When Tibetans took up arms to fight China

Ashok Ogra
‘The history of liberty is a history of resistance’,
Winston Churchill.
Since the Communist Chinese invasion of 1949 and the subsequent takeover in 1959, Tibet has since been a country under occupation. While we are all too familiar with the resistance movement launched by the Tibetans – both inside and outside of their country; however less is known of various armed groups that spontaneously erupted in response to the sudden Chinese aggression? When one resists something, it is because one feels strongly against it. This takes lot of confidence.
These armed groups ultimately united under the banner of CHUSHI GANGDRUK Army and were active at least till 1974.
This was the period when the cold war was at its peak. The US was keen to contain the spread of communism. So, when the resistance fighters sought support, the CIA readily agreed and trained and funded their movement. This secret operation code-named STCIRCUS was one of the CIA’s longest running covert operations until it was abruptly abandoned in the late 60s.
Unfortunately, this chapter of Tibetan history has received scant mention in historical literature , partly due to its clandestine nature and partly as an instinctive act of omission on the part of the official Tibetan narratives that focused on its non-violent nature.
An exhibition ‘SHADOW CIRCUS- A Personal Archive of Tibetan Resistance’ at Delhi’s India International Centre revisits this forgotten chapter in the history of Tibet.
The exhibition throws light on the guerilla war that Tibetans waged during the 1950s onwards against the Chinese occupation.
A project by Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam in collaboration with Natasha Ginwala, the exhibition is based on archival material of the Tibetan resistance to Chinese occupation between 1957 and 1974.
The exhibition owes a lot to Tenzing Sonam’s late father, Lhamo Tsering, who was one of the key leaders of the resistance and the key liaison between it and the CIA. Lhamo Tsering served as Chief of Operations and maintained an incredibly detailed archive of photographs, documents, letters and maps.
Recalls Sonam, “My father was always a meticulous record-keeper and realized the importance of maintaining detailed records of the operations he was in charge of. Over the years, he collected thousands of photographs, documents, letters, maps, and miscellaneous ephemera relating to the resistance.” It was using these very notes and archives that Tsering wrote an 8-volume account of Tibet’s armed resistance against China.
Bhusang who was a member of the air mission into Tibet records in his diary:” I had the capsule in my mouth. I wanted to make sure the Chinese did not capture me alive. All I had to do was to bite it. In the beginning we had decided that we will fight till we ran out of ammunition and then gesture to each other and bite the cyanide. But all my teammates had either already bitten their cyanide capsules or were shot without my knowledge.”
Sarin and Sonam started researching the little-known about Tibetan armed resistance in the early 1990s while working on a documentary film for BBC. Over the years, they met many former resistance fighters who were living quiet lives in Nepal, and were surprised when the filmmaker duo reached out to them for interviews.
By weaving in Lhamo Tsering’s personal archives, thus presenting a re-mastered version of their documentary to create a more complete and complex mosaic of this largely obscure story. Archival photographs, letters and documents, along with photographs, documents, letters, CIA surveillance maps of Tibet, and excerpts from interviews with former CIA agents and guerrilla operatives and video installations were on display.
“In late 1961, a raiding party led by Camp Hale trainee, Ghen Ragra, ambushed a military convoy and killed its occupants which included a high ranking military officer. Among their effects was a blue satchel full of documents. This was retrieved and carried back to the base and then sent by courier to Darjeeling from where Lhamo Tsering passed it on to his CIA contact in Calcutta,” from a diary kept by one of the armed solider
The Cold war epoch is navigated within a third space, as an uneasy alliance beyond geopolitical power blocs and bilateral relations to examine forms of intelligence gathering, guerrilla warfare and clandestine resistance in Tibet, that continues to resonate today as part of an unfinished project of freedom.
The question that arises is why has this armed struggle against the colonial rule of China been forgotten by Tibetans and the world at large? Is it because it goes against the non-violent stance that Tibet has taken against the Chinese occupation? Yes, but it’s not as simple as that. Sarin explains that the armed resistance was a very spontaneous response that began in the 1950s, with even monks coming to the forefront of the movement.
The CIA’s involvement did bring certain secrecy to the movement, which only grew more as the resistance relocated to Nepal. This meant that a number of people within the Tibetan community were unaware that their brothers and friends had taken up arms against the Chinese aggression.
The ultimate betrayal of the Tibetan struggle by the CIA was a foregone conclusion but the deeply personal and lasting emotional bonds that formed between Tibetan resistance fighters and their CIA trainers in the course of their brief and unlikely encounter muddies preconceived notions of power relations.
The resistance collapsed in 1974 when its last stronghold on the Nepal-Tibet border was shut down by the Nepalese army. For reasons that have to do with both the covert nature of this operation and the fact that Tibet’s armed struggle sits uncomfortably with contemporary narratives of the non-violent nature of the movement, this episode has languished in the forgotten corners of recent Tibetan history.
Had the resistance been successful, it might have gained a place in the country’s history. But because it ended with surrender to the Nepalese army, with the killing of Gyalo Wangdu, the resistance commander, Sarin says, “it was simpler to quietly forget about this episode.”
Through this exhibition, Ritu and Sonam hope to highlight the story of thousands of those who sacrificed their lives by taking up arms against the Chinese occupation, and to draw inspiration from their lives and honour them.
Says Sarin, “By focusing on the historical realities of the early phase of China’s invasion of Tibet through the story of the armed resistance, we once again raise questions about the legitimacy of China’s current occupation of Tibet and its implications for the larger region, especially concerning India’s current border problems.”
Today, this struggle is harder than ever. As the Chinese government adopts even-more brutal tactics to curb dissent, a new generation of Tibetans is fighting against all odds. However, periodic unrest still seeps through Tibet, especially around important dates such as March 10-19 during the anniversary of the 1959 Tibetan uprising.
(The author works for the reputed Apeejay Education Society, New Delhi)