Remembering the Great Khampa Uprising of 1956
by Jamyang Norbu
This year the 50th anniversary of the Hungarian Revolution against Soviet occupation was observed with due ceremony and honour throughout Hungary, though in the capital, Budapest, the celebrations were somewhat marred by anti-government protests. Newspapers, magazines and TV networks world-over came out with reports on the anniversary and also retrospectives and commentaries on the events of ‘56 in Hungary.
A far larger and bloodier popular uprising took place that same year in Eastern Tibet, against another totalitarian Communist giant, Red China. But the 50th anniversary of this momentous historical event has been entirely ignored by the world, which, distressing as it is, is not very surprising seeing that the Dalai Lama and his exile government also chose to overlook it.
The Hungarian revolt lasted for nineteen days. 2,500 Hungarian freedom fighters were killed and about 13,000 wounded. In Kham the uprising started in February 1956 and lasted until 1962, at least within Tibet, and it was only in August 1974 that Wangdu Gyatotsang, the last resistance leader was ambushed and killed and the guerilla base at Mustang, on the Nepalese frontier, was closed down. No one really knows how many people were killed in this entire conflict. A conservative estimate would have to be no less than half a million people, on the Tibetan side. These facts and figures have not been cited to draw comparisons with what happened in Hungary, since statistics can tell us little about the actual courage and sacrifice of the heroic freedom fighters in both Hungary and Tibet. It was rather to emphasize the bizarre neglect that the Tibetan revolution has congenitally suffered, particularly from those who owe the most to it.
The people of Kham, or Eastern Tibet, rose up against Chinese occupation when Communist authorities began to implement “democratic reform”, the program to eliminate monastic and tribal leadership and eradicate the traditional social system. The program involved thamzing struggles, public humiliation, beating, torture, forced confessions, imprisonment and often executions. Suicides were widespread in areas where “democratic reforms” were announced.
In exile folklore an archetypal origin of sorts has been ascribed to the events of 1956 in the Lithang Uprising. The paramount resistance chief of Lithang, Yunru Pon was not only a very young and an enigmatic personality, but he also died under the most dramatic of circumstances. He and other Lithangwa chiefs and warriors defended the great monastery of Lithang (founded by the 3rd Dalai Lama) against numerous Chinese infantry assaults, artillery bombardment, and bombing by Chinese aircraft based at Chengdu. When his ammunition ran out Yunru Pon faked a surrender and approaching the Chinese commander shot him dead with a concealed pistol, before being gunned down by Chinese soldiers in a most spectacular manner. One eyewitness, Loto Phuntsok, testified to the International Commission of Jurists in 1959, that 500 Chinese soldiers fired on Yunru Pon.
Violent insurrections had taken place earlier in Eastern Tibet in Gyalthang (south of Lithang) in 1952/54 under the leadership of Aku Lemar and also in north-eastern Tibet (Amdo) in Hormukha and Nangra, under Pon Choje and Pon Wangchen. According to Rinzin, a surviving eyewitness of the fighting in Amdo, “so many people were killed, so many committed suicide and so many fled to Lhasa that only a few blind men, cripples, fools and some children were left”.
However, the Khampa uprisings of 1956 should be considered the beginning of our great national revolution because these were not isolated events but involved many districts, regions and tribes. The uprisings were, surprisingly, coordinated to quite an extent. According to one source twenty-three major chiefs of Lithang, Chatreng, Batang, Lingkashi, Nyarong, Gyathang, Gyalrong, Horko, Gaba and other areas, communicated with each other and arranged a common day to launch the uprising. This was the eighteenth day of the Tibetan New Year of 1956.
