October 7, 2018
Written by Asad Ali, Principal Correspondent at The Indian Express
Sixty years ago, a Tibetan guerrilla outfit enlisted the CIA’s help to fight the Chinese. The last surviving fighters of the Chushi Gangdruk look back at battles won and lost. The history of Tibet’s struggle for independence is intertwined with the operations of the guerrilla outfit.
Drawupon is 88 now, but he clearly remembers the face of the Chinese pilot he shot down in 1958. He was running alongside a ravine in Tibet, when a People’s Liberation Army (PLA) fighter plane began firing at him and his fellow fighters. “The plane flew so close to the ground that we could suddenly see it right in front of us. We were filled with rage and just went for it,” he says. The rebels shot at the plane with their American guns — “You could fire 30 bullets at one go” — and were ecstatic when they heard it sputter. As the plane crashed, Drawupon scrambled down the cliff to reach the wreckage. “There were five people inside. Two were dead. We asked the others to surrender but they tried to fire at us. We had to shoot them dead. It was the only Chinese plane shot down in Tibetan history.”
The history of Tibet’s struggle for independence is intertwined with the operations of a guerrilla outfit called Chushi Gangdruk, many of whose members were later absorbed into the Indian Army. From the 1940s to the 1960s, they rose up in arms against the occupying Chinese forces, depending first on the American CIA and then on the Indian government before finally failing to find enough support from either. Their most remarkable feat was ensuring His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s secret escape from the Norbulingka palace in Lhasa to India in 1959. They had got wind of China’s plans to abduct the Dalai Lama on the pretext of inviting him to a play. In June this year, the group celebrated its 60th anniversary.
In the living room of his hilltop house in Kamrao village, Himachal Pradesh, Drawupon clutches at his walking stick for support but that’s about the only sign that time has forced him to slow down. In his book, Buddha’s Warriors (2004), Mikel Dunham, author and Himalayan historian described a teenage Drawupon as “a striking-looking youth. He was already six-feet tall… with broad shoulders and strong limbs.”
The shoulders are still broad and Drawupon remains a commanding presence. His voice wavers slightly but when he speaks, it is with the definitiveness of the tribal chief who led his people in revolt. He doesn’t speak Hindi or English and his grandson, Ngawang Drawu, is the interpreter for our conversation.
Drawupon grew up in Jyekundo, in the Upper Kham region of Tibet. For him, the past is divided into two distinct periods: before and after the Chinese occupation. Before the Chinese trooped in , “the people had their own freedom and livelihoods,” he says. “But they disrupted everything. We used to light butter lamps for our ceremonies. They started to tear them down, saying religion was poison. The tribal chiefs in our provinces loved arms. The Chinese took those away,” he says.
Nevertheless, Drawupon and most Tibetans of his Khampa community loved guns too much to care. “I always carried a Russian-made handgun with me. I remember getting it when I was really young. I also had about 30 bags filled with 1,000 bullets each,” says Drawupon, as he pours himself another cup of tea, his hands rock steady.
He was 26 when Chushi Gangdruk was formed in 1957, by a charismatic merchant-turned-guerrilla Gompo Tashi. “He was a very successful merchant-trader from Kham province, who often took his caravans to Central Tibet and to India for business. That meant he had a better understanding of the world at large than almost anyone within the Lhasan government in Central Tibet,” says Dunham.
In 1950, the infamous Tibetan traitor Ngabo Gwawang Jigme — then the Tibetan governor of Kham — handed over Chamdo province on a platter to the PLA in 1950. “The seeds of resistance grew in Tashi’s mind,” says Dunham. At the time, the Tibetans, already uncomfortable with Chinese presence, were waking up to the extent of their ambitions.
Men, who shared his visceral hatred of the Chinese, rallied around Tashi. Pekar Thinley, born in Ganya Yonghetsang, was one such angry young man.
Now 88, and living in Herbertpur town in Dehradun, Pekar Thinley’s stories of the past are riddled with memories of Chinese occupation. With a flowing white beard and sparkling eyes, Thinley’s days now are spent in prayer. “They had come as early as the 1940s. Slowly and steadily, they started making roads over our agricultural fields. They took away ration meant for our people, and the yaks and horses which we needed for our trade and transport. They destroyed our stupas,” he says. “They had always come with the intention of war.”
The first time he fought the Chinese was in 1955. The Chinese had taken over the Keri-Tsa-Kha lake and 40 soldiers were guarding it. Before their arrival, says Thinley, “no one owned it. Common Tibetans could come and take its salt. But the Chinese troops started charging 15 yen for a small bag of salt. We ambushed and overpowered them one day, and gave them 100 whiplashes each.”
Gompo Tashi wasn’t any ordinary rebel commander. He had the foresight of a military strategist as well. In the years leading up to 1957, he travelled far and wide in his quest for allies, which included the American government and, subsequently, its CIA unit. He had on his side trusted compatriots, including the Dalai Lama’s two brothers Gyalo Thondup and Taktser Rinpoche.
