Tibet’s armed resistance to Chinese invasion

This is the 3rd post in the series on the Tibetan Uprising. This post is from 1956 to 1957, the time when Tibetans freed almost all of Eastern Tibet and began preparations for an unified national resistance. Inspired by Tibetans’ successes, the U.S. C.I.A. It began to supply arms and training.

Post 1 dealt with Tibet prior to 1949 Chinese invasion. This included the refusal by the Tibetan government of the Dalai Lama in 1932 to strengthen the national defense against the “Red” ideology. The Chinese conquest was followed by an armed rebellion of the people that was precipitated by gun registration.

These are extracts from my law school treatise and textbook. 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. Additional citations can be found in the online chapter.

1956—Kham Explodes

China’s Communist Party (CCP), annexed Tibet in 1950s to its two eastern provinces, Amdo & Kham. This was then annexed into a Chinese Province. U-Tsang Province (Central Tibet including Lhasa was required to sign the Seventeen Point Agreement in 1951).

In 1956, however, the Chinese handed almost all of the political power in Central Tibet over to the Preparatory Committee for the Autonomous Region of Tibet. Cabinet and Central Tibetan national assemblyKashag() was almost powerless. Gompo Tashi Andrugtsang, Four Rivers Six Ranges. Reminisces from the Resistance Movement in Tibet 39 (1973). The pace of imposing communism in Eastern Tibet, Amdo and Kham Provinces was increased.

Tibet provinces
Three provinces in Tibet.

In southeast Amdo, the Golok tribal had been fighting against the Chinese army since 1954. In 1956, the Chinese sent reinforcements to their “People’s Liberation Army”, (PLA).  Goloks, along with allied Tibetan Muslims riding on horseback and equipped with 16th-17 century firearms as well as swords, destroyed an 800-man PLA garrison.

PLA was even more common. The PLA destroyed more monasteries, took the livestock and killed the children and women. They had all but lost their fortunes and fled the mountains vowing to continue fighting the Chinese throughout the rest of the lives. At the time, the outside world was unaware of the Golok or the Muslim rebellion.

The communists attempted to seize the arsenal of the monastery’s Lithang in Kham in 1955. However, they were stopped by the lamas who refused. (Post 2.) (Post 2.). In 1956 the communists returned to arrest the lamas as they celebrated the spring festival. The monastery was then attacked by thousands upon thousands of armoured people. After shelling the monastery with artillery and sending in infantry, the PLA sent them back. The PLA defeated the defenders in close combat. On March 29, Ilyushin-28 Soviet Union-made jets attacked the monastery. On April 2, the Chathreng monastery was attacked, and then the Bathang monastery.

Kham’s Nyarong region saw communists going from village to village trying to take arms. The communists held “struggle meetings” after confiscation. Wherever Mao Zedong was ruler, struggle sessions became a common feature. Individuals could be taken before large groups of locals that required them to attend. The locals would be ordered to scream at the victims and denounce them for being counterrevolutionary, and sometimes to physically assault them. They would ask the victims to repent of various offenses committed against Mao. The victims could be executed, released from prison, and imprisoned.

In 1956, a revolt was scheduled for the eighteenth of the first lunar day. A meeting was called by the Chinese to the Upper Nyarong area. The elder chief and his wife were summoned, so Dorje Yudon aged 25 assumed the leadership role. Polygamy was a long-standing tradition in Tibet. One husband, two sisters and one brother were common in poly families.

Dorje Yudon assembled her troops and sent out missives throughout eastern Tibet to urge the population against the Chinese. In a man’s robe, and with a pistol at her side she rode to battle alongside her warriors. In Nyarong, she fought furiously against Chinese outposts and columns.

Roger E. McCarthy, Tears from the Lotus: The Tibetan Resistance to Chinese Invasion. 1950-1962, at 107 (1997). The number of Dorje Yudon’s warriors was in the hundreds. Nearly four thousand local people joined the rebellion, which is 17 percent of all the residents. The PLA reduced the Dorje Yudon Group to just 200 at the end, and some fled to India.

All over Kham, revolts spread. Ngaba (northwest Kham) saw three thousand people rise up in 17 towns in March. Their numbers increased by fourfold in May. By March 1956, sixteenteen thousand rebels had taken refuge in the 18 Garze (west Kham), counties. “In the early 1960s, Chamdo (lithang), Bathang, and Kantzu were briefly overrun by rebels and their garrisons in China completely destroyed. Sixty-six thousand Tibetan irregulars “ranged freely among their mountain hideouts, inflicting widespread destruction and havoc.” Andrugtsang at 47.

Not only were the Tibetans revolting, Southestern Tibet extended to the region today known as China’s Yunnan.  There,

The Yi living in the Liangshan Mountains call themselves Nuosu. They managed to preserve their cultural and social identity up until Beijing’s attempt to incorporate them into socialist society and polity. The initial gradualist approaches were very successful. However, the radicalization of 1956 led to the end of this process. Large  resistance in the form of a several-year guerrilla war against the Communist mission of eliminating the “reactionary slaveholding society.”

