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Arrested Histories: Tibet, the CIA, and Memories of a Forgotten War

Arrested Histories: Tibet, the CIA, and Memories of a Forgotten War

by Carole McGranahan


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In the 1950s, thousands of ordinary Tibetans rose up to defend their country and religion against Chinese troops. Their citizen army fought through 1974 with covert support from the Tibetan exile government and the governments of India, Nepal, and the United States. Decades later, the story of this resistance is only beginning to be told and has not yet entered the annals of Tibetan national history. In Arrested Histories, the anthropologist and historian Carole McGranahan shows how and why histories of this resistance army are "arrested" and explains the ensuing repercussions for the Tibetan refugee community.

Drawing on rich ethnographic and historical research, McGranahan tells the story of the Tibetan resistance and the social processes through which this history is made and unmade, and lived and forgotten in the present. Fulfillment of veterans' desire for recognition hinges on the Dalai Lama and "historical arrest," a practice in which the telling of certain pasts is suspended until an undetermined time in the future. In this analysis, struggles over history emerge as a profound pain of belonging. Tibetan cultural politics, regional identities, and religious commitments cannot be disentangled from imperial histories, contemporary geopolitics, and romanticized representations of Tibet. Moving deftly from armed struggle to nonviolent hunger strikes, and from diplomatic offices to refugee camps, Arrested Histories provides powerful insights into the stakes of political engagement and the cultural contradictions of everyday life.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822347712
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 10/01/2010
Pages: 330
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Carole McGranahan is Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Colorado, Boulder. She is a co-editor of Imperial Formations.

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By Carole McGranahan

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2010 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-4771-2

Chapter One


In the fall of 1959 the Tibetan struggle was globally downgraded from an issue of sovereignty to one of human rights. The Tibetans fought this categorization; from the Dalai Lama on down they argued that theirs was a state struggle, a question of regaining the sovereignty of the Tibetan state. In their opinion, the Tibetan conflict with China was not an issue of individual or even collective human rights, but one of political independence. In October 1959, Gyalo Thondup, the eldest brother of the Dalai Lama, was dispatched to the United States to see to what extent the American government could support Tibet. U.S. officials told him they were not willing to support state sovereignty but instead would act on human rights violations in Tibet. U.S. Department of State records note the following: "Thondup makes extremely favorable impression and is excellent spokesman for Tibetan cause. We were struck by his deep sincerity and by his strong desire to do whatever circumstances here seem to require in best interests of Tibetan people. He recognizes importance of not seeking action on basis which would fail to receive necessary support and which could then be exploited by ChiComs [the Chinese Communists] and others against Tibetans." Despite this advice, Gyalo Thondup remained convinced that a focus on human rights would sacrifice the struggle for independence. He repeatedly but unsuccessfully pressed U.S. officials on the issue. They "reassured him the consideration of violation of human rights in Tibet would in no way adversely affect broader Tibetan aspirations. It was at this historical moment that the case of Tibet as a state, as a people fighting to defend their country, was eclipsed by the political inconvenience other states would undergo by challenging the PRC.

American reassurances about the human rights strategy turned out to be empty. In the five decades since Gyalo Thondup's trip, Tibetans' fears have been realized time and again. The naming of the Tibetan struggle as a human rights issue has prejudiced Tibet's case for state sovereignty. Internationally, Tibetan political accomplishments have primarily been in the realm of human rights. In the 1950s and 1960s, the United States led a behind-the-scenes campaign for Tibet at the United Nations. With encouragement from the United States the politically weak states of Ireland and the Federation of Malaya requested that the issue of Tibet be discussed by the General Assembly. Eventually, under the stewardship of these two countries, a resolution condemning China for human rights violations in Tibet was passed. Two years later, in 1961, a second and stronger resolution sponsored by Malaya and Thailand with the support of El Salvador and Ireland was passed by the General Assembly. Although the second resolution added language regarding self-determination to that of human rights, a third resolution in 1965 deleted the self-determination reference in favor of language referencing "human rights and fundamental freedoms." Since 1965, the un General Assembly has not issued any resolutions regarding Tibet.

Subsequent efforts by the Tibetans to put sovereignty on the table were not successful anywhere except behind closed doors or in legislative bodies with the power to give only symbolic support. At present, the Dalai Lama states that he is calling not for independence but for genuine autonomy in Tibet (including, but not limited to, issues of human rights). U.S. policy on Tibet was crafted in response to Cold War politics, to specific and internally disputed relations with Taiwan (the Republic of China) and China (the PRC), and to earlier British imperial policies on Tibet. If the decade of the 1950s was a period of decolonization for many countries around the world, it was ironically a time when imperialism was doubly asserted in Tibet-by the Chinese and the Americans.

