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The 1959 Tibetan Uprising: Rebels with a Cause
Sify.com[Saturday, March 07, 2009 11:19]
Claude Arpi

Fifty years is long in the life of a man. It is long also for a nation.

Fifty years ago, on March 10, 1959, the population of Lhasa, the Tibetan capital revolted against the Chinese Communist invaders. A few days later, the Dalai Lama, the temporal and spiritual leader of the Tibetan people fled his country. Since then, he lives as a refugee in India.

Ironically, it was a Chinese communiqué issued in Beijing on March 28, 1959 by the New China News Agency which gave a stunned world the first details of the uprising ('rebellion' in Communist jargon). “Violating the will of the Tibetan people and betraying the motherland, the Tibetan Local Government and the upper-strata reactionary clique colluded with imperialism-assembled rebellious bandits and launched armed attacks against the People's Liberation Army (PLA) garrison in Lhasa during the night of March 19. Acting on orders to put the rebellion down, the valiant units of the PLA stationed in Tibet completely smashed the rebellious bandits in the city of Lhasa on the 22nd. Now, the units of the PLA, assisted by patriotic people of ail sections, both monks and lay, are mopping up the rebellious bandits in other places in Tibet,” the communiqué said.

The 'rebellious bandits' had attempted to defend their culture against the onslaught of an atheist power and save the life of their revered leader.

But let us return to a few days before this date.

Tibet had already been under occupation for nine years when in early 1959, the situation begun to deteriorate.

The watershed was when General Tan Guansan, commandant of the Chinese forces in Lhasa, invited the Dalai Lama to attend a theatrical performance inside the Chinese headquarters. A strange condition had been added: he should come without his bodyguards.

Speaking in third person, the Dalai Lama later explained: "The Dalai Lama had agreed a month in advance to attend a cultural show in the Chinese headquarters and the date was suddenly fixed for the 10th of March. The people of Lhasa became apprehensive that some harm might be done to the Dalai Lama and as a result about 10,000 people gathered round the Dalai Lama's summer palace, Norbulingka, and physically prevented the Dalai Lama from attending the function. …In spite of this demonstration from the people, the Dalai Lama and his government endeavoured to maintain friendly relations with the Chinese and tried to carry out negotiations with the Chinese representatives on how best to bring about peace in Tibet and assuage the people's anxiety.”

But the situation was quickly getting out of control. At a loss, the young Dalai Lama tried for a few days to keep a channel of communication open with both sides. His heart was with his people, but he knew the ruthlessness of the Chinese. He wanted at any cost to avoid a bloodbath. Was it still possible?

He gained some time by writing a series of letters to General Tan. He thought that this could perhaps temporally pacify the Chinese official and his bosses in Beijing, though he also knew that he would have to soon take a plunge.

For many years, the Dalai Lama had to bend backward to avoid repressive acts from the Communist officials; his scope to maneuver was limited. The Tibetans were in a no-win situation; the pressure mounted; people were increasingly resentful and anguished at the ruthless occupation of their country.

On March 17, during a trance, the Nechung State Oracle ordered the Dalai Lama to immediately leave his country. At the same time, two or three mortar shells which were fired in the direction of the Norbulingka palace, fell in a nearby pond. For the Dalai Lama, the mortar shells were the Gods' confirmation that he should follow the Oracle's advice. The time had come for him to leave Tibet.

The young Tibetan leader had thought that he could establish a government in South Tibet and negotiate with the Chinese. The Gods however decided otherwise. Still in trance, the Nechung drew the road to be followed by the Dalai Lama's party on a piece of paper. He had to cross the Indian border near Tawang (in today's Arunachal Pradesh).

The Great Escape

At night, under disguise, the Dalai Lama managed to sneak out of the Norbulingka Palace without being seen. He was later joined on the opposite side of the Kyi Chu river by several members of his family and his Khampa bodyguards. They crossed the river without being noticed by the Chinese troops stationed in a camp nearby and began their flight southward. While the news of the Dalai Lama's departure was still a well-guarded secret, fighting broke out in Lhasa; it lasted for two days.

On March 21 at 2.00 am, the Chinese fired more than 800 shells at the Norbulingka Palace. Thousands of men, women and children camping in the vicinity were slaughtered and the residences of hundreds of officials living in the complex destroyed. The Dalai Lama's bodyguard regiment was disarmed and publicly machine-gunned; according to the Tibetan government in exile, over 86,000 Tibetans in Central Tibet were killed by the Chinese during this period. The 'bandits' had been smashed.

One of the greatest tragedies of the 20th century unfolded while the world remained blissfully unaware. The information would take some more time to cross the mighty Himalayas.

The First Statements

It was only a few days later that the Chinese discovered that the Dalai Lama had made good his escape. They reacted violently. As the Chinese communiqué explained: “In order to wipe out the rebel bandits thoroughly, the State Council has ordered the units of the Chinese PLA stationed in Tibet to assume military control in various places in Tibet. The tasks of the Military Control Committees are: to suppress the rebellion; to protect the people and the foreign nationals who observe the laws of China; …to organise self-defence armed forces of patriotic Tibetans to replace the old Tibetan Army of only a little more than 3,000 men who are rotten to the core, utterly useless in fighting and who have turned rebel.”

