Compiled by: Tseten Samdup Chhoekyapa, Representative of His Holiness the Dalai Lama
Immediately after the communist party took power in China in 1949 it began asserting its claim that Tibet was part of Chinese territory and its people were crying out for “liberation” from “imperialist forces” and from the “reactionary feudal regime in Lhasa”.
By October 1950 the People’s Liberation Army had penetrated Tibet as far as Chamdo the capital of Kham province and headquarters of the Tibetan Army’s Eastern Command. The region was routed and the Governor, Ngawang Jigme Ngabo, taken prisoner. Chinese forces were also stealthily infiltrating Tibet’s north-eastern border Province, Amdo, but avoiding military clashes which would alert international interest.
That year the 15-year-old Dalai Lama, his entourage and select government officials, evacuated the capital and set up a provisional administration near the Indian border at Yatung. In July 1951 they were persuaded by Chinese Officials to return to Lhasa. On September 9, 1951, a vanguard of 3,000 Chinese “liberation forces” marched into the capital.
By 1954, 222,000 members of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) were stationed in Tibet and famine conditions became rampant as the country’s delicate subsistence agricultural system was stretched beyond its capacity.
In April 1956, the Chinese inaugurated the Preparatory Committee for the Autonomous Region of Tibet (PCART) in Lhasa, headed by His Holiness the Dalai Lama and ostensibly convened to modernise the country. In effect, it was a rubber stamp committee set up to validate Chinese claims.
In the later fifties, Lhasa became increasingly politicised and a non-violent resistance evolved, organised by Mimang Tsongdu, a popular and spontaneous citizens’ group. Posters denouncing the occupation went up. Stones and dried yak dung were hurled at Chinese street parades. During that period, when the directive from Beijing was still to woo Tibetans rather than oppress them, only the more extreme Mimang Tsongdu leaders and orators faced arrest.
In February 1956, revolt broke out in several areas in Eastern Tibet and heavy casualties were inflicted on the Chinese occupation army by local Kham and Amdo guerrilla forces. Chinese troops were relocated from Western to Eastern Tibet to strengthen their forces to 100,000 and “clear up the rebels.” Attempts to disarm the Khampas provoked such violent resistance that the Chinese decided to take more militant measures. The PLA then began bombing and pillaging monasteries in Eastern Tibet, arresting nobles, senior monks and guerrilla leaders and publicly torturing and executing them to discourage the large-scale and punitive resistance they were facing.
In Lhasa, 30,000 PLA troops maintained a wary eye as refugees from the fighting in distant Kham and Amdo swelled the population by around 10,000 and formed camps on the city’s perimeter.
By December 1958, a revolt was simmering and the Chinese military command was threatening to bomb Lhasa and His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s palace if the unrest was not contained. To Lhasa’s south and north-east 20,000 guerrillas and several thousand civilians had been engaging with Chinese troops.
On March 1, 1959, while His Holiness the Dalai Lama was preoccupied with taking his Final Master of Metaphysics examination, two junior Chinese army officers visited him at the sacred Jokhang cathedral and pressed him to confirm a date on which he could attend a theatrical performance and tea at the Chinese Army Headquarters in Lhasa. His Holiness replied that he would fix a date once the ceremonies had been completed
This was an extraordinary occurrence for two reasons: one, the invitation was not conveyed through the Kashag (the Cabinet) as it should have been; and two, the party was not at the palace where such functions would normally have been held, but at the military headquarters – and His Holiness the Dalai Lama had been asked to attend alone.
March 7, 1959. The interpreter of General Tan Kuan-sen – one of the three military leaders in Lhasa rang the Chief Official Abbot demanding the date His Holiness the Dalai Lama would attend their army camp. March 10 was confirmed.
March 8, 1959. This was Women’s Day, and the Patriotic Women’s Association was treated to a harangue by General Tan Kuan-sen in which he threatened to shell and destroy monasteries if the Khampa guerrillas refused to surrender. “… we knew that the ordinary people of Lhasa were being driven to open rebellion against the Chinese though they would have to fight machine-gunners with their bare hands”, writes Mrs. Rinchen Dolma (Mary) Taring in her autobiography, Daughter of Tibet.
March 9, 1959. At 8.00 am two Chinese officers visited the commander of His Holiness the Dalai Lama bodyguards’ house and asked him to accompany them to see Brigadier Fu at the Chinese military headquarters in Lhasa. Brigadier Fu told him that on the following day there was to be no customary ceremony as His Holiness the Dalai Lama moved from the Norbulinka summer palace to the army headquarters, two miles beyond. No armed bodyguard was to escort him and no Tibetan soldiers would be allowed beyond the Stone Bridge – a landmark on the perimeter of the sprawling army camp.
By custom, an escort of twenty-five armed guards always accompanied His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the entire city of Lhasa would line up whenever he went. Brigadier Fu told the commander of His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s bodyguards that under no circumstances should the Tibetan army cross the Stone bridge and the entire procedure must be kept strictly secret.
