Appendix 6: 1959 Correspondence between the Dalai Lama and General Tan Kuan-san

The release of the Hollywood movie Kundun in 1997 sparked fresh interest in the uprising of March 1959 and the Dalai Lama’s epic escape from Tibet. Speaking of these events, an article in George Magazine says:

‘The operation was guided by CIA director Allen Dulles, whose wartime experience with anti-Nazi resistance movements inspired the Tibetan covert war. But the mission’s success hinged upon a case officer … [who] was still in his 30s when he and Gyalo Thondup, one of the Dalai Lama’s brothers, planned the spiritual leader’s flight.’365

To rally the people of Lhasa around the rebels, a rumour was deliberately circulated that the Chinese were about to kidnap or even kill their precious leader. The perfect opportunity to promote the rumour arose because the Dalai Lama agreed to attend a theatrical performance at the camp of the Chinese Military Command on a specified date. Grunfeld comments on this invitation:

‘China … emphatically denies that the Dalai Lama was coerced in any way to set that date. Beijing has maintained, in fact, that it was the Dalai [sic] who set the date and, indeed, had done so one month earlier [italics by Grunfeld]. For years this claim was roundly ridiculed as “communist lies and propaganda” until Dawa Norbu publicly acknowledged that a former Tibetan official had confided in him that the Chinese account was correct. When confronted with this contradiction in 1981 the Dalai Lama admitted that his original story was incorrect, agreeing that he had selected the date several weeks prior to the event.’366

At the time, the rumour that the Dalai Lama’s life was threatened spread like wildfire. On 10 March 1959, between ten and thirty thousand Tibetans, together with the entire Tibetan army, converged on the Norbulingka – the 300-year-old summer palace where the Dalai Lama was residing.367

The atmosphere was highly charged as the people assembled to thwart the feared Chinese plot. A Tibetan monastic official who arrived at the palace to defuse the situation was stoned to death. After reassurances from the Dalai Lama that he would not visit the camp of the PLA (People’s Liberation Army) the crowd partially dispersed. However, that evening a meeting of rebel leaders and seventy members of the Tibetan government was held outside the palace to support a resolution declaring that Tibet no longer recognized China’s authority, thus repudiating the ‘Seventeen-Point Agreement’, and calling for the expulsion of the Chinese from Tibet.368

The rebels posted guards around the palace and told ministers they would not be allowed to leave. They also erected barricades north of Lhasa on the main road to China. Realizing the incendiary nature of their proclamation the Dalai Lama called a meeting with the seventy rebel members of his government.369

‘He told them that General Tan had not compelled him to accept his invitation [to the theatrical performance]. He had in fact been consulted and given his consent before the invitation was formally issued. He assured them he was in no personal danger from the Chinese. They agreed it was impossible to disobey his orders but ignored them just the same.’370

The image of a beleaguered Dalai Lama, a virtual prisoner of the rebels, is reflected in a remarkable series of letters between him and the Chinese General Tan Kuan-san. At first it was assumed that the letters:

‘… could not be anything but the cleverest of forgeries. This rush to judgment caused considerable embarrassment when China published photocopies of the letters, half of them in the Dalai’s [sic] handwriting, whereupon the cleric was obliged to verify their authenticity.’371

After hearing that the Dalai Lama could not leave the Norbulingka to attend the theatrical performance in the Chinese camp, the Chinese commander wrote to him that day, March 10th:

‘Respected Dalai Lama,

‘It is very good indeed that you wanted to come to the

Military Area Command. You are heartily welcome. But since the intrigues and provocations of the reactionaries have caused you very great difficulties, it may be advisable that for the time being you do not come.

‘Salutations and best regards, ‘Tan Kuan-san’372

The Dalai Lama replied on March 11th:

‘Dear Comrade Political Commissar Tan,

‘I intended to go to the Military Area Command to see the theatrical performance yesterday, but I was unable to do so, because of obstruction by people, lamas and laymen, who were instigated by a few evil elements and who did not know the facts; this has put me to indescribable shame. I am greatly upset and worried and at a loss what to do. I was immediately greatly delighted when your letter appeared before me—you do not mind at all.

‘Reactionary, evil elements are carrying out activities endangering me under the pretext of ensuring my safety. I am taking measures to calm things down. In a few days, when the situation becomes stable, I will certainly meet you. If you have any internal directives for me, please communicate them to me frankly through this messenger.

‘The Dalai Lama,

‘written by my own hand.’373

In response to the rebels putting up fortifications and posting large numbers of guerrillas with machine guns along the national highway, General Tan wrote to the Dalai Lama later that day, March 11th, explaining that the Chinese forces had asked the rebels to withdraw from the highway immediately or face the consequences.374

In his reply dated March 12th the Dalai Lama wrote:

‘… The unlawful activities of the reactionary clique cause me endless worry and sorrow. Yesterday I told the kasa [Kashag, or Tibetan Cabinet] to order the immediate dissolution of the illegal conference [of the underground Tibetan resistance movement] and the immediate withdrawal of the reactionaries who arrogantly moved into the Norbulingka under the pretext of protecting me. As to the incidents of yesterday and the day before, which were brought about under the pretext of ensuring my safety and have seriously estranged relations between the Central People’s Government and the Local Government, I am making every possible effort to deal with them.’375

In his reply on March 15th General Tan wrote:

‘… We are very much concerned about your present situation and safety. If you think it necessary and possible to extricate yourself from your present dangerous position of being held by the traitors, we cordially welcome you and your entourage to come and stay for a short time in the Military Area Command. We are willing to assume full responsibility for your safety. As to what is the best course to follow, it is entirely up to you to decide.’376

On March 16th the Dalai Lama wrote his third and last letter to the General:

‘Dear Comrade Political Commissar Tan, ‘Your letter dated the 15th has just been received at three o’clock. I am very glad that you are so concerned about my safety and hereby express my thanks.

‘The day before yesterday, the fifth day of the second month according to the Tibetan calendar, I made a speech to more than seventy representatives of the government officials, instructing them from various angles, calling on them to consider present and long-term interests and to calm down, otherwise my life would be in danger. After these severe reproaches, things took a slight turn for the better. Though the conditions here and outside are still very