For the first time since the Liberation Army had entered Tibet in 1950, the Chinese government had admitted to disturbances and widespread revolts against the Chinese occupiers in Tibet.

It was something new for Mao. During the days of the Long March, he had always been welcomed as a hero by the masses. Wherever the Liberation Army went, common people received them as liberators and provided food and logistic support. In Tibet, for the first the time, the masses did not accept Mao’s 'liberation' forces.

The Communist propaganda continued to explain that it was only a serfs' rebellion against the 'upper strata Dalai's clique', but the 10 March incident was actually a movement of the masses to protect their religious leader and save their culture.

Sadly, 50 years later, the Chinese authorities still attribute the deep resentment of the Tibetan population against the Han presence in Tibet to the 'Dalai clique.'

In India, The uprising was mentioned for the first time in the Lok Sabha on March 23, 1959, when Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru made a statement. At that time, news was sparse as the only channel of communication was from the Indian Mission in Lhasa, through wireless.

Major L S Chhibber, the Indian Consul had rightly decided not to interfere, said Nehru. This sentence represents the dichotomy of the Indian Government: on one hand, no interference, but 10 days later, tens of thousands of Tibetans were offered asylum by India (a gesture which China even today considers to be a gross interference in its 'internal affairs').

The Dalai Lama's flight, reported in his two biographies, is too well known a tale to be recounted here.

It is however worth mentioning the last moments of his incredible journey. After a few days rest at Lhuntse Dzong, near the Indian border, he sent two of his officials to contact the Government of India and seek asylum for himself and his party. Asylum was immediately granted.

He later stated: "The Dalai Lama is deeply touched by the kind greeting extended to him on his safe arrival in India by the Prime Minister Shri Jawaharlal Nehru, and his colleagues in the Government of India."

A new life started. A few days later, hundreds of journalists waited for him at his arrival in Tezpur, Assam. He was officially received by a senior MEA official, P N Menon, father of the present Foreign Secretary Shiv Shankar Menon.

Cold War Language

In the first debate in the Parliament, the Indian Prime Minister did not mention a letter he had received from the Chinese Embassy in Delhi. But a month later, when Nehru commented on the Chinese statement in the Lok Sabha, he was deeply upset by the tone used. The Indian Prime Minister made it clear that he considered the language of the Chinese statement as 'cold-war language.' The days of eternal friendship and the Panchsheel (Five Principles) had gone.

"To say that a number of 'upper strata reactionaries' in Tibet were solely responsible for this appears to be an extraordinary simplification of a complicated situation," explained Nehru. How could the Chinese dismiss the fact that more than 90 per cent of the entire population of Lhasa participated in the marches, demonstrations and the defense of the Norbulinka Palace?

China wanted the world to believe that the Chinese government's policy in Tibet was the right one, though due to the large numbers of occupying troops in Central Tibet, the Tibetan capital had for the first time of its 2,000 year history experienced all sorts of hardships, including famine. Worse, the people could not practice their religion the way they had done for centuries.

The Chinese however saw only 'imperialists' and serf-owners': “The rebellious activities of the Tibetan traitors have been of fairly long duration. These rebels represent imperialism and the most reactionary major serf owners. …as the motherland is thriving and prospering day by day, the policy of the Central People's Government toward Tibet is correct, and the garrison units of the PLA in Tibet observe strict discipline, ail enjoy the warm support and love of the people of ail sections in Tibet and the rebellious conspiracy of an handful of reactionaries had no support from the Tibetan people.”

In 2009, the Tibetan population still deeply resents the occupation of their country. The two-month unrest in March/April 2008 was the latest inconvenient proof of it.

The conclusions of the 1959-Chinese communiqué are worth quoting: "Contrary to their wishes, the rebellion started by them [the Dalai's clique] in Tibet has not led to a split in the motherland and retrogression in Tibet, but instead has strengthened the consolidation of national unification, accelerated the doom of the reactionary forces in Tibet, pushed forward democratization in Tibet and promoted the new birth of the Tibetan people."

Fifty years later, there is no democratization in view, China has never been so shaky; the 'new birth' of the Tibetan people has never taken place and the Land of Snows is still under forced occupation.

On February 9, 2009, a news item on Radio Lhasa spoke of the visit of the Communist Party boss Zhang Qingli in Chamdo: "the air was filled with New Year festivity, the place bore an atmosphere of scenic landscape, beautiful new countryside, with [the masses of the divergent nationalities] marching towards prosperity," but at the same time, informal martial law had to be clamped to 'protect the stability of the Motherland'.

Like 50 year ago, there is a vast gap between the words of the leaders and the ground reality.

But how long can the Chinese leadership continue to speak their antediluvian jargon and try to make the world believe that everything is fine in the Land of Tibet?

For a collection of historical documents on the 1959 uprising, click here

Born in Angoulême, France, Claude Arpi's real quest began 36 years ago with a journey to the Himalayas. Since then he has been an enthusiastic student of the history of Tibet, China and the subcontinent. He has authored several books.

The views expressed in this piece are that of the author and the publication of the piece on this website does not necessarily reflect their endorsement by the website.
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