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Dalai Lama's 1959 Flight from Tibet
Asia Sentinel[Friday, January 28, 2011 17:13]
Written by Mark O'Neill

Trance and artillery shells pushed the religious leader to leave Lhasa

Photo Credit: Heinrich Harrer
Photo Credit: Heinrich Harrer
At 1 pm Beijing time on the afternoon of March 17, 1959, two meetings took place in Lhasa and Beijing that would change the history of China.

In the Norbulingka palace, the summer residence of the Dalai Lama, the 23-year-old leader and his advisors were debating whether to leave Lhasa, minutes after two artillery shells had landed 200 meters away, causing a huge explosion. A monk entered into a trance, his body swelled and he screamed in a loud voice: "leave quickly, leave quickly, leave tonight."

At the same moment, in Zhongnanhai, Premier Liu Xiaoqi was chairing a meeting of the Politburo to discuss the same issue.

"The best outcome would be for the Dalai Lama to stay," they concluded. "But, if he goes, it would be no big deal. The focus of our work does not depend on the feelings of Tibet government leaders but is our determination to put down the rebellion and reform everything."

So reads a dramatic new account of the most important event in Tibet of the last century -- the decision by the Dalai Lama to leave his homeland. It appears in '1959 Lhasa', published in Hong Kong and Taiwan and written by Li Jianglin, a Chinese historian. The daughter of a Communist Party official, she is a graduate of Fudan and Shandong Universities who went on to study at Brandies University and lives in New York. The book has the great merit of using material from both sides. Li interviewed more than 200 Tibetans in 14 places of exile and also quotes widely from material from the Chinese side.

The book's conclusion challenges Beijing's version of history – that the Tibetan nobility and clergy led their people in an armed rebellion against the Chinese state and that the Dalai Lama had planned the rebellion from early 1957, with support from the CIA, which trained 170 guerillas and supplied them with weapons from the air, including anti-aircraft machine guns and 10,000 rifles. According to this version, the Dalai Lama was forced to leave Tibet against his will.

On the contrary, the book says, it was Mao Zedong who provoked the uprising as the only way to remove the Tibetan ruling class and enable him to carry out the same revolutionary reforms of land and society as in the rest of China. Since resistance in Tibet was fiercer than other parts of China, so he needed to use a higher level of violence – the PLA -- to overcome it.

"I have sufficient evidence to say that the 'Lhasa incident' (of March 1959) was planned by the Communist Party," said Li. "From 1955, it was waiting for an opportunity. At the end of 1958, Deng Xiaoping said that Mao would order the Tibet party work committee to prepare for war. Without war, it would be impossible to solve the problem."

She said that part of this strategy may have been to remove the spiritual leader of the Tibetans, by firing shells close enough to his palace to frighten him into running away; but she added that the evidence for this was not conclusive.

The revolt had begun in Lhasa on March 10, 1959, when tens of thousands of Tibetans surrounded the Norbulingka, believing that the People's Liberation Army was about to abduct the Dalai Lama. On the 12th, armed Tibetans and PLA units fortified positions in and around the city in preparation for conflict.

On the morning of the 17th, the Dalai Lama and his advisors met to discuss how to avoid a bloodbath. The firing of the shells changed the topic of the meeting. They decided to leave; the Dalai Lama and a small group of advisors left the palace shortly before midnight and arrived in India two weeks later, after a trek across the Himalayas.

In an interview, the Dalai Lama told Li that the words spoken after the trance were one factor persuading them to leave, together with the artillery shells which had stunned them, making them fear for their lives.

Li said that, while some evidence points to the fact that Mao allowed the Dalai Lama to escape, it was not conclusive. She believes that, once he had left Lhasa, the army did not pursue him because it did not have enough men and because a mass escape was taking place at that time: between March and June 1959, 20,000 Tibetans fled to India. Whether the Dalai Lama was in Tibet or not did not affect Beijing's overall policy.

On March 19, the Communist Party committee in Tibet informed Beijing that the Dalai Lama had left Lhasa two days earlier. Shortly before four o'clock in the morning of March 20, armed conflict between the two sides broke out in the city.

According to the official Chinese version, "7,000 rebels launched a full-scale attack on the Party, government and military institutions on March 20. Driven beyond forbearance, the PLA launched under orders a counter-attack at 10 am the same day. With the support of all ethnic groups in Tibet, the 1,000 PLA troops completely put down the armed rebellion in Lhasa within two days. The PLA rapidly quelled the armed rebellion in other places in Tibet."

Official figures released in 1993 and 1995 said that, during the two-day battle, 63 PLA soldiers were killed and 210 injured, against 545 Tibetans killed and 4,815 wounded and taken prisoner.

Li said that the uprising in Lhasa was part of widespread Tibetan resistance to the revolutionary reforms of land, class and religion which the Communist Party implemented after taking power. As early as 1955, Mao ordered Zhang Guohua , then party chief and head of the PLA in Tibet, to implement land reform.

"My research led me to the stunning discovery that, in the three years that followed the widespread implementation of land reform from 1956, over 200,000 Tibetans died in Sichuan," she said. "The official number of 'rebels' killed, wounded and captured in Sichuan was over 145,000."

While these reforms led to thousands of deaths in other parts of China, the conflict was more intense in Tibet because they meant destroying one social system and replacing it with another. Loyalty to the monks and the Buddhist order they represented was more intense in Tibet than anywhere else in China; so resistance to destruction of temples and defrocking of monks and nuns was stronger.

