DHARAMSHALA, India—When Sonam Dorjee was a Buddhist monk at the Debung Monastery in the Tibetan capital of Lhasa, he would not kill an insect. After all, that annoying fly buzzing in your ear could be the reincarnation of a beloved family member.
But when Chinese soldiers opened fire on the Tibetan refugees with whom Dorjee was fleeing across the Himalayas in 1959, the then-25-year-old monk picked up a rifle and fought back.
“It was a journey to become a different man,” Dorjee, now 81 years old, said during an interview at his home in the misty mountain village of McLeod Ganj, just outside Dharamshala.
“I had to develop a totally different mentality,” he said. “I lost my country and saw the Chinese kill many people in front of me. If you meet such a situation, it helps you to convert your mind. I had to do something for my country. There was no other choice.”
After Chinese soldiers began to shell Lhasa in 1959, Dorjee fled across the Himalayas with a group of monks and other refugees who were escorted by Chushi-Gangdruk guerilla fighters. When Chinese soldiers attacked Dorjee’s group, the fighting spirit of the Tibetan guerillas inspired the young monk. “If not for the Chushi-Gangdruk,” he said, “His Holiness and no other Tibetans would have escaped Tibet.”
“They saved Tibet,” he added. “I saw what they did, and I was thinking that I could take a weapon and I could fight for my country too.”
Six years later, a 31-year-old Dorjee decided to abandon his monk’s robes for good when he joined Establishment 22—a secret all-Tibetan unit in the Indian army created after China attacked India in the 1962 Sino-Indian war. For the former monk, becoming a soldier meant abandoning some of his most elemental philosophies and beliefs—including the prohibition on killing.
“It was very difficult to give up being a monk,” he said. “It was a totally different life. As a monk, we do puja and we pray. As a soldier we trained to kill people.”
The CIA initially provided training and equipment for Establishment 22, and Dorjee remembers the CIA instructors fondly. He said their support gave the Tibetan resistance movement a morale boost. “America trained us, and gave us food and weapons,” he said. “I have a deep appreciation and a great respect for America.”
Dorjee served in Establishment 22 for 10 years before he was selected for the Dalai Lama’s bodyguard, a post he held for 11 years. Establishment 22 never faced Chinese soldiers in combat, but saw action in operations against Pakistan, including the 1971 Indo-Pakistani war.
Establishment 22 is still active and draws recruits from Tibetan refugees in India and Nepal. A dispute over pensions has tempered Dharamshala’s support for the unit, but even today, the possibility of one day fighting the Chinese lures Tibetan recruits.
“When I joined the army, I wanted to kill Chinese,” Dorjee said. “All I wanted was to kill just one Chinese soldier. I was very angry.”
“It didn’t work out like that,” he continued. “I regretted not killing any Chinese. Now I don’t hate China, but I don’t regret the fighting. I tried my best. I have no anger left.”
Stuck in the Middle
The predominant narrative of the Tibetan resistance has been the Dalai Lama’s push for nonviolence and the “middle way”—a policy dating back to the 1970s that does not call for full Tibetan independence but a status of “genuine autonomy,” in which Tibetans control internal matters and are able to preserve their culture and religion but relegate international affairs and defense to Beijing.
Yet, the Dalai Lama is only one part of the Tibetan resistance story. From the 1950s through the mid-1970s a CIA-backed Tibetan freedom fighter army called the Chushi-Gangdruk waged a bloody guerilla war against China from inside Tibet and bases in Nepal. And after the 1962 Sino-Indian war, thousands of Tibetan men signed up for Establishment 22 (which the CIA trained and supported with arms and supplies) for a chance to fight China.
The combined combat history of the Chushi-Gangdruk and Establishment 22 challenges the Tibetan nonviolent resistance narrative. And the legacy of Tibet’s freedom fighters continues to inspire generations of Tibetan refugees to retain their hope for freedom and to resist Chinese oppression off the battlefield. While most Tibetan refugees still support the Dalai Lama’s middle way approach, recent signs of wavering in China’s economy have sparked a debate within the refugee community about how Tibetans should react if China’s Communist Party collapses.
“The Chushi-Gangdruk legacy has inspired younger generations,” said Tenzin Nyinjey, researcher at the Tibetan Center for Human Rights in Dharamshala—home of the Tibetan government in exile.
“The hope for freedom hasn’t faded at all,” he added. “We’re going to see something really explosive within our lifetime.”
The debate orbits around whether the Tibetan government in exile should continue pushing for autonomy, as the Dalai Lama has advocated, or push for full-fledged independence, which Tibet’s freedom fighters fought for during the Cold War. And with the Dalai Lama’s 80th birthday this year, there is also quiet debate within the refugee community about how long support for the middle way will last after his death.
“We know armed resistance is impossible, the CCP [Chinese Communist Party] has to collapse or the system has to change,” Nyinjey said. “This is not the Cold War, no one is going to arm or train Tibetans to fight. But Tibetans are quite ready to declare independence if the Communist system collapses. We have the institutions of political democracy already built here in India.”
