Magazine article The New American

Tibet's Unhappy Anniversary: Communist China Cracks Down Hard as Tibetans Commemorate Their Uprising of 50 Years Ago

Magazine article The New American

Tibet's Unhappy Anniversary: Communist China Cracks Down Hard as Tibetans Commemorate Their Uprising of 50 Years Ago

Article excerpt


With an average elevation of 16,000 feet, Tibet has been called "the Roof of the World." But the view was unpleasant for Tibetans this March: Chinese armored vehicles, machine-gun-wielding soldiers, and riot police ruined the landscape. It was the 50th anniversary of Tibet's uprising against communist Chinese rule, and China was taking no chances.

Tibet has a history that dates back to at least the seventh century A.D., with a unique language and culture of its own. Buddhism was established as the state religion in the eighth century. A succession of leaders, referred to by the title "Dalai Lama," constituted both the spiritual and governmental chiefs of Tibet from the 17th century until 1959.

During much of its history, Tibet was under China's control. However, after the fall of the Qing dynasty, the Dalai Lama proclaimed Tibet an independent nation in 1913. The Republic of China, founded by Sun Yat-sen, never agreed with the proclamation, but used no force against Tibet.


However, after the communists completed their seizure of China in 1949, dictator Mao Tse-tung set his sights on the mountain nation. Although his pretext was the debatable assertion that Tibet was really part of China, his goal was conquest for communism. He sent his People's Liberation Army (PLA) to invade Tibet in October 1950. Americans, preoccupied with the Korean War that had begun that June, barely took notice. The Tibetans showed no desire to be "liberated," but Mao's troops defeated their poorly equipped army in a matter of days, killing over 5,000 Tibetan soldiers. Those who surrendered were given lectures on socialism, then released.

In May 1951, with Communist China's gun at its head, Tibet signed a 17-point agreement. Under the arrangement's terms, Tibet was declared a part of the "motherland," the People's Republic of China. In turn, China was supposed to allow the Tibetans to retain their religion, culture, and values.

These latter promises proved largely rhetorical, however, and Tibetans suffered terribly under communist rule. By 1962, only 70 of Tibet's 2,500 monasteries remained. Many monks and nuns were tortured or killed; some were even forced to have sex with each other, in violation of their celibacy vows. And hundreds of thousands of Tibetans died at the hands of the communists--from military actions, executions, and communist-induced famine. Sporadic uprisings increased, but were brutally suppressed.

Tensions reached a climax in March 1959. General Tan Guansan, commandant of Chinese forces in Lhasa--Tibet's capital--invited the young Dalai Lama to a culture show at Chinese headquarters. He was instructed to come without his bodyguards. It was evident that a plan was afoot to abduct the Dalai Lama, and 300,000 Tibetan citizens surrounded his palace to prevent him from attending the event.

This was the beginning of a major revolt. Lhasa's population took to the streets, proclaiming Tibet's independence. Chinese troops moved into place. When artillery shells exploded near his palace on March 17, the Dalai Lama, along with some other officials, escaped, and successfully made their way across the Himalayas to India, which granted them asylum. The Dalai Lama remains there to this day.

"We had definite information," writes the Dalai Lama, "two or three weeks before I left, that the Chinese were fully prepared to attack us. It was only a question of the day and hour." On March 19, open warfare began between the Chinese military and the protestors in Lhasa. The Chinese fired over 800 artillery shells on the civilian population; an estimated 86,000 died. In two days, the revolt was over. The Dalai Lama's bodyguard regiment was disarmed and machine-gunned. A senior lama, Pagbalha Soinam Gyamco, was killed and dragged by horse before the crowds. …

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