My partnership with the United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) begins on September 22, 1971, whereas the US involvement in Tibet dates back to the Hump Airlift Operations of World War II. I am sharing the story about the flight of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama from Lhasa in March 1959. The story mentions about the CIA’s role in the Tibetan Resistance Movement.
Rudra Narasimham Rebbapragada
The Dalai Lama’s flight from Lhasa and his perilous journey to India: ‘A dizzying, frightening blur’
Excerpts from a new illustrated biography of the Tibetan spiritual leader.
His Holiness The Fourteenth Dalai Lama: An Illustrated Biography comprises text and rare photographs assembled by Tenzin Geyche Tethong, who worked at the Tibetan Buddhist leader’s private office for four decades. Tethong retired as the Dalai Lama’s private secretary in 2007. Here are edited excerpts that detail the spiritual leader’s flight to India following Chinese aggression in Tibet.
Lhasa, 1959: Chinese aggression and a Tibetan resistance
Right after the Great Prayer Festival on 9 March, Brigadier Fu, who was in charge of PLA troops in Lhasa, invited the Dalai Lama for a theatrical performance at their headquarters. He instructed Phuntsok Tashi Taklha, the Dalai Lama’s brother-in-law, who was his chief of security, that His Holiness should come without protection and in secret. The young Tenzin Choegyal (Ngari Rinpoche), studying at Drepung monastery, was also invited.
This highly irregular request caused great worry. The news spread like wildfire and on 10 March, large crowds gathered outside the Norbulingka palace to prevent the Dalai Lama from going, suspecting it was a ruse by the Chinese to hold him hostage or worse, harm him. By midday, the huge crowd of thirty thousand grew restive.
The Nechung oracle advised His Holiness to remain in Lhasa and engage with the Chinese. His Holiness spent the afternoon in divination. A few tense days later, a second visit to the oracle yielded the same message – to wait and negotiate. Time was passing for His Holiness in ‘a dizzying, frightening blur.’
On 16 March, the General informed the Dalai Lama that the Chinese were preparing to attack the Norbulingka. The thought of violence and the inevitable loss of life greatly upset His Holiness. The next day, he sought out the oracle again. This time – the oracle, swaying in a trance – said dramatically ‘go, go, go tonight’ and even gave instructions on the exact escape route to take, and then fell unconscious on the floor. Just at that moment, two shells exploded outside the palace building. On the night of 17 March, the twenty-three- year-old Dalai Lama, disguised as a soldier, left his summer palace and embarked on a long, dangerous journey to India into exile, not knowing when he would see his country or people again.
Tibet’s destiny would change forever on the fateful day of 17 March 1959. His Holiness had been battling confusion and distress, but the oracle’s word revealed the way forward. The Dalai Lama also performed his own divination, which revealed advice from Manjusri, the Bodhisattva of wisdom. The oracle’s advice was confirmed and His Holiness felt the standoff could be diffused only if he left Tibet.
But surely, the Chinese would be carefully monitoring the situation? His Holiness informed only his immediate staff and delegated the preparations to his Lord Chamberlain, Phala Thupten Woden and the acting Chikyab Khenpo, his chief of monastic staff, Gadrang Lobsang Rigzin. Three different groups set off within hours of each other. In the afternoon, His Holiness’ tutors and four officials of the Kashag left hidden under a tarpaulin of a truck; some hours later the Great Mother, the young Tenzin Choegyal, his sister Tsering Dolma and an uncle left in disguise, with the two women dressed as men.
By this time the Lord Chamberlain had sent a message to the Indian Consul General in Lhasa on the question of exile and asylum in India. He also sent a message to the Chushi Gangdruk fighters in the south, asking them to be ready to protect and escort His Holiness.
