Tibet’s armed resistance to Chinese invasion

This is the second post in a series on the Tibetan Uprising. The post discusses the Chinese invasion of 1949-50 as well as the Tibetan government’s inability to win when it could. When communists declared gun registration later, Tibetans were aware that confiscation was coming and they would also be subject to subjugation. They revolted.

Previous Post 1 describes Tibet’s history before 1949 Chinese invasion. This includes Tibet’s refusal of to follow the Dalai Lama’s 1932 warning about strengthening national defense against the “Red” ideology.

These posts were taken from my coauthored treatise for law school and text book. Firearms Law and Second Amendment: Regulation, Rights and Policy (3d ed. Aspen Publishers. 2021. The book’s 23 chapters, eight of which are free, can be accessed worldwide via the internet. Chapter 19 Comparative Law is available on the web. Tibet pages 1885-1916. Here are citations that I have provided for direct quotes. You can also find other citations in the online book chapter.

Communist Occupation of Eastern Tibet

Mao presented his Tibet policy in February 1949 to an official of the Soviet Union, as the communists were on the verge of winning the Chinese civil conflict. Mao said that Tibet would not be difficult to resolve, but it could not be solved in a hurry. The first is the poor transportation system in the region. It makes it very difficult to send large numbers of soldiers and supply them with troops. In regions with strong religious beliefs, the time it takes to settle ethnic disputes is longer. . . .” Jianglin Li, Tibet in Agony – Lhasa 1959At 23 (2016)

Tibet had no road network because of opposition from the government to motor vehicles. These were considered modern and anti-Tibetan. Kenneth Knaus, The Cold War Orphans: America and the Tibetan Struggle to Survival 10 (1999). The resistance was helped by the traditional inaccessibility of roads. Tibetans who had become used to motor transportation would be dependent on import fuel. The Chinese could cut off access to fueling stations for resistance members. Because the Tibetan resistance used horses rather than motor vehicles, their transport has ready access to local fuel derived from solar power—namely grass.

In 1949, the communist Army advanced in northeastern Tibet (Amdo). “Tibetan resistance” was quickly raised. Warren W. Smith. “The Nationalities policy of the Chinese Communist Party” and “The Socialist Transformation of Tibet.” Tibet Reform and Resistance 63 (Robert Barnett & Shirin Akiner eds. 1994).

Likewise in Tibet’s far southeast—the town of Gyalthang in Kham province—the people initially drove back the communist army.

These early resistance actions were extraordinary. Most Kham, Amdo and other members of Kham accepted initially the Chinese communist “People’s Liberation Army”, or PLA.

PLA reinforcements overwhelmed rebels in 1950. The survivors fled to the mountains for guerilla warfare. In 1953, reinforcements destroyed most of the Amdo rebels.

First, in 1949, the PLA arrived in Tibet. In March 1950, a much larger number of PLA soldiers entered. According to the communist soldiers, they would soon leave and return. They were polite and friendly and helped to improve local economies. Their work also included building roads. They also worked on building roads. [in Amdo]For their protection, in the Lithang region [far southeastern Kham]In total, approximately 1,500 items were bought.” Gompo Tashi Andrugtsang, The Recollections of Tibet’s Resistance Movement: Four Rivers and Six Ranges 11-12 (1973).

Central Tibet Invasion

After having built an Eastern Tibet road network, the Chinese communists used that to invade Central Tibet in Oct 1950. The Tibetan commander who was defending the country had already torn down defense positions. The Kham militia, as well as the Tibetan army, were forced to retreat in a feckless manner by him. He fled soon after giving instructions to destroy an ammunition depot, which crippled the remaining fighters. He was later declared a public traitor.

Trois radio reports on the invasion were broadcast to Lhasa in Tibet. However, the central government was busy with five-day festivals and picnics, so they did not reply. With little resistance, the war ended in eleven days. In Central Tibet’s Chamdo, a Kham area, the Chinese army had crossed Yangtze River. (Khampas are found in Eastern as well as Central Tibet.

The 1950 invasion might have been stopped by a more prepared Tibet. Thin oxygen and mountainous terrain greatly favor the defenders. The Tibetans had a high level of motivation, particularly when compared to PLA soldiers who were often reluctant. The Tibetans had far more skill with swords and firearms than the Chinese, making them better fighters. The Tibetan government may have repelled the Chinese invasion by blocking access to the mountain passes connecting Eastern Tibet and Central Tibet.

The Lhasa government instead had only nine regiments under the command of a knave. A corrupt and torpid regency had ruled Tibet since 1933. They rake in the profit while waiting for the Dalai Lama’s birth.

The fourteenth Dalai Lama, at the request of the people as well as an oracle ended his reign in November 1950. He reluctantly assumed the reins. At fifteen years of age, he was a teenager. Although he received a good religious education, he was ignorant about worldly affairs. While he held the presidency, he didn’t have any control over it. KashagThe governing council. He did not have control over the large three Lhasa monasteries, which dominated government.

