The pre-Communist legal system was based on an early code of laws that had been in effect in Tibet for some time. Traditional social controls were based on family and village relations. A variety of methods were used to settle disputes. A matter was not considered ended until all parties agreed. The government generally didn’t enter the process unless the crime was murder or treason. [Source: Rebecca R. French, e Human Relations Area Files (eHRAF) World Cultures, Yale University]

When the French anthropologist Michael Piessel asked a monk in Mustang what they did about thieves the monk picked up a shriveled human hand and showed him. There thieves sometimes were sometimes sewn into a yak bag and tossed off a cliff after their hands were amputated. The decapitated heads of bandits were displayed on sticks.In 1950, two border guards attacked on group of foreigners, killing United States Vice Council Douglas Mackiernam and three others. The guards were given 200 lashes each and were placed in stocks.

20080229-tibet-drapchi prison shown to journalists julie chao22.jpg
Drapchi prison shown to journalists

Justice, Tibet Style

Tang Yue and Wang Huazhong wrote in the China Daily, “When someone is killed in a traffic accident in China the guilty party usually has to compensate the victim's family, and might even serve a prison term. But that's not always the case if the accident happens in the Tibet autonomous region. "Because of their Buddhist beliefs, people in Tibet think there's no need to increase a family's pain when someone's life has already gone. They believe that doing good to others help their lost loved one to reincarnate," said Dawagyizom, a Lhasa native and lawyer who has worked at the Legal Assistance Center of the Tibet autonomous region for five years. "That's why you see a lot of fatal traffic accidents resolved more easily here than in other parts of the country." [Source: Tang Yue and Wang Huazhong, China Daily, contact the writers at tangyue@chinadaily.com.cn and wanghuazhong@chinadaily.com.cn June 27, 2013 ~|~]

“Compared with people in the more affluent areas of China, many residents of Tibet lack legal awareness, despite the huge progress made in recent decades, said Dawagyizom. "In Lhasa, it's fine but in a lot of other regions, especially the rural areas, people may resort to other means, rather than seeking a legal solution." To better help people defend their rights through the process of law, especially those from poverty-stricken areas, the legal assistance center was established in Lhasa in 2001. It now employs more than 120 employees and covers every one of Tibet's 73 counties. The center not only helps people defend their rights, but has also helped to change traditional views. ~|~

“One of Dawagyizom's clients is Lhadron, a 34-year-old Lhasa housewife. Her father Palden Tsering fought with Lhadron's stepmother, year, inflicting a slight injury to her leg in the process. Although the wound was minor, Lhadron's stepmother went to the hospital to have it checked. While at the hospital, the woman became enraged, grabbed a knife and accidentally severed an artery in her leg. She later died of the injury. "I don't know much about the law. At first, I thought my father would be tried and given a death sentence because my stepmother died. I cried everyday," said Lhadron. Relatives advised her to seek help from the assistance center. She was seen by Dawagyizom, who collected evidence from witnesses at the hospital that proved the fatal injury was inflicted accidentally and was not a result of the fight between husband and wife. ~|~

“In addition to consulting a lawyer, Lhadron also spent a long time praying in the hall the family uses for worshipping Buddha. "I believe Buddha must have helped my father through this troubled time," said Lhadron, after offering incense to a statue of the Buddha. "But what's different now is that I don't only believe in the blessings of Buddha, but also in the power of the law. In the past, we thought it shameful to go to court." ~|~

“According to Chen Bo, deputy director of the center, 70 percent of the cases it deals with are labor disputes. "There are similar cases all over China - mainly construction workers who haven't been paid for work they've done. Some are from outside Tibet, while others are local farmers or herdsman," said Chen, 45. As a Han Chinese, Chen believes the Tibetan he acquired during childhood has helped him win the trust of the local people. "But I don't really care if the people who ask our advice are Han or Tibetan. All people are equal before the law. As a lawyer, my responsibility is simply to defend the rights of every individual." ~|~

