Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Tibet Uprising Day

Today is the 51st anniversary of the Tibetan Uprising. To establish the background for that day:

-China had initially tried to negotiate a Tibetan surrender, but on October 7th, 1950 Chinese troops entered Kham, the mountainous southeastern region of Tibet. The People’s Liberation Army was far better equipped than the tiny Tibetan army, and was also composed of units which had already seen action in WWII and the Chinese Civil War. They won decisively, although sources suggest that the Tibetans killed more troops than they lost. After the fall of Chamdo, the major government center of the region, the Chinese army acted in a way that would surprise people who are familiar with the conflict today: instead of killing captured Tibetan fighters, they were given speeches about the benefits of socialism and released. Robert Ford, an Englishman present in Chamdo at the time, relays the following story:
A [survivor of the Tibetan garrison] told us... “They are strange people, these Chinese...I cut off eight of their heads with my sword, and they just let me go.”
The initial campaign left the regional garrisons of Kham and Amdo devastated, but Chinese troops were actually remarkably considerate towards the community after Tibetan units had been defeated. These policies turned out to be very short-lived, however.

-Over the next few years China switched tack and attempted to implement Maoist land redistribution in Kham and Amdo, which resulted in massive upheavals. The monasteries and nomads had controlled most of the land prior to the Chinese invasion, and this combined with increased Chinese rhetoric about the evils of religion led to outbreaks of armed resistance by 1956. The monasteries were the backbone of the resistance, which led to Chinese punitive strikes against them and against Tibetan townspeople. The cycle of violence grew to the point that the previously isolated outbreaks coalesced into one resistance group, called Chushi Gangdruk. Translated literally it means "Four Rivers, Six Ranges," a reference to the four major rivers and six mountain ranges of Kham.

-Lhasa and the entire region of Central Tibet had remained relative quiet at first. Land redistribution policies were delayed because Beijing had hoped that the young Dalai Lama could be convinced to play ball with them. He was receptive initially, even going as far as to meet Chairman Mao in Beijing. But by the late 50’s he had figured out their game, and began to move away from reaching a settlement with China. Meanwhile, a group of emissaries from Lhasa sent to try to bring order to Kham saw the effects of Chinese rule and joined Chushi Gangdruk instead. Things finally came to a head in March 1959, when a Chinese invitation to the Dalai Lama included a request that he meet them without body guards- a request seen by many Tibetans as a plot to abduct or kill him.

-On March 10th, 300,000 Tibetans surrounded the Norbulingka, the summer palace where the Dalai Lama was studying at the time. They refused to allow Chinese officers into the area, and over the next few days the situation escalated. Posters went up calling for a Chinese withdrawal, and both sides prepared to fight. Senior Tibetan advisers had been trying to convince the Dalai Lama to leave for India for years, and when the Norbulingka was shelled several days later he finally assented. Members of Chushi Gangdruk fought a delaying action behind him, while Lhasa itself was shelled by Chinese artillery for days. By the end of the fighting on March 21st tens of thousands of Tibetans had been killed.

The aftermath played out in a few different ways. The CIA trained and equipped members of Chushi Gangdruk for years, and they remained active in Kham for years until American rapprochement with China and a taped message by the Dalai Lama convinced them to step down and head for the Indian border. The Indian government gave the Dalai Lama some land, and thousands of additional Tibetan refugees have crossed the border every year since then. Today their total numbers are somewhere around 120,000. Finally, March 10th has become a potent day inside Tibet, where it was marked by enormous protests in the late 80’s and more recently in 2008.

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