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Freeing Tibet: 50 Years of Struggle, Resilience, and Hope

Freeing Tibet: 50 Years of Struggle, Resilience, and Hope

by John B. Roberts II

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

Former Reagan strategist Roberts and journalist Elizabeth Roberts draw on unprecedented access to the Dalai Lama's circle and U.S. government insiders to recount Tibet's resistance movement and its unlikely allies. Featuring recently declassified information, the book reveals the extent to which the CIA was involved in the Dalai Lama's flight into exile in northern India and in arming and training the Tibetan military resistance movement. During the cold war, the U.S. government regarded Tibet as another front from which to fend off the threat of global communism and spent millions on military and propaganda operations the authors term the "Himalayan Bay of Pigs." After the Sino-Soviet split, the U.S. shifted its attention to the war in Vietnam and the cause of Tibet's human rights was embraced by the U.S. counterculture and, later, academics and Hollywood celebrities. The authors argue that Tibet's only hope lies in global economic divestment and boycotts against the Chinese government, actions that were effective in urging the end of apartheid in South Africa. Despite its somewhat simplistic solutions, this book offers a clear overview of the key issues and conveys why Tibet's situation is more urgent that ever. (Mar.)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Kirkus Reviews
Heavily detailed history of the movement to liberate Tibet from Chinese rule. Since the People's Liberation Army invaded in 1950, and particularly since the Dalai Lama went into exile in 1959, the Tibetan people's struggle for autonomy has attracted international attention. John B. Roberts, a former aide to President Reagan, and his wife Elizabeth, a freelance journalist, combine archival research and interviews to chronicle that struggle, which burst into the open in 1959 with a CIA-backed uprising that cost some 87,000 Tibetan lives. The authors are candid about the CIA's covert funding of the movement, which came to an end when the Nixon administration concluded it might derail attempts to forge closer diplomatic ties with China. They also discuss the Dalai Lama's remarkable life and his status as a spiritual icon, which has prompted many governments, human-rights advocates and celebrities to speak against the Chinese government's repressive policies. To date there has been little response, and the authors' frustration over this face is palpable. They toss plenty of advocacy into their hybrid combination of history and biography, taking a highly dramatic tone: "The struggle is not between the Chinese people and the rest of the world. Nor is it between the Chinese people and the Tibetan people, although Chinese government propagandists are more than willing to whip up nationalistic and ethnic tensions to distract from the real issues. The fight is between freedom and dictatorship. For the Tibetan people to win their struggle, the Chinese people will also have to find liberation." Those willing to ignore this sort of grandstanding will find the authors' readable text a treasure trove ofinformation about Tibet's ordeal. They close by suggesting that foreigners supporting Tibetan freedom emulate the anti-apartheid movement by campaigning for trade sanctions and international divestment to put economic pressure on China. A biased but informative take on an important aspect of Asian political history.

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Freeing Tibet

50 Years of Struggle, Resilience, and Hope
By John B. Roberts II Elizabeth A. Roberts


Copyright © 2009 John B. Roberts II and Elizabeth A. Roberts
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8144-1375-3

Chapter One

Warriors of the Fortress of Faith


Dorjee Yudon pulsed with rage when she heard about the slaughter of Gyurme's family. A squad of Chinese soldiers had gone to his house with orders to confiscate the weapons—rifles, usually antiquated flintlocks, and swords, traditionally carried by Khampas, as the people of the Kham province were called. Gyurme was away on a business trip in the town of Dartsedo, the local administrative center of the Nyarong district, when the People's Liberation Army (PLA) troops barged through the wooden gate and crossed the courtyard of his home.

His wife, their young son, and his mother were alone, except for a family domestic servant. The soldiers demanded to be shown where the guns were stashed. Gyurme's wife pleaded, telling them that there were no arms other than those her husband had taken along on his trip. No sensible person traveled in Nyarong without some means of self-defense against the banditry common in the region.

The Chinese commander became incensed. He screamed at her to turn over the weapons. She protested that she didn't have any to surrender. He replied by ordering his troops to shoot everyone in the house—the boy, the grandmother, the servant, and Gyurme's wife.

Dorjee knew that the soldiers would come to her house soon, if not next. Like Gyurme, her husband, Gyari Nima, was a local leader. He was a tribal head of the Gyaritsang, one of the clans of Nyarongwa people who had inhabited this land for centuries. Nyarong was one of the Tibetan districts closest to the border with China.

