The Volokh Conspiracy

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Tibet uprising

Tibet's armed resistance to Chinese invasion

Part 6: The Tibetan resistance continues, and thwarts a genocide


This is the last of six posts in series on the Tibetan Uprising. This one is about the Tibetan resistance after 1959, when the Dalai Lama set up a government in exile in India.

Post 1 covered Tibet before the 1949 Chinese invasion, including the Tibetan government's refusal to heed the 1932 warning of the Dalai Lama to strengthen national defense against the "'Red' ideology". Post 2 was the Chinese conquest, followed by armed uprising of the people, precipitated by gun registration. Post 3 described the 1956-57 revolts, which liberated most of Eastern Tibet. Post 4 covered the creation of a unified national resistance in 1958, the Chushi Gangdruk. Post 5 described how the armed uprising in Lhasa in 1959 saved the Dalai Lama from a communist kidnap attempt, and enabled him to escape to India..

These posts are excerpted from my coauthored law school textbook and treatise Firearms Law and the Second Amendment: Regulation, Rights, and Policy (3d ed. 2021, Aspen Publishers). Eight of the book's 23 chapters are available for free on the worldwide web, including Chapter 19, Comparative Law, where Tibet is pages 1885-1916. In this post, I provide citations for direct quotes. Other citations are available in the online book chapter.

Resistance from Nepal

The Tibetan freedom fighters, the Chushi Gangdruk, were allowed to set up in Mustang, a thinly populated district in Nepal, surrounded on three sides by Tibet, populated primarily by Tibetans, and run by a friendly and mostly autonomous local king who was Tibetan. The fighters who had retreated to India in 1959 were joined by other fighters coming directly to Mustang from Tibet. Over the next several years, they caused so much trouble on the Tibetan highway from Kham to Lhasa that the Chinese had to divert traffic to the other highway 180 miles north.

In 1961, the Mustang fighters scored the biggest anti-communist intelligence coup since the Korean War, capturing over 1,600 classified documents of the Chinese "People's Liberation Army" (PLA) from a PLA commander. The documents provided much insight into the PLA and communist government, including secret codes and Sino-Soviet relations. The documents noted that the famine in China caused by Mao's "Great Leap Forward" was demoralizing PLA troops. The communist militia was acknowledged to be of almost no value militarily, and some of the militia were joining uprisings in China. Some of the captured materials were later used as evidence by the Tibetan government in exile in its international law protests against Chinese atrocities in Tibet. The documents were released in 1963 and published in 1966. The Politics of the Chinese Red Army: A Translation of the Bulletin of the Activities of the People's Liberation Army (J. Chester Cheng ed. 1966).

Through 1963, the Mustang fighters helped five thousand more Tibetans escape to India, Nepal, Bhutan, or Sikkim. The last CIA airdrop into Tibet was in 1965, and the Tibet resistance training center at Camp Hale, Colorado, was shut down. However, other CIA support for the Mustang fighters continued.

These easily accessible caves, between Chhusang and Tetang in the Narshing Khola gorge, saw a brief revival during the Tibetan resistance movement of the 1960s and 1970s, when an enterprising woman of Chhusang occupied one of them as a tavern for guerrilla clients. But the movement disbanded in 1973, and the caves returned to their old silence. (Jean-Marie Hullot, Wikimedia Commons, f)

The governments of Nepal, India, and East Pakistan (a part of Pakistan near southeast Nepal) were pretending not to know about CIA support for Mustang, so the need to maintain secrecy was paramount. Accordingly, the CIA could not send a case officer to observe the situation in Mustang, since a stranger would be readily observed. As of 1960, only one Westerner had ever entered Mustang. Thus, the CIA was not able to monitor how its donations were being spent. Unfortunately, the first Mustang general, Baba Gen Yeshi, who was in charge of the rebels, stole a great deal of the resources.

