Tibet’s armed resistance to Chinese invasion

Tomorrow marks the 50th anniversary of the 1959 escape by the Dalai Lama from an attempt by the Chinese communists to kidnap his. This is the fifth post in a series about the Tibetan Uprising.

Post 1 was Tibet’s history before 1949 Chinese invaders. It also covered the refusal of the Tibetan government to listen to the Dalai Lama’s 1932 warning to increase national defense against “Red” ideology. The Chinese conquest was followed by an armed rebellion of the people that culminated in gun registration. Post 3 was about the 1956-1957 rebellions that liberated much of Eastern Tibet. Post 4 dealt with the establishment of the Chushi Gangdruk, a united national resistance in 1958.

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 quotations. Additional citations can be found in the online chapter.

It is a plot to capture Dalai Lama

Around fifteen thousand Eastern Tibetans remained outside Lhasa in Central Tibet as early as 1959. They moved around the city with fully-armed guns and trigger-happy eyes. Mikel Dunham, Buddha’s Warriors – The Story of the CIA Supported Tibetan Freedom Fighters and the Chinese Invasion. The Ultimate Fall of Tibet 2619 (2004). There are few Tibetans who still support communist China’s “People’s Liberation Army”, which is based in Lhasa. These include the declining numbers of cooperationist aristocrats.

The PLA was in great distress when two thousand Chushi Gangdruk national resist army fighters attacked an three-thousand-man PLA base. After a five-hour struggle, the Tibetans overwhelmed the PLA and stole a wealth of weapons. Gompo Tashi Andrugtsang was the leader and creator of the resistance army. He then went to Chamdo, Central Tibet Prefecture, to exhort everyone to form an armed force and defend their villages and towns. Gompo Tashi Andrugtsang, The Resistance Movement in Tibet: Memories of Four Rivers and Six Ranges 93-94 (1973).

Early February 1959 saw the Chinese Communist Party announce that the Dalai Lama would travel to Peking. Surprised, both the Dalai Lama (CCP) and the Tibetans believed there had been a kidnapping plot. Inviting Tibetans to Chinese social events, the Chinese were allegedly kidnapping and murdering Lamas. In March alone, Lhasa’s population had more than tripled. Also, pilgrims were arriving to attend the Monlam Prayer Festival, one of the most important Tibetan Buddhist religious events.

The 14th Dalai Lama during Geshe Lharampa exam
The final day of months-long exams by the Dalai Lama are being watched by a large crowd. Mar. 2, 1959.

While the Dalai Lama was busy studying to take his final exams, Geshe Lharampa degree—the highest theological degree conferred in Tibet, equivalent to a Ph.D. Chinese officials began demanding that the Dalai Lama attend a theater performance at the PLA camp outside Lhasa on the afternoon of March 10. The invitation stated that he couldn’t bring his usual armed guards and could not tell the public anything about it. According to the Dalai Lama, he had accepted.

Lhasa was the first to hear the announcement by the Dalai Lama that special traffic restrictions would be in place for the road between Lhasa and the PLA camp. March 10th, thousands of Tibetans spontaneously rallied around Norbulingka palace of Dalai Lama. They were “armed and indifferent” to each other’s safety. Dunham 269. Dunham, 269.[F]Lhasans, Eastern Tibetans and the Tibetans were acting in unison for the first-ever time.” Id.Lhasans without firearms and swords brought their picks, axes, shovels, or any other weapon they had.

March 10, 1959, The Momentous Day

Chinese Communist Party refers March 10, 1959 to as the “Lhasa Incident”, or the “March 10 Incident (1959). Tibetan Uprising Day is the official holiday that Tibetan exile government recognizes. Perhaps it was “The Most Significant Day in Tibetan History.” Jianglin Li, Tibet in Agony: Lhasa 1959At 135, 345 (2016)

Lhasa was reclaimed by the people. Barricades were used to block incoming roads. The Tibetans took control of Lhasa for the first time in 51 years since the arrival of the PLA. “The Tibetan people are now the ruling entity of Tibet.” Dunham 269-70. They took control of the National Assembly as well as the government. The Tibetan army was gone, but what was left gave arms to the population. Also, the Sera monastery had the most extensive arsenal in Lhasa.

PLA started preparing for combat. Scouts made readings about artillery targets. The defenders rallied when a PLA army advanced upon the city. However, the PLA force was only a feint and the Tibetan forces were much larger than the PLA.

According to the Dalai Lama, “[h]and to hand, with fists or swords, one Tibetan would have been worth a dozen Chinese—recent experience in the eastern provinces had confirmed this old belief.” He knew Lhasa would not be able to defeat China’s heavy guns. Dunham at 278–79.

March 17, Dalai Lama escapes

The State Oracle was visited by the Dalai Lama in March 17th. He was weighed down by his ceremonial armor, and 30-pound headdress that he wore, when the oracle monastery came forth. Other monks played the horns and drums while others chanted, but the oracle fell into a dancing trance.

His facial features were disfigured, his eyes bulging and his breathing slow. His stature seemed to have increased and he was no longer struggling with the weight of his costume. He suddenly let out a loud, piercing scream.

“Go! Go! Tonight!”

In a mad rush, he grabbed pen and paper and began to sketch a route plan. He was then relieved of the enormous headdress by his attendants. He fell to the ground after the deity vanished from his body.

Li, Tibet and Agony, at 193-94. It was thought that the State Oracle channeled the protector deity of Dalai Lama.

Tibetan State Oracle. Ladakh, India. 2014.