This is Beijing's version of what happened: "the government led the Tibetan people to start the surging tide of democratic reform, wrecked the feudal serfdom of theocracy and helped a million serfs and slaves realize their lifelong wish of being their own masters. They no longer suffer from the serf-owners' political oppression, forced labor, inhuman treatment, heavy corvee taxes and usurious exploitation … On March 28, 1959, Premier Zhou Enlai promulgated a State Council decree dissolving the local Tibetan government."

Li said that the official version of a rebellion by the ruling class to preserve the serf system was not in accord with the historical facts.

"In 1952, the Dalai Lama set up a reform bureau, including a plan to reform the system of corvee labor, for the government to take back land and distribute it to the peasants. He accepted reform but not violent and destructive reform, the reform of one class eliminating another. The violence of land reform has left a scar on Chinese society that cannot be cured. Nowadays there is little debate about that.

"Like the Han, the Tibetans endured the suffering of violent land reform, cultural destruction, the Great Famine and the Cultural Revolution. They suffered an additional cruel oppression the Han did not. The crushing of the 'rebellion' was a direct order from Mao to solve 'the Tibetan problem'. Most tragic of all that Han and Tibetan farmers attacked each other in the name of 'class struggle'. The responsibility for this should not be borne by all the Han people."

Her book documents the human and social cost of the operation. On October 1, 1960, the Political Propaganda Department of the PLA's Tibet Military Region produced a secret document which said that, between March 1959 and October 1960, they had killed more than 87,000 'rebels'.

Before 1959, Tibet had 2,676 temples, large and small: by 1961, there were only 553 and, after the Cultural Revolution, only the Potala in Lhasa had been left completely unscathed. Between March 1965 and the end of 1966, 150 people's communes were set up.

"The Tibetan language was close to extinction, the Dalai Lama's picture, the practice of religion and even the wearing of Tibetan clothes were outlawed. Through this remodeling, the Communist Party controlled Tibet like a prison and the Sinicisation of its people was a matter of time," it says.

In 1979, the central government started contact with the Tibetan government in exile and allowed the Dalai Lama to send a delegation to his homeland. "Thousands of people lined the streets, weeping and acclaiming them as their leaders. Only then did the party realize Tibetans were still Tibetans, that the Dalai Lama was still their leader and that they could not change a religion that had been handed down from one generation to another. Even until today, more than 2,000 Tibetans each year cross the Himalayas to India. Even in exile for 51 years, the spirit of the snow has not left Tibet."

Beijing presents history in a different way. It acknowledges excesses committed in Tibet, as elsewhere in China, before 1978; but it says the three decades since have seen unprecedented development in Tibet and improvements in health, education, incomes, housing and other sectors, thanks in part to billions of yuan in subsidies from the central government and aid in money and personnel from individual cities and provinces. This has given the region a level of modernization and prosperity it never enjoyed before, Beijing says.

Victims of revolution

Some of the military leaders who implemented Mao's revolution in Tibet became victims of that revolution themselves.

Most tragic was General Zhang Jingwu, who joined the Communist Party in 1930 and had a distinguished career in the PLA in wars against Japan and the Nationalists. He was sent to Tibet in November 1949 and held key posts there for more than 10 years. In July 1951, he was the first PLA general to meet the Dalai Lama, who was then 16 and he 45. According to the official history, Zhang persuaded him to return to Lhasa, but the Dalai Lama told Li that he had made this decision on his own.

In July 1954, Zhang accompanied him to Beijing to meet Mao Tse-tung. He planned an important role in implementing 'democratic reforms'. On March 1, 1960, the People's Daily published an article by him which said that the rebellion in Tibet was not a 'democratic war' but 'a class war' in which there was no room for compromise.

After the outbreak of the Cultural Revolution, Zhang was purged and sent to a cadre school, where he was put under house arrest. Then he was imprisoned in Qincheng prison outside Beijing, where he was tortured. A man who had fought Japan and the Nationalists and served the party for 40 years, he protested by going on hunger strike. He died in prison on October 27, 1971. The body was cremated secretly, the ashes disposed of and his
family were not told for two years.

In 1979, the Central Committee and Central Military Commission held a solemn memorial service, to honor and rehabilitate Zhang, with mourners leaving wreaths in front of his photo, in the absence of his remains.

The Dalai Lama told the author that he remembered Zhang as bad-tempered and outspoken: "in his heart, he was very probably a good person," he added.

Another victim was General Fan Ming, leader of the PLA Northwest army that entered Tibet and later deputy party chief of the region's Work Committee. In 1958, he was purged as a rightist and sent to Changbaishan, on the border with Korea.When he fell ill, he was sent to a farm labor camp in Shaanxi. In 1962, he was charged with being a member of 'Peng Dehuai's Anti-party Group' and sent to Qincheng prison. He was finally rehabilitated in 1980, after 22 years in prison and wrote a book of memoirs "The Internal Struggle of Tibet" that was published in Hong Kong. He died in February this year, several months after the publication.

General Zhang Guohua, former head of the Tibet Military Region, survived both the anti-rightist campaign and the Cultural Revolution unscathed. He was sent to work in Sichuan, where he became first political commissar of the Chengdu military region. On February 20, 1972, while he was chairing a meeting, he had a heart attack and passed away, at the age of 58.
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