Crucial to the story of modern Tibet are early imperial efforts to delineate the boundaries of the country. In 1913, the British government opened treaty discussions with Tibet and China with the goal of mapping the political boundary of Tibet. At the time, the modern belief that hard boundaries were necessary to determine where one country ended and another began was not in operation in Tibet. Instead of a fixed boundary between Tibet and both China and India there were overlapping zones, open zones, and locally governed territories, both lay and monastic. Efforts in 1913 and in subsequent decades to fix these boundaries were not successful. As a result, when the PRC invaded Tibet in the 1950s, Tibet's boundaries and political status were not defined by modern state-making principles. This does not mean, however, that Tibet did not exist as a state. As in many territories outside of Europe, Tibetan state organization operated under different principles and organizational strategies. The story of the formation of the modern borders of Thailand, for example, is remarkably similar and instructive.

In Siam Mapped: A History of the Geo-Body of a Nation, Thongchai Winichakul contends that premodern political space in Thailand was at odds with parameters for the modern nation-state (introduced by British and French officials in the Thai case). He documents five specific differences between Thai and Western concepts of the state, each of which fits the Tibetan case: in the Thai concept, (1) boundaries were determined and sanctioned locally rather than by central authorities; (2) sovereignty and boundary were not coterminous; (3) buffer zones and overlapping zones between polities were allowed; (4) external ratification of rule was not required; and (5) the sphere of a realm was defined not by territorial integrity, but by power relationships of allegiance between local polities and the center. In outlining these aspects of the Thai state, Thongchai demonstrates that the modern relationship between territoriality and nationhood is not a timeless feature of the nation but is of recent and external origin. The "absence of definite boundaries" of premodern Thailand-or of Tibet-is not owing to "some practical or technical reason" but is evidence of a different set of concepts of geopolitical space from those associated with the imperially sanctioned modern nation-state. Differences in state formation are as hierarchical as they are conceptual, and hence, in 1959 and thereafter, as Gyalo Thondup and the Tibetans were to learn, the inviolability of the Tibetan state was not a priority for anyone other than the Tibetans.

Tibet, Empire, and the Modern Nation-State

Modern political geography posits that nations and states are to be coterminous. Sovereignty must be territorial, not only jurisdictional; that is, in addition to the securing of a people's allegiance, a land must be ruled. Yet state organization has never been consistent across polities or periods. There have always been multiple and changing ways to organize peoples and places under the banner of an overarching community. The twentieth century is notable in its departure from this multiplicity of state forms. Since roughly the end of the Second World War and subsequent European decolonization, the world has been transformed into a system of nation-states represented by the United Nations. This new system allows for different types of governments but assesses them all as modern nation-states regardless of their actual composition. That is, the modern state is presumed to be coterminous with a nation, even in instances where there is not such a relationship, such as in a multinational community. Presented as universal and even natural, the modern nation-state was created out of European historical conditions and interpreted and implemented differently around the world.

This model of the nation-state was introduced to Tibet at the beginning of the twentieth century but without great success. Premodern Tibet was not defined by lines drawn on a map or by the modern logic of a seamless unity between territory and politics. Instead, Tibetan national community was determined through a broad set of connections combined with shifting center-periphery relationships of influence and allegiance. In his monumental study Civilized Shamans: Buddhism in Tibetan Societies (1993), Geoffrey Samuel argues that premodern Tibet is best thought of not as a centralized or even a decentralized state, but as a series of societies existing in a continuous social field. There was a wide variety of political and social formations across Tibetan societies: large agricultural states, smaller agricultural states, agricultural populations on the edges of states, and nomadic pastoralists. Some of these groups were subordinate to others, and some were self-governing; many, but not all, of these groups were subordinate to the Dalai Lama's administration in Lhasa. Yet the administrative aspects of rule were not weighted more heavily than the ritual or performative aspects of rule; for example, control of people, which relied on performative practices, was considered more important than control of land, which relied on administrative practices. With this in mind, Georges Dreyfus contends that Tibet should be understood as a semibureaucratic state, one in which the inequalities in bureaucratic administration across Tibetan territory are "typical of any pre-modern state, which is defined not by boundaries but by a complicated network of overlapping allegiances." That is, for premodern Tibet, what mattered was not where or if lines were drawn on a map, but the sentiments and allegiances of people and communities to the central state.

The twentieth-century structure of the Tibetan state had been in place since 1642. From the fifth through the fourteenth Dalai Lamas, with loose variation from regime to regime (including periods of regent rule in between Dalai Lamas or when the Dalai Lama was a minor), the Tibetan state was run by the Dalai Lamas as a joint religious-political system, referred to in Tibetan as chos srid. Based in Lhasa, the Tibetan government governed its subjects through a range of hierarchical practices that varied throughout the regions of Tibet. Center-periphery political ties also included monastic relations: the Dalai Lama's government was of the Gelug sect, and the three major Gelug monasteries in the Lhasa area, Sera, Drepung, and Ganden, were intimately involved in government affairs. Throughout Tibet, Gelug monasteries had special and specific relations with the Dalai Lama's government in Lhasa.

