National Uprising


Introduction

When people are oppressed, they are likely to rise up against the oppressor. There was never a popular uprising in Tibet until the 1950s. Tibetan resistance movement against the Chinese started right from the time of invasion. By 1956 open fighting broke out in the Eastern Tibetan provinces of Kham and Amdo. Three years later the uprising took on national proportions, leading to the massive demonstrations in Lhasa in March 1959, the flight of the Dalai Lama and some 80,000 refugees to neighbouring countries. Tens of thousands of Tibetans were slaughtered by the PLA. Since then, Tibetan uprising and demonstrations have continued. Between 1987 and 1992 alone, there had been over 150 demonstrations in Lhasa and other parts of Tibet, some small but others very large. The Chinese troops suppressed most of these demonstrations with brutal force. In March 1989 Tibet was put under Martial Law for the second time in its history: the first time was in 1959.

The Chinese Government tries to depict the popular resistance of Tibetans as the work of a few disgruntled aristocrats who wish to restore the old system of exploitation and oppression of the Tibetan masses. It depicts 95 per cent of the Tibetans as having been serfs, brutally oppressed by a small number of aristocrats and lamas. What China cannot explain is why these allegedly oppressed masses never rose up against their masters, despite the fact that Tibet did not have a national police force and for most of its history had no strong army. Yet, these same Tibetans did rise up, and still do today, against the massive security apparatus and army of China, knowing the tremendous risk they take. If we look at the social composition of the Tibetans involved in the successive uprisings and demonstrations, more than 80 per cent of them are not aristocrats and high lamas. Furthermore, more than 85 per cent of Tibetans in exile belong to what the Chinese would call "serf class".


Events leading up to the 1959 National Uprising

Let us look briefly at the main causes of the Tibetan people's uprising against China in 1959. Following the entry of Chinese troops into Lhasa, every effort was made to undermine the sovereign authority of the Tibetan Government and impose Chinese authority. This was carried out in three ways: First, political and regional divisions were created among Tibetans under the policy of divide and rule. Secondly, certain social and economic reforms, calculated to change the fabric of Tibetan society, were instituted against the wishes of Tibetans. Thirdly, various organs of the Chinese Government, and new bodies under their authority, were set up alongside the existing Tibetan institutions.

Between 24 November 1950 and 19 October 1953, China incorporated a large portion of Kham province into neighbouring Chinese Sichuan province. Kham was divided into two so-called Tibetan Autonomous Prefectures and one Tibetan Autonomous District. On 13 September 1957, another portion of southern Kham was named the Dechen Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture and put under Yunnan Province.

The bulk of Amdo, together with a small area of Kham, was reduced to the status of a Chinese province, and named as Qinghai. One portion of Amdo was named Ngapa Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, and merged with Sichuan Province. The remaining area of Amdo was sub-divided into Tianzhu Tibetan Autonomous District (6 May 1950), and Kanlho Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture (1 October 1953), and incorporated into the Chinese province of Gansu.

On 9 September 1965, China formally established the so-called Tibet Autonomous Regional government, placing under its administration the whole of U-Tsang and parts of Kham area.

China stripped numerous ethnic Tibetans like the Sherpas, Monpas, Lhopas, Tengpas, Jangpas, etc, who consider themselves to be Tibetan, of their Tibetan identity, classifying them as distinct Chinese minorities.

The appropriation by the People's Liberation Army of thousands of tons of barley and other foodstuffs pushed the Tibetans to the brink of famine for the first time in history and prompted protest meetings in Lhasa. The first major popular resistance group, the Mimang Tsongdu (People's Assembly), banded together spontaneously and handed the Chinese Military Command a petition demanding withdrawal of the PLA and an end to Chinese interference in Tibetan affairs. The Chinese reaction was swift: the two Tibetan Prime Ministers, Lukhangwa and Ven. Lobsang Tashi, who had made no secret of their opposition to Chinese rule and opposed the "17-Point Agreement", were forced to resign and five Mimang Tsongdu leaders were jailed, driving the organisation underground.

In 1954, the the Dalai Lama visited Beijing on China's invitation. The "special" autonomous position of Tibet, embodied in the "Seventeen-Point Agreement," was formally abolished with the adoption of the new Constitution by the Chinese People's Congress. This was followed by the adoption of the "Resolution on the Establishment of the Preparatory Committee for the Autonomous Region of Tibet (PCART)", a measure designed to further integrate the administration of Tibet into that of PRC. The Preparatory Committee was to function as the central administration of Tibet instead of the Tibetan Government. The Dalai Lama was made its Chairman, but without any authority. As the Dalai Lama explained in his autobiography:

The Committee was powerless - a mere facade of Tibetan representation behind which all the effective power was exercised by the Chinese. In fact, all basic policy was decided by another body called the Committee of the Chinese Communist Party in Tibet, which had no Tibetan members. [Dalai Lama, Ibid, p.133]

In 1956, PCART was set up and the Tashilhunpo estate, and those regions under the jurisdiction of the Governor-General of Chamdo (a Tibetan Government appointee) in Eastern Tibet, were separated from the jurisdiction of the Tibetan Government in Lhasa and their administrative organs given equal status as the Tibetan Government, thereby reducing the authority of the Tibetan Government.