In the five-and-a-half years since the PLA invaded Tibet on October 7, 1950, the Chinese military had kept troops based in Eastern Tibet. The initial fighting lasted less than two weeks. Tibet's army, outnumbered ten to one, was decisively defeated at the battle of Chamdo on October 17, and a formal surrender was signed the next day. Until now, the PLA had generally behaved well, leaving the Khampas to handle their own affairs. Soldiers were even known to help peasants harvest barley and other crops.

Dorjee realized something had changed to put her family and neighbors in danger. Chairman Mao Zedong, founder of the People's Republic of China (PRC) and head of the all-powerful Chinese Communist Party, had ordered "democratic reforms" imposed in Eastern Tibet. Mao's objective was to radically transform Tibetan society, replacing it with socialist rule from Beijing. Party cadres were to strip power from local leaders like Gyurme and Gyari Nima. To minimize resistance, the PLA was seizing weapons.

Tibet's government, headed by the 20-year-old Dalai Lama, was powerless to stop the Chinese in Kham. Remnants of Tibet's army were far away to the west in the province of U-Tsang and clustered mainly near the capital city of Lhasa. There would be no help from it.

Dorjee was Gyari Nima's youngest wife, agile on horseback, strong spirited, and beautiful. She had no way of knowing when her husband would return from Dartsedo. There were no telephone or telegraph lines in Eastern Tibet. The only way to communicate was by courier, and there was little time to act.

Dartsedo was under Chinese control, and her husband might be detained indefinitely. She would have to be the one to take action. Writing notes telling of the massacre at Gyurme's house, she gave them to riders to carry by horseback to other clans and tribes across Eastern Tibet. Dorjee urged the men to join her in a coordinated revolt against the PLA.

Twenty-three leaders responded. Under the banner of the Warriors of the Fortress of Faith, Dorjee organized meetings throughout Kham to plan an uprising. When the Chinese authorities got word of her activities, they enlisted the aid of Tibetan collaborators. Two Nyarongwa men, accompanied by two soldiers, tried to kill her in her home but were thwarted by guards. The foiled attack increased her fame, and her determination.

Dorjee knew that the assassination attempt would be followed by another if she didn't act first. Her uprising began four days earlier than originally planned. Its scale took the Chinese by surprise. On horseback, with a pistol holstered by her side, and wearing a turquoise-studded charm box bearing protective amulets around her neck, Dorjee lead the assaults against Chinese convoys and outposts. In battle after battle the PLA was pushed back. The Chinese retreated into Drugmo Dzong, an ancient castle called the Fortress of the Female Dragon.

As a fighter, Dorjee was fearless and relentless. Over the course of a month-long siege of the stone fortress, she led several attempts to storm the walls. When the PLA sent some six hundred reinforcements, the Khampas attacked them at Upper Nyarong. Four hundred soldiers were killed. A few hundred managed to break away and reach the fortress, where they too were soon under siege.

China responded with maximum force. The next troops to march into Kham numbered between 18,000 and 20,000. Dorjee and her fighters were forced to withdraw. Some returned home, melding into the population. Others took refuge in the mountains and operated as guerrilla bands, harassing the PLA with hit-and-run tactics.

Dorjee's 1956 uprising had lasted months. More than 2000 Chinese troops were killed at the siege of the Fortress of the Female Dragon alone. The Warriors had shown that the people of Tibet were determined to resist the attempts by Chairman Mao to destroy their culture, their religion, and their society. They would not be alone in their struggle.


Before Dorjee's revolt, the PLA and the Tibetans had gotten along fairly well. There had been no major conflicts since the 1950 invasion. The initial fighting had stopped short of the capital city of Lhasa, and the Tibetans had been largely left to govern themselves. Most Tibetans were mystified by Mao's decision to invade. His excuse was to rid the country of foreign imperialists, but there were no imperialists in Tibet. There were less than a dozen outsiders in the whole land, including Austrian mountaineer Heinrich Harrer and two British citizens, Robert Ford and Reginald Fox, employees of the Tibetan government who ran radio communications. To the Tibetans, the Chinese were the foreigners.