Moving from a state-level view to a regional one offers a valuable sense of how the Tibetan state and nation were experienced, organized, and understood locally as well as insight into how local practices would later be deployed and rethought. The region of Kham, for example, consists of some thirty-odd pha yul, a term which translates literally as "father land" and structurally as native places, areas, or territories. Each pha yul is composed of a series of villages and monasteries of varying sizes and sects, often separated by massive mountain ranges and the rivers that cut through them. Prior to 1950, Khampa systems of governance varied by area-some were kingdoms, others were chiefdoms, and still others were governed by hereditary lamas. The entirety of some pha yul was one administrative unit, while other pha yul were governed via separate internal units (for example, the north under one chief, the south under another). Pha yul were flexible in form, had no generic or shared administrative format, and were defined as much by social markers as by political ones. Relations between territories and between monasteries were often tense. Feuding was common, and bandits roamed the mountainous terrain. Differences between pha yul were marked in both secular and sacred ways, through dialect, clothing, and ornamentation as well as through lamas, sects, and the deities associated with local landscapes. Not all areas or monasteries were assumed to be equal, and some were nominally or entirely under the stewardship of other ones. Beyond its internal boundaries, Kham was a distinct part of Tibet, yet this relationship was determined not only by politics, but also through a series of shifting religious, political, and economic relationships with the various power holders in Lhasa. At times, portions of Kham fell under Chinese influence. For the most part, daily life in Kham was regulated not by direct or even absentee Lhasan (or Chinese) authorities, but by local rulers. As in the rest of Tibet, continuity and succession were as structurally important in Kham as fluidity and flexibility.

Under the Dalai Lamas, the Tibetan state was a political and a religious enterprise, one that varied in form and content across Tibet but that nonetheless was a functioning state. In the first half of the twentieth century, the independent Tibetan state entered tripartite negotiations with the British and Chinese. Feeling secure in its independence vis-à-vis its neighbors, the Tibetan government was in no hurry to ally itself with the rest of the world. As one veteran explained to me, "Tibet remained isolated from the rest of the world. Many countries did not know a country called Tibet even existed. If we had had diplomatic relations with other countries, they would have helped us when we were in trouble." In addition, the Tibetan government did not align itself with modern versions of the nation-state-geographically bounded, politically secured, internationally recognized-until the threat from the PRC became clear. By then it was too late.

Imperial Boundaries: Negotiating Tibet's Political Status, 1913-34

In 1907, George Nathaniel Lord Curzon, viceroy of India from 1899 until 1905, delivered a lecture entitled "Frontiers" in the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford. One passage in his lecture continues to haunt Tibet to the present day: "Frontiers are indeed the razor's edge on which hang suspended the modern issues of war or peace, or life or death to nations.... The integrity of her borders is the condition of existence of the state." In many ways, Curzon was the chief architect of British policy toward Tibet, a policy that focused on establishing the political status of Tibet vis-à-vis both India and China. British efforts to court Tibetan allegiance had begun in the late eighteenth century but took full force in 1904, when Curzon dispatched a mission to Lhasa. The Younghusband Expedition, whose time in Tibet is remembered by Tibetans as the Anglo-Tibetan War, successfully fought its way to Lhasa, forced the Dalai Lama into temporary exile in Mongolia, and secured favorable trade and political agreements with the Tibetan government. With the fall of the Qing dynasty in China in 1911, British officials of British India and of the British Consular Service in China ensured that their "good offices" were involved in all negotiations and governmental interactions between the Tibetans and Chinese.

Central to British interests at the time was the transforming of Tibet into a friendly buffer state between India and China. Tibet was an example of Britain's forward policy, in which imperial agents intervened in polities beyond the colonial domain, that is, in places not colonized by them. For British agents of empire, determining the status of Tibet required determining the boundaries of Tibet. Converting Tibetan frontiers into modern discrete boundaries proved to be a complicated task. On three occasions between 1913 and 1934, the British government tried to delineate the borders between Tibet and India as well as between Tibet and China. Their persistent efforts were ultimately unsuccessful, as the one issue that consistently impeded the passing of any treaty was the delineation of the eastern border between Tibet and China, that is, the border in Kham.


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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations vii

Note on Transliteration, Names, and Photographs ix

Acknowledgments xi

Introduction 1

1 Empire and the State of Tibet 37

2 The Pains of Belonging 53

3 1956: Year of the Fire Monkey 67

4 The Golden Throne 89

5 History and Memory as Social Practice 109

6 War in Exile 127

7 In a Clouded Mirror 143

8 Secrets, the CIA, and the Politics of Truth 163

9 A Nonviolent History of War 185

Conclusion Truth, Fear, and Lies 201

Epilogue 219

Appendix Who's Who 231

Notes 235

Bibliography 275

Index 303

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