News and Views on Tibet

Opinion- The aftermath: Taming the fire of resistance fighters

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A still from the 1998 documentary The Shadow Circus- The CIA in Tibet, directed by Tenzing Sonam and Ritu Sarin

By Ugyen Gyalpo

Back in the heydays of my teenage years, when I use to decorate my small room with posters of footballers and rock bands alike perched up in the beautiful hills of Darjeeling, one poster that took the best spot on my wall was the poster of Hollywood movie called the Rambo III, of Sylvester stallion trotting machine gun and strapped with bows and arrows on his back, saddled on a reared horse on its hind legs. And, behind the image of the imposing picture was the many fading faces of Mujahedeen fighters on horses wielding weapons in the air amidst the sandstorm the gallops of the horses would create. 

As we all know that Mujahedeen fighters were the cradle of the Talibans we know today. Once during the soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the early eighties, Mujahedeen resistance fighters were aided heavily by the Americans, who not only funded but also trained them at the height of the Cold War era. America’s involvement whether it was in Vietnam or Afghanistan has been always for their own self interest and of course to curb and control the spread of communism. 

America’s involvement with the Tibetan guerrilla resistance fighters like the Chushi Gangdruk was no different. When they saw a defiant resistance group willing to rise up and fight against the Chinese Communist, like they saw in Mujahedeen fighting against the occupation of Soviets, the Americans were quick to tap into the raging gasoline of those freedom fighters. Although no Hollywood flicks has been made to glorify the valor and courage of the Tibetan resistance fighters like they glorified the Mujahedeen in Rambo III. 

Pretty much like the U.S aided Mujahedeen mission of the Soviet occupation era, Tibetan guerrilla movement was also funded by CIA to fight the Chinese Communist Party and just as abruptly pulled off with its changing foreign policies and changing of the guards at the White House. These covert sometimes overt missions in retrospect had some similarities with the United States helping of the Mujahedeen fighters equipping them with modern weapons with the objective of making the occupation of Russians both difficult and costly, just as they had hoped with U.S aided CIA covert mission in Tibet to make the occupation of Tibet to the Chinese liberation army expensive, by way of help orchestrate guerrilla style ambush to the key movement of Chinese troops through the highways choking off their crucial supply lines. But what’s not the same is the aftermath of U.S involvement and devolvement in both the regions and the consequential impact it had on both the resistance group after the United States decides to leave them in total disarray. 

U.S led covert Mujahedeen fighters of Afghanistan after the withdrawal of Russia emerged and transformed into the barbaric Talibans we know today, who has now taken total control of Afghanistan once again and swears to rule the country in the strictest of Islamic sharia laws that is bound to suffocate all rights of women and men alike. 

While the CIA funded and trained Tibetan guerrilla fighters on the other hand totally disintegrated, never to regroup and carry on their fight in the mountains of Tibet and Nepal border regions. In 1968, the Johnson administration tapered all funding to this mission to what they called a pointless war. The end of U.S support to the Tibetan fighters was further expedited when Washington decides to pull the final plug. By 1974, after President Richard Nixon had normalized U.S. relations with China with the Ping Pong diplomacy, any semblance of help by the U.S to the Tibetans guerrilla fighters were gone.

Despite all of this, the resistance continued on its own weary but passionate legs for a little longer until the final death knell for the Tibetan fighters came when His Holiness the Dalai Lama, the spiritual and political leader of Tibet at the time, through a radio message urged the resistance fighters to surrender and give up their weapons. It is said that few had committed suicide out of total frustration. 

In retrospect, the common denominator I think between the U.S aided Mujahedeen fighters and the U.S led Tibetan resistance fighters was their quest to drive the colonizers out from their countries, period. But the difference between the two in terms of emergence of one as the Taliban and the disintegration of the other to the realms of societal tiers and diffused into the pages of self censored history by its own government to fit its current political narrative and other multiple reasons owed to divergent views.

I am wondering if faith, religion and spiritual leaders of respective movements played a pivotal role in influencing and shaping who they became and were identified as? 