“Independence usually doesn’t require picking up a gun,” he added. “But when the time comes, young Tibetans will do what it takes.”
Many Tibetan refugees, however, still prefer the middle way approach over full independence. They base their support for the policy on a combination of pragmatism and their faith in the Dalai Lama.
“With Gorbachev, the USSR ended in an instant,” said Norbu Dorjee, 61, a business owner in Leh, the capital of India’s Himalayan Ladakh region. “China’s problems are good for us. We hope that China will become democratic, that the Communist party will collapse and we can go home.”
“But,” Dorjee added, “we are still only asking for internal autonomy, not total independence. We have to maintain faith in the path His Holiness has chosen for us.”
“I believe the middle way will last,” said Thupten Gyantso, 41, a Tibetan refugee living in Pokhara, Nepal. “The reality is that China is too powerful for us to win independence. And even if we become independent, we will still rely on China for many things.”
Opponents of the middle way claim the 40-year-old policy has achieved little for Tibetan refugees and that human rights inside Tibet have worsened in the intervening decades.
“So long as Tibet insists on only achieving autonomy, it will not be an international issue,” said Lhasang Tsering, 68, a Chushi-Gangdruk veteran who served in Nepal’s Mustang region in the 1970s. He now lives in Dharamshala and owns a bookshop called “Bookworm.”
“Unless the Dalai Lama makes freedom the ultimate goal, for peace and justice, other countries won’t help us,” Tsering said. “It might be too late for Tibet by the time China collapses.”
Some point to the recent Tibetan government in exile’s elections for prime minister as a bellwether for a renewed independence movement. The candidate who has arguably created the most media attention within the Tibetan refugee community is Lukar Jam—who has stirred controversy by openly challenging the Dalai Lama’s middle way policy and arguing for independence.
“It’s fashionable to talk about the middle way, but it kills the passion to act,” Jam said, according to the Associated Press. “I have separated the spiritual and political Dalai Lama and criticize only his political policies.”
“His popularity shows skepticism about the middle way,” Nyinjey said, referring to Jam. “There’s a movement happening that shows a fracturing of Tibetan opinion, and proponents of the middle way are being forced to defend their policies.”
Paralleling the middle way debate is a mounting resistance movement inside Tibet against Chinese rule—evidenced by protests in 2008 and a wave of self-immolations in Tibet that began in 2009. And with Beijing hosting the 2022 Winter Olympics, some speculate that there could be a repeat of the protests that swept across Tibet in advance of the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics.
During the 2008 protests, Tibetans sacked Chinese-owned businesses and attacked Han Chinese on the streets, underscoring simmering ethnic tensions inside China’s Tibet Autonomous Region.
“In 2008 this major uprising happened across Tibet,” said Sherab Woeser, visiting fellow at The Tibet Policy Institute, a think tank in Dharamshala. “No one expected it, and it was young people who led it. They want to have Tibetan textbooks in school and to be able to wave their flag and honor the Dalai Lama. Young people are expressing themselves in Tibet saying they want to be free.”
After the 2008 protests, Chinese authorities cracked down in the Tibet Autonomous Region. Surveillance increased, as did reports of arbitrary arrest and torture. Pictures of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan flag were outlawed, new travel restrictions were put in place and the borders with India and Nepal were sealed, practically stemming the flow of refugees out of Tibet.
Since 2009, 142 Tibetans have self-immolated inside China as a reaction to China’s crackdown. While the Tibetan self-immolators comprise all ages and spectrums of society, the average age of the self-immolators is 24, reflecting what some claim is increasing resistance against Chinese rule among Tibetan youth.
“The self-immolations are just a continuance of the Chushi-Gangdruk resistance,” Nyinjey said. “Nothing has changed. The occupation and the oppression have always been there. The same causes of the resistance are still there, but the form of resistance has changed.”
“Tibetans have seen so much death, pain and oppression, and that shows in the way they protest,” Woeser said.
Some also speculate that a renewed Tibetan independence movement could spark a chain reaction of secessionist movements in China’s Inner Mongolia and Xinjiang autonomous regions.
“Tibet can be the Tunisia, the trigger, for the breakup of China,” Nyinjey claimed, referencing the self-immolation of a street vendor in Tunisia in December 2010 that was a catalyst for the Arab Spring.
Despite the overwhelming odds against them, Tibet’s guerilla fighters fought fiercely, suffering heavy casualties as they faced Chinese artillery, tanks and bombers from horseback, armed with swords and World War I rifles.
“They had no knowledge of how to fight, they were just very patriotic and wanted to fight for their country,” said Tenpa Dhargyal, 37, general secretary of the Welfare Society of Central Dokham Chushi-Gangdruk, a New Delhi-based organization dedicated to caring for Chushi-Gangdruk veterans and their families.