“Zhou Yun has benefited from the center's work. The 37-year-old moved to Lhasa from neighboring Sichuan province on March 19, earning 210 yuan ($34) a day installing equipment in a cement plant. He lost a kidney in a work-related accident on April 5. Although his boss agreed to pay the surgical fee of 35,000 yuan, he was reluctant to discuss compensation. Zhou's wife, Gong Yongying, said at the center on May 9: "When I saw all the tubes in my husband's body, I was really terrified and didn't dare think of the future." Zhou said, "I have no savings to hire a lawyer, but thanks to lawyer Chen's help, I can hold on and fight for what I deserve." He eventually received compensation of 230,000 yuan.” ~|~

Mobile Courts in Tibet

Tang Yue and Wang Huazhong wrote in the China Daily, “Sometimes, it's not just the cost that prevents people from consulting a lawyer, often they are daunted by distance. Fewer than 3 million people live in Tibet's 1.2 million square kilometers of area. Settlements are few and far between, meaning that for many people the nearest judicial center may be hundreds of kilometers away. The problem was resolved by the use of "mobile courts" that traveled across the vast plateau dispensing justice. [Source: Tang Yue and Wang Huazhong, China Daily, June 27, 2013 ~|~]

“In the early years, the court officials traveled on horseback, but in 2009, cars were introduced for 73 lower-level courts to speed up and simplify the process. "We help them to access the most convenient judicial services in the shortest period of time and at the lowest cost," said Phurbu Droma, who has worked as a judge at the mobile court of Doilungdeqen county in Lhasa for four years.~|~

“On a sunny day in April, the 29-year-old drove for two hours to Nanba village to erect a tent at the foot of the snowcapped mountains. She and her colleagues were there to try a case in which an employer was accused of delaying payment of a worker's salary for half a year. Tondub Tsering, the plaintiff, said that when village government officials tried, but failed, to persuade his employer to pay up, he decided to call the mobile court. "The judges came and opened the trial. The verdict of the court is highly prestigious and must be adhered to." ~|~

“According to a work report compiled by the autonomous region's high people's court, the mobile courts have traveled 3.62 million km and tried 17,800 cases in the four years since they were introduced. "This is not like working in a solemn courtroom where the judges sit behind high desks. Here we can communicate with the locals like friends and hear what they think more closely," said Phurbu Droma. ~|~

“The mobile courts have also helped to raise locals' awareness of the law, even when a trial is not required. Locals can call on 46 liaison officers in 34 villages in Doilungdeqen county when they need to consult them or file a lawsuit. Gesang Drolkar, 48, a local official, said people used to turn to seniors and the Living Buddha to resolve conflicts in the past. But the seniors' judgments were sometimes biased and favored one side, especially if the cases involved their relatives or friends. "The practice was not conducted according to the law and was often unfair." ~|~

“As a result, local traditions have changed. For example, it has long been the practice that if a couple divorced the father would be awarded custody of the male children, while the mother got the girls. That practice has now been phased out. However, Phurbu Droma said the region faces a shortage of qualified judges, but the number of cases is rising. Moreover, because the mobile courts reduce and remit most of the costs of litigation, the courts face economic difficulties. "Traveling on the plateau is not easy. We came here so that the villagers would not have to take the trouble of traveling repeatedly to the county seat where the court is based," she said. ~|~

Crime in Tibet

Crime has never been much of a problem in many parts of the Himalayan region. Theft is unheard of and most people can’t remember the last time a murder was committed. With the arrival of tourists, crime is starting to increase in Lhasa. But that wasn't always the case in the countryside. In the old days brigands roamed the countryside and attacked and robbed travelers and pilgrims. Lamas were sometimes horse thieves and outsiders were often welcomed with hostility. Even now Tibetans can be "ruthless crooks’ and banditry is a problem.

Conflicts have traditionally occurred over animal ownership, land boundaries, business deals, injuries, fights, and a wide range of other issues. In general, fighting was looked down upon an indication of a lack of religious training. Before the Chinese came to power there was a lot of lawlessness in Tibet and bandits roamed some parts of the countryside. There are still places in Tibet that outsiders can not enter Tibet unless they have an armed escort. Some Tibetan tribes in remote areas are armed and want to be left alone and have a reputation of being wild and lawless. Tourists have had some terrifying encounters with them.

