006. History of Tibet combines historical research with material from interviews with the Dalai Lama. Includes photographs, maps, bibliography, and index.
  • Moynihan, Maura. “Tibet’s Agony: Nobel Prize, Ignoble Story.” The New Republic, November 20, 1989, 10-11. Identifies the Nobel Committee’s decision to give the 1989 Peace Prize to the Dalai Lama as a means of exposing the Tiananmen Square massacre as well as focusing on the military occupation and annexation of Tibet by the People’s Republic of China.

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