For one last time His Holiness visited his personal shrine dedicated to Mahakala, the protector deity for the Dalai Lamas. After offering a silk khatag, His Holiness finished his prayers and left. Shortly before ten at night, he dressed as a soldier in trousers and a Tibetan chuba (robe) and walked out of Norbulingka. Slung across his left shoulder was a cylindrical case which housed a very precious item – a thangka of the protector-goddess Palden Lhamo that had once belonged to the Second Dalai Lama. Slung across his other shoulder was a rifle.
This was the third and last group to leave that day. With over tens of thousands of PLA soldiers in the area, the likelihood of being spotted and detained was a real risk. His Holiness and those accompanying him quickly crossed the Kyichu River, where the two groups were waiting on the other side. It was only then, His Holiness recalled later, that he put his glasses back on and was again able to see clearly.
The escape party rode most of the night, only stopping briefly on their way to the Che-La mountain pass, and reached the top at daybreak. His Holiness stopped to look around. It would be the last time he would get a glimpse of Lhasa. After a short prayer, they moved on towards the Yarlung Tsangpo, or the Brahmaputra river, to cross over into southern Tibet. His escape had not yet come to light, but fighting had broken out as the Tibetan forces were supporting the people of Lhasa. The Chinese launched greater attacks and on 20 March, they started shelling Norbulingka palace. It was only the next day that the Chinese found out that His Holiness had escaped.
The Lord Chamberlain’s message had been taken to two CIA-trained Tibetan radio operators, Athar and Lhotse, who were with the resistance forces holding Lhuntse Dzong, not far from the Indian border. This was where His Holiness was also headed. His intention was to temporarily set up base there and officially repudiate the 17-Point Agreement, and once again set up negotiations with the Chinese from a safe place within reach of India. On 25 March, they sent a message to the Americans, the Chinese attacks in Lhasa and all hopes of a negotiated settlement were lost.
A human tragedy of great proportions was unfolding. It later came to light that in the one-year period following the uprising, the PLA had eliminated over 87,000 Tibetans in Central Tibet alone. At Lhuntse Dzong, His Holiness conducted a ceremony of consecration to set up a new Tibetan government. The ceremony was attended by over a thousand people. But it was clear that there was imminent danger if the Dalai Lama remained in Tibet. Consequently, messages were conveyed to the Indians and the Americans that His Holiness desired to cross over into India seeking asylum.
John Greaney, a senior CIA officer, received the message on Saturday night, 28 March. With instructions from his boss, he sent a covert message to New Delhi informing them of the Dalai Lama’s request for asylum. Around this time, Gyalo Thondup writes that he visited Prime Minister Nehru at the Parliament House in Delhi through B.N. Mullick, chief of India’s Intelligence Bureau (IB). Nehru enquired if His Holiness was safe and when informed of his asylum request, he immediately said yes.
The next day His Holiness left for the frontier, passing through the village of Jhora and as the escape party crossed over the Karpo La mountain pass, the last one on the Tibetan side before the border, an airplane flew over them, causing panic. They feared that the Chinese had spotted them. Tenzin Choegyal recounts, ‘… we were sure the Chinese would be on us in no time.’ The party decided to break into small groups and move forward for two more days. Messengers sent by Phala to the Indian border rejoined them here. They, too, conveyed the news that His Holiness was allowed to cross over into India.
As His Holiness recalled, his last night in Tibet was in rather miserable conditions at a small village called Mangmang. The escape party had endured rough weather all through their flight, and this seemed to cap it all. His Holiness fell sick with fever and dysentery. Two days later, on 31 March, he bade farewell to those who would remain in Tibet – some officials, the resistance fighters and the two Tibetan radio operators, Athar and Lhotse, who received a special blessing.
The party of approximately eighty people crossed over from the Land of Snows into the Tawang District, in the North East Frontier Agency (NEFA), now the state of Arunachal Pradesh. Waiting on the other side was the Indian Assistant Political Officer, T.S. Murthy, with greetings from Prime Minister Nehru. The exhausting, stressful two-week journey had finally come to an end.