In Nyarong the attack on the Chinese headquarters at Drugmo Dzong took place four days earlier, on the 14th. The fighting here was led by a young woman, Dorji Yudon, whose sister and husband (the chieftain Nima Gyaritsang) were held hostage by the Chinese at Dhartsedo. This amazing woman (very soft-spoken and less than five feet tall) started her uprising earlier than planned as she had been tipped off that the Chinese were coming to arrest her. Other Khampa women also fought against the Chinese and in some cases, like Dorji Yudon, even led resistance groups. When one of the chieftains of Gonjo, Lemda Pon, died his daughter, Pachen, took up the fight and fought stubbornly for a number of years till her people and her family were wiped out and she herself captured and imprisoned for twenty years.
The districts of Gonjo, Drayak, Chagra Pembar, Shopado, Western Derge, Pomo, and Markham joined in the fighting a few months after the initial uprising. With the whole of Eastern Tibet now ablaze with insurrection, and the Red Army embarked on a genocidal course of reprisals, a large movement of refugees began to make its way to Lhasa. The Dalai Lama and his government retained nominal authority in Central Tibet, but one that was eroding every day as Chinese occupation force in Lhasa was reinforced in ever increasing numbers.
Khampa residents in Lhasa became increasingly troubled with the catastrophic news from their homeland. One prominent merchant of Lithang, Gompo Tashi Andrugtsang secretly began creating a resistance movement inside the city. Using the cover of organizing a public religious event, a Long Life Prayer Ceremony, for the Dalai Lama he raised funds, contacted important lamas, various leaders, and also officials of the Tibetan government, including the Dalai Lamas Lord Chamberlain. This ceremony had an underlying political significance that expressed the people’s loyalty to the Dalai Lama, and Gompo Tashi used it brilliantly to reassert the fundamental unity of Kham, Amdo and Central Tibet under the sovereign rule of the Dalai Lama. Then in 1958 he formed a resistance army, Four Rivers Six Ranges (a geographical description of Eastern Tibet) at Driguthang, south of Lhasa. Agents of the resistance movement were sent to India were able to contact the CIA. Eventually a program was created where Tibetan volunteers were flown to a secret training camp at Colorado and trained in communications, weaponry, guerrilla warfare, and parachuting.
The first American arms drops that arrived in the July of 1958, about four hundred rifles, could not match the demand from the large number of volunteers that had gathered at Driguthang. But Gompo Tashi still managed to launch a number of long-range strikes against Chinese positions in northern Tibet, western Tibet and even back inside Kham. News of Chinese defeats appeared in Lhasa city on wall posters, and thrilled the populace. Khampa refugees in Lhasa began to make their way to Driguthang, as well as volunteers from Gyangtse, Shelkar and other districts in Central and Western Tibet and the resistance now took on a broader pan-Tibetan character and was renamed “the Volunteer Army to Defend the Faith” (Tensung Dhanglang Makar) to reflect this transformation.
Whatever the immediate reasons for the Lhasa Uprising of March 1959 — the invitation to the Dalai Lama to attend a cultural show at the Chinese headquarters and so on — the fundamental cause for this defining event was certainly the Khampa resistance, which in a real sense provided the inspiration and the opportunity to the Lhasa populace, the remaining units of the old Tibetan army and loyal government officials to strike a final blow for their leader and country, before the Chinese took control completely.
Following the events in Lhasa, the nomads of western Changtang, under the leadership of Nagtsang Pubo of Shentsa Dzong, rose up against the Chinese. A support team was parachuted near Lake Namtso, to back up the revolt, but it failed to make contact with the fighters. The following year the nomads of Sog, Bachen and other districts in north-eastern Changtang, under the leadership of Pon Norbu Tsering, put together a formidable resistance force, at least five to seven thousand fighting men. The Chinese at once sent in a couple of divisions of infantry, supported by cavalry units, armoured cars, tanks and even jet fighters based at Damshung north of Lhasa. A team of eight Tibetan specialists were parachuted in to support the uprising, which they successfully did, following which nine separate arms drops were made. On learning that the Chinese were using tanks against the resistance fighters another eight-man team of Tibetans, trained in using bazookas and 75mm recoilless rifles, were also parachuted in. The Chinese air-dropped leaflets calling on the Tibetans to surrender, but the Tibetans got the Americans to drop thousands of facsimile copies of a letter from the Dalai Lama urging the Tibetans to resist. Many Tibetans kept the letter as an amulet. After six months of savage fighting the resistance force here was completely wiped out. The last radio communication that the CIA received was from “Nathan”, the codename of Ngawang Phulchung, the team leader. Under withering fire he sent out the message that tank–led columns were closing on their position. Not a single member of the two teams got out.
