New York Times Book Review
The Dragon in the Land of Snows: A History of Modern Tibet Since 1947by Tsering Shakya
Based entirely on unpublished primary sources, Tsering Shakya's groundbreaking history of modern Tibet shatters the popular conception of the country as an isolated Shangri-la unaffected by broader international developments. Shakya gives a balanced, blow-by-blow account of Tibet's ongoing struggle to maintain its independence and safeguard its cultural/b>
Based entirely on unpublished primary sources, Tsering Shakya's groundbreaking history of modern Tibet shatters the popular conception of the country as an isolated Shangri-la unaffected by broader international developments. Shakya gives a balanced, blow-by-blow account of Tibet's ongoing struggle to maintain its independence and safeguard its cultural identity while being sandwiched between the heavyweights of Asian geopolitics: Britain, India, China, and the United States. With thorough documentation, Shakya details the Chinese depredations of Tibet, and reveals the failures of the Tibetan leadership's divided strategies. Rising above the simplistic dualism so often found in accounts of Tibet's contested recent history, The Dragon in the Land of Snows lucidly depicts the tragedy that has befallen Tibet and identifies the conflicting forces that continue to shape the aspirations of the Tibetan people today.
New York Times Book Review
He has employed thorough research, a balanced view and a dispassionate tone in writing a tremendously informative, definitive history of his native land.
Superbly well-research and written.
A sober, factual, excellently researched, and surprisingly impartial account of the end of old Tibet.
Read an Excerpt
The Lull Before the Storm
On 15 August 1947, India became an independent nation and inherited the political influence and the privileges that Britain had gained in Tibet. This historic transition was marked in Lhasa with a simple ceremony: the Union Jack was lowered and the Indian national flag was raised in its place. Hugh Richardson, the last British representative in Lhasa, became the first Indian representative. Later he wrote: 'the transition was almost imperceptible. The existing staff was retained in its entirety and the only obvious change was the change of flag'. But this was deceptive. The emergence of the new Republic of India changed the traditional balance of power, and Asian nationalists envisaged that the collapse of the British Empire would lead to the birth of a new order in Asia. And thus the history of modern Tibet in the second half of the twentieth century was to become a search for the maintenance of its independence and international stature in this emerging regional order.
Tibet occupied 1.2 million square kilometres of land sandwiched between the two giants of Asia. To the south, the mighty Himalayas formed a natural boundary with India. To the north and the east was China. For centuries Tibet had absorbed cultural influences from both these countries. The politics of both countries had exercised considerable influence over the historical development of Tibet. This enormous landmass had always been of strategic importance to the great powers. China had always coveted Tibet as the `treasure house' of the western region. When theBritish ruled India, they had always regarded Tibet as crucial to the security of India and their imperial ambitions. As a result, they sought to gain influence in Tibet such as no other Western country had ever enjoyed before. From 1913 onwards Britain achieved considerable prestige in the country, thereby bringing it within the British sphere of influence. Tibet, for her part, wanted to cultivate good relations with Britain. It was the price for keeping the Chinese at bay: as British influence increased across the Himalayas, so Chinese prestige and influence faded.
The end of the Second World War saw the collapse of the old imperial powers in Asia. The British were forced out of the Indian sub-continent and their imperial ambitions reached a convenient end. The Japanese had been defeated and expelled from the Asian mainland, which led to the eventual victory of the Communists in China. It was a shift in the balance of power that marked the beginnings of the demise of Tibet as an independent state.
When the Republic of China was founded, its authority in Tibet was virtually non-existent. One of the primary objectives of the Guomindang was to restore its influence and a number of missions were dispatched to Lhasa to re-establish relations with the Tibetans. The loss of Chinese influence was seen by the emerging Chinese nationalists as proof of Western imperialist attempts to undermine the Chinese nation. After the collapse of the Qing Dynasty in 1911, China was internally divided and militarily weak. The Chinese nationalists therefore could not put into practice their claim that China was a nation based on the `unity of five races'. Tibet remained outside the control of the Guomindang government. Moreover, Tibetans were convinced that they should have their rightful place in the world as an independent nation and were thus determined to oppose Chinese attempts to gain a foothold in Lhasa. However, we shall see later that the Guomindang regime was determined to assert its claims over Tibet.
Tibet and its Neighbours
To a large extent Tibet's ability to survive as an independent nation depended on its southern neighbour, British India. India's willingness to preserve Tibet as a natural buffer state between China and itself was crucial to the future status of Tibet. The question was: would the newly independent India have the will and the power to safeguard Tibet's inherited privileges or would these be discarded as an anachronism of the age of imperialism? At first, India appeared willing to maintain the privileges secured by its former ruler. But the question remained: would India be able to resist pressure from the newly emerging China? The new India lacked the economic and military power possessed by her former colonial ruler, whose empire had represented one of the greatest powers in the world, with naval and military power stretched across the globe. The primary tasks facing the Indian leaders were economic development of the country and cessation of the sectarian strife, which had already cost thousands of lives. Relations with the new Islamic state of Pakistan were also on the brink of collapse. Therefore, the problems that were about to unfold in the northern borders along the Himalayan range were the least of their concerns.
