Tibetan Uprising Day: Why The CIA Aborted Its Mission In Tibet

Tibetan Uprising Day: Why The CIA Aborted Its Mission In Tibet

by Kamalpreet Singh Gill - Sunday, March 25, 2018 12:16 PM IST
Tibetan Uprising Day: Why The CIA Aborted Its Mission In TibetExiled Tibetans monks hold the portrait of Dalai Lama during a protest march in New Delhi marking the anniversary of a failed 1959 uprising against China’s rule in Tibet. (Virendra Singh Gosain/Hindustan Times via Getty Images) 
  • Behind the Tibetan Uprising and the Dalai Lama’s flight to India lies a Cold War tale of spies, intrigue and a long forgotten CIA mission to foment rebellion in Tibet.

On 10 March, Tibetans in exile observe the Tibetan Uprising Day. On this day in 1959, armed Tibetan fighters clashed with the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in Lhasa in a desperate last ditch attempt to maintain their independence. By the time fighting ended on 21 March 1959, thousands of Tibetans had been massacred by the PLA, and the Dalai Lama was found missing from his residence at the Potala Palace in Lhasa.

Ten days later the Dalai Lama appeared unannounced on the Indian border near Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh, riding a yak, and flanked by a ragged bunch of armed guards.

Behind the Tibetan Uprising and the Dalai Lama’s flight to India lies a Cold War tale of spies, intrigue and a long forgotten Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) mission to foment rebellion in Tibet.

Chinese Imperialism On The Roof Of The World

China invaded Tibet in 1950. Until then Tibet had been de facto independent, though still under Chinese influence. In 1951, a 17-Point Agreement was signed between China and the representatives of the defeated Tibetan government, which committed the latter to accept Chinese sovereignty and initiate socialist reform.

The first point of this agreement proclaimed:

1. The Tibetan people shall unite and drive out imperialist aggressive forces from Tibet; the Tibetan people shall return to the family of the Motherland the People's Republic of China (PRC).

Who these imperialist aggressive forces were, and whose was the influence which was driving Tibetan people away from the ‘family of the Motherland’ was never specified. However, under the circumstances of the time, this could most likely have meant India. The borders between India, Tibet, and China especially in Tawang and Ladakh had never been clearly defined and India, besides laying claim to these territories was also exerting its hegemony over Nepal, Bhutan and Sikkim – the last was an independent republic until 1975 – as part of a larger family of Indic nations with a shared heritage and culture going back several millennia.

Under the circumstances though, India under Jawaharlal Nehru quietly preferred to look the other way as China overran Tibet and began the process of forcefully incorporating it into ‘the family of the Motherland, the People’s Republic of China.’

Shortly after the annexation of Tibet, China began constructing a highway into the Aksai Chin territory, taking advantage of the fact that the Indians, even seven years after Independence were still not very clear about their own borders. It wasn’t until 1954 that prime minister Nehru directed that all maps of India be revised to show clear demarcated boundaries on all frontiers. Up until this point, the boundary on the Aksai Chin frontier was shown as undemarcated, and China took advantage of India’s laxity to build highways in the region. It was only in 1958 that the Indians learned of the existence of the highway, and that too only after China began officially showing the highway in its maps.

However, not everybody was as oblivious to China’s imperialist threats as India was.

The CIA In Tibet

During these early years of the Cold War, the US was constantly on tenterhooks about the spread of communism to the rest of the world, and the one country, the Americans were sure, would be the next to fall to the communist juggernaut was India. India had all the ingredients that were needed for the imminent revolution – crushing poverty, teeming hungry masses, constant famines, great inequality of wealth, and above all the dominating, and ever expanding presence of China on its northern shoulder. The socialist and pacifist tendencies of the Nehru government only served to exacerbate American concerns. The Americans had already made one intervention in India in their attempt to check Chinese communism via the introduction of the Green Revolution to address India’s food scarcity problem in the early 1950s.

The Chinese invasion of Tibet necessitated taking the fight against communism right to the enemy’s door. As a result, the special activities division of the CIA was tasked with training small groups of Tibetans in guerilla warfare and military tactics. Collaborating with India’s Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), CIA intimated the Tibetans about their offer of help. In his 1990 autobiography, Freedom in Exile, Dalai Lama revealed that it was his brother, who first made contact with the CIA in 1956 in India, though news of this meeting was kept a secret from him until much later.

Codenamed Operation Circus, the mission to combat Chinese expansion in Tibet involved smuggling Tibetan fighters into India and from there flying them to Colorado, US, where they were trained in guerilla warfare at the CIA’s high altitude training centre in Camp Hale in conditions resembling those of the Tibetan plateau.

The Tibetans chosen for the mission belonged to an organisation called the Chu-She-Gang-Druk (Tibetan: four rivers, six ranges) which had been the first organised Tibetan resistance against China since its occupation in 1951. The trained fighters were then sent back to Tibet via Nepal while shipments of arms, and on occasion the fighter too were airdropped close to the Nepal-Tibet border in almost Hollywood style daredevilry. In his book Orphans of the Cold War: America and the Tibetan Struggle for Survival, John Kenneth Knaus, a CIA veteran, who headed the operation to train the Chu-She-Gang-Druk guerillas describes how several guerillas were tragically cut down by Chinese machinegun fire as they attempted to cross the border into Tibet.

