Revolt of the Monks: How a Secret CIA Campaign Against China 50 Years Ago Continues to Fester; A Role for Dalai Lama’s Brother (by Peter Wonacott)
DARJEELING, India — Chodak, an 83-year-old former monk, fled Tibet in the wake of a bloody Chinese invasion more than 50 years ago. Today, he spends his days trimming wool carpets at a refugee center perched above the tranquil tea plantations of this Indian hill town. The plight of Tibetan exiles like Chodak, and their Buddhist message of nonviolence, has drawn world-wide sympathy to their cause.
Tibet’s history of resistance
But Chodak’s story has a twist. He’s one of the last surviving guerrilla fighters who took up arms against the Chinese during a little-known chapter in Tibet’s history. His life has been one of war, not peace. Starting in the late 1950s, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency trained scores of Tibetans, many of them monks, and then air dropped them back to their country with weapons and wireless radios. The linchpin of the operation was an older brother of the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of 2.7 million Tibetans and today a Nobel Prize-winning symbol of peaceful resistance.
“We were fighting to protect Buddhism from those who wanted to harm it,” said Chodak in an interview, his eyes now clouded with cataracts. These days, armed with little more than his message of peace and the occasional chortle at Beijing’s expense, the 73-year-old Dalai Lama enjoys the upper hand in an international public-relations war. He inspires protests that embarrass the Chinese government around the world, including during the recently concluded Beijing Olympics. He also provokes over-the-top denunciations from Chinese officials. During the unrest in March, Tibet’s Communist Party Secretary, Zhang Qingli, accused the Dalai Lama of sabotaging the region’s stability and described the Buddhist leader as a “a wolf in monk’s clothes, a devil with a human face.”
The Dalai Lama deflects such accusations with dry humor, saying repeatedly that if Tibet’s freedom movement ever became violent, he’d step away from politics. “Please investigate,” he said of the charges that he inflamed Tibetan protests in March. “If we are really the instigator, we are awaiting punishment.” He has said that he wasn’t aware of the 1950s-era armed resistance in the beginning, and that upon learning about it, he didn’t encourage Tibetans to join it. He also disavows any plan to see Tibet become independent, pressing merely for China to allow Tibetans more local autonomy to preserve their customs and language.
But the history of the resistance movement — and the Dalai Lama’s close family connection to it — remains very much a part of the ongoing tensions with China. It helps explain why even rudimentary reconciliation talks — the next round is expected in October — have gone nowhere.
John Kenneth Knaus, a retired CIA officer who led a covert Tibet command center from New Delhi in the 1960s, remembers the Dalai Lama as torn — personally sympathetic to his brave compatriots but unwilling publicly to support a bloody rebellion that ran counter to his Buddhist belief in protecting life. “The Dalai Lama knew everything that was going on, but he couldn’t give his blessing,” says Mr. Knaus, author of the 1999 book “Orphans of the Cold War: America and the Tibetan Struggle for Survival.”
Gyalo Thondup, one of the Dalai Lama’s brothers and the former resistance leader, declined to be interviewed for this story. “It’s a very sensitive and inopportune time to talk, from the points of view of many different parties,” said one of his sons, Tempa Thondup, in a message conveyed from the elder Mr. Thondup. People who answered the door at Gyalo Thondup’s residences in New Delhi and Kalimpong, India, said the 80-year-old wasn’t at home. Stories recounted by Tibetan resistance fighters, including six surviving guerrillas, demonstrate the deep involvement of Mr. Thondup in the CIA-backed operation.
Mr. Thondup came to the resistance movement with rare qualities for Tibetans of his generation — a fluency in Mandarin and an understanding of China’s history. In 1949, he was studying in the wartime capital of Nanjing when the People’s Liberation Army vanquished the Nationalist forces. Mr. Thondup and his Chinese wife, the daughter of a Nationalist general, eventually settled in Darjeeling, near the Indian border with Nepal. When the CIA made contact with him in the early 1950s, Mr. Thondup had been organizing escape routes for Tibetans fleeing Chinese rule. His wife, Nancy Chu, helped establish the center where refugees learned handicrafts so they could make a living on Indian soil.