I am wondering if it was the mind-set of accepting or rejecting world beliefs and world views in their old dogmatic terms that decided their fate for better or worse? 

I am wondering if it was the ideological or the theological differences of let’s say of one fighting the holy war versus the second embracing the Buddhist concept of impermanence of things, that led one to emerge as a force to reckon with and other to disintegrate without any recognition into the forgotten chapters of our self censored history remains to be question hovering inside of this curious inquisitive mind.

(Views expressed are his own)

The author is a blogger at ‘The Roar of the Snow Lion’. He is a Tibetan living in Woodside, New York. 

4 Responses

  1. Dear Ugyen Gyalpo ji,
    You have raised questions on the fate of Chushi Gangdruk for which I too have been trying to find answers since decades. Your recall of the last days of this brave, heroic but unfortunate movement has tossed my mind once again. I am surely keen to find some answers to many of these questions. I hope I can before I am gone. Thank you for this thoughtful writeup. – Vijay Kranti

  2. The Tibetan fighting spirit has not diminished, rather it is being squashed under-foot and a knee-on-necked by several factors. The cry, “let me breathe” still echoes among many elders and the young both in Tibet and in exile.

    Point one, unlike the Mujaheddin Tibetan spiritual leaders are pacifists and do not condone military style resistance of any kind. They would rather pour their gold on the roofs of temples than encourage Tibetans to lose their lives for a “worthless cause”. The Mujaheddin on the other hand have Mullahs that call for Jihad: and effective tool when used with with a just cause.

    Furthermore, the current CTA do not have any plan B if their dialogue with the Chinese fail (10 such “dialogues” have been conducted with the Tibetan “delegates” being severely reprimanded and verbally abused by the Chinese side – (sshhh, secret, don’t tell the Tibetan public)

    Thirdly, India and other nations surrounding Tibet have little faith that these rag-tag bunch of refugees could enhance their chances of creating a leverage against “mighty” China if they were armed. India has a well trained group called the SFF but it is leashed and is solely for the use of India and they will never be given for the use of Tibet.

    Lastly, there is a misconception that non-khampa cannot fight. The CIA has created a myth of the Khampa warrior and therefore relegated the U-Tsang people as timid and cowardly. The fact is that in Kham and Amdo provinces the common folk have been relatively more independent, prospered and had freedom of movement and acquisition of arms and ammunition and were therefore in a better situation compared with the people of U-Tsang to face the invading Chinese forces.

    Thus, given the unmitigated circumstances, an armed Tibetan resistance is buried but not dead. On the passing of HH the XIV and the period between the majority of the XV Dalai Lama, armed resistance has a chance of revival.