Social, political, and agrarian reforms were imposed by the Chinese Government in Amdo and Kham and, to a much lesser degree, in the rest of the country. Frequent attacks were launched on religious personages and monasteries. All of these led to increasingly violent reactions. The "17-Point Agreement" guaranteed that no reforms would be forced on the Tibetans. But in Eastern Tibet they were introduced and enforced at once. Mounting impatience and belligerence of the Chinese administrators provoked violent reactions and rapidly culminated into armed conflicts in a widening spiral of resistance and military repression that engulfed the entire eastern Tibetan provinces of Kham and Amdo.

As the violence spilled over to other areas of Tibet, a full- scale guerrilla warfare broke out in the summer of 1956. Refugees from eastern and northeastern Tibet began to arrive in Lhasa in large numbers. Within a year, the uprising had spread to Central Tibet, and in 1958 Tensung Dhanglang Magar, (the Voluntary Force for the Defense of the Faith), a union of the Mimang Tsongdu and Chushi Gangduk (Four Rivers Six Ranges) organisations, was founded. By the autumn of that year this popular army, estimated at 80,000 men, was in control of most districts of Southern Tibet and parts of Eastern Tibet.

The Dalai Lama took pains to calm his people so as to prevent worse bloodbath. Nevertheless, the situation in Tibet deteriorated rapidly while the Dalai Lama visited India, in 1956, to take part in the Buddha Jayanti celebration at the invitation of independent India's first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. In meetings with Nehru and Zhou Enlai in Delhi, the Dalai Lama expressed his deep concern at the explosive situation in his homeland and admitted he was contemplating seeking political asylum in India. Nehru advised the Dalai Lama against it. To induce the Dalai Lama to return home, the Chinese Government promptly announced that the "socialist and democratic reforms" would be postponed in Tibet for the time being. It was also agreed that a number of Chinese civil personnel would be withdrawn, and the PCART's departments would be reduced by half. This turned out to be a false promise.

In the years that followed, the Chinese intensified socialist campaigns and purges against Tibetans and sent considerable army reinforcements to Tibet, thus more than offsetting the earlier modest reduction of Chinese cadres.


National Uprising and flight of the Dalai Lama

The inevitable showdown occurred in March 1959. There was general fear that the Chinese were planning to abduct the Dalai Lama and take him away to Beijing. The Tibetan people already had bitter experiences in Kham and Amdo, where important lamas and local leaders disappeared mysteriously after being invited to Chinese cultural shows and other functions. Fears for the safety of the Dalai Lama became acute when the Chinese Army Command invited the Tibetan leader to a theatrical show in the military barracks on 10 March. Tibetans became even more suspicious when the Chinese instructed that the Dalai Lama be not accompanied by bodyguards as was the tradition. The people in Lhasa would not allow the Dalai Lama to give in to the Chinese subterfuge.

On 10 March 1959, a massive demonstration was held and thousands of people surrounded the Dalai Lama's Summer Palace, the Norbulingkha, to prevent the Dalai Lama from attending the Chinese show. For the next few days, mass meetings were held in Lhasa with the citizens demanding that the Chinese quit Tibet and restore the country's full independence. The Dalai Lama, fearing the explosive consequences of these mass demonstrations, urged the large crowd before the Norbulingkha to disperse and wrote three letters to the principal Chinese General, Tian Guan-san, in an effort to placate the Chinese and stave off impending violence. Explaining the circumstances in which he wrote these letters, the Dalai Lama says in his autobiography:

I replied to all his letters to gain time - time for anger to cool on both sides and time for me to urge moderation of the Lhasa people... my most urgent moral duty at that moment was to prevent a totally disastrous clash between my unarmed people and the Chinese army. [Dalai Lama, Ibid, p.187]

But, despite the Dalai Lama's efforts, open fighting broke out in Lhasa soon afterwards, with disastrous consequences to the Tibetans.

Seeing that all efforts to prevent open confrontation and bloodshed had ultimately failed, and that cooperation with the Chinese authorities to minimise their oppression was no longer possible, the Dalai Lama decided to escape to India to appeal for international help to save his people. He left Lhasa on the night of 17 March.

On 28 March 1959, Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai issued an Order of State Council "dissolving" the Government of Tibet. The Dalai Lama and his ministers, while still en route to India, reacted promptly by declaring that the new administration installed in Lhasa, which was totally controlled by the Chinese, would never be recognised by the people of Tibet. Upon his arrival in India, the Dalai Lama re-established the Tibetan Government in exile and publicly declared, "Wherever I am, accompanied by my government, the Tibetan people recognise us as the Government of Tibet."

Within months, around 80,000 Tibetans reached the borders of India, Nepal, Bhutan and Sikkim after arduous escapes. Many more could not even make it to the border.

China's White Paper tries to portray these events as the work of a handful of Tibetan reactionaries who, with the help of the CIA, created an armed "rebellion" which was "resolutely" opposed by the masses. The Dalai Lama was "carried away under duress" to India, the White Paper states. The resistance, they claim, amounted to no more than 7,000 "rebels," and was put down easily in two days.

This view is hardly credible and has been contradicted even by the Chinese authorities themselves. Chinese army intelligence reports admit that the PLA killed 87,000 members of the Tibetan resistance in Lhasa and surrounding areas between March and October 1959 alone. [Xizang Xingshi he Renwu Jiaoyu de Jiben Jiaocai, PLA Military District's Political Report, 1960] The CIA's half-hearted assistance to the Tibetan resistance started in earnest only after the uprising, and, though welcomed by Tibetans, amounted to little. All the evidence shows that the uprising was massive, popular and widespread. The brutal repression which followed in all regions of Tibet only confirms this.

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Last updated: 2-Feb-96