However, the new leaders of India should have been aware of the delicate situation they were about to inherit from the British. In March 1947, the Indian Council for World Affairs, with support from the Congress leaders, convened an Inter-Asian Relations Conference; Nehru hailed it as a landmark in the history of Asia, intended to discuss the role of Asia in the post-war and post-colonial period. Initially Tibet was represented as an independent nation. A map displayed at the conference showed Tibet as separate from China and the Tibetan delegation unveiled for the first time the newly invented national flag. These symbols of Tibet's new-found international status were rejected by the Chinese delegation, which protested to the Indian organisers.
In the end a compromise was reached: the Tibetans were allowed to participate in the conference, but the offending map and flag were removed. This benefited neither the Chinese nor the Tibetans: the Tibetan presence at the conference in no way indicated that the Chinese would concede to this temporary solution and the Tibetans were still unsure whether the international community viewed Tibet as a nation separate from China. The incident should have told the new Indian leaders that the Chinese were not prepared to accept Tibet's separate identity and that the uncertain status of Tibet at their northern border would present a major problem for them.
The Indian leaders may have felt that the civil war in China would distract the Chinese from over-extending themselves in the Tibetan plateau. But in January 1949 Chiang Kai-shek and his government surrendered to the Communists and fled to Taiwan. It was now in the hands of the new Communist government to realise the goal of unifying Tibet with China. The Communists proved to be even more determined than the Guomindang to assert China's control in Tibet. On 1 October 1949, the People's Republic of China was established and Chairman Mao proclaimed in Tiananmen Square, `China has stood up.' For nearly two centuries China had been wrecked by civil war, economic strife and Western imperialist onslaughts. But now, for the first time, a strong central government had emerged. This Communist Government was impelled by the two important socio-political phenomena of the twentieth century: nationalism and Communism.
On coming to power, the Communists made it clear that the last remaining task for the victorious People's Liberation Army was the liberation of Tibet. The higher echelons of the Communist Party had already developed strategies for the incorporation of what they regarded as `Chinese National Minorities' within the framework of the People's Republic of China. The Commander-in-Chief of the PLA, Zhu De, in a speech to the Chinese Peoples' Political Consultative Conference on 24 September 1949, said: `the Common Programme demanded the waging of the revolutionary war to the very end and the liberation of all the territory of China, including Formosa, the Pescadores, Hainan Island and Tibet'.
On 29 September 1949, the Common Programme was unanimously approved by the National People's Congress. Thus, as far as the new Communist government was concerned, Tibet was to be regarded as Chinese territory and Tibetan issues were to be dealt under the rubric of a `National Minority'. Articles 50-53 dealt with national minority issues and became the basis of China's long-term policy towards the country. Nevertheless, the Communist leaders were acutely aware of their lack of influence in Tibet.
When the Communists came to power the influence regained by the Guomindang in Tibet had come to an end. The Tibetan Government decided to terminate the contacts that had been established between the Lhasa Government and the Guomindang regime. As noted earlier, the nationalists too had slowly to regain the power and influence lost by the collapse of the Qing dynasty. From 1913 onwards Tibet had, to all intents and purposes, been an independent state. It exercised full authority over its internal and external affairs, and Tibetans saw no reason why it should now succumb to the Communists' propaganda. The Tibetans' response to the Chinese claim was to declare vociferously Tibet's independence. However, Tibetans were also quick to realise that the Communists were very different from the Guomindang and other previous Chinese governments. The Tibetans had been able to dismiss all pretension that the Guomindang had any power in Tibet, but the Communists had proved their determination to win at all costs. When they declared their intention to liberate Tibet, many Tibetans realised that they meant it.
The Communists were not prepared to accept any compromises; it was anathema to them that Tibet should have an international personality beyond being a region of China. From the Chinese point of view, Tibet was an `integral part of China' which had been encouraged by anti-Chinese and imperialist forces to break away from the `Motherland'. From the very beginning of the anti-Japanese war, the Communists had appealed to Chinese nationalism to gain support and they developed irredentist policies. They had won mass support because of their anti-Japanese stance and militant nationalism, which promised to unify and restore dignity to China.
