Tibetan Voices: Remembering the 1959 Uprising: Despite the Crushing of Tibetan Independence by China 50 Years Ago This Month, and Continuing Attempts to Stifle Support for Tibet's Spiritual Leader, the Dalai Lama, the Country Is Very Much Alive in the Hearts and Minds of Its Exiled Community. Asya Chorley Investigates Tibet's Recent History through the Experiences of Some of Those Who Fled the Chinese Regime
Chorley, Asya, History Today
'I remember very well the start of the Tibetan National Uprising in Lhasa. On March 10th, 1959 a mass meeting was held in front of the Potala and Norbu Lingka Palaces, denouncing the Chinese Communist regime and people marched through the street and, as they marched, they declared that Tibet was independent and that China must quit Tibet. All the time Chinese soldiers with machine guns at the ready were observing the crowd from the roof tops, threatening them through loudspeakers that if the Tibetans did not surrender immediately, Lhasa would be shelled ... I have vivid memories of joining the march and going through Bha-Khor, the high street of Lhasa. At the beginning, as a child, I did not realise the significance of this historic march and all that was happening until I saw the Chinese soldiers threatening us.
It was such a tense and very uncertain time and after two days of shelling and gun fighting, the Chinese completely controlled the city. It was a tragedy for Tibetans not knowing what the situation would be under total Chinese rule and we were extremely worried for the safety of His Holiness the Dalai Lama.'
The stories of the Tibetan community in exile not only testify to their resilience and resourcefulness but also provide a first-hand insight into Tibet and China's complex and conflicted relationship since 1950. While 10-year-old Lhakpa Dolma witnessed these terrifying events, her future husband, Tsewang Pemba, the first Tibetan exile in Britain, was in London waiting anxiously for news of his homeland.
Rumours about the fate of the 14th Dalai Lama were circulating almost daily in the international press. Movement across the Tibetan borders had been heavily restricted by the Chinese in the weeks preceding the uprising and was soon blocked entirely. Over 100 journalists flocked to Kalimpong in the Indian Himalayan borders to attempt to uncover the situation and track the whereabouts of the mysterious 'God King'. The Times reported on March 24th:
There is a general (and so far uncontradicted) belief that last week's uprising was aimed at forestalling a Chinese plan to abduct the Dalai Lama from Lhasa, that the small official Tibetan army has taken sides with the insurgents, and that leading monasteries have been handing out to the populace stores of hidden arms ... China is reputed to be using artillery and aircraft in retaliation ... the only consolation at present is that the Dalai Lama is understood to be safe and at liberty.
Deciding to flee Lhasa, after a perilous two-week journey, the Dalai Lama, his family and close advisers finally reached India on March 30th. However, anxious not to provoke China, Prime Minister Nehru initially isolated the refugees from the press. Permission was finally granted for the Dalai Lama to issue a statement on April 18th from a camp in the Himalayan foothills. With this he opened the world's eyes to the situation in Tibet since the arrival of the Chinese in 1951, explaining that far from respecting Tibetan autonomy, 'the Chinese government exercised full powers in Tibetan affairs'.
Tsewang Pemba still remembers the tremendous relief he felt on hearing that the Dalai Lama had been granted asylum, and the excited letters he exchanged with his siblings in India. His parents, anticipating the implications of the Chinese presence in Tibet, had the foresight to leave Lhasa in 1953, travelling on mule back, and settled in the principality of Sikkim. His father, who had worked for the British Mission in Tibet, also took the untypical decision to educate his children in the British system in India. In 1956, Tsewang arrived from school in Darjeeling to study engineering at Imperial College, London. Now, three years later, he found himself stranded. 'On graduation,' he recalls, 'any thoughts of returning east seemed out of the question and there was no alternative but to start working and earning one's daily bread. …