A spokesman for the CIA declined to comment on the Tibetan operation. The refugees arrived with tales of misery and horror. Tsering Dakpa, a Tibetan farmer, says in 1954 he watched Chinese soldiers drag suspected rebels outside a village and force them to dig a trench filled with freezing water. The men were stripped, thrown into the trench and — when they didn’t answer questions satisfactorily — shot, according to Mr. Dakpa.
“My heart stopped,” the 77-year-old says of the execution. “I decided then I’d join the resistance.” That same year, the Dalai Lama had gone to Beijing to meet with China’s leaders, including Mao Zedong, in hopes of securing more religious and political autonomy for Tibet. But back home, in the Tibetan region of Kham, an anti-China resistance had already taken root.
The Battle at Litang
It was in Kham, in 1956, that one of the most violent clashes occurred, a days-long battle at the Litang Monastery. One of the Litang monks was Chodak, who now works at the refugee center in Darjeeling. He recalls a meeting in which a Chinese general urged them to abandon their weapons. The monks carried weapons to defend themselves from bandits. Chodak says the general threatened to burn down the monastery if they didn’t comply. “The Chinese said they were protecting us, and that there was no need to carry weapons,” says Nawang Datha, another monk. “We refused.”
Instead, the Litang monks sneaked up at night and attacked a nearby Chinese camp, according to Mr. Datha and Chodak. The Chinese army responded by charging the monastery in a pre-dawn raid. The Tibetans fought back with homemade pistols, antique rifles, axes and knives. “Everybody was rushing here and there,” says Chodak. “We didn’t know who we were killing.” Mr. Datha’s younger brother, Tenlay Tenzing, managed to flee the monastery earlier on the family’s black horse. Chinese troops shot the horse, but the monk kept running. Coming upon the horse carcass later, Mr. Datha feared his younger brother had been killed — only to be reunited later at their parents’ home. When bombs from Chinese airplanes were dropped on the monastery, Chodak fled to Tibet’s capital, Lhasa, a weeks-long walk, but far from the fighting in Kham.
China’s official history of the fighting at Litang says the monks reacted violently to Chinese efforts to abolish a “feudal serf system” and “slavery,” according to the Web site of the Ganzi Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture People’s Government, a part of Sichuan province that includes Litang. The government accused Tibetan rebels in the area of attacking military and government officials, damaging roads and bridges as well as raping, looting and killing. As a result, the Communist Party of China extended “important orders for the suppression of unrest,” the Web site says, calling it a “war of liberation.” The events at Litang inflamed passions across Tibet and helped fuel the resistance movement. Many monks, left without a monastery, shed their robes to fight the Chinese. Warring Tibetan clans set aside grievances to unite in battle. The CIA later would gain several recruits from Litang, who wanted to match China’s soldiers with modern firepower and military training of their own.
Flight to Darjeeling
One of the Litang monks, who went by the name Lhotse and was the older brother of Messrs. Datha and Tenzing, fled to Darjeeling, posing as a trader. When he arrived, he knocked on the door of Mr. Thondup. The brother of the 14th Dalai Lama, Mr. Thondup was already a prominent figure among Tibetans and his political sympathies were well known. After listening to Lhotse recount the failed uprising, Mr. Thondup responded with a proposition. “If you want to go for training,” he said, “I may have a place to send you.”
The monk agreed to the secret mission, according to interviews with his two surviving brothers, whom he later told about the conversation. In addition to Lhotse, Mr. Thondup recruited five Tibetan fighters and sent them in early 1957 for training with CIA instructors on the Pacific island of Saipan. The Tibetans learned how to operate a radio transmitter, fire modern weapons and set up ambushes. The Dalai Lama’s oldest brother, Thubten Jigme Norbu, served as a translator on Saipan. Mr. Norbu, a retired professor of Tibetan studies at Indiana University, is now in poor health and unable to respond to comment, according to his youngest brother, Tendzin Choegyal. After six months in Saipan, Lhotse and a monk named Athar parachuted back into Tibet. Traveling with other rebels, the pair relayed radio requests for weapons and supplies and kept the CIA apprised of the resistance inside Tibet.
