Nov 12, 2008
treaty (Tibet-Mongol Treaty of 1913) begins with Tibet and
Mongolia attesting to their having emerged from under Manchu
domination and constituted themselves as independent
For centuries, Tibet and Mongolia had
shared a strong cultural and historical relationship.
Following the collapse of the Manchu (Qing) Dynasty in 1911,
Tibet and Mongolia declared independence and, subsequently
signed a treaty of friendship and recognition of each
other’s independence in 1913.
For sometime the existence of the treaty between Tibet and
Mongolia, as having been concluded in early 1913, was
considered questionable by some writers.
Recently, the original Tibetan (but not the Mongol) text of
the Tibet-Mongol Treaty of 1913 was rediscovered, making one
important part of the original document available to
scholars for the first time.
In an interview with Phayul, Prof. Elliot Sperling
sheds more light on the treaty and its historical
significance vis-à-vis the vexed Tibet issue.
Prof. Elliot is a faculty member in the Dept. of Central
Eurasian Studies at Indiana University, where he directs the
Tibetan Studies program. Recently he was in Dharamsala, the
seat of the Tibetan Government-in-exile in India, to present
public lectures on the Treaty, the rediscovery of its
original text and its significance. He has also been giving
numerous lectures on the subject at various universities in
the west in recent times.
Q: What exactly is the Tibet-Mongol Treaty of 1913?
Elliot Sperling: The Treaty is exactly what its
appellation states it to be. It is a treaty signed and
sealed by representatives of Tibet and Mongolia in January
1913. The treaty begins with Tibet and Mongolia attesting to
their having emerged from under Manchu domination and
constituted themselves as independent states. It goes on to
different short articles which deal, among other things,
with the provision of mutual aid and assistance, as well as
commercial and financial matters.
Q - The original Tibetan text version of the treaty was
rediscovered sometime last year. From where and when
exactly? Why was it not officially available before?
- The treaty was found in Mongolia. It was likely in the
state archives (it bears the seal of the old foreign
ministry); with copies beginning to circulate only last
year. No doubt the delicate political situation of Mongolia,
for most of the 20th century (positioned as it was between
the USSR and China) played a role in keeping the original
version of the treaty inaccessible. Nevertheless, other
versions of the treaty were available in English, Chinese
and Mongol. There was even a Tibetan version, translated
(like the Chinese version) from English (!), by Tsepon W.D.
Shakabpa—and until the original Tibetan text appeared this
was the only version available to Tibetan readers. The
English version itself was a translation from Russian, and
the Russian version in turn is assumed to have been based on
an unofficial Mongol rendering of the original. None of
these other versions really match the full meaning of all
parts of the original Tibetan text exactly, but the degree
to which they come close to the sense of the original is
surprising. To sum up, the chain of translation went from
the Tibetan original to Mongol, then to Russian, then to
English, and then from English separately to Chinese and
(via Shakabpa) back into Tibetan (but as a different text
than the original).
Q - What is the historical significance of this treaty of
E.S. - Since the very existence of the treaty was
sometimes called into question, its rediscovery has
historical significance. The fact that it constitutes an
official document wherein both Tibet and Mongolia recognize
each other as independent in the wake of the collapse of the
Qing Dynasty is central to its significance.
Q - China dismisses the existence and the validity of
this Treaty. On what grounds?
E.S. - Chinese writers have generally disparaged the
treaty, though not all do so using the same terms. One
Chinese language work takes pains to refer to the treaty as
an “agreement,” implying that it had no international
validity. (The same lexicographical attitude is evident in
the 17-Point Agreement of 1951, where the term “agreement’
was used to show that the document in question represented
an internal arrangement between parties within one sole
country and was not to be construed as an international
instrument.) Other Chinese writers, in disparaging the
Tibet-Mongol Treaty, rely on the account of Charles Bell,
who stated that the 13th Dalai Lama had explicitly neither
sought the conclusion of such a document nor, afterwards,
Q - There is no dispute that Tibet was entirely
independent of foreign control between 1911 and 1950. Also
the Thirteenth Dalai Lama made a formal declaration of
Tibet’s independence in 1912. However, the existence of the
treaty between Tibet and Mongolia, as having been concluded
in early 1913, was considered questionable by some scholars.
E.S. - Again, this is largely owed to Bell’s account.
Alfred Rubin dismissed its validity, “[e]ven if the treaty
did exist,” while Tom Grunfeld described it with the
adjective “alleged.” In the 1987 edition of his book on
modern Tibet he said of the treaty that “It appears to be a
classic case of ‘disinformation’ on the part of Russian
colonial officials in Mongolia.” He omitted this evaluation
from the 1996 edition.
Q - Since the original text is now rediscovered; what are
its prospects, if any, vis-à-vis Tibet issue among Tibet
E.S. - That remains to be seen. It certainly cannot
be dismissed out-of-hand.
Q - What conclusion can you draw after obtaining the
original text of this much debated and lesser known treaty?
E.S. - The treaty is real; it does exist and it is
signed and sealed by officials acting in the capacity of
Minister-Plenipotentiaries of the Dalai Lama, with full
authority to conclude it. This is evident from the content
of the treaty. In spite of the suspicions voiced about it,
particularly on the part of Charles Bell, it seems
inconceivable that the Tibetan signatories would have
fabricated evidence of the Dalai Lama’s permission for them
to do what they did and then embedded the fraud (i.e.,
reference to their empowerment by the Dalai Lama as
plenipotentiaries) in the very wording of the document
itself. As for Bell’s statement about the Dalai Lama
downplaying his role in the treaty, we may perhaps assume
that in the wake of the events that sent him into exile
twice, he had no illusions about the balance of power around
Tibet: when British displeasure with the rumored treaty
became evident he chose to equivocate about it to Bell.
- Thank you very much, Prof. Sperling.