Although the insertion of armed guerillas did little to stop increasing Chinese domination of Tibet, at the moment it sounded like a mutually beneficial arrangement to both the Americans and the Tibetans. Throughout the 1960s, the Americans pumped in close to $1.7 million alone to support the Tibetan guerillas, train them in Colorado, and to fund Tibetan advocacy and lobbying at various United Nations (UN) bodies in Geneva and New York. The Americans also paid a small honorarium for the personal maintenance of the Dalai Lama.

The Tibetan Uprising

It was against this backdrop that the events of March 1959 unfolded. A nervous tension prevailed in the Tibetan capital of Lhasa as the Chinese authorities desperately tried to get the Dalai Lama to reign in the growing anti-Chinese sentiment in Tibet, now backed by CIA-trained armed guerillas. Barricaded in his residence, the Potala Palace, the Dalai Lama appeared equally helpless in controlling what had by now blown up into a game of spies played between the great power.

In March 1959, the local Chinese commandant stationed at Lhasa invited the Dalai Lama to attend a theatrical performance inside the Chinese military camp. There was one rider to the invitation though – the Dalai Lama was not to bring his armed personal bodyguard along. This sparked off suspicions in the Tibetan camp and soon rumor spread through Lhasa that the invitation was a Chinese ploy to kidnap the Dalai Lama. Within a few hours, thousands of Tibetans surrounded the Potala Palace to prevent the Dalai Lama from attending the Chinese commandant’s invitation. As Chinese forces attempted to clear out the armed Tibetan guards, the great Tibetan Uprising of 10 March 1959, had begun.

The Flight Of The Dalai Lama

On 17 March 1959, as intense fighting continued in Lhasa, the Dalai Lama escaped from the Potala Palace under the cover of darkness. He was accompanied only by his close acquaintances and a detachment of armed guards belonging to the CIA trained Chu-She-Gang-Druk. The entourage rode on yaks and walked on foot, making the difficult journey through treacherous, snow bound terrain and avoiding Chinese border patrols. Nearly 10 days later the Dalai Lama arrived at the Indian post of Chuthangmu, north of Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh. Word was immediately sent to Delhi and high level officials, including P N Menon (father of Shiv Shankar Menon, later to be National Security Adviser), India’s Consul General in Lhasa were dispatched to meet the Dalai Lama at the frontier. Perhaps making amends for its previous mistakes viz-a-viz Tibet, the Indian government, accorded a warm welcome to the Dalai Lama and his entourage in the Land of the Buddha. The Dalai Lama is reported to have made one last request to the Indians for support for the Tibetan fighters engaged in battle with the PLA. The request was however, politely turned down, while the older offer of humanitarian assistance to Tibetan refugees was reaffirmed.

The Dalai Lama spent some time at the Tawang monastery, before being relocated to McLeod Ganj in Himachal Pradesh, which then became his permanent residence and seat of the Tibetan government-in-exile.

Meanwhile in Tibet, the rebellion was brutally put down by the Chinese. Unofficial Tibetan estimates put the number of dead at close to 80,000. By 28 March, the Chinese had learned of the Dalai Lama’s flight to India. That same day, the Chinese declared the Tibetan government in Lhasa illegal. By a cruel twist of irony that only totalitarian communist regimes are capable of conjuring, Tibetans were ordained to celebrate 28 March as the Serf’s Emancipation Day – since, according the communist party, on this day the feudal government of Tibet that promoted Serfdom was ended forever, and democratic reform was ushered in, freeing millions of Tibetans from serfdom. Consequently, 28 March is observed as the Serf Emancipation Day in China and in Tibet. Tibetans are made to celebrate their own defeat as a national holiday, albeit repackaged, in the way only communist governments can do, as a day of emancipation and liberation. The Dalai Lama has repeatedly criticised this practice, which he insists draws attention away from real issues concerning Chinese presence in Tibet. For the Chinese though, this was a masterstroke as the secular celebration of Serf’s Emancipation Day conveniently shrouds any remembrance of the brutal suppression of the failed Tibetan Uprising.

As for the CIA, it withdrew from Tibet as abruptly as it had entered. By 1970, the communist threat had begun to appear less sinister to the West than it did two decades ago, and the Americans soon lost interest in Tibetans. By 1972, China had also become a nuclear power, thus raising the stakes in the secret game of fostering rebellion in Tibet, and making prospective gains from the game seem negligible compared to the strategic risks of upsetting a nuclear power. On the eve of US president Richard Nixon’s historic meeting with Mao Zedong on 21 February 1972, the CIA’s Tibet programme was abruptly cancelled. The Dalai Lama would later accuse America of using the Tibetans as pawns in their Cold War games. However, he would have been extremely naive to believe that the American offer of help was motivated by anything other than geo-strategic gain in the first place.

The fate of the Tibetan fighters of the Chu-She-Gang-Druk was equally unfortunate – most of them were reduced to being destitute refugees without an identity in Nepal. Some of them were later traced to the tourist hub of Pokhara, where they were trying to eke out a living out of a tourist hotel built in 1972 by the CIA as a parting gift for the men it had trained to liberate Tibet. However, the stigma of being refugees and former CIA spies meant that they had difficulty assimilating in Nepali society.

A few thousand of them found their way to India, where their utility as fighting men was recognised by a newly military conscious India. Smarting from the crushing defeat against China in 1962, India finally awakened to the reality of realpolitik. Under the legendary Major General Sujan Singh Uban, the remaining fighting men of the Chu-She-Gang-Druk were reorganised into a far more potent fighting force that was to play an important, although totally unheralded role in India’s future wars. That however, is a story for another day.

Kamalpreet Singh Gill is a regular contributor to Swarajya. His areas of interest include history, politics, and strategic affairs. He tweets at @KPSinghtweets.

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