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How the Dalai Lama escaped Tibet in 1959

The Chinese occupation of Tibet has destroyed the country’s traditional culture

1 October 2016

9:00 AM

1 October 2016

9:00 AM

Tibet in Agony: Lhasa 1959 Jianglin Li, translated by Susan Wilf

Harvard, pp.£22.95, 372

On the night of 17 March 1959, the 14th Dalai Lama, aged 23, slipped out of the Norbulinka, his summer residence in Lhasa, and began his flight to India, where he arrived on 31 March, after crossing some of Tibet’s most rugged terrain. He was so heavily disguised that the faithful crowds who had gathered to worship and protect him along the way mistakenly prostrated themselves before a monk in his entourage. Establishing in Dharamsala Tibet’s first democratically elected government, the Dalai Lama has ever since travelled the world making clear how the Chinese occupiers — who invaded Tibet in 1950 — eviscerated the country’s traditional culture.

This story, mostly well told by Jianglin Li, should be required reading for foreign dupes, including a Harvard Tibetologist quoted recently in a China Daily supplement wrapped around the Daily Telegraph. He and his fellow travellers described how pleased they were with ‘development’ during their guided tour of Tibet. Like their counterparts in the Soviet Union in the 1920s and 1930s, they had ‘seen the future and it works’.

After summarising China’s weak relationship with Tibet from the fall of the Manchus in 1911 to 1950, Li shows how the communists, directed by Mao, wrecked much of traditional Tibetan life in Chinese areas, as a prelude to what they were to do in Tibet proper in 1959. News of these depredations reached Lhasa, to which many survivors had fled.

Li does well to describe the massacre the Chinese unleashed after the Dalai Lama’s flight, employing heavy weapons commanded by officers who had used them against the Americans in Korea. It was comparable, she observes, to what happened in Tiananmen Square in June 1989, but unlike that ‘incident’ (as Chinese communists refer to it), the assault in Lhasa was barely reported abroad.


Peking had worried that the Dalai Lama might flee Tibet, causing unrest it was unprepared for — although Mao was to state that he hoped for a Tibetan uprising, in order to justify Chinese retaliation. When the Dalai Lama visited India — and the Buddha’s birthplace — in 1956, Zhou Enlai, also in India at the time, put pressure on Nehru to ensure that the Tibetan leader returned to Lhasa.

There, in March 1959, the drama that forms the core of Tibet in Agony began to unfold. Li’s examination of Chinese sources hitherto not widely available and her many interviews with survivors have made these distant events seem much clearer.

By late February a plan had emerged for the Dalai Lama to attend an entertainment at the Chinese Military Command. Who proposed this is still disputed, but the event was to take place on 9 March. Li asserts that the army’s ‘arrangements were so high-handed and clumsy… that they led the Tibetan general public to believe there was a plot afoot’. It was thought — probably accurately — that the invitation to the entertainment would result in the abduction of the Dalai Lama and his transportation to Peking. Huge crowds gathered outside the Norbulinka. The Chinese assumed that a rebellion was brewing, and the Dalai Lama sent placatory notes to a Chinese commander, referring to the crowds outside his gates in deeply negative terms.

In the meantime, the CIA had begun assisting the Tibetan guerrillas, leading to their training in Okinawa and Colorado. The first operatives, with radios and weapons, had already been parachuted into Tibet and were making their way towards Lhasa. This operation has been discussed in publications by CIA agents who were in charge but never entered Tibet. Li does not mention that the operation was later aborted, as published CIA sources have long admitted, when the Nixon administration, determined to placate Mao, abruptly abandoned the guerrillas.

For reasons still unknown, on 17 March a single Chinese shell landed near the Norbulinka, thus convincing the Dalai Lama’s close advisers — and eventually his oracle — that he should leave; and filled with despair he eventually did. Only his rollicking younger brother, who enjoyed weapons and uniforms, thought the whole event fun, right up to the final crossing of the Indian border. The Chinese now ‘knew’ it had been an independence plot, and before long they began their bombardment of Lhasa.

Here the book ends, but the ordeal of Tibet escalated throughout the famine of the Great Leap Forward with the dispossession of thousands of nomads and the devastation of holy places. In 1983 I saw how the temple complex at Ganden, 30 miles from Lhasa, had been bombed into ruins. Ceaseless repression has led to the self-immolation of thousands of monks and nuns as well as lay people in recent times.

On 31 March, as Jianglin Li concludes her dramatic and informative narrative, the Dalai Lama ‘ashen-faced, had reached the homeland of the Buddha. Behind him, in Lhasa, his people faced ruin.’


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