Separatism and Terrorism in Tibet

Many Tibetans want a free, independent Tibet. Some Tibetans believe that Tibet can most successfully challenge Beijing by engaging in Gandhi-style passive resistance rather than being confrontational. Some of these advocate hunger strikes, boycotts of Chinese goods and self immolation. In April, 1998 a Tibetan monk died after setting himself a blaze in New Delhi.

Demands for an independent Tibetan state have largely ended simply because the goal of an independent Tibetan state is widely seen as unrealistic and unattainable. See the Dalai Lama's Political Activities

Sophisticated bombs have been detonated outside Chinese government buildings in Lhasa. Beijing blames such attacks on the "Dalai Lama clique." In the early 2000s, there were small explosions in Litang, Kangding and Chengdu in Sichuan Province that were blamed on Tibetan separatists and radical monks. Damage was minimal. Police said that one person was killed and twelve were injured in the Chengdu bombing. See Arrests Above.

Bombings in Lhasa in 1996

In December 1996, a bomb detonated by remote control exploded outside government offices in Lhasa, wounding five people, the state-run Radio Tibet said. Radio Tibet blamed supporters of the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama. The blast was at least the fourth and probably the most powerful bomb set off in the region in 1996. It was the first to be confirmed by the Chinese authorities. Radio Tibet called the bombing a ''serious counterrevolutionary political incident and an appalling act of terrorism.'' [Source: New York Times, December 30, 1996 +++]

The New York Times reported: “ The bomb exploded outside a city government office building in the early hours, Radio Tibet said. The building is on a main shopping street near the old section of Lhasa, the report said. The blast wounded two night watchmen and three other people, thought to be shopkeepers living nearby, and seriously damaged two hotels, the report said. Unlike the other bombings, most of which used crude road-blasting explosives, this device was detonated by remote control, the Tibet Information Network said. +++

“Tibet Radio said the vice chairman of the autonomous regional government, identified only as Gyamco, called for a campaign of retaliation, Reuters reported. ''We should wage a tit-for-tat struggle against the Dalai clique's sabotage,'' the radio quoted the official as saying. ''We should, once again, stage another campaign across Tibet to thoroughly expose and criticize the Dalai clique, heighten our alertness and strengthen preventive measures so as to keep the situation stable.'' +++

“Earlier in the week, Tibet Information Network reported that a Tibetan Buddhist monk using a homemade bomb had tried to blow up a Chinese shop on January 13 to protest China's treatment of Tibet. On January 18, a bomb damaged the Lhasa house of a lama known as a pro-Chinese sympathizer. Another bomb exploded outside the main gate of the Communist Party headquarters on March 18. China has offered a reward of one million yuan ($120,000) for information leading to the arrest of those responsible for the bombing, officials in Beijing said on Monday, Reuters reported.” +++

Bombings After the 2008 Uprising in Tibet

In October 2011, a bomb exploded at a government building in Tibet's Changdu county, known by Tibetans as Chamdo causing damage but no injuries. It was not immediately clear who was behind the bombing, which came at a time when tensions were running high following a series of self-immolation protests by Tibetan monks. "Several sources have confirmed a bomb blast but nothing is known about who carried it out or why," spokeswoman Kate Saunders from the International Campaign for Tibet told AFP. "As it was carried out at 4:00 am, it is thought that no one was hurt." [Source: AFP, October 27, 2011]

AFP reported: “Tibetan news portal www.TibetExpress.net also reported the news, saying "Tibet’s independence" had been daubed in red on the damaged walls of the office building and "Free Tibet" fliers had been found at the scene. "No one is accused or arrested in this connection so far but the entire road access leading to and from Chamdo had been completely cut off including closure of Karma monastery," the source told the website. The author of the report, journalist Tenzin Wangchuk, said he had received the information from a local source. "We got this information from a person who called us from that area and said he had seen the bombing. The information is authentic but we cannot identify him," he told AFP.

