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The 1959 Tibetan uprising, or 1959 Tibetan Rebellion began on 10 March 1959, when an anti-Chinese and anti-communist revolt erupted in Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, which had been under the effective control of the Communist Party of China since the Seventeen Point Agreement in 1951.[1] Although the 14th Dalai Lama's flight occurred in 1959, armed conflict between Tibetan rebellion forces and the Chinese army started in 1956 in the Kham and Amdo regions, which were subjected to socialist reform. The guerrilla warfare later spread to other areas of Tibet and lasted through 1962.

The anniversary of the uprising is observed by some Tibetan exiles as the Tibetan Uprising Day.

Armed resistance in east Tibet

In 1951, a seventeen point agreement between the People's Republic of China and representatives of the Dalai Lama was put into effect. Socialist reforms such as redistribution of land were delayed in Tibet proper. However, eastern Kham and Amdo (western Sichuan and Qinghai provinces in the Chinese administrative hierarchy) were outside the administration of the Tibetan government in Lhasa, and were thus treated more like other Chinese provinces, with land redistribution implemented in full. The Khampas and nomads of Amdo traditionally owned their own land.[2] Armed resistance broke out in Amdo and eastern Kham in June 1956.

By 1957, Kham was in chaos. People's Liberation Army reprisals against Khampa resistance fighters such as the Chushi Gangdruk became increasingly brutal. Reportedly, they included beatings, starving prisoners, and the rape of prisoners' wives in front of them until they confessed. Monks and nuns were forced to have sex with each other and forcibly renounce their celibacy vows. After torture, these men and women were often killed.[3] By the late 1950s Tibetan rebels numbered in the tens of thousands.[4] Kham's monastic networks came to be used by guerilla forces to relay messages and hide rebels.[5] Punitive strikes were carried out by the Chinese government against Tibetan villages and monasteries. Tibetan exiles claim that threats to bomb the Potala Palace and the Dalai Lama were made by Chinese military commanders in an attempt to intimidate the guerrilla forces into submission.[6]

Lhasa continued to abide by the seventeen point agreement and sent a delegation to Kham to quell the rebellion. After speaking with the rebel leaders, the delegation instead joined the rebellion.[7] Kham leaders contacted the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), but the CIA under President Dwight D. Eisenhower insisted it required an official request from Lhasa to support the rebels. Lhasa did not act.[7] Eventually the CIA began to provide covert support for the rebellion without word from Lhasa. By then the rebellion had spread to Lhasa which had filled with refugees from Amdo and Kham.[4] Opposition to the Chinese presence in Tibet grew within the city of Lhasa.

The PLA used Chinese Muslim soldiers, who formally had served under Ma Bufang to crush the Tibetan revolt in Amdo.[8]

Rebellion in central Tibet

On 1 March 1959, an unusual invitation to attend a theatrical performance at the Chinese military headquarters outside Lhasa was extended to the Dalai Lama. The Dalai Lama—at the time studying for his lharampa geshe degree—initially postponed the meeting, but the date was eventually set for 10 March. On 9 March, the head of the Dalai Lama's bodyguard was visited by Chinese army officers. The officers insisted that the Dalai Lama would not be accompanied by his traditional armed escort to the performance, and that no public ceremony for the Dalai Lama's procession from the palace to the camp should take place, counter to tradition.[6]

According to historian Tsering Shakya, some Tibetan government officials feared that plans were being laid for a Chinese abduction of the Dalai Lama, and spread word to that effect amongst the inhabitants of Lhasa.[9] On 10 March, an estimated 300,000 Tibetans surrounded the Dalai Lama's palace to prevent him from leaving or being removed. This marked the beginning of the uprising in Lhasa, though Chinese forces had skirmished with guerrillas outside the city in December of the previous year.[6] The Chinese government has claimed that the revolt was initiated by the "Dalai clique". On that day, according to China Daily, a senior lama, Pagbalha Soinam Gyamco, who worked with the PRC as a member of the Preparatory Committee of the Tibetan Autonomous Region, was killed and his body was dragged by a horse in front of the crowd for two kilometres.[10]