In March 1961 a seven-man team led by Yeshi Wangyal Phupatsang (“Tim”) was parachuted into Markham. The resistance force here though once around twenty thousand strong, had weakened considerably by this time. Though the inserted team managed to make contact with what remained of the resistance force (about sixty odd fighters) the Chinese wiped them all out within the year. The Chinese were reported to have had 70,000 troops in Markham district alone.
We must bear in mind that at any one time during the Soviet war in Afghanistan the Russians only had about 80,000 to 100,000 troops throughout the country. In Tibet (including Kham and Amdo) it appears that the Chinese had about half a million soldiers based there. From most accounts it also appears that the Chinese used “human wave” (ch. ren-hai zhan-shu) tactics against the numerically inferior Tibetans. In a number of interviews survivors spoke of entire mountainsides being covered with yellow (tib. ri ser-chigi). The Chinese uniforms being khaki or “yellow”. Of course such tactics would translate into high casualty figures for the Chinese as well, which might account for the prevalence of many “Martyr’s Memorial” cemeteries (ch. lishi-mu) In a number of district headquarters in Kham, where reportedly tens of thousands of Chinese military personnel were buried, in many cases three or four bodies in one coffin.
From anecdotal evidence alone the scale of the fighting and the subsequent deaths and dislocation in Eastern Tibet appear to have been enormous. A leading American China scholar, Roderick MacFarquhar, considered that the Tibetan Resistance produced “the gravest episode of internal disorder (in the People’s Republic of China) prior to the Cultural Revolution . . .” Chinese figures taken from their 1982 census, twenty years after the revolt had been crushed, reveal far fewer men than women throughout Kham and parts of Amdo. Such disparate sex-ratio figures do not appear in other areas of Tibet or China, although vast numbers of people died in these places too, especially during the post “Great Leap” famine, but which, one can reasonably conclude, affected both sexes equally.
The only published figures we have for Tibetans killed in the Lhasa Uprising and its aftermath is from official Chinese sources. A booklet marked “secret” and published in Lhasa on October 1, 1960 by the political department of the Tibetan Military District, states : “From last March (1959) up to now (1960) we have already wiped out (ch. xiaomie) over 87,000 of the enemy.” At a conference in Harvard in 2002, on “Tibet and the Cold War”, some American sinologists there insisted on explaining that the term xiaomie, though literally “wipe out” could be interpreted to mean “imprisoned” or “removed” and so on. This was academic claptrap of the most specious kind. Many words in most languages have alternative or synonymous meanings. For instance the word “kill” does not necessarily have to mean the taking of life. It could be used in the context of ending a deal, or even causing laughter to an extreme degree. But if a police report stated that so and so was killed would we seriously consider these semantic substitutes? So why should we do so in the case of a Chinese “military”, repeat “military” document where, almost certainly, precise and unambiguous language would be called for.
At a famous libel trial in London in 1994, the notorious holocaust denier, David Irving, made a similar comment about the German term “ausrotung (“extirpation”) used by Hitler, which Irving argued did not mean mass-murder but rather “uproot” or “enforced immigration”. He also took issue with the word “vernichtung”, which historians generally consider a euphemism for “annihilation.” Irving argued that this term was only used by the Nazi’s in a rhetorical sense.