The Communists were clearly convinced that the territorial limits of the new China lay along the foothills of the Himalayas. Moreover, they not only believed in the incorporation of Tibet into China. They were also impelled by their revolutionary zeal to promote the socialist transformation of Tibet. The first objective of the Communists was to `re-establish [their] international prestige'. The question of Tibet was bound up with China's perception of itself as a new nation, and of its international status. The Communists' victory caused immediate alarm among the Tibetan ruling élite. But because of a lack of Chinese presence in Tibet, there was still time to make a last desperate attempt to secure Tibet's independence.
The external threat to Tibet's status could not have come at a worse time. Tibet's supreme leader, the Dalai Lama, was a young boy of fourteen and had not yet established his political authority. During the Dalai Lama's minority Tibet was ruled by a regent and this transitional period had always been a strain on the Tibetan political system. The ruling élite, composed of the aristocracy and the religious institutions, was deeply divided: the whole society was recovering from the Reting conspiracy, when the ex-Regent Reting Rinpoche attempted to wrest power from the incumbent Regent, Taktra. This had nearly plunged Tibet into a civil war. The period between 1913 and 1947 was a watershed in Tibetan history: during this period there would have been real scope for Tibet to have emerged as a `nation state', provided the ruling élite had had the foresight and willingness to adapt to the changes in the larger world. But that élite chose to remain oblivious to what was going on around them.
Resistance to change came mainly from the religious community, which was opposed to any kind of reform that appeared to diminish its power. High lamas and the monasteries used their enormous influence to obstruct reforms that were desperately needed to transform Tibetan society. By 1949, therefore, Tibet was not equipped to oppose China either militarily or socially. The immediate political reaction to the Chinese claims and to the victory of the Communists was to remove any remnant of Chinese authority in Tibet. Anyone suspected of being sympathetic to the Chinese was expelled. The highest executive body of the Tibetan Government, the Kashag, appointed the Tsipon Namseling to draw up a list of all those who were pro-Communist, including anyone who was closely associated with the Chinese Mission.
The Expulsion of the Guomindang and the Communist Victory in China
Since the eighteenth century the Chinese Government had maintained representatives in Lhasa, known as Ambans. The Amban was the symbol of Chinese authority in Tibet. But after the fall of the Qing dynasty (1644-1912) the Amban and his military escort were expelled from Lhasa and it was not until 1934 that contact between Tibet and China was renewed. On 25 April a high-ranking Nationalist delegation led by General Huang Musang, Chiang Kai-shek's Vice-Chief of the General Staff, arrived in Lhasa on the pretext of `paying posthumous tribute to the late Dalai Lama', thus establishing the first formal relationship between Tibet and Republican China. The arrival of Huang Musang in Lhasa not only marked the resumption of Tibetan and Chinese contacts but once again brought to the surface the issue of the nature of the Sino-Tibetan relationship. (This question was first raised at the tripartite Simla Conference, convened under aegis of the British, held between October 1913 and July 1914. The negotiation broke down because the Chinese and the Tibetans could not agree over the alignment of the Sino-Tibetan boundaries.) Huang's mission had in effect removed the important role played by the British as mediators between Tibet and China during the Simla conference. The real political significance of the mission was the Guomindang's attempt to woo Tibet back into the Chinese fold. Huang came to Lhasa with a specific policy objective, presenting a three-point proposal: (1) that Tibet must form a part of China, (2) that the Chinese would assume responsibility for Tibet's defence, (3) that the office of the Amban would be re-established in Lhasa. According to Chinese sources, Huang's mission was successful and he obtained Tibetans' willingness to hand over the conduct of foreign affairs to China as long as Tibet was not incorporated as a province of China. However, the Tibetans claim that they not only rejected Huang's proposal but demanded the return of territories east of the Drichu (Yangtze). Moreover, while the Chinese were eager to discard the British as mediator, the Tibetans insisted that any negotiation must involve their southern neighbour, British India. This was clearly important for the Tibetans, for British participation would have provided a form of international guarantee, but it was in China's interest to deny any international or legal character to the meetings. This was to characterise much of Sino-Tibetan dialogue. Whatever may have transpired during Huang's visit, one thing was certain: for the Guomindang, permission to set up an office in Lhasa was a major propaganda achievement, resurrecting Chinese presence in Tibet.
The British were not prepared to acquiesce to the return of the Chinese to Tibet, and determined to counter the reassertion of Chinese influence. If the Chinese were allowed to establish a permanent mission in Lhasa, the British too wanted to set up an office in the Tibetan capital. This led to the visit of Basil Gould, the Political Officer in Sikkim, in 1936 and the eventual establishment of a British mission in Lhasa, housed at the Dekyi Lingka.
On 25 November 1939 a nine-member delegation, consisting of staff from the Mongolian and Tibetan Affairs Commission, arrived in Lhasa, and were later joined by Wu Zhongxin, the Commission's director of Tibetan Affairs. The arrival in Lhasa was carefully planned to coincide with the enthronement ceremony for the fourteenth Dalai Lama. On 22 February 1940, Wu Zhongxin and other foreign representatives attended the ceremony in the Potala, the winter palace of the Dalai Lamas. Later the Guomindang and the Communists claimed that Wu had `presided' over the ceremony and that his involvement was essential to the recognition of the new Dalai Lama.