On 12 March, protesters appeared in the streets of Lhasa declaring Tibet's independence. Barricades went up on the streets of Lhasa, and Chinese and Tibetan rebel forces began to fortify positions within and around Lhasa in preparation for conflict. A petition of support for the armed rebels outside the city was taken up, and an appeal for assistance was made to the Indian consul.[6]

Chinese and Tibetan troops continued moving into position over the next several days, with Chinese artillery pieces being deployed within range of the Dalai Lama's summer palace, the Norbulingka. On 15 March, preparations for the Dalai Lama's evacuation from the city were set in motion, with Tibetan troops being employed to secure an escape route from Lhasa. On 17 March, two artillery shells landed near the Dalai Lama's palace, triggering his flight into exile.[6]

Open conflict began on the night of 19 March, including the shelling of the Norbulingka and Lhasa's major monasteries. Combat lasted only about two days, with Tibetan rebel forces being badly outnumbered and poorly armed.[6][4][11]

United States involvement

The United States funded training and arms for the guerrillas in Tibet prior to the uprising and for several years following. From 1959 to 1964, Tibetan guerrillas were secretly trained at Camp Hale by the CIA.[12]

The Tibetan project was codenamed ST Circus, and it was similar to the CIA operation that trained dissident Cubans in what later became the Bay of Pigs Invasion. In all, around 259 Tibetans were trained at Camp Hale. Some were parachuted back into Tibet to link up with local resistance groups (most perished); others were sent overland into Tibet on intelligence gathering missions; and yet others were instrumental in setting up the CIA-funded Tibetan resistance force that operated out of Mustang, in northern Nepal (1959–1974).


According to the Tibetan Government in Exile,[6][4] an estimated 86,000 Tibetans died in the events surrounding the 1959 uprising. Grunfeld says "the veracity of such a claim is difficult to verify."[13] The Norbulingka was struck with an estimated 800 shells, killing an unknown number of Tibetans within and camped around the palace.[4][11] Lhasa's three major monasteries- Sera, Ganden, and Drepung- were seriously damaged by shelling, with Sera and Drepung being damaged nearly beyond repair. Members of the Dalai Lama's bodyguard remaining in Lhasa were disarmed and publicly executed, along with Tibetans found to be harbouring weapons in their homes. Thousands of Tibetan monks were executed or arrested, and monasteries and temples around the city were looted or destroyed.[6]

The CIA officer, Bruce Walker, who oversaw the operations of CIA-trained Tibetan agents, was troubled by the hostility from the Tibetans towards his agents: “the radio teams were experiencing major resistance from the population inside Tibet.” [14] The CIA trained Tibetans from 1957 to 1972, in the United States, and parachuted them back into Tibet to organise rebellions against the PLA. In one incident, one agent was immediately reported by his own brother and all three agents in the team were arrested. They were not mistreated. After less than a month of propaganda sessions, they were escorted to the Indian border and released.[15]

In April 1959, the-19 year-old 10th Panchen Lama, the second ranking spiritual leader in Tibet, residing in Shigatse, called on Tibetans to support the Chinese government.[16] However, after a tour through Tibet, in May 1962, he met Zhou Enlai to discuss a petition he had begun writing at the end of 1961, criticising the situation in Tibet. The petition was a 70,000 character document that dealt with the brutal suppression of the Tibetan people during and after the Chinese invasion of Tibet.[17] In this document, he criticized the suppression that the Chinese authorities had conducted in retaliation for the 1959 Tibetan uprising.[18] But in October 1962, the PRC authorities dealing with the population criticized the petition. Chairman Mao called the petition "... a poisoned arrow shot at the Party by reactionary feudal overlords." In 1967 the Panchen Lama was formally arrested and imprisoned. He was released in 1977 and died suddenly after a mysterious illness in 1989.[19]

Chinese authorities have interpreted the uprising as a revolt of the Tibetan elite against Communist reforms that were improving the lot of Tibetan serfs. Tibetan and third party sources, on the other hand, have usually interpreted it as a popular uprising against the alien Chinese presence. Historian Tsering Shakya has argued that it was a popular revolt against both the Chinese and the Lhasa government, which was perceived as failing to protect the authority and safety of the Dalai Lama from the Chinese.[20]

In popular culture

The 2010 novel The Magician of Lhasa was banned in China for its depiction of the rebellion.