Dhargyal’s grandfather was a Chushi-Gangdruk fighter who died fighting the Chinese. “Their courage came from their anger,” he said.
The Chushi-Gangdruk played a key role in establishing Tibet’s government in exile. In 1959, the Chushi-Gangdruk’s control over territory in southern Tibet created a protected corridor through which the Dalai Lama escaped to India. And after the Dalai Lama was safely in exile, the Chushi-Gangdruk subsequently protected the tens of thousands of refugees who fled across the Himalayas into India and Nepal.
In 1957, two years prior to the Dalai Lama’s escape, the CIA began paramilitary training for handpicked Chushi-Gangdruk fighters. The training took place at secret bases in Saipan; Camp Hale, Colorado; and Camp Peary, Virginia (at a facility known as the “farm”).
After their instruction, the Tibetan operatives parachuted into Chinese-occupied Tibet from CIA aircraft ranging from World War II era B-17s (which were painted all black) to C-130s. To create plausible deniability should an aircraft go down, the CIA initially used East European pilots recruited for covert missions over Soviet Ukraine. Air America (an aviation front for the CIA) later handled the Tibetan missions.
The Chushi-Gangdruk eventually set up camps in the remote Mustang region of Nepal, from which they launched cross-border raids into China.
The CIA supported the Chushi-Gangdruk with airdropped weapons, ammunition and supplies until 1972, when President Richard Nixon normalized relations with China and U.S. support for the Tibetan resistance was cut off. The Chushi-Gangdruk continued to operate from Nepal for several more years without U.S. backing, but achieved little.
“The U.S. treated it as a tactical move to harass the Communist block from behind, it was not a strategic decision to support Tibetan independence,” Tsering, the Chushi-Gangdruk veteran said.
“But it’s easy to point the finger at others for our failure,” he added. “We failed to capitalize on the CIA’s support to internationalize our cause and unite world opinion to support us.”
In 1974, after bowing to Chinese pressure, the Nepalese military rooted the Chushi-Gangdruk out of their mountain hideouts in Mustang, killing many (including their commander, General Gyato Wangdu, who had been trained by the CIA at Camp Hale, Colorado) in high-altitude gunfights. The Dalai Lama sent a taped message imploring the Mustang resistance to lay down their arms, spurring several fighters to commit suicide.
For some Tibetans, the history of China’s invasion of Tibet and the legacy of lives lost in the ensuing Tibetan resistance fuels a lingering distaste for submitting to Chinese rule—which they see the middle way as promoting.
“Even though they asked us to be friends with China, we don’t want it,” Dhargyal said. “We can’t make friends with them because they killed our grandparents. We don’t want to live under Chinese rule. We want our country back.”
Chungdak Bonjutsang began to cry when he described how Chinese soldiers killed his mother in 1959.
Bonjutsang, now 61 years old, covered his eyes with his hands. His chest heaved a few times with deep breaths. He tried to fight through it and talk, but he choked up. After a silent moment, he wiped his eyes clear, looked up to the ceiling for an instant, and then continued.
Bonjutsang was only 6 years old when his mother, father, uncle and older brother crossed the Himalayas to escape Communist rule in Tibet. They were in a group of about 400, he said. Women, children and the elderly were kept in front, while the men and the Tibetan Chushi-Gangdruk guerilla fighters stayed at the rear to repel Chinese attacks. Their group was a part of the 80,000 Tibetans who flooded into India and Nepal in 1959 after the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) shelled protesters in the Tibetan capital of Lhasa.
Bonjutsang remembers the sounds of bullets ricocheting off the hard stones of the mountain when the Chinese attack came. Exposed on a high-altitude pass with nowhere to hide, the only options were to run or fight back.
Bonjutsang’s father tied the scared 6-year-old boy to one of the horses used to carry supplies so that he wouldn’t be lost in the confusion of the gunfight. And then his father and uncle joined the Chushi-Gangdruk guerillas in fighting back the Chinese soldiers.
During the attack, Bonjutsang’s mother was shot in the side. She died quickly. And with the Chinese in pursuit, there was no time to bury her. “We just left her on the ice, and then we ran away,” Bonjutsang said during an interview at the Sonamling Tibetan refugee colony in India’s Himalayan Ladakh region.
“I was very young then,” he said. “But as I grew older, the pain got worse. I can’t stop thinking about her lying dead on the ice. I see her at night when I go to sleep.”
Fifty-six years later, Bonjutsang’s pain and his anger over his mother’s murder have not faded. “China is still the enemy,” he said. He has never returned to Tibet, and admits that he may never be able to. Yet, his hope that Tibet will regain its independence has not faded—and that hope is sustained by his unshakeable faith in the Dalai Lama.
“We have great hope that we will be able to return the Dalai Lama to Tibet before he passes,” Bonjutsang said. “As long as His Holiness is alive we believe freedom is possible.”
A smile crept across Bonjutsang’s face. He added: “And, of course, we also hope His Holiness outlives the Communist Party in China.”