There is no evidence to suggest that Wu Zhongxin `presided' over the installation of the Dalai Lama. However, the delegation managed to establish a permanent office in Lhasa, and installed a direct radio communication with Nanjing. The return of the Chinese to Lhasa reflected a growing support among Tibetan officials towards the Guomindang regime. A strong faction in Lhasa felt that some kind of reconciliation could be reached with the regime, which was prepared to accept Tibet's special status within China. Later, the Guomindang was able to secure the support of influential members of the Tibetan ruling élite, most prominent among them the Dalai Lama's family.
The Tibetans never accepted that the presence of the Chinese mission in Lhasa meant that they had acknowledged Chinese sovereignty. At the same time the establishment of the British mission in Lhasa did not mean that the Tibetans were prepared to surrender to the British. The decision to allow both countries a mission was most likely meant to demonstrate Tibet's independence and maintain some kind of international visibility. The establishment of the British mission was not accompanied by de jure recognition of Tibet's independent status. The legal status of the mission was deliberately kept vague and it remained subordinate to the Political Officer in Sikkim. For the British the mission provided an important foothold in Tibet and its chief aim was to signal to the Chinese that the British would resist any Chinese attempt to reassert its authority in Tibet.
The Guomindang Government had not relinquished China's claim that Tibet was an integral part of China. Therefore, the Chinese saw the opening of their mission in Lhasa as an assertion of China's sovereignty in Tibet. They saw the loss of Chinese authority in Tibet as a failure of their patriotic duty to reunite Tibet with China. Therefore, the success of Wu Zhongxin's mission represented an important propaganda achievement for the Guomindang regime.
While the British were content to accept the status quo, the Chinese clearly were not. The Tibetans were painfully aware that the Chinese had never surrendered their claims over Tibet. As long as China had remained weak and beset with internal conflict, there had been very little she could do to reassert her power. However, it was be a different matter once the Communists had managed to secure victory in China. Like all previous regimes, the Communists regarded Tibet as a part of China, regardless of what the Tibetans may have thought.
Although the Chinese mission did not exercise any authority, the Tibetan Government feared that the presence of the mission would enable the Chinese Communists to establish a foothold in Lhasa. When the Kashag proposed that the mission should be expelled, this was readily approved by the Regent, Taktra. Using the secret list of suspected Communist sympathisers and spies drawn up by Namseling, the Kashag planned the expulsion. With great secrecy the Tibetan Government summoned troops from Shigatse and Dingri and placed them in strategic positions in Lhasa. The Tibetans feared some Chinese would remain in Tibet and declare their loyalty to the Communists.
On 8 July 1949, the Kashag called Chen Xizhang, the acting director of the Mongolian and Tibetan Affairs Commission office in Lhasa. He was informed that the Tibetan Government had decided to expel all Chinese connected with the Guomindang Government. Fearing that the Chinese might organise protests in the streets of Lhasa, the Kashag imposed a curfew until all the Chinese had left. This they did in three separate groups on 14, 17 and 20 July 1949. At the same time the Tibetan Government sent a telegram to General Chiang Kai-shek and to President Liu Zongren informing them of the decision. They stated that the action was prompted by the fear of Communist elements infiltrating the country. This fear was not without foundation; and there had been increasing discontent among members of the Chinese mission, who had been cut off from developments in China and had not received financial provisions for five months. Some staff were talking about serving the `new government', as had happened in other parts of China, and in fact, during the early period of Communist rule (1949-54), the new government in China retained most of the Guomindang officials in the administrative structure. It was therefore likely that the Chinese mission in Lhasa would have simply switched its allegiance to the new government.
Both the Communists and the Nationalists objected strongly to the decision to expel the Chinese mission in Lhasa. On 6 August Yan Xishan, President of the Executive Yuan, said that `all the members of the mission had been carefully selected and there were no grounds for the expulsion' and called on the Tibetan Government to `rectify its decision'. Although the Communists had not yet assumed power in China, they were quick to condemn the Tibetan action and to appeal to Chinese nationalist sentiment. The Communists accused `imperialists' and their `running dogs' of `manufacturing the so-called anti-Communist incident in Tibet' and of trying `to turn the 1.2 million sq km' into a colony. In an editorial on 2 September 1949, the Hsin Hwa Pao remarked:
The affair of expelling the Han Chinese and Kuomingtang [Guomindang] officials at Lhasa was a plot undertaken by the local Tibetan authorities through the instigation of the British imperialists and their lackey the Nehru administration of India. The purpose of this `anti-Chinese affair' is to prevent the people in Tibet from being liberated by the Chinese People's Liberation Army ... The reactionary Kuomintang Government should be rooted out from every corner of China. But this is the business of the Chinese people in their revolutionary struggle under the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party. It has nothing to do with foreign countries.