See also


  1. Chen Jian, The Tibetan Rebellion of 1959 and China’s Changing Relations with India and the Soviet Union, Cold War Studies at Harvard University
  2. Grunfeld, Modern Tibet, 9.
  3. Knaus, Orphans of the Cold War, 134.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 4.4 Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; no text was provided for refs named Roberts
  5. Knaus, Orphans of the Cold War, 86.
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 6.4 6.5 6.6 6.7 Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; no text was provided for refs named giehist
  7. 7.0 7.1 "Chushi Gangdruk". Archived from the original on 2009-05-04. Retrieved 2009-03-28.
  8. Warren W. Smith (1996). The Tibetan nation: a history of Tibetan nationalism and Sino-Tibetan relations. Westview Press. p. 443. ISBN 0813331552.,+formerly+the+troops+of+Ma+Pu-fang,+and+Inner+Mongolian&dq=Few+Amdo+Tibetans+were+able+to+escape+to+central+Tibet.+A+particular+aspect+of+the+suppression+of+the+revolt+in+Amdo+was+the+use+by+the+Chinese+of+Hui+(Chinese+Moslem)+cavalry,+formerly+the+troops+of+Ma+Pu-fang,+and+Inner+Mongolian&hl=en&ei=aYKnTK2TCIWglAe-puz7DA&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=1&ved=0CCUQ6AEwAA. Retrieved 2010-6-28.
  9. Shakya 1999, pp. 188–9
  10. Dalai clique's masterminding of Lhasa violence exposed. 30 March 2008. Retrieved 31 March 2008. Archived 2009-05-04.
  11. 11.0 11.1 Chushi Gangdruk
  12. A British Documentary about the CIA and Tibetan resistance movement
  13. Grunfeld 1996, pg. 247
  14. Conboy & Morrison 2002, pg. 220
  15. Conboy & Morrison 2002, pg. 213
  16. Feigon 1996, pg. 163
  17. The 10th Panchen Lama
  18. Hostage of Beijing: The Abduction of the Panchen Lama, Gilles Van Grasdorff, 1999, ISBN 1862045615 fr:Pétition en 70 000 caractères
  19. International Campaign for Tibet,
  20. "A Review of The Dragon in the Land of Snows: A History of Modern Tibet Since 1947". Retrieved 2009-02-24.


  • Conboy, Kenneth, and Morrison, James. The CIA's Secret War in Tibet (2002) University Press of Kansas. ISBN 0700611592
  • Feigon, Lee. Demystifying Tibet: Unlocking the Secrets of the Land of the Snows (1996) Ivan R. Dee, Publisher. ISBN 1566630894
  • Grunfeld, A. Tom. The Making of Modern Tibet (1996) East Gate Book. ISBN 978-1563247132
  • Knaus, Robert Kenneth. Orphans of the Cold War: America and the Tibetan Struggle for Survival (1999) PublicAffairs . ISBN 978-1891620188
  • Laird, Thomas. The Story of Tibet: Conversations with the Dalai Lama (2006) Grove Press. ISBN 0802118275
  • Shakya, Tsering. The Dragon In The Land Of Snows (1999) Columbia University Press. ISBN 0-231-11814-7

External links

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ar:انتفاضة التبت 1959 cs:Tibetské národní povstání de:Tibetaufstand 1959 es:Rebelión tibetana de 1959 eo:Tibeta ribelo (1959) fr:Soulèvement tibétain de 1959 ko:1959년 티베트 봉기 id:Pemberontakan Tibet 1959 nl:Opstand in Tibet (1959) ja:1959年のチベット蜂起 no:Det tibetanske opprøret i 1959 pl:Powstanie tybetańskie 1959 pt:Revolta no Tibete em 1959 sv:Tibetanska upproret 1959

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