That afternoon, the communists lobbed a pair of mortar shells into the marsh next to Norbulingka palace—taken as a warning of the consequences of disobedience. The Dalai Lama was able to escape during the night March 17. Lhasa was unaware of this. As a soldier disguised with a rifle and glasses, the Dalai Lama was “protected by unseen resistance band covering their flanks” as they traveled through the mountains. Kenneth Knaus,Cold War orphans: America’s and the Tibetan Struggle to Save the Children Survival 165 (1999).

Tibetan independence is asserted by The Dalai Lama.

The Dalai Lama was in India when he arrived on March 31. The Assam Rifles escorted the Dalai Lama to his destination.

Just before entering India the Dalai Lama disregarded the 1951 Seventeen Point Agreement which had been violated by China and was their sole legal basis for presence in Central Tibet. He apologized for the Tibetan government’s issuance of anti–Chushi Gangdruk statements, which he explained were compelled and dictated by the Chinese. Gompo Tashi Andrugstang was promoted by the Dalai Lama in absentia to GeneralDzasakThe Tibetan Army. It stated in the letter that “the situation demands a continuation to your brave struggle with same determination and courage.” Knaus, 166; Andrugtsang, 107. (copy of letter in Tibetan). Not necessary, the promotion acknowledged the Chushi Gangdruk to be the legitimated government of Tibet.

In the 1990s the Dalai Lama stated that Tibetan resistance had been valid. “If there are clear indicators that violence cannot be avoided, then violence may be allowed.” Knaus at 313. According to the Dalai Lama, Buddhism is about motivation and results more than methods. If it brings about good results, violence can be justified if motivated by compassion.

Lhasa is overthrown by communists

The Dalai Lama escaped from communist hands until March 19, but they didn’t discover it. The communists began to claim that the Dalai Lama did not flee but was instead abducted by Imperialists and their complicities. In 1995, when Tibet’s Dalai Lama was gaining international attention for his campaign for freedom, the CCP published a story claiming that Mao had deliberately let the Dalai Lama flee. This tale is not without its flaws.

On March 20, during night, the PLA built a barrier to stop movement between Lhasa’s western and eastern sides. They launched their attack early in the morning. This was supported by large artillery fire. The PLA won the battle on the third day after two days of intense building-to-building fighting. Lhasa was in disarray, but there was no Dalai Lama.

PLA leadership brazenly deceived its soldiers. For example, the Tibetans were said to be “callous murderers” who tortured and killed people for the slightest infraction—a description more aptly applied to the CCP. According to legend, the Tibetans killed the labouring masses and used their skulls as rice bowls and their skins as drums. Female femurs were then used for horns. A third century later, in Beijing’s Tienanmen square, PLA soldiers would receive a new set of lies regarding student protesters. Because the CCP controlled all media, the soldiers were unable to learn the truth because they had no access to the information. Timothy Brook, “Quelling the People”: The military suppression of the Beijing Democracy Movement 114-15 (1998).

Counteroffensive by the PLA

PLA was now more adept at fighting insurgents. The PLA brought in non-Han horsemen, who were superior to often inept Hans. The PLA was able to deploy mobile artillery more effectively. Bombers were used in places where artillery was impossible to deploy. Scout aircrafts were able to report on the movements of resistance groups even if bombers could not be used due to weather conditions. The Chinese have spent the last ten years building strong roads in Central and Eastern Tibet. The PLA force in the field was never without supplies. Although Tibetans were a potential problem for Chinese supply convoys and could cause problems, they did not run out of them.

A PLA counteroffensive was launched in April 1959 at Lhoka, a south-central prefecture. It captured many strategic villages. Exhausted and starving, the Chushi Gangdruk of the area took the Dalai Lama’s advice and used it to escape to India.

In mid-1959 the PLA took control over the pace of warfare. Instead of being able attack anywhere and at any time, the rebels were trying to escape PLA pursuit. They were fighting multiple engagements each week in an effort to achieve this goal. Many of them managed to flee India and Nepal. Other Tibetans were also helped to cross the Chinese border by them. Eighty-thousand Tibetans managed to escape.

The PLA advantage grew and rebels would have had to disperse into smaller groups which would have made them harder to spot. The fighting men could have kept their operations going for longer if they had formed small guerilla bands. The men refused to abandon their families and needed to feed their livestock. Therefore, the resistance camps were big and moved slowly.

Other resistance fighters fought on the other side of the border. They had no escape route and continued fighting. They were now conducting raids against enemy forces, and not attempting to free territory. They continued to resist the Goloks from Amdo, who were too far north for them to flee to other countries.

Exceptions to Kham, Tibet’s majority was under PLA control by the fall 1959. There, the Khampas continued to disrupt Chinese conveys and their effort allowed “untold thousands of Tibetans to make their way safely to the border—a major contribution that has often been overlooked by Western historians.” Knaus at 334-41 In Central Tibet, resistance was continued up to 1962 in the outlying areas.

To stop Tibetans being armed, the Chinese banned the Tibetan men from wearing swords. Around half of these men were sentenced to life in prison. Central Tibet suffered the full extent of Eastern Tibet’s communization and persecution of Tibetan culture. This policy is still in force today.

A government in exile was established by the Tibetans at Dharamasala, India. It continued to exist until today. All Tibetans can access the government in exile, regardless of their religion or province. Education is provided from kindergarten through highschool by the government, which is democratic.

General Tan Guansen was the Political Commissar of CCP for Tibet. He might have believed that he had been given a lifetime’s respect by Mao. He would then be expelled as an “capitalist roader” during 1966’s Cultural Revolution.

Next Post: Resistance continues and stops genocide