The editorial showed that the Communists saw the presence of the Chinese Mission in Lhasa as evidence of Chinese authority over Tibet, and left no doubt about the Communists' view regarding the status of Tibet, referring to the Tibetan Government as a `local government'. The editorial went on to say:
The Chinese People's Liberation Army must liberate the whole territory of China, including Tibet, Sinkiang [Xinjiang] and so forth. Even an inch of Chinese land will not be permitted to be left outside the jurisdiction of the People's Republic of China. We tolerate no longer the aggression of the foreign countries. This is the unchangeable policy of the Chinese Communist Party and the Chinese People's Liberation Army.
The Indian authorities were astonished at the allegations and at the unexpected display of `militant nationalism' by the Communists. Both the Guomindang and the Communists felt that the Indian mission in Lhasa, and particularly Hugh Richardson, was responsible for the incident. This is confirmed by some Tibetan officials: Lhawutara, a high-ranking monk official, writes that it was Richardson's suggestion to expel the Chinese mission. Phunstog Tashi Takla, who was the main person liaising with the Chinese, also stated that the idea originated from Richardson. However, Richardson does not remember that he made such a suggestion, though he concedes that he may have inadvertently commented on the danger posed by the presence of the Chinese mission in Lhasa.
According to official Indian sources, the expulsions also took them by surprise. Soon after Chen Xizhang was informed of the decision, Richardson was summoned to the Tibetan Foreign Bureau and was requested to tell the GOI, and to ask them to provide a safe passage for members of the Chinese mission. The demand placed great difficulties on the GOI: if it complied the Chinese would accuse India of helping the Tibetans; if it refused the Tibetans were placed in a difficult position. Hugh Richardson recommended `that it would have been better to allow the officials to remain and to remove only persons suspected of subversive activities'. Chen Xizhang made a futile protest by refusing to provide evacuees with valid travel documents without orders from his government. Hugh Richardson noted that `this gesture was apparently intended to provide evidence that his removal was by force'.
In the end the expulsion of the Chinese mission from Lhasa was a shrewd move on the part of the Tibetans. It not only ended the influence of the Nationalists but it meant that, when the Communists came to power in China in October 1949, there was no vestige of Chinese authority in Tibet. The Communists were immediately presented with the problem of how they could assert their authority in Tibet, for it was clear that there was no scope for an internal Communist revolution there.
Along with the Chinese mission, a number of Tibetans from the eastern point of the country were expelled on suspicion of being Communist sympathisers. One of these was Baba Phuntsog Wangyal, a progressive Tibetan from Bathang in Kham who earlier had tried to organise a Progressive and Pan-Tibetan movement in Tibet. He came to Lhasa in 1946 and tried to warn the Lhasa authorities that after the civil war the Communists would invade Tibet. He argued that Tibet's survival lay in opening the country to the outside world and introducing internal reforms. When Lhasa officials did not listen to his warning, he went to Kalimpong to urge the British to arm the Tibetans. No one took him seriously, and when he was later expelled from Lhasa, he told his friend Tharchin, the editor of what was then the only Tibetan newspaper: `If the Tibetan Government does not listen, I shall bring the Chinese Army to Tibet. Then I shall write to you'. Tharchin later recalled that in 1951, when the PLA entered Lhasa, he received a telegram which read, `Safely arrived in Lhasa Phuntsog Wangyal.' The Communists were able to recruit him to their ranks, and he was to play a leading role during the negotiations between Tibet and China in May 1951.
One of the negative aspects of this expulsion of Communist sympathisers was that the Chinese Communists became convinced that foreign powers had penetrated Tibet and had stirred up hostility towards them. Hugh Richardson in his monthly report to the GOI commented, `At all events, they seem to have postponed the likelihood of Communist activities in Lhasa by removing suspicious persons, but who can say for how long'.
But however remote the Communist threat to Tibet now seemed, the atmosphere of fear in Lhasa became palpable. When a comet appeared in 1949 it was taken as a bad omen. People were quick to point out that when Halley's comet had appeared in 1910 the Chinese had launched an invasion. The government ordered performances of religious services to avert the dangers. Yet the majority of the Tibetan peasantry, living outside the political environment of Lhasa, remained totally unaffected by the new political development. The politics of Tibet had always been the privilege of a few aristocratic families and the lamas in Lhasa. This is how Hugh Richardson summed up the situation in his monthly report for November 1949:
Up to that time the atmosphere in Lhasa had been vague. A number of officials had [sic] personally appreciated the seriousness of their position and some are reported to be making plans for removing themselves, their families and possessions from Lhasa presumably to India. But others viewed the situation more lightly saying that Tibet is a small and poor country and that the Chinese Communists would not be likely to be attracted by it. Others again, notably minor monk officials, considered that as they were poor and had experience in governmental matters, they would be wanted by the Communists to work for them. Higher monk officials expressed their intention of dying for religion, at the head of their retainers.