There had only been two other known bombings since 2008, when ethnic riots erupted. Two police stations were targeted in those attacks. In March 2009, the 50th anniversary of a failed uprising against Chinese rule in 1959, a small bomb hit a local government compound in the Ganzi Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture of south-western China's Sichuan province. The official Xinhua news agency quoted local officials as saying the government compound of Ganzi's Bogexi township was hit just after midnight by a "bomb thrown by terrorists." No casualties were reported.

Monks Accused of Bombing Tibet Building in 2008

In April 2008, China arrested nine Buddhist monks and accused them of planting a homemade bomb in a government office building in Tibet a month earlier, Xinhua said. There were no known deaths or damage from the first reported bombing after March 2008 uprising in Lhasa. Associated Press reported: :Xinhua said that nine monks from Tongxia monastery confessed to taking part in the bombing in Gyanbe Township in Tibet on March 23. One of the suspects allegedly used a motorcycle to transport the bomb to the building, where it was planted by the rest and then detonated, the news agency said. Xinhua did not explain why the alleged incident was not reported earlier. A man who answered the phone at the local Gongjue county Public Security Bureau confirmed that nine suspects had been detained — six for planting the bomb and three for shielding the suspects and covering up their crimes. [Source: Associated Press, April 12, 2008]

Earlier China accused Tibet independence forces of organizing suicide squads to launch violent attacks against China. Wu Heping, spokesman for China's Ministry of Public Security, also claimed searches of monasteries in the Tibetan capital had turned up a large cache of weapons. Scholars say the accusations help the government justify its crackdown and demonize the opposition while driving a wedge between the government-in-exile and groups like the Tibetan Youth Congress that have challenged the Dalai Lama's policy of nonviolence. China also labeled a group linked to the Dalai Lama's India-based government-in-exile a "terrorist organization".

China to Reward Tips on 'Terror Attacks' in Tibet

In January 2015, Authorities in China's Tibet said they were offering rewards up to 300,000 yuan ($48,000) for tips on "violent terror attacks", state media reported, in an effort to "promote stability" in the region. Reuters reported: “China has stressed that it is facing a serious and complex struggle against terrorism, and other provinces and regions have offered similar payouts for information on what authorities deem terrorism crimes and suspects. In Tibet, the government will give rewards for tip-offs on "overseas terrorist organizations and their members' activities inside China", and the "spreading of religious extremism", the official Xinhua news agency said late on Saturday. [Source: Reuters, January 31, 2015]

Information on "terror related propaganda, those producing, selling and owning weapons, activities that help terrorists cross national borders and terror activities via the Internet," will also be eligible for rewards, Xinhua said, citing a document from Tibet's public security officials. China launched an anti-terrorism crackdown in May 2014 after a series of attacks that authorities have blamed on separatists and Islamist militants from the western Xinjiang region, home to the Muslim Uighur ethnic minority. Hundreds of people have been killed over the past two years in Xinjiang and elsewhere around the country in such violence.

“There is little indication that any such attacks have occurred in Tibet, though violent protests have erupted over what human rights activists say are harsh Chinese policies that trample on Tibetan religious freedom and culture. Rights groups also argue that a new Chinese draft law to combat terrorism is extremely broad and would give authorities unchecked powers to commit rights abuses. The draft's definition of terrorism includes "thought, speech, or behavior" that attempt to "subvert state power", "incite ethnic hatred" or "split the state". Subversion and splittism are catch-all charges that have been used against dissidents.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: 1) "Encyclopedia of World Cultures: Russia and Eurasia/ China", edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond (C.K.Hall & Company, 1994); 2) Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science of China, China virtual museums, Computer Network Information Center of Chinese Academy of Sciences, kepu.net.cn ~; 3) Ethnic China ethnic-china.com *\; 4) Chinatravel.com \=/; 5) China.org, the Chinese government news site china.org | New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Chinese government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated September 2022

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