U.S. financial assistance ended after 1969; the Mustang guerillas were clearly not able to meet the CIA's metric that they establish operational bases within Tibet. Although the Mustang resistance persisted even without CIA backing, a few years later the Nepali central government began tilting toward China for support against India, and so insisted that the Tibet venture be ended. The Mustang fighters finally shut down in 1974.

The Tibetans in exile stop genocide in East Pakistan

The final major combat mission of the Tibetan exiles was to fight a different genocide. Starting in 1962, the government of India had created a Special Frontier Force, consisting of three thousand Tibetan exiles living in India; the Chushi Gangdruk (Tibetan resistance army) in Nepal regarded them as an Indian branch. India used the Tibetans for scouting near the India-Tibet border, which had become the India-China border after the Chinese conquest and annexation of Tibet.

After the British had left their Indian colony in 1947, the Muslim majority portions of India were partitioned into the new nation of Pakistan, which consisted of West Pakistan and East Pakistan. In 1970-71, West Pakistan attacked East Pakistan, to put down an incipient independence movement and to mass murder the Bengali people.

After East Pakistan was invaded, the Tibetans were sent into the Chittagong Hill Tracts of East Pakistan. For deniability, their American and British rifles were replaced with Bulgarian AK-47s. The Tibetan guerillas were unstoppable. There, they halted the West Pakistani army's advance, and saved the royal family of the Chakmas, the Tibeto-Burman ethnic group who live in the area. Tying up West Pakistani forces, the Tibetans helped set the stage for a direct invasion by the Indian army three weeks later, ending the genocide. When the West Pakistan army tried to retreat via Burma, the Tibetans blocked them.

With West Pakistan defeated, East Pakistan became the new, independent nation of Bangladesh. The Tibetans "paraded through Chittagong to ecstatic Bangladeshi masses." Kenneth Conboy & James Morrison, The CIA's Secret War in Tibet 242-45 (2002).

Genocide in Tibet

Chinese dictator Mao Zedong's stated position had always been that the Tibet uprisings were a good thing: they provided a pretext for faster imposition of full communism, and they offered the PLA combat training under challenging conditions. But not all of the CCP élite shared Mao's bravado.

For years Chinese premier Zhou Enlai had been attempting to deal with the diplomatic problems that the Chinese colonization of Tibet was causing with public opinion in India and (in private) with Nehru's government there. After the March 1959 Lhasa uprising and the Dalai Lama's escape, Tibet's plight finally garnered worldwide attention. No recent communist event was more broadly condemned in South and Southeast Asia.

The suppression of the Tibetans was blatant and vicious imperialism. It undermined Mao's pretensions to be the anti-imperialist leader of the Third World, the supposed global hero of national liberation movements. Once the truth about Tibet was exposed to the world, many people realized that Maoism as applied was little different from Hitlerism—including in terms of genocide.

Because of the new global awareness engendered by the March 10 uprising and the escape of the Dalai Lama, the International Commission of Jurists began an inquiry into genocide in Tibet. The Commission concluded that the evidence showed a prima facie case for Chinese government acts in violation of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. International Commission of Jurists, The Question of Tibet and the Rule of Law in Genocide in Tibet at 34, 98. According to the Tibetan government in exile, the Mao regime slew 1.2 million Tibetans, including those killed in the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution.

Accomplishments of the Resistance

What did the Tibetan resistance accomplish? First, it helped the Dalai Lama escape to India; he has traveled the world and informed the people of the world of Tibet's right to self-government. Although the Tibetan government in exile states that Tibet has never been part of China, the government has offered to compromise, with Tibet remaining in the "People's Republic of China" if Tibetans could have genuine autonomy, rather than the current sham of "autonomous" regions with no actual self-government

Had the Dalai Lama been captured by the Chinese, the Tibetans and their cause would never have been as globally visible as they did in fact become.

It was not just the Dalai Lama who was saved by the freedom fighters. "Because of the efforts by the resistance forces, many tens of thousands of Tibetans were able to escape their Chinese executioners." Roger E. McCarthy, Tears of the Lotus: Accounts of Tibetan Resistance to the Chinese Invasion, 1950-1962, at vi (1997).