One leading aristocrat later recalled that `people started thinking of moving to India and started shifting their valuables either to India or to the monasteries' and summed up the atmosphere succinctly: `People were like birds, ready to fly.' Others thought that it would take some time before the Communists entered Tibet. Rinchen Dolma Taring, a member of a leading aristocratic family, described her reaction to Peking's broadcast of its intention of liberating Tibet: `in the late 1940s we heard rumours that the Chinese Communists were coming, but we thought it might take them years to arrive because they has [had] said on the radio that they would first get Formosa'.
The expulsion of the Chinese mission marked the beginning of a new phase in the Sino-Tibetan relationship. By severing its ties with China, Tibet had emphatically declared its desire to remain independent. On the other hand, this provocation made the Communists even more determined to gain control of Tibet. It was evident that China and Tibet had irreconcilable objectives. The question that was to dominate the first months of 1950 was whether reconciliation could be achieved through diplomacy or whether it would be by coercion.
In October 1949, the Communists assumed total control of China. A month later, the Tsongdu (Tibetan National Assembly) met to discuss the Chinese threat. It was agreed that they should take various measures to counter Chinese propaganda. First, they would make internal reforms to prepare for a possible Chinese attack. Second, they would seek to secure external support and, third, they would try to establish a dialogue with the Communists.
Up to that time Tibet had lived in isolation from the major social and political events of the world. The Second World War had passed uneventfully for the Tibetans. The Tibetan socio-economic and political system resembled that of the Middle Ages in Europe. Between 1913 and 1933 the thirteenth Dalai Lama had tried to drag Tibet into the twentieth century, but he had come up against the conservatism of the religious institutions and a few of the ruling élite. Yet Tibetan society was neither stagnating nor verging on collapse. There was a small group of Tibetans who were well informed about the international situation, and a few aristocratic families who had travelled outside Tibet and had sent their children to missionary schools in India. Through them, the centre of Indo-Tibetan trade, Kalimpong, had become a window on the outside world. It was largely these people who initiated efforts to modernise Tibet's army and administration.
Tibet Prepares to Face the PRC
The National Assembly's recommendations for major internal changes were endorsed by the Regent Taktra in 1949. The Kashag was reorganised into three separate ministries: External Affairs, Defence, and Pay and Supplies. Each Shape was put in charge of a department; Kalon Lama Rampa was put in charge of external affairs, assisted by Lukangwa and Drungyigchenmo Chomphel Thupten; Surkhang Wangchen Gelek was given responsibility for dealing with military pay and supplies. He was assisted by the Tsipon Ngabo Ngawang Jigme who was later to play a leading role and another of the Drungyigchenmos, Ngawang Drakpa. Ragashag was in charge of defence and the mobilisation of troops. He was assisted by Tsipon Namseling and Drungyigchenmo Ngawang Namgyal. As a matter of urgency they were given power to act without consultation with the National Assembly.
The Kashag also decided they needed to monitor international news. Heinrich Harrer, an Austrian refugee who was living in Lhasa at the time, was asked to listen to the radio and provide the government with daily summaries of international news. The most innovative decision was to set up a radio station in Lhasa. For a number of years the Tibetan Government had been setting up a network of wireless communication systems throughout Tibet. For this purpose the Government had employed two Britons, Robert Ford and Reginald Fox.
In January 1950, Radio Lhasa broadcast to the world for the first time, in the beginning for only half an hour a day. The news was read in Tibetan by Rimshi Rasa Gyagen, in Chinese by Phuntsog Tashi Takla, the Dalai Lama's brother-in-law, and in English by Reginald Fox. The primary purpose of the broadcasts was to counter Chinese propaganda and on 31 January 1950 Lhasa Radio rejected Beijing's claim that Tibet was part of China. The broadcast declared that Tibet had been `independent since 1912 when the Manchu garrison had been driven out'.
The National Assembly agreed to the opening of the country for motor traffic between India and Tibet. In 1949 J. E. Reid of General Electric Company visited Tibet to negotiate the Tibetan Government's purchase of electrical equipment for a small hydro-electrical station that the government planned to build in Lhasa. More important, Regent Taktra gave Mr Reid a letter authorising Bharat Airways to fly the equipment to Lhasa. Tibet also expressed a desire to open an air link between Lhasa and some northern Indian cities.