Thomas Heberer, “Nationalities Conflict and Ethnicity in the People’s Republic of China, with Special Reference to the Yi in the Liangshan Yi Autonomous Prefecture,” in Perspectives on the Yi of Southwest China 215 (Stevan Harrell ed. 2001).

By the fall of 1956, tens of thousands of guerillas had arisen in Eastern Tibet. Many fighters had started with no knowledge of guerilla warfare. They were ordinary people who banded together and attacked the communists who were destroying their communities. As the rebellion continued, smaller guerilla groups formed. Some of the fighters called themselves the Volunteer Army to Defend Buddhism (Tib., Tensung Dhanglang Magar).

Based in the mountains, the mounted guerilla Khampas, Amdowas, and Goloks burned Chinese outposts, destroyed Chinese garrisons, and raided western China. The PLA rushed in more soldiers, bringing the total force in Tibet to 150,000. Guerilla organization was facilitated by Tibet’s six thousand monasteries, which functioned as theWiderstand’s information network. People also helped to provide information. For example, the PLA was near, so village women alerted the PLA by drying only red laundry.

“In thousands upon thousands of square miles . . no Han [China’s dominant ethnic group]You should not have set foot alone without backing. “Attacks were only possible on the most powerful Chinese bases.” Dunham at 168–69. PLA that rode for more than one day away from their base were often ambushed. PLA supply convoys traveling from Kham to Lhasa had to move in small groups of 40 to 50 trucks. They were heavily guarded and moved slowly to avoid being ambushed at every turn. Fast all of Eastern Tibet was freed by CCP and PLA for several months. The PLA only had a weak grip on the Eastern Province of Kham, and to a lesser degree, Amdo, and Golok, by 1956. Italics. at 5.

Tibet was easy to conquer, but difficult to tyrannize.

Gompo Toshi Andrugstang plans to unify the revolt

Gompo Taashi Andrugtsang was a rich businessman who lived in Lhasa (the capital city of Central Tibet). From Lithang, Kham. One of the largest international trading companies in the province was managed by the Andrugtsang families. As many rich Tibetans, he had a huge arsenal. He was a teenager who served as a soldier in the capture of mountain bandits. This experience made him interested in shooting, firearms and hunting. Gompo Tashi purchased many firearms from India, Laos and Burma during World War II.

Lithang’s refugees arrived at Lhasa and demanded that Lithang be given more fighters. Gompo Tashi disagreed. Gompo Tashi disagreed. He believed it was now time for Tibetans, and not only for their home regions, to unify to form a single fighting force that could fight for all of the nation. Businesses should sell their assets to make way for weapons and ammunition. Many people had lost their homes, families and monasteries. There was nothing to lose.

Gompo Tashi began networking in October 1956 to create an all-Tibet army. Soon, he sent emissaries from Eastern Tibet. They were supposedly on business trips. They were actually carrying his message, that the Tibetans have no other choice but to fight against the Chinese. Andrugtsang at 42-43.

Outsiders heard little about Tibetan resistance. The Tibetan resistance was not covered by the outside world. There were no diplomatic representations in Lhasa from India, Nepal and Bhutan. Sometimes, refugees fleeing to India carried their firsthand accounts. These reports were then published in Tibetan language newspapers. Tibet MirrorKalimpong in India is run by a Christian missionary. Nehru, the Indian Prime Minister banned dissemination of Tibet rebel news. He called it anti-Chinese propaganda. Jianglin Li, Tibet in Agony – Lhasa 1959 at 28, 42 (2016); Dunham, at 165-66, 277. Lhasa and the rest of the world were less aware of Amdo’s atrocities, suffering, resistance, than Kham.

1957—Mao Temporarily RetreatS

Mao Zedong, a Chinese politician and leader of Mao’s revolution in 1957 promised to delay “Democratic reforms” for Tibet until “the great majority” supported them. Mao Zedong, The Correct Handling Of Contradictions among the PeopleSpeech at the Eleventh Session of the Supreme State Conference (Enlarged). Additional comments by Mao were made before publication. People’s Daily, June 19, 1957). Chinese communists called “Democratic Reform” totalitarian rule that eliminated religion and civil society and confiscated all property and forced labor.

Mao was not happy to have to declare that he would stop the “democratic revolution” in Tibet. However, other leaders of the party, such as CCP Vice Chairman Liu Shaoqi who was not as passionate about the Tibet Uprising, forced him to speak the same words. His actions led to him being tortured and purged in Mao’s Cultural Revolution in 1966.

Mao’s February 1957 speech quickly became a lie. All Tibetan arms were to be confiscated, the regime declared. As the Dalai Lama later recalled, when he heard about the confiscation order, “I knew without being told that a Khamba would never surrender his rifle—he would use it first.” Roger Hicks & Ngakpa Chogyam, Great Ocean 102 (1984) (authorized biography). The PLA claimed that there was a range of between 100,000 and 150,000 guns owned by Tibetan soldiers. Ben Kieler, The Chinese Army Documents for the 1959 Tibetan Uprising 32 (2017).