Tibet's government was unique. Tenzin Gyatso, the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, was both the head of state and the highest religious authority. As monarch and spiritual leader, he was guardian of an ancient civilization, making him unique among world leaders. This system of government was established in 1642 by Ngawang Lozang Gyatso, the Fifth Dalai Lama. It had endured more than 300 years when China invaded in 1950.

From 1642 onward, Tibet governed herself. It had its own army, language, currency, and postage stamps. Tibet issued passports to its citizens, although this was rare because few Tibetans traveled abroad. The country's history, ethnicity, culture, and political structure were distinct from China's and the rest of its neighbors. In fact, there was no other civilization like it, with its thousands of Buddhist monasteries that functioned as centers of finance, education, social welfare, and spiritual study, anywhere else in the world.

Other nations also saw Tibet as independent. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when the mandate of the British Empire stretched across India to the borders of Afghanistan, British officials sought to align Tibet with their imperial interests. In 1904, British and Sepoy troops (Indians trained to serve in the colonial army) invaded Tibet under the command of Colonel Francis Younghusband. After concluding a treaty establishing bilateral relations and commercial trade between Tibet and the British Empire, Younghusband and his army withdrew.

The treaty Tibet signed with the British Empire had two important implications. First, and foremost, it confirmed Tibet's independence from any other nation. Had the British believed that Tibet was, in fact, governed by the Manchu sovereigns (the foreign conquerors who also ruled China), it would have been a simple matter for British diplomats to negotiate directly with Beijing. The second consequence was that by signing a treaty with the British, the Tibetan government had allied itself with foreign imperialists.

Tibet's territory extended over two-and-a-half-million square kilometers and was divided into three provinces. Amdo was in the northeast and closest to China. Kham province lay south of Amdo and was home to the Khampas, nomadic herders renowned for their horsemanship and physical prowess. In the western province of U-Tsang, the capital city of Lhasa was located. Ringed with mountain ranges like the Himalayas, Karakorum, and Kunlun, its central feature is the Tibetan Plateau, situated at 14,000 feet.

Tibet and China coexisted in a fragile symbiosis. The main route into China ran through the province of Kham. And it was common for Tibetans and Chinese merchants to import and export their goods. Tibet's chief import from China was tea, but silk, horses, cotton, and goods like matches and buttons were imported as well. The Tibetans either paid in gold or bartered wool, deer horns, medicinal herbs, furs, and sheepskins.

At various times throughout history, both China and Tibet were under the dominion of foreign rulers. From 1644 until 1911, China was ruled by the Manchu Qing emperors. During the eighteenth century, when the Manchu Empire was still vibrant, its reign briefly extended to Tibet. By the middle of the nineteenth century, Manchu influence waned and, in 1911, there were coordinated uprisings in Hankow and Wuchang in China. When the Manchu sent General Yuan Shih-Kai to quash the Chinese revolt he, instead, switched sides and joined the rebels. A new provisional government was established in Nanking in December 1911 and, by February 1912, the Manchu renounced all right to govern China and recognized the Republic as the lawful successor regime.

It was Mao Zedong, a Marxist revolutionary, who would eventually claim Tibet as a part of China. The son of peasants from Hunan, Mao could recruit men to his revolutionary cause simply by the power of his oratory. In 1921, he had the brilliant insight that revolution in China would not be brought about by industrial workers, as classic Marxist-Leninist theory held, but by landless farmers and villagers. Embittered by generations of social injustice, the peasantry was an irresistible force for fundamental change.

From 1921 through 1948, Mao and his followers fought what he called the Long March. On October 1, 1949, standing on the main gate to Tiananmen Square, he announced the founding of the People's Republic of China (PRC). It had taken nearly 28 years and hundreds of thousands of lost lives, but Mao finally had what he sought: power over China. He now felt his Revolution could finally begin in earnest. Mao's indispensable deputy, Zhou En-lai, called the task before them the "next Long March."

Consolidating control over the territories on China's fringes was the first step in the next Long March. To build the modern revolutionary power Mao envisioned, China needed resources. The Tibetan Plateau, larger than a quarter of China's land mass and rich in minerals, was necessary to his success. Broadcasts on Radio Beijing announced that "the People's Liberation Army must liberate all Chinese territories, including Tibet, Xinjiang, Hainan, and Taiwan."