Above all the Tibetans sought to strengthen their army. Since the 1930s, it had developed rapidly but was still poorly equipped and trained, despite the training of a few officers by the British. In March 1947 the Kashag asked the British Government to supply a substantial amount of arms and ammunition. This was approved by the British Cabinet and the interim Indian Government, with the exception of two anti-aircraft guns. By 1949 it was clear that the stock of ammunition and arms in Tibet's possession would be wholly inadequate to counter a Chinese offensive, and so the Kashag agreed to sanction further military expenditure. For this they took silver coins (tangka) from the Potala treasury, worth four hundred thousand rupees, and minted them into 10 srang silver coins to meet the costs of military pay and supplies.
In August 1949, when the Indian Political Officer in Sikkim, Mr Harishwar Dayal, made a visit to Lhasa, Tibetans saw this as an opportunity to seek support from the GOI. They hoped to establish a new relationship by drawing up a new treaty, which would supersede the 1914 Simla Convention. At the first meeting between Dayal, Surkhang Lhawang Topgyal and Liushar Thupten Tharpa from the Foreign Affairs Bureau, the Tibetans asked if India could supply arms and ammunition but they were told by the Indians that the primary task was to train Tibetan troops. The GOI agreed to a small supply of arms and ammunition, and also to provide training for new troops. At the second meeting, on 8 November 1949, the Tibetans informed Dayal that the present strength of the Tibetan Army was 13,000 but they wanted to increase it to 100,000 men. They inquired whether the GOI could provide the necessary instructors, arms and ammunition. In the meantime the Tibetan Government set about recruiting and training new soldiers; Heinrich Harrer describes how `the flat pasture lands around Lhasa were transformed into training grounds for the troops'.
On 25 February 1949 a meeting was held in Gyantse between Depon Kunsangtse and the representative of the GOI, Colonel Srinivasan to discuss training and weapon requirements. In June 1949, the Indian Government supplied a limited amount of arms and ammunition, which included 144 Bren Guns; 1,260 rifles; 168 Sten guns; 500,000 rounds of .303 ammunition, and 100,000 rounds of Sten gun ammunition. In March 1950, the GOI increased their supplies: 38 2' Mortars; 63 3' Mortars; 150 Bren guns; 14,000 2' mortar bombs; 14,000 3' mortars, and 1 million rounds of .303 ammunition. The Tibetan Government provided Mr Reid with the sum of one hundred thousand rupees for the purchase of small arms.
The old regiment, founded in 1931 and known as the Drongdra Magmi (Better Family Regiment), was revived to strengthen the existing groups. However, it faced such a severe shortage of ammunition that soldiers were not allowed to fire their weapons during training. The rations for soldiers were improved and an additional cash payment was agreed. Other regiments were dispatched to the border regions, in eastern Tibet and the north-east regions. The government also decided to set up four wireless stations in western and northern Tibet.
On coming to power in China the Communists immediately strengthened their control in Kham (Xikang) and Amdo (Qinghai). The situation in eastern Tibet became precarious. The Tibetan Government had been observing the de facto boundary line agreed at the Simla Convention of 1914, which divided Tibet into outer and inner Tibet. Neither the Tibetan nor the Chinese Government had ever been able to assert authority effectively in Kham. Much of the area was ruled by local chiefs, who were fiercely independent. The Debpa Zhung (Tibetan Government) ruled territories west of the Upper Yangtze. The Domed Chikyab (Governor of Kham) was responsible for both administrative and military matters in Kham. The Tibetan army guarding the eastern frontier consisted of 2,500 men, who were badly equipped and had received little or no training in modern military methods. At the time the Domed Chikyab was Lhalu Tsewang Dorje, who had been in Kham for nearly three years and was due to be replaced. Lhalu was aware of the growing threat of instability in Chinese-controlled Kham where there was increasing PLA activity. The governor decided to strengthen the fortifications on the frontier and to strengthen his forces by recruiting local militia.
In the summer of 1949 Robert Ford, the Englishman employed by the Tibetan Government as a radio operator, and three trainee wireless operators were dispatched to Chamdo. Their arrival enabled Lhalu to improve the defensive measures in Chamdo and the surrounding areas. Moreover, for the first time a direct link was established between Lhasa and Chamdo. In February 1950, Lhalu asked Ford to cut short the training of the wireless operators, so that he could set up wireless stations along the frontier. Rumours of the PLA advance were widespread in Chamdo. In the same month, new supplies of arms and instructors arrived and there was training in the use of Bren guns. Robert Ford wrote that `the Tibetan Army began to look a little less like something out of the Middle Ages'.