Chamdo was taken and the PLA was able to travel to Lhasa. Winter was approaching. The PLA focused on roadbuilding. Gompo Takashi Andrugtsang later led a united resistance. He said that if Khampas or Amdowas had unified in 1950, and received support from the outside, it could have stopped the PLA’s construction of roads into Central Tibet.

For fear of China’s provoking, however, Lhasa’s government failed to implement measures for national defense.

The Seventeen Point Agreement

Realities on the ground had changed and the Chinese forced the Tibetan government to accept a “Seventeen Point Agreement” that was dictated by them. The Tibetan National Assembly adopted it in October 1951.

This agreement didn’t protect Eastern Tibet (Kham & Amdo).

The agreement with Central Tibet (U-Tsang) promised that there would be no compulsion to change the economic, social or religious systems. The agreement provided solid protection from communists’ “democratic” reforms. The communists’ “democratic reforms” for Tibet were the same as those for China. They meant to confiscate all land and crops and force everyone into slavery for the government. The government would take some of the produce from the workers, and return some to them. People often starved because so little was returned to them. The end of civil society and the suppression of religion.

The Seventeen Point Agreement for Central Tibet promised that there would be no democratic reform without the consent of democracy. Central Tibet also acknowledged Chinese sovereignty. The Seventeen Point Agreement was rejected by many in the Lhasa government, even though they would have to fight sooner than expected. As they knew, communist promises of fair dealing were expedient lies—like “honey spread on a sharp knife,” as a Tibetan saying put it.

Because communist promises to them that their property would be protected and they would not lose any privileges, the main supporters of the agreement’s ratification were the monasteries and the aristocrats. They later discovered that their temporary reprieve wouldn’t last.

The Chinese communists continue to call their invasion in Tibet a “liberation of serfs” and “liberation of peasants.” However, communist cooperation with Tibet’s most reactionary, selfish, and degenerate elements was the real reason for the invasion. The Chinese put many Tibetans in Eastern Tibet as well as Central Tibet on their payroll. They also enriched other Tibetans with trade. This created a new class of local collaborators, spy spies.

The Seventeen Point Agreement established an army garrison outside Lhasa. All over the PLA, loudspeakers had been set up so that there was constant communist propaganda in Lhasa as in all other Mao domains. Non-compliant with the Seventeen Point Agreement, the Tibetan government gradually became ineffective, while the Dalai Lama retained some independence.

The Chinese initially governed U-Tsang (and especially Lhasa) with an extremely light hand. PLA knew that a solid logistical network was necessary for its long-term occupation. The communists built fast roads but did not pursue their entire program for Central Tibet.

Kham and Amdo, meanwhile, felt the entire weight of communism: the same famines,  totalitarianism, forced labor, and destruction of civil society that characterized communist rule in China. Chinese communists felt racial superiority, which exacerbated the Tibetan oppression.

1954-55 Resistance

Golok camp in 1938.

After the Khampas & Amdowas the second largest Eastern Tibet tribe was the nomadic, fearless Goloks. Their base is in southeast Amdo. They are known by their name as “backwards head”, “rebel” or “bellicosity”. They have been able to defeat Mongol, Tibetan and Chinese governments throughout the centuries. In 1954, some Golok monasteries were burned by the PLA. The Goloks then declared guerilla war. This was waged in the mountains and with the support of the monasteries. “They waited till the PLA was pulled deep into their traps before they killed the godless enemy of a man. Amdowa sent Amdowa emissaries from the PLA to attempt to persuade the Goloks not to keep their guns. But the Goloks died before agreeing to be disarmed. Mikel Dunham, Buddha’s Warriors – The Story of the CIA Supported The Chinese Invasion and Tibet’s Ultimate Fall, Tibetan Freedom Fighters 142-43 (2004).

The Chinese built their first roads into Central Tibet in the spring 1955. They reached Lhasa the capital. The communists had established a base of physical control and were now ready to move on.

Kham’s communist occupation army ordered that all weapons be registered.

This was it. The Khampa didn’t believe it would end there. Guns were hid away overnight. A Khampa’s gun was the quintessential component of his worth as a protector of his family, home, and religion—no possession was more jealously guarded. They would have to fight the Chinese for their Khampas gun. That was what many Khampas desired. The threat of disarmament was the only action that united the Tibetans. Tibetans, who have rarely, if at all, united with neighbouring tribes, met in secret to discuss ways they could face off against the Chinese.

Dunham, 14. At 14.

Lithang Monastery was the largest in Kham, and received a visit from communist PLA. The communists ordered the surrender of large quantities of arsenal from Lithang Monastery. The lamas refused to surrender, and were led to the courtyard by the townpeople who had to keep an eye on them at PLA gunpoint. Chinese shouted that the Chinese had tried for five years to civilize Tibetans, but they were still treating Tibetans like animals.

Now you have the option of choosing between White Road and Black Road. Peaceful surrender of arms was the first option. The second would involve fighting the PLA and losing.

One elder lama spoke up:

How can we decide what is best? What is the best way to decide? We were not granted our property by the Chinese. Our property was given to us by our forefathers. Why do we have to give it away suddenly, when it belonged to us?

Dunham 150. At 150, Dunham.