Tibetans in exile lament the passing away of scholar and human rights champion Elliot Sperling who died at the age of 66. Sperling, who was considered as one of the world’s leading historians of Tibet and Tibetan-Chinese relations, made questions of sovereignty and boundaries the focal point of his career.
If one looked at where Sperling stood on the contentious issue of Tibetan autonomy and China’s upper-hand in the interpretation of ancient governance in China, Mongolia and Tibet, one would discover that Sperling recognised Tibet as an independent country until Mao’s invasion (but he contested the narration that Tibet enjoyed ‘complete independence’ and was devoid of following any laws except its own).
“On June 22, there were reports that exiled Tibetan officials were meeting to draft a statement clarifying their stand and, it was hoped, would open a way out of the impasse. The new statement is intended to demonstrate that the Tibetans want to reach an accord with China on the basis of Chinese autonomy laws. Unfortunately, the ignorance with which the authorities in exile deal with China is now on display in embarrassing detail,” Sperling wrote in an article called “Autonomy? Think Again” as he criticised the administration in Dharamsala for failing to notice Beijing’s stance on the understanding of autonomy.
In a New York Times article, Sperling stated that China’s assertion that Tibet became a part of China in the 13th century was a very recent construction. “From 1912 until the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, no Chinese government exercised control over what is today China’s Tibet Autonomous Region. The Dalai Lama’s government alone ruled the land until 1951,” Elliot wrote.
Elliot Sperling passed away on 2nd February 2017. He will be remembered as a champion of human rights for his unequivocal support to Uyghur professor Ilham Tohti.