New York, United States – More than 70 years after China invaded Tibet, Tenzin Tsultrim still remembers the events as if they were yesterday.
A teenager at the time, Tsultrim was training as a novice monk in eastern Tibet and remembers the bombs from planes of China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) air force that fell on the monastery. He was too young to fight but the old monks all rebelled.
Now 87 years old, Tsultrim casts his mind back to those times and clutches his beads.
His eyes narrowed.
“That’s when I first got the idea that I had to fight if I could,” Tsultrim told Al Jazeera from New York where he has lived since 1997.
Eventually, Tsultrim and tens of thousands of other Khampas, from the eastern Kham region of Tibet, fled to Lhasa in central Tibet, which remained relatively calm.
There, the Dalai Lama negotiated with the Chinese communist government in a bid to maintain his authority. But the appeasement did not last and, after a 1959 uprising that was brutally suppressed, the Tibetans launched a year-long resistance against communist rule.
Eventually Tsultrim joins the rebellion and is now known as the last survivor of a legion of resistance fighters.
“It is very sad that most of them have been forgotten by Tibetans today; no memory,” he said. “But I keep them in my prayers every day.”
Hidden weapons fall
The story of the Tibetan people’s resistance against Chinese rule, backed by covert military aid from the United States, is a little mentioned in the early chapter of the Cold War in Asia. The operation, which lasted from 1957 to 1973, was carried out – but ultimately not carried out – by the ever-shifting alliance between the powers surrounding Tibet – namely China, India and Nepal.
Tibet was the first communist conquest of China. Beijing now has its sights set on Taiwan, which sees the self-governing island as the last piece of territory brought into Beijing’s embrace. The forgotten history of how the Tibetans fought against the Chinese invasion is more important now than ever, and it is a history that the Tibetans themselves are reviving.
Tsultrim came from a wealthy merchant family that was friendly with Andrugtsang Gompo Tashi, a respected merchant in Khampa who began pouring his wealth into fighting the Chinese. By 1957, Gompo Tashi had assembled a militia – called “Chushi Gangdrug” in Tibetan – and Tsultrim was old enough to answer the call to arms.
“I decided then I had to do something,” he told Al Jazeera in Tibetan.
The newly formed militia has established a base in a part of southern Tibet bordering India where Chinese troops are few and far between. In July 1958, it received its first airdrop of ammunition and automatic rifles from the US and for eight months, the resistance’s presence proved crucial in carving out a safe route for the fleeing Dalai Lama. in Tibet towards India.
Shortly thereafter, however, after a massive PLA ambush, the resistance fighters were forced to decamp, eventually regrouping in a remote mountainous Tibetan enclave in Nepal called Mustang. , which flows through Tibet.
In addition to airdrops, agents from the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) trained Tibetans in guerrilla tactics. By 1962, Tsultrim, then 26 years old, was selected for boot camps in the mountainous state of Colorado in the US where the altitude approximates that of Tibet.
Each trainee was given an English name and Tsultrim was known as Clyde. In two years in the camps, he was schooled in skills such as pyrotechnics, Morse Code, map reading and parachuting. He said because of his performance in wilderness survival, he was also taken for leadership training in his unit.
When their training was over, he and 15 other armed rebels were flown back to India and exfiltrated to Tibet on the ground – the last unit to parachute in was all dead. Tsultrim remembers wearing rags to disguise himself as a beggar on his frequent clandestine trips to his homeland.
“I want to kill the Chinese. I want revenge,” said Tsultrim. “I am ready to be killed.”
Just as the Tibetans were spoiling for combat, the Americans were single-mindedly focused on intelligence gathering. A major breakthrough came in 1961 with a blood-stained, bullet-riddled pouch from a PLA commander that held a cache of 1,600 classified Chinese documents. They detail the famines, the failure of the Great Leap Forward and the internal fighting within the military and the Chinese Communist Party at a time when information in China was almost non-existent.
It has been called “the best intelligence coup since the Korean War (1950-53)”, according to Orphans of the Cold War: America and the Tibetan Struggle for Survival by ex-CIA officer John Kenneth Knaus.
However, Tsultrim’s group became the last trainees under American tutelage. By 1965, the US cut off funding for covert operations. The growing friction between China and the Soviet Union then created an opening for an eventual Sino-US rapprochement, making the secret mission at once unsustainable and unnecessary. All told, several hundred fighters were trained.
Coming of age in Darjeeling, India, the political heart of the Tibetan exile community in the 1960s, and imbibing Ernest Hemingway’s dispatches from the Spanish Civil War, Jamyang Norbu grew itching to join the resistance. With his English writing skills in greater demand than his fighting spirit, Norbu was sent to Dharamsala to help with translation and intelligence.
By 1970, he was sent to Mustang – just in time to witness the demise of the resistance.
“It’s easy to see that it’s just a matter of time before the thing fails,” Norbu, 74, said half a century later in a New York City basement office he founded in a research outfit about Tibetan culture and politics called. High Asia Research Center and Library.
The end came in 1973, when the new Nepali king sought a closer alliance with, and greater assistance from, Beijing. Tibetan fighters at the Mustang base were ordered by the Nepalese to surrender their weapons and disband.
While Dharamsala remains a haven for exiled fighters, the existence of the militia is considered an embarrassment to the non-violence policy espoused and embodied by the Dalai Lama. At the same time, the growing prominence of CIA operations meant that any mention of the past association would be a liability to the cause of the Tibetans.
Writing as a weapon
When Norbu retreated from Nepal, he began collecting material and conducting interviews with his fellow fighters and other exiles. His decades of research culminated in Echoes from Forgotten Mountains: Tibet in War and Peace, a book of more than 900 pages to be published in English this month by India Viking, an imprint of Penguin Random House.
“Without resistance, there would be no exile community,” said Carole McGranahan, an anthropologist and historian of contemporary Tibet at the University of Colorado Boulder in the US and author of Arrested Histories: Tibet, the CIA, and Histories of a Forgotten War. . “This is the story he has been trying to tell for a long time, even though the resistance has a troubled place in Tibetan history.”
However, this history has recently won the official nod – in the form of a permanent exhibition at the Tibet Museum, opened in February 2022 by the Central Tibetan Administration, the Tibetan government in exile in Dharamsala.
As a warrior as ever, Norbu now puts his faith in the power of the written word.
“For me, writing is like a weapon. I am angry with the Chinese regime,” said Norbu. “It was a tough fight.”