  3. Today our great resistance heroes are forgotten. We have become pudgy China lovers. The great Khampa warriors fought tooth and nail against our avowed enemy. The Chinese did exactly what they did to Hong Kong. For few years, they laid low after signing the so called “17 point Treaty” with Tibet. Slowly but steadily they eroded Tibet’s freedom including nibbling away the Dalai Lama’s authority and completely undermining Tibet’s promised autonomy under the infamous “17 point treaty”. Tibetan leaders submitted to Chinese coercion in eroding the freedoms with the same logic that is still peddled today as “if we continue to oppose and anger the Chinese authorities, it would lead to a vicious cycle of repression and resistance”. Unfortunately, like a python gorging it’s prey, the Chinese strangled Tibet until it was no more save for the Dalai Lama to remain in Tibet!
    This historical revolution of March 10th against Chinese occupation would not have been possible without the gradual built up of the resistance movement. As the Chinese communist suppressed the people of Kham and Amdo violently, thousands fled to Lhasa to take refuge from the marauding communist forces who were carrying on a scorched earth policy against the resistance fighters. Many Lamas and Khampa Chieftains were murdered by calling them for alleged meetings and then either killing them at point blank or disappear them for good. As a result many young men took to the mountains to fight the enemy. They were swift horse riders and men who knew their terrain like finger tips. They kept the Chinese PLA at bay for seven years by fighting a guerrilla war.The Chinese used massive aerial bombings but it was infective because the Khampa resistance fighters organised themselves in stray bands that can disperse and disappear into ravines and narrow gauges or even caves to take shelter from Chinese bombers. The Chinese bombed some three hundred towns and monasteries of Kham and Amdo. As the Chinese killings and destruction of monasteries continued unabated, the Khampa guerrillas grew into a formidable force of eighty-thousand strong fighters. They called themselves བསྟན་བསྲུང་དྭངས་བླངས་དམག་མི་ (National Volunteer Defence Army). Despite Chinese air power and modern weapons, the Khampas crippled the Chinese war machine owing to their ability to operate against incredible odds and inhospitable terrain. Their sturdy physique, their knowledge of the country, their ability to fight in high altitude and being sons of the soil, well acclimatised made them invincible. The Chinese dependence on highways to transport men, resources and ammunition were ideal targets for the Khampa guerrillas that severely curtailed Chinese advance into Central Tibet. The Chinese PLA was incapable of protecting these strategic routes because they were physically incapacitated by the thin air and high altitude. For the Chinese PLA it was an exhausting task to walk a single mile in such wuthering heights. On top of their ability to move and evade the Chinese in such inhospitable landscape, the Khampas have a long warrior tradition. For them fighting is as natural as eating. They don’t need training and have always lived by the sword and died by the sword. A Khampa proverb goes: ཤི་ན་གྲི་འོག་ཏུ་ཤི་དགོས་ སྐྱེས་ན་བཙན་ལ་སྐྱེ་དགོས་ (if you die, die under the sword. If you are born, must be born to wrathful spirit). Dying on a comfortable bed was seen as a disgrace for men.
    The Chinese were using extreme measures to suppress the Khampas by burning whole villages and murdering all the women and children when they realised that they couldn’t defeat the Khampas with normal military tactics. That’s when they practised scorched earth tactics. They hung the heads of murdered resistance fighters in the villages to cower the population to submission. Made children dance on the bodies of their dead parents in “celebrating victory” over the “reactionaries”. Owing to this Lhasa was filled with refugees who were seething with anger against the Chinese invaders.
    The Lhasa Government didn’t support the Khampas but in fact condemned them. Ngapo and his Kashag gave free hand to the Chinese to fight the Khampas. As if this was not enough, they opposed the ever increasing Khampa sympathisers in Central Tibet. A clandestine anti-Chinese organisation called Mimang Tsongdu, (People’s Assembly) was initially formed by the Chinese (to undermine the Tibetan Government) who later became very sympathetic to the Khampa fighters and openly criticised Chinese policies in Tibet. This group was responsible for sending petitions to India to seek help but later many of them were caught, tortured and imprisoned. The Chinese outlawed the group and they went underground. The Chinese not only outlawed the Mimang Assembly but deprived Tibetans living outside Tibet such as Kalimpong and Darjeeling who were carrying out “anti-China” activities to be stripped of their Tibetan nationality!!!
    Seventy years since the brutal occupation of Tibet by communist China, the situation in Tibet is dire and the Chinese themselves are at wits end as to how to “pacify” Tibet? Zhou Xiaoying – Central Commission for Discipline Inspection wrote recently in a communist mouth piece: THE SENSE OF SHARED COMMUNITY IS NOT STRONG, and the US and it’s allies are trying to play the “ethnic card” to attack and vilify and suppress and contain China”. We Tibetans don’t share a sense of community with China. We have always been independent since the founding of our nation in 127 AD. We must remember the heroes of our past and fight for total independence. The US is indeed supporting us in order to weaken China in its attempt to retain its unrivalled super power status but I suspect the leadership in Dharamsala lacks the wisdom to seize the moment. It looks more like Ngapo Ngawang Jigme in the making who sold his soul to communist China!

  4. whereas, the next generation of the mujahedeen fighters continued their struggle against various invaders: foreign and domestic, Tibetans, on the other hand, have been engrossed in regional and religious infighting, thereby completely eradicating the legacy and struggle that so many gave up their lives for. And, looking at the current scenario, the future doesn’t look very bright.

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