Mr. Knaus, the former CIA officer, testified in writing to the U.S. Congress in 1999 that the CIA made two arms drops into Tibet in July 1958 and Feb. 1959. These included 403 Lee Enfield rifles, 60 hand grenades, 20 machine guns and 26,000 rounds of ammunition. By the late 1960s, Mr. Knaus estimates, the CIA had dropped 700,000 pounds of supplies to the rebels. China’s attempts to quell unrest around Lhasa worsened tensions. In March 1959, the Dalai Lama sneaked out of the city’s Potala Palace and headed for India on horseback. The CIA-trained rebels hooked up with the Dalai Lama, sending radio updates on his whereabouts to Washington. As Tibet’s spiritual leader was about to cross safely into India, the rebels cheered and waved. The Dalai Lama waved back.
Chodak interpreted the wave as “a long-distance blessing,” he says. “Then we went back to fighting.” The Dalai Lama’s aides say that at the time the Tibetan leader didn’t have a good grasp of the resistance, or of how the CIA was involved. “His brother really kept him in the dark — for his own sake,” says Tempa Tsering, the Dalai Lama’s representative in New Delhi.
As Mr. Thondup filled out the ranks of the CIA-backed resistance, Mr. Datha and his brother Mr. Tenzing also enlisted. Mr. Tenzing recalls arriving in 1959 at a secluded training base in the Colorado Rockies called Camp Hale. He gazed at the pine forests and snow-covered peaks. “I felt I was back in Tibet,” he says. Tibetans would train secretly in Colorado until 1964, according to Mr. Knaus’s written testimony to Congress. Mr. Thondup traveled extensively to publicize Tibet’s plight, recruit fighters and forge links with foreign intelligence agencies, according to another of his sons, Khedroob Thondup, who acted as his private secretary.
During Mr. Thondup’s rare breaks at home, the family went on picnics in the misty hills of Darjeeling. The children practiced shooting Mr. Thondup’s old Winchester rifle. He also taught them how to prune his prize roses. But inside Tibet, the resistance was wilting. China’s superior radio communications allowed it to outmaneuver fighters. Its air power crushed Tibetan fighters. Most of the agents the CIA sent into Tibet were captured or killed. In disarray, the rebels retreated to a mountainous base known as Mustang just beyond southern Tibet inside Nepal. Fighters at Mustang say Mr. Thondup showed up periodically to rally spirits. “You don’t have to worry about food and supplies. We have sponsors that will take care of that,” Mr. Thondup said, according to Nyima Namgyal, one of the rebels who heard the Dalai Lama’s brother speak at Mustang.
“We had an idea it was America,” added Mr. Namgyal, now 65 years old and living in a retirement home in Dharmsala. So many arrived at Mustang that supplies were stretched thin. Chodak says he sold his sword and charm box — an amulet he wore around his neck — to buy provisions. The rebels raided farms inside Tibet for sheep that would provide food and wool to fend off the cold. Infighting posed as grave a threat to the Mustang operation as the Chinese army. Several of the Tibetan fighters complained that the commander was pocketing funds, according to Mr. Tenzing. In 1968, disgusted with what had become of the resistance, Mr. Tenzing returned to Darjeeling and opened a dumpling restaurant.
For the Americans in the late 1960s, the operation was reaching the end of its usefulness. The CIA had closed training camps years earlier and was winding down supply runs. Mired in Vietnam, the U.S. government worried about getting drawn deeper into another Asian conflict. In 1972, President Nixon met with Chinese leader Mao Zedong, ushering in a new era of the U.S. and China relationship. For the Dalai Lama, a new stance toward China would take shape, too. In the early 1970s, he sought to disband the rebels and end the bloodshed. Chodak says he concluded his war with the Chinese after a tearful 1972 meeting with the Dalai Lama in Dharmsala. Not everyone agreed to leave Mustang. Some fighters shot themselves or slit their own throats rather than disobey the Dalai Lama’s orders, according to his spokesman Tenzin Taklha.
By then, the fighting with China was essentially over. In 1974, the Dalai Lama huddled with aides in a sunlit meeting room at his residence. “We made up our minds that, sooner or later, we would have to talk with the Chinese government,” he said in a recent interview. “Independence was no longer relevant.” The man who would serve as the go-between with the Chinese government was someone both sides knew well. He was the Dalai Lama’s older brother, Gyalo Thondup.