As Gompo Tashi explained:

The Chinese would not allow Tibetans to surrender weapons, especially those from the independent and fiercely independent tribal groups. The Chinese plan to seize all Tibetan weapons was the most significant act of resistance. One Tibetan might interpret this to be the total loss of freedom. This was in fact the ultimate insult. No more promises would be broken.

McCarthy at 129-30. “Our weapons have been precious for many hundreds of centuries. Now, the Red Devils expect us simply to let them seize our weapons. We were forced to keep fighting. Italics. 132

The CCP also reneged upon Mao’s February promises in June 1957. The communist “democratic reform”  would be imposed within Central Tibet, in a Khampa area known as Chamdo. While this was happening, Khampa and Amdo and Golok cavalrymen continued raiding PLA conveys to capture their arms.

The Dalai Lama

Gompo Taki continued to work for the unity and growth of national resistance forces. A plan was devised to give the Dalai Lama a golden throne with bejewelled jewels in order to provide coverage for national travel and meetings. It took a lot of networking to find potential donors across Tibet to gather the material. People who were able to donate gold and jewels to the throne would also have the money and arms to support the resistance. In a ceremony held on July 4, 1957, the majestic throne received its present.

Although the Chinese saw it as yet another Tibetan superstition example, Tibetans also understood that the throne was a political declaration. The three Tibet provinces, Amdo and U-Tsang, gave the throne to each other.

Gompo Tashi spoke with the Dalai Lama about the national resistance army. He viewed them as motivated fighters who had a right cause, but with no chance of success. Gompo Tashi was advised by the Dalai Lama that, even if he chose to lead an army, it would be a difficult path, but one that might prove the most successful. After consulting the Shukden Oracle, rebel leaders decided to take action. It was now time for Tibetans to become one.

U.S. Central Intelligence Agency

The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, which was established in 1947, had been open to aiding communist rebels, although it was cautious about doing so. In the 1950s, the Agency was tricked into supporting planned anti-communist rebellions in Poland, and Albania. However, it later discovered that these were actually sting operations by communist secret police. The CIA’s anti-Mao revolutionaries airdrops had failed in China by the beginning of the 1950s. While communism was becoming more unpopular in China, most Chinese didn’t see rebels aligned to Taiwan’s Chiang Kai-Shek a viable alternative. Non-communists viewed Chiang’s reign over China as a failure.

Information about Tibet’s current conditions was hard to obtain. The news of the revolt against the communist regime in Hungary, October-November 1956 was immediately disseminated around the world. However, the 1956 revolts in Eastern Tibet were little known to the rest of the world.

In 1956, the CIA confirmed that all reports of Eastern Tibetan revolts with great initial success were true and authentic.

The CIA was in contact with Gyalo Thondup’s older brother, the Dalai Lama, since the 1950s. He quietly became the rebels principal diplomat and contact with outsiders. The Dalai Lama’s brother, Gompo Tashi Andrugtsang, was the chief leader of the CIA’s aid program for Tibetans.

Many Tibetan freedom fighters were captured and taken to Saipan in 1957 for training in guerilla warfare. The U.S. Territory of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands includes the Pacific Island of Saipan. It was once a U.N. Trust Territory that the United States administered. Camp Hale, Colorado, was the first permanent training facility to be established as part of this program.

American trainers did a great job of getting along with the Tibetans. An instructor said that the Tibetans loved demolition class and would take any fly caught in it to their hands. Then, when it was time for them to go outside, they’d grab it from their palms. Kenneth Conboy & James Morrison, Secret War in Tibet: The CIA 107 (2002).

In addition to training, the United States started airdropping supplies to the resistance fighters. It made approximately three dozen through 1965. Lee Enfield.303 bolt-action rifles and 60mm mortars were among the airdrops made in 1958. Also included was 2.36in. bazookas, 57mm Recoilless Rifles,.30 caliber light machines guns, and grenades. All measurements refer to the muzzle diameters.

It was chosen because of its plausible deniability. This material had been used by different forces in Asia over the past decades. The CIA began supplying M-1 Garand in 1959. This semi-automatic American rifle is still a landmark from World War II. The supply of weapons and ammunition wasn’t enough to support all freedom fighters.

It was unfortunately too late for the program to really make an impact. It could have had a dramatic effect if it was started earlier, in the 1950s. If the Dalai Lama would have renounced and requested assistance, aid could have been provided sooner. After all, he was the head of state and Americans would have been more comfortable with him granting aid earlier, especially if they had an international legal basis.

The government of Jawaharlal Naehru (Indian Prime Minister) did not express their support for the aid program. He was, at most, playing a game to back China’s claim to Tibet.

Nehru believed he would join Mao in an anti-imperialist Asian bloc. What he received was the destruction of Tibet as an important buffer between India, China and China. China used Tibet to establish a base and invaded northern India in October 1962. They seized 43,000 km of land.