Thondup was amongst the first to touch base with CIA officials in Calcutta as early as 1951-1952. In 1957, Tashi and Thondup’s efforts at covert international outreach bore fruit. The CIA came on board and agreed to train a batch of six Tibetans in guerrilla techniques, including warfare and intelligence gathering and exfiltrate them. They were trained by the Americans on Saipan Island in the western Pacific Ocean before their eventual reinfiltration into Tibet.
The subcontinent in the late 1950s was a playground for multiple geopolitical forces. Sandeep Bhardwaj, research associate with the Centre for Policy Research in Delhi, says, “The US had been opposed to the Communist rise in China since 1949. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, it had a hostile relationship with Beijing, which it saw as the most important Soviet ally in the Cold War… In 1958, the American 303 Committee (responsible for oversight of covert operations) gave approval for CIA support to the Tibetan resistance. The fighters were trained in airborne operations and missions were carried out in Tibet.”
No mission was greater than the one to ensure the Dalai Lama’s total safety. And it was becoming increasingly clear to the leaders that the Dalai Lama was not safe in Tibet. On the evening of March 17, 1959, when the Chinese started shelling Norbulingka Palace, the Dalai Lama’s closest advisor, Phala, coordinated with other rebel leaders and helped the Dalai Lama and his closest family members move out of the palace under the cover of night, armed and in disguise.
In an interview with Dunham, Roger McCarthy, the CIA officer in charge of training the Tibetans and one of the leading officials of the Tibet operation, says that orders “went quickly from the agency … to the White House and finally to Prime Minister (Jawaharlal) Nehru. The permission to enter India got back to the Dalai Lama before our Ambassador in India had even been advised.”
For some time, the Chushi Gangdruk tried to operate out of Mustang in Nepal, because India wouldn’t allow rebel activities on its soil. Lhamo Tsering, a resistance leader, acted as the chief liaison officer between the CIA and the rebel forces then. Tsering’s son Tenzing Sonam — artist, filmmaker and the founder of the Dharamsala International Film Festival — says, “My father’s involvement with the Chushi Gangdruk began in 1958. He had been Thondup’s chief secretary and companion since their college days in Nanking in the 1940s. They had escaped together to India. In 1958, the CIA had agreed to expand the training programme and move the location to the US itself. My father was told to accompany the second group of trainees to the US. After this, he gradually assumed operational responsibilities in planning actions inside Tibet and liaising between the CIA and the Chushi Gangdruk.”
After the Dalai Lama crossed over, there began a steady influx of Tibetan refugees into India via Assam — many of them Chushi Gangdruk rebels and their families. Drawupon made that journey too, crossing over in May 1959 into Missamari in Assam. By the time he reached here, along with 40,000 others, he had seen friends and family dying on the way. “The Indian government had built huts for us. But it was summer and our people were not used to that heat. Every day, five or 10 people would die,” says Drawupon.
Everything, from the climate to the food, was unfamiliar. “They gave us dal and vegetables. We thought the dal was for the horses! We weren’t used to it. We survived on bread and milk,” he says.
Once in India, says son Drawu, Drawupon’s commander, Gompo Tashi, prevailed on him to take up a leadership role in the nascent Tibetan government-in-exile.
The Chinese aggression of 1962, meanwhile, led Nehru to consider the potential of a ready cache of Tibetan soldiers. India’s Special Frontier Force was born, which would also include Tibetan Chushi Gangdruk rebels as part of its sub-unit, called Establishment-22. They, too, would be trained by the CIA, officially, at the Indian army’s Agra air base.
Pekar Thinley was amongst the early recruits to Establishment 22. “As far back as in 1956, I had helped ambush and blow up 12 trucks of the Chinese,” he says. But his best moments as a soldier, he says, when he learnt to paradrop. “We were told to count to three before jumping. But once the aircraft door opened, and I tried counting, my mouth was filled with air. I tried again, but then I jumped anyway.” Others faced a different problem. “Some of us who didn’t follow English or Hindi properly, kept counting loudly even after we landed on the ground. We were told to shut up because even the Chinese could hear us!” he says. Pekar Thinley and hundred other Tibetan soldiers, would also be deployed in the 1971 East Pakistan war eventually.
By the late 1960s, however, the international Tibetan guerrilla intrigue started to unspool. In 1969, helmed by Henry Kissinger, the US and China decided on a rapprochement policy. This meant that all support to Chushi Gangdruk in Mustang, and American assistance to India’s Est. 22 would also stop. In 1974, Tsering was arrested by the Nepali police and imprisoned for seven years. The Dalai Lama, to avert any war involving his host country, asked the rebels in Mustang to surrender.
What rankles both Pekar Thinley and Drawupon is the lack of recognition — in the form of a pension — from the Indian government for their services in the 1971 war.
And was the fight worth it? In a 1998 documentary for the BBC on the Tibetan resistance, The Shadow Circus: The CIA in Tibet, Tsering talks about the significance of the Tibetan rebellion: “I don’t see our armed struggle as something that is finished… I believe we should look at it as one chapter in our continuing struggle for freedom. One that still has some meaning.”