The Tibetans issue has spawned its own share of “holocaust deniers”, a leading one being the anthropologist Melvin Goldstein who has stated that there was no genocide of Tibetans by the Chinese. He has also advocated that Tibetans give up their national rights and live in “cultural reservations” in the PRC. In his 1996 report on the Golok nomads of north-eastern Tibet, Goldstein makes passing mention that they resisted the Chinese occupation militarily, that the fighting was severe and that there were many casualties. But then he continues — without a hint of irony, or use of qualifications or parenthesis — that “… the area was pacified and liberated only in 1952.” Goldstein further informs us that there was a second substantial outbreak of fighting in the 1957-58 period. In a footnote he adds: “It is interesting to note that the figure of Goulou (Golok) population growth in the Socio-Economic Baseline Survey reveals a sharp decline in population between 1957-58.”
But that genocide, ethnic cleansing, holocaust or whatever you want to call it, had taken place in the Golok region is undeniable. A Chinese academic who traveled through Golok and made a thorough study of the situation there, concluded that the Golok population had been reduced from about 1,30,000 in 1956 to about 60,000 in 1963. (China Spring, June 1986). More than half the population had been wiped out.
The late Panchen Lama, Chokyi Gyaltsen, courageously spoke up about the genocide of the Golok people in an official speech in Beijing. “In Amdo and Kham, people were subjected to unspeakable atrocities … In Golok area, many people were killed and their dead bodies rolled down the hill into a big ditch. The soldiers told the family members and relatives of the dead people that they should celebrate since the rebels have been wiped out. They were forced to dance on the dead bodies. Soon after, they were also massacred with machine guns.”
I think I will stop here. I know there is so much more to tell, but this piece was written to remind Tibetans of the forgotten anniversary of our national revolution, not as an account or history of the resistance. All Tibetans need to be reminded of this, especially those who made it into exile. In the aftermath of the Lhasa uprising nearly everyone who managed to escape from Central Tibet did so largely because the major Chinese garrison at Tsetang, south of Lhasa, was under siege by the resistance, which allowed a safe corridor for refugees to flee to India. Refugees from Tö, Ngari and Kyirong in Western Tibet had a relatively easier time escaping because Chinese troops were tied down by the fighting in Central Tibet and Kham. Later when the Mustang base became operational, Chinese military movement in Western Tibet became greatly curtailed, especially during 1963 and 1964 when the Xinjiang /Shigatse highway became all but unusable because of guerrilla attacks. This allowed more refugees from Western Tibet to escape through the Mustang corridor. All the Tibetans from Kongpo and Pemako area who escaped to India in 1962, managed to do so because of the leadership and guidance of the ten-man guerilla team that had earlier been inserted into that area, and that organized the mass evacuation of the local people to Arunachal Pradesh. These refugees were subsequently resettled in camps at Miao, Tezu, and Chaglang. From the mid sixties onwards after the resistance was completely crushed and the Tibetan border sealed, the flow of refugees to India and Nepal virtually dried up to nothing.
It is safe to say there would have been no exile-government at Dharamshala if it weren’t for the Uprisings of 1956 and 1959. Which is why we must ask why Dharamshala is not observing this important national anniversary? Is it because the actions of our leaders and the present policies of the government in exile are in stark contradiction to the idealism of those who fought and died for Tibetan freedom? Is this is why Dharamshala appears to be more comfortable celebrating betrayal and treachery rather than courage and sacrifice?
This year an official Tibetan translation of a biography of the arch collaborator and traitor, Phuntsok Wangyal, was published at Dharamshala (the English original by Melvyn Goldstein appeared in 2004). The book was released with much fanfare in the Tibetan exile community with Prime Minister Samdong Rimpoche presiding over the function and praising Phuntsok Wangyal as a great Tibetan and a philosopher. In a subsequent discussion on the book on Radio Free Asia, I pointed out that Wangyal had been deeply involved in the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1950, acting as the chief guide to the invading Chinese Army, the main organizer and supplier of food grain and pack animals (on which he and his partner Chagotsang Topden reportedly made a lot of money) and attempting, in various clandestine ways, to get Tibetan officials and military personnel in Chamdo and Markham to betray their country. Not a single officer did. All the subsequent stories of betrayal and treachery by government officials are just that — stories. Even Ngabo went over to the Chinese side only after he was captured and Phuntsok Wangyal spent many hours indoctrinating him. Over a thousand Tibetans, regular soldiers and Khampa militia died defending their country. During the discussion on Radio Free Asia the Tibetan translator of the biography insisted that Phuntsok Wangyal could not be considered a traitor since the Chinese would have won the war anyway even without his assistance.