In Tibet, the broadcasts were heard with alarm. The Tibetan Foreign Office promptly sent a blunt response to Chairman Mao. The Foreign Office communiqué stated: "Tibet had from the earliest times up to now been an independent country whose political administration has never been taken over by any foreign country and Tibet also defended her own territories from foreign invasion."

The message, devoid of diplomatic finesse, was an act of bravado. Tibet's army numbered a mere 8,500 troops. It had outmoded artillery, lacked modern rifles and machine guns, and had no radio communications to link its soldiers. There were no mechanized infantry, no armored units, and no air force. Mobile units consisted of cavalry and swordsmen. The Tibetans were no match for the battle-hardened veterans of the PLA, and Mao knew it. The United States and other governments denounced Mao's invasion of Tibet, but no one took immediate action against the PLA.


Dorjee Yudon could not have known that the President of the United States had decided to support guerrilla movements, like hers, against the Chinese. It was a few days after Christmas in December 1955, when President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed a secret presidential directive ordering the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to step up covert activities against Communist regimes on a global basis. His directive became known as National Security Council (NSC) Directive 5412/2.

NSC 5412/2 was an extraordinarily broad and aggressive response to the Cold War challenge posed by the Soviet Union, the People's Republic of China, and their satellite states. In the top secret document, all were lumped together under the rubric "International Communism." Distributed to the Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Director of Central Intelligence, and the Executive Officer of the Operations Coordinating Board, access to the directive was ordered strictly controlled on an "absolute need to know basis." NSC 5412/2 said to:

Create and exploit troublesome problems for International Communism ... complicate control within the USSR, Communist China, and their satellites ... discredit the prestige and ideology of International Communism ... and to the extent practicable in areas dominated or threatened by International Communism, develop underground resistance and facilitate covert and guerilla operations and ensure availability of those forces in the event of war, including wherever practicable provision of a base upon which the military may expand those forces in time of war....

To leave no doubt about what Eisenhower wanted the CIA to do, NSC 5412/2 was explicit about covert operations:

Specifically, such operations shall include any covert activities related to: propaganda; political action; economic warfare; preventive direct action, including sabotage, anti-sabotage, demolition; escape and evasion and evacuation measures; subversion against hostile states or groups including assistance to underground resistance movements, guerrillas and refugee liberation groups; support of indigenous and anti-communist elements in threatened countries of the free world; deception plans and operations; and all activities compatible with this directive necessary to accomplish the foregoing....

The responsibility for overseeing covert plans and approving their operational details fell to an ultra secret White House committee known as the 5412 Special Group. It was an unusually powerful White House committee. The job of the 5412 Special Group wasn't to make foreign policy; it was to take action. The group's authority derived directly from broad covert directives that had been drafted by the NSC and approved by the President. Gordon Gray, Eisenhower's Special Assistant for National Security Affairs, was given the power to approve the CIA's covert action plans and its interagency coordination with other departments of the U.S. government.

In addition to Gray, the 5412 Special Group's members included CIA Director Allen Dulles and the deputy secretaries of the State Department and Defense Department. Thomas Parrot, who served as special assistant to Dulles, was the 5412 Special Group's secretary and sole staff member.


Resistance to the Chinese spread throughout Eastern Tibet in 1956. In addition to Dorjee's uprising, there were rebellions among the Golok tribespeople and in Litang, where a charismatic 25-year old named Yunri Ponpo rallied a force of thousands to make a stand against the PLA. Using the Great Monastery as a base, Ponpo's fighters inflicted heavy damage on surrounding Chinese troops. The Chinese counterattacked with artillery and Soviet-made Ilyushin 28 bombers. Battering the walls of the monastery from land and by air, they finally forced the Khampas to surrender. Yunri was among the last defenders left inside the rubble of the monastery. The Chinese wanted to capture him alive. Insisting that he would surrender only to the Chinese commanding general, Yunri concealed a handgun inside the long sleeve of his traditional cloak. When the general approached, Yunri pulled out the revolver and emptied its cylinder, killing the commander and another senior officer before being shot dead by the Chinese.


Excerpted from Freeing Tibet by John B. Roberts II Elizabeth A. Roberts Copyright © 2009 by John B. Roberts II and Elizabeth A. Roberts. Excerpted by permission of AMACOM. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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