A Secret War in Shangri-La
The Daily Telegraph, London
14 November 1998
A Tibetan filmmaker reveals how the CIA once helped his people fight their oppressors.
One morning in spring 1974, a 15-year-old Tibetan refugee, Tenzing Sonam, came into the quad of the Darjeeling school where he was a boarder to read the newspapers pinned up on the bulletin board. “There was a headline which said something like ‘Tibetan Bandits on the Rampage – Warrior Leader Arrested’,” he remembers. “I read on and realised that the leader was my father. I just went into class and didn’t say anything to the other boys. Later, my mother came to the school and told me what had happened, or as much as she knew.”
Up until that point, Tenzing Sonam had believed that his father was in New Delhi, working for the Dalai Lama’s Tibetan government in exile following the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1950. In fact, he had been captured in Nepal where he was co-ordinating a CIA-inspired proxy war against the Chinese in one of the least known but most unusual operations in the Cold War, code-named “ST Circus”.
Now, 24 years later, Tenzing Sonam and his wife, Ritu Sarin, have made a remarkable documentary film for the BBC which reveals the work of the CIA in Tibet and shows how desperately the Tibetans fought to get rid of the Chinese. For the first time, retired CIA agents and Tibetan veterans have given a full account of Washington’s secret war in the remote Himalayan Buddhist kingdom.
It turns out that his father, Lhamo Tsering – like his son and most Tibetans, he does not use a surname – was much more than a bandit leader. He was the trusted link-man between the Tibetan resistance and the CIA for nearly 20 years. When the resistance fighters were eventually abandoned by the CIA, he was arrested and imprisoned in Nepal for eight years. Now in his late-70s, he lives in exile in India.
As a young man in the early Forties, he won a scholarship to a college in the Chinese city of Nanjing. “My family were farmers from Nagatsang in eastern Tibet,” says Tenzing Sonam, “which at that time was under the control of a Chinese warlord. My grandparents thought it would be a good idea for one of their sons to learn Chinese and develop an understanding of how China worked.”
While he was living in Nanjing, Lhamo Tsering became the secretary and confidant of the present Dalai Lama’s elder brother, Gyalo Thondup. When Chinese Communist troops began to close in on Tibet in 1949, the two of them fled from Nanjing to Shanghai and escaped on a boat to India. After a brief return to Tibet, Lhamo Tsering based himself in Kalimpong, near Darjeeling.
It was not until 1958, by which time he had met and married a maidservant of another member of the Dalai Lama’s family, that Lhamo Tsering was taken into Gyalo Thondup’s full confidence. He told him that he was working with the CIA, which had secretly begun to train Tibetan resistance fighters on the remote pacific island of Saipan.
“My father was sent off to a training camp in Virginia,” says Tenzing Sonam, “and later, to Camp Hale in the Rocky Mountains in Colorado. It was incredibly secret – even in the United States very few people knew what was happening. Most of the Tibetans were learning about sabotage, laying mines, operating weapons, detonating explosives, that sort of thing, but because my father was better educated, and spoke English and Chinese, the CIA wanted him as a co-ordinator. He was trained in espionage. They even got him to practise doing dead letter drops in the Library of Congress.”
Lhamo Tsering returned to Darjeeling, where he became the on-the-ground administrator of ST Circus, selecting Tibetan refugees for training, and co-ordinating the extraction of intelligence from inside Tibet. Once a month, he would hitch a lift down to Calcutta on a cargo plane. “He would wait on Park Street with a newspaper under his arm until a beaten-up car came,” says Tenzing Sonam. “In the back would be an American, usually ‘Mr John’ – that was all he knew him as – who would hand over a big bundle of rupees. My father would pass whatever information he had, and they would discuss arms drops, or whatever.”
In Tibet, the CIA-trained Tibetans were attempting to link up with the indigenous resistance, the Chushi Gangdrug or “Four Rivers, Six Mountain Ranges” movement, which controlled swathes of southern Tibet. As the Chinese Communists tightened their control in the late Fifties, an increasingly violent war developed between the Tibetan rebels and Mao Zedong’s People’s Liberation Army.
Almost 300 Tibetans were trained in the Rocky Mountains, many being parachuted into Tibet from US planes during covert overflights. Their survival rate was extremely low, and the only living member of the first mission, Bapa Legshay, has described the operation as “like throwing meat into the mouth of a tiger”. “We had made up our minds to die,” he said. “We had been given cyanide capsules so that we wouldn’t be caught alive by the Chinese.”
In March 1959, the Dalai Lama escaped from the Tibetan capital, Lhasa, disguised as one of his own bodyguards. Accompanied by his senior officials, he rode on horseback towards the border with India. It was here that the American connection became especially useful, albeit in a different form from the romanticised version of his escape found in the recent spate of Hollywood films about Tibet.
Using a hand-cranked Morse radio, Athar, a member of the US-trained Tibetan resistance, sent a message to Washington asking for political asylum in India for the Dalai Lama. It was received late on a Saturday night by a senior CIA officer, John Greaney, who immediately put through an urgent call to his boss. Four hours later, the CIA’s man in New Delhi sent a wire back to Washington saying that the Indian Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, had granted asylum to the Dalai Lama and his entourage.
In the Sixties, ST Circus changed tack. Instead of training selected Tibetans in the United States, the CIA decided to set up a larger operation in Mustang, a mountainous spur of land which juts out of Nepal into southern Tibet. Groups of Tibetans would be armed with mortars, carbines and 55mm recoil-less rifles, and from there would set up guerrilla units and conduct raids inside Tibet. Recently declassified US intelligence documents show that the CIA was spending more than $1.7 million annually on this operation.