Today, most Tibetan refugees remain in the adjacent nations of India, Nepal, or Bhutan, to which they originally fled, while many others in the Tibetan diaspora have moved to North America, Europe, or Oceania, sharing their religion and educating the public about Tibetan rights. Whereas the outside world knew very little about Tibet before 1959, today there are many scholars of Tibetan Studies and many lay persons who have learned about Tibetan culture.

Within Tibet, the Tibetan Buddhist religion is being perverted, like all religions under CCP control, into an empty shell where compassion for sentient beings is replaced with submission to the will of the atheistic communist party. See Tibet Policy Institute, Cultural Genocide in Tibet: A Report (2017); U.S. Dep't of State, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, & Labor, "China (Includes Tibet, Xinjiang, Hong Kong, and Macau)," in 2018 Report on International Religious Freedom (2019); Eleanor Albert, Religion in China, Council on For. Rel. backgrounder, Oct. 11, 2018 ("Tibetan Buddhists face the highest levels of religious persecution in China, along with Uighur Muslims and Falun Gong members."); 中國靈魂爭奪戰:習近平治下的宗教復興、壓制和抵抗 [The battle for Chinese souls: religious revival, suppression and resistance under Xi Jinping], Freedom House (2017) (in Chinese).

But in the diaspora made possible by the resistance, Tibetan Buddhism thrives. The "great three" Lhasa monasteries of Sera, Drepung, and Ganden have been established anew in southern India.  "Tibetan Buddhism moved onto the worldwide stage after the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1959, and the subsequent mass migration of Tibetan masters to India." "United States, Buddhism in," in Encyclopedia of Buddhism 530 (Edward A. Irons ed. 2008).

Importantly, the Tibetan resistance set a marker so that all future generations may know that China took Tibet by violence and not by consent. As the Dalai Lama wrote:

Intergenerational awareness of what took place in the Land of Snows may generally have grown, but what may not be so well known or appreciated is the fact that there was an armed resistance. In Kham, Eastern Tibet, in particular, where people retained warrior-like qualities of old, groups of men banded together to oppose the Chinese by force. These guerillas riding on horseback and often equipped with outdated weapons, put up a good fight. They expressed their loyalty and love for Tibet with indomitable courage. And although they were ultimately unsuccessful in preventing the Chinese from overwhelming Tibet, they let the so-called People's Liberation Army know what the majority of Tibetans felt about their presence.

Although I believe the Tibetan struggle can only be won by a long-term approach and peaceful means, I have always admired these freedom fighters for their unflinching courage and determination.

The Dalai Lama, Foreword, in Dunham at xi. Likewise, in a preface to Gompo Tashi Andrugtsang's autobiography, the Dalai Lama praised his sacrifices of "his wealth and his life for the Dharma and the national freedom of Tibet. Despite the insuperable and awesome odds that China posed, Gompo Tashi was undaunted. . . . I pray that the forces of his meritorious deeds—his noble act of sincerely and perseveringly struggling for the Dharma, the nation and the people of Tibet allow him to reach the highest level of attainment." Dalai Lama, Preface, in Gompo Tashi Andrugtsang, Four Rivers Six Ranges: Reminisces of the Resistance Movement in Tibet 6 (1973). The Dalai Lama has encouraged all Tibetan freedom fighters to record their stories, so that new generations will learn from them.

Today, Tibetan independence seems impossible. The same was true in 1983 for the many captive nations trapped in what Ronald Reagan called the Soviet Union's "evil empire." Less than a decade later, 14 sovereign nations had broken the fetters of Soviet imperialism.

On the other hand, the current Chinese government is strongly encouraging Han immigration to Tibet and Xinjiang, to change the population balance. A similar strategy succeeded in Manchuria and Inner Mongolia, where Manchus and Mongols are now very much the minority. Perhaps one day a free vote of the residents of Tibet might even support keeping Tibet in China. But that day has not come, nor has free voting anywhere in the so-called "People's Republic of China."