The Chinese camp had always been an eyesore for the Tibetans and the fact that His Holiness the Dalai Lama was now to visit it would surely create greater anxiety amongst the Tibetans.
March 10, 1959. The invitation provoked 300,000 loyal Tibetans to surround the Norbulinka palace, forming an human sea of protection for their Yeshe Norbu (nickname for His Holiness the Dalai Lama, meaning “Precious Jewel”). They feared he would be abducted to Beijing to attend the upcoming Chinese National Assembly. This mobilisation forced His Holiness the Dalai Lama to turn down the army leader’s invitation. Instead he was held a prisoner of devotion.
March 12, 1959. 5,000 Tibetan women marched through the streets of Lhasa carrying banners demanding “Tibet for Tibetans” and shouting “From today Tibet is Independent”. They presented an appeal for help to the Indian Consulate-General in Lhasa.
Mimang Tsongdu members and their supporters had erected barricades in Lhasa’s narrow streets while the Chinese militia had positioned sandbag fortifications for machine guns on the city’s flat rooftops. 3000 Tibetans in Lhasa signed their willingness to join the rebels manning the valley’s ring of mountains.
On March 15, 3000 of His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s bodyguards left Lhasa to position themselves along an anticipated escape route. Khampa rebel leaders moved their most trusted men to strategic points. Stalwarts of the Tibetan Army merged with civilians to cover the chosen route. By this time the Tibetans were out-numbered 25 to 2. An estimated 30,000 to 50,000 Chinese troops wielded modern weapons and had 17 heavy guns surrounding the city. While the Chinese manned swivelling howitzers, the Tibetans were wielding cannons into position with mules.
March 16, 1959. Chinese heavy artillery was seen being moved to sites within range of Lhasa and particularly the Norbulinka. Rumours were rife of more troops being flown in from China. By nightfall Lhasa was certain that His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s palace was about to be shelled.
March 17, 1959 4 pm. The Chinese fired two mortar shells at the Norbulinka. They landed short of the palace walls in a marsh. This event triggered His Holiness the Dalai Lama to finally decide to leave his homeland.
“… when the Chinese guns sounded that warning of death, the first thought in the mind of every official within the Palace, and every humble member of the vast concourse around it, was that my life must be saved and I must leave the Palace and leave the city at once”, recalls His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama in his autobiography, My Land and My People “There was no certainty that escape was physically possible at all – Ngabo had assured us it was not.. If I did escape from Lhasa, where was I to go, and how could I reach asylum? Everything was uncertain, except the compelling anxiety of all my people to get me away before the orgy of Chinese destruction and massacre began”.
At 10 pm on the night of March 17, wearing a soldier’s uniform with a gun slung over his shoulder, His Holiness the Dalai Lama marched out of the Norbulinka and onto the danger-filled road to India and freedom His mother and elder sister had preceded him.
March 19, 1959. Fighting broke out in Lhasa late that night and raged for two days of hand-to-hand combat with odds stacked hopelessly against the Tibetan resistance.
At 2.00 am the Chinese started shelling NorbuLingka. The Norbulinka was bombarded by 800 shells on March 21 Thousands of men, women and children camped around the palace wall were slaughtered and the homes of about 300 officials within the walls destroyed. In the aftermath 200 members of His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s bodyguard were disarmed and publicly machine-gunned. Lhasa’s major monasteries, Gaden, Sera and Drepung were shelled -the latter two beyond repair – and monastic treasures and precious scriptures destroyed. Thousands of their monks were either killed on the spot, transported to the city to work as slave labour, or deported. In house-to-house searches the residents of any homes harbouring arms were dragged out and shot on the spot. Over 86,000 Tibetans in central Tibet were killed by the Chinese during this period.
His Holiness the Dalai Lama and his party crossed the Indian border at Khenzimane Pass on March 31. Pandit Nehru announced on April 3 in the Indian Parliament (Lok Sabha) that the Government of India had granted asylum to His Holiness the Dalai Lama. The party took a couple of days to reach Tawang the headquarters of the West Kameng Frontier Division of the North East Frontier Agency (NEFA), now known as the Tawang District of Arunachal Pradesh.
His Holiness the Dalai Lama stayed four days in Tawang and then spent about ten days there recovering from dysentery. In Bomdila His Holiness the Dalai Lama was officially received by an envoy of the Indian Government a welcome message from Nehru.
On April 18, 1959 morning, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, his mother, sister, brother, three ministers and around 80 other Tibetans left for Tezpur, Assam. There he was greeted by Indian officials and a Press corps of nearly 200 correspondents, all eager for what they called “The Story of the Century”.
From Tezpur His Holiness made His famous statement known as the Tezpur Statement in which he repudiated the 17 Point Agreement signed “under duress” in May 1951 in Beijing.