Two months later, Ngabo Ngawang Jigme was appointed as the new Governor of Kham. At the same time, he was promoted from the rank of Tsipon to Shape. The Governor of Kham had the same rank as a member of the Kashag, although he could not attend Kashag meetings in Lhasa. The position reflected the importance attached to the post, and it also meant that the governor could make immediate decisions without having to consult superiors in Lhasa. Ngabo had previously served in Kham as an official in charge of army pay and was therefore aware of the difficult position he was about to inherit. Before he left Lhasa, Ngabo discussed the situation with Yuthok Tashi Dhondup, who had also served as Governor of Kham. Yuthok advised him that the best course of action was not to provoke the Chinese or antagonise the local people. Ngabo wanted to improve the conditions for the local officials and asked the government to increase their allowances. Ngabo also reached the conclusion that it would be impossible to stand up to the PLA.
Some saw the appointment of Ngabo as the Governor of Eastern Tibet as inauspicious. Chagtral Sonam Chophel recalls that there was a Tibetan saying that `when the throne of Tibet is guarded by a person of lower birth, then Tibet would be invaded by China', and people soon assumed that this referred to Ngabo. He was the illegitimate son of a nun from one of the leading aristocratic families of Tibet, Horkhang, who had acquired the surname of Ngabo by marrying a young widow of Ngabo Shape.
Ngabo arrived in Chamdo in September 1950 but because of the grave situation in Kham, the Kashag decided that Lhalu should also remain in power for the time being. The decision to appoint two governors seems to have been a disaster. The relationship between the two was strained from the start, and Ngabo is reported to have remarked that Chamdo was too small for two governors. At the end of September, Lhalu left Chamdo and set up his headquarters in Pembar Dzong, leaving Ngabo in charge of both civil and military affairs in Chamdo. The border regions on the Changthang, the high plateau of north-east Tibet, were also strengthened. On 20 June, Ragashag Shape and a lay commander made an inspection tour of the Nagchuka area. The number of men in the area was increased by the recruitment of local militia.
Initially, the government wanted to raise the number of soldiers to 100,000 but it proved impractical and those who could afford to bribe recruiting officers to avoid serving. The attempts to modernise Tibet's polity and the army came too late. Limited resources and the lack of a modern infrastructure hampered any military or civil defensive measures that the Tibetans adopted and there was no way that the Tibetans would have been able to resist a determined Chinese attack. The supply of arms and ammunition would not last more than six months. Nevertheless, the Tibetans did their best to show the Chinese their determination to resist invasion. The ruling élite realised that the best chance for Tibet's survival lay in outside support. The Tibetans had already opened the country to a number of outsiders; now they appealed directly to the international community. Britain had dealt with Tibet as an independent country, but she had never afforded Tibet the de jure recognition it sought. On the other hand, neither had the British recognised Chinese sovereignty over Tibet.
As far as the Tibetans were concerned, the status of Tibet was governed by the 1914 Simla Convention. However fragile it might be, the Convention provided some sort of definition of Tibet's status. In late 1949 and early 1950, the primary objective of Tibetan foreign policy was to maintain the status quo, whereby Tibet would have total control over its internal affairs and would maintain some kind of external personality. For many years the Tibetan Government had sought international recognition and visibility. In 1948 the Kashag dispatched a high-level trade delegation abroad in order to demonstrate Tibetan independence. The trade mission secured a major diplomatic coup when the United Kingdom and United States issued visas on Tibetan passports. This was tantamount to official recognition of Tibet's independent status.
What People are saying about this
This account of the history of Tibet is distinguished not only by its Tibetan authorship but also by its meticulous research, careful objectivity, and lack of rancour.
This is an exceptional study on the political history of modern Tibet in that it draws on rare historical documents that had remained inaccessible to earlier authors.
Meet the Author
Tsering Shakya was born in Tibet and attended the School of Oriental and African Studies at London University, where he is currently a research fellow in Tibetan Studies. Over the last ten years he has regularly briefed politicians on Tibet at the Foreign Office and the European Parliament. He is the author of Fire Under the Snow: The Testimony of a Tibetan Prisoner and numerous articles; he has taken part in television and radio discussions, and is frequently consulted on Tibetan matters by the BBC, The Times, the Observer, and the Guardian.
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Wonderful history. It is complex and complicated book on a equally complex subject. He has done well with a multitude of names, places, dates and events. It is a clear view of the country that has captured so many hearts around the world. It is also a clear call to renew and reinvigorate the effort to free the country and return it to the hands of the Tibetans before the culture is destroyed. It is based on unpublished primary sources so much if not all of the information in the book is `new¿ to people who were not involved first hand. I usually wane with a lot of names, places, dates, etc. but this book is well written and it was easy to stay with the events. The history here might not be what some are used to hearing about the history of Tibet. It doesn¿t seem romanticized and has many of the heartbreaking details, mistakes and mis-steps that permeate a countries struggle for independence surrounded by stronger more militaristic countries. I would recommend it highly.