Lhamo Tsering now had a difficult job on his hands. As rumours of the new Mustang base spread among the 100,000 Tibetan refugees in India and Nepal, they began to make their way there in their hundreds, anxious to fight for the freedom of their motherland. But this coincided with a ban by President Eisenhower on covert overflights – following the shooting down of a U2 spy plane over the Soviet Union in May 1960 – which meant that supplies could not be dropped to the Tibetan rebels.
“It was a terrible situation,” says Tenzing Sonam. “There were more than 2,000 people up in the mountains with nothing to eat. They were even boiling their shoes and eating the leather. People died. There was nothing my father and the other leaders could do until later that year the Americans made their first drop of arms and supplies.”
During the Sixties, the Mustang guerrillas were organised along the lines of a proper army, and conducted repeated raids into Tibet. The most successful raid, on the Xinjiang-Lhasa highway in 1961, resulted in the capture of a significant haul of documents.
Forty armed horsemen ambushed a Chinese military convoy. “The truck came to a stop,” one fighter, Acho, remembers. “The driver was shot in the eye, his brains splattered behind him and the truck came to a stop. The engine was still running. Then all of us fired at it. There was one woman, a very high-ranking officer, with a blue sack full of documents. This was carefully collected by our leader.”
The documents showed for the first time the extent of the famine and unrest in both China and Tibet created by Chairman Mao’s Great Leap Forward, and the causes of the Sino-Soviet split. Ken Knaus, a CIA officer, describes the contents of the blue sack as “one of the greatest intelligence hauls in the history of the agency”.
Nevertheless, the activities of the Mustang freedom fighters were of limited effectiveness. The guerrillas were useful to the US principally for their nuisance value against the Chinese, and their ability to supply intelligence about a country that was closed to the outside world. They never managed to establish a proper resistance army inside Tibet, since they did not have a strong enough level of military backing.
As the Cultural Revolution got under way, Tibet’s ancient monasteries and temples were destroyed, many monks and nuns were killed or imprisoned and famine ravaged the country. At the same time, the Mustang operation became mired in internal feuding between the CIA-trained generation of fighters, and the tribal leaders who had started the original resistance.
The final nail in the Tibetan resistance movement was President Nixon’s historic rapprochement with China in 1971-72. As Sino-American relations thawed, the Tibetans were left to fend for themselves. After a final burst of funding, the CIA’s involvement with Mustang was severed.
The base in Mustang continued operations until 1974, when the Nepalese government decided, under Chinese pressure, to put a stop to it. When the leaders of Mustang refused to surrender, the Dalai Lama intervened to try to prevent a bloodbath. He sent a taped message ordering the fighters to lay down their arms, which was played in each of the camps.
The effect was terrible. The rebels felt they had no choice but to obey their political and spiritual leader, but many of them saw such a surrender as tantamount to suicide. Several soldiers threw themselves into a river and were drowned, and one man, a CIA-trained senior officer named Pachen, handed over his weapons and promptly slit his own throat with a dagger. Wangdu, the Commander of Mustang, tried to flee to India but was ambushed at the Tinker Pass by the Nepalese army and shot dead.
Tenzing Sonam points out that, “These were men who had been fighting the Chinese since the mid-Fifties, people who had grown up with guns and knives, being asked to surrender their weapons … It was the end of everything for them.”
His father was arrested in Pokhara and brought to the Central Jail in Kathmandu, where he was charged with raising a rebel army and smuggling arms. Although for a time it looked as if they might face the death penalty, he and six other Tibetan resistance leaders were sentenced to life imprisonment. He was eventually released in 1981, after an amnesty by the King of Nepal.
Tenzing Sonam sees the struggles of the resistance movement as “a forgotten chapter in recent Tibetan history. It doesn’t fit in with our image of nice, happy, smiling, peaceful people with tinkling bells up in Shangri-la … There was a culture of violence in Tibet. We didn’t just lie down and ask the Chinese to roll over us.”
For Tenzing, the process of researching the story of CIA involvement in Tibet has made him see his father in a new light. “It was a revelation to me. I feel much closer to him now that I know what he was doing all through my childhood. In a way, the film is an act of filial devotion … I think it’s amazing what he did coming from his background, having such single-minded devotion to the cause of Tibetan freedom. He, and a whole generation of our people.”
PATRICK FRENCH (born 1966) is a British writer and historian, based in London. He was educated at the University of Edinburgh where he studied English and American literature. French is the author of several books including:
- Younghusband: The Last Great Imperial Adventurer (1994),
- Tibet, Tibet: A Personal History of a Lost Land (2004),
- The World Is What It Is: The Authorized Biography of V.S. Naipaul (2008) and
- India: A Portrait (2012).
During the 1992 general election, French was a Green Party candidate for Parliament. He has sat on the executive committee of the Tibet Support Group UK, and was a founding member of the inter-governmental India-UK Round Table.
© Patrick French & The Daily Telegraph
Offered with kind permission from the author.
Header image: Tibetan Resistance fighters pose with weapons following CIA arms drop
CIA in Tibet, Tibetan Guerrillas, and the Dalai Lama
- CIA in Tibet (Vimeo) – Documentaries by Lisa Cathey and Kefiworks (formerly http://ciaintibet.com and http://kefiblog.com)
- Extracts from The CIA’s Secret War in Tibet by Kenneth Conboy and James Morrison (The University Press of Kansas) – Claude Arpi blog
- The Phantoms of Chittagong by Claude Arpi
- Phantom Warriors of 1971 – Unsung Tibetan Guerrillas by Manas Paul
- Love and Empire: Tibet, the CIA, and Covert Humanitarianism (2018) by Carole McGranahan