I say this with all due respect, but Samdong Rimpoche should reflect on what might have been his own fate had resistance fighters had not protected his escape route in 1959. I have interviewed a few incarnate lamas left behind in Tibet after the uprising and their accounts were invariably harrowing. Under similar circumstances it seems very possible that Samdong Rimpoche would have ended up in some bleak laogai farm, in a line of gaunt, starving prisoners, chanting “yi-ér yi-ér” (one-two one-two), as they shuffled in time, bent over with the weight of wicker baskets overflowing with fetid night-soil.
But far more important for all Tibetans is, of course, the question of what might have happened to the Dalai Lama under these circumstances? What if there had been no uprising, or no armed escort of resistance fighters to cover his escape from Lhasa? What if he had been forced to remain in Tibet? I have asked and answered these questions in another essay some years ago, but I think they could be re-examined to some profit.
Had the Dalai Lama remained behind it is fairly possible that, especially with the advent of the Cultural Revolution, he would have undergone imprisonment, public humiliation and torture, much like the Panchen Lama. Even if that had not happened he certainly would have become a Chinese puppet. In the opinion of His Holiness’s youngest, Tendzin Choegyal, had the Dalai Lama remained in Tibet “...they (the Chinese) would have would have used His Holiness just as the Japanese used poor Pu Yi (the last Manchu Emperor). That's what he would have become, another Pu Yi." (Kundun, Mary Craig, Harper Collins, 1997).
So, in a real sense the Dalai Lama owes his freedom, his present international stature and even his Nobel Prize to courageous fighting men who rescued him not only from physical danger but from a situation that was politically and morally compromising. They also freed him from a dubious relationship with the Communist leadership that was unhealthy and questionable at best, but one which, these days, His Holiness appears, quite inexplicably, to be making every effort to resurrect.
But we won’t go into that now. All I ask of you, the reader, is that before the end of this year, you commemorate this forgotten anniversary of our great revolution, in a personal or shared or whatever way you feel best. You could light a butter lamp at home or at the Temple, perhaps even perform, with friends and family, a sangsol (sacred smoke) offering, which is particularly appropriate since this ritual is rooted in the worship of our mountain deities, which is the original expression of Tibetan nationalist identity, according to the distinguished scholar, Samten Karmay.
At the very least anyone who considers himself or herself a Tibetan should spare a moment to remember all those incredibly brave men and women without whose courage, sacrifice and most of all, resolve, there would probably now be no Dalai Lama, no Tibetan cause or even Tibetan culture to talk about, much less exploit for profit or personal advancement.
Roderick MacFarquhar, The Origins of the Cultural Revolution, New York: Columbia University Press, 1983.
The Population Atlas of China, Oxford University Press, 1987)
Xizang xingshi wenwu jiaoyu di jiben jiaocai, Lhasa: Political Department of the Tibetan Military District, 1960.)
Melvyn C. Goldstein, “The Dragon and the Snowlion: The Tibetan Question in the 20th Century", CHINA BRIEFING, 1990, New York, the Asia Society, 1990. Reprinted in TIBETAN REVIEW, March 1991.)
Speech by the 10th Panchen Lama at a meeting of the Sub-Committee of the National People's Congress in Peking on situation in Tibet, 28 March 1987.
Nomads of Golok: A Report Melvyn C. Goldstein, Case Western Reserve University, Dec.14,1996. www.case.edu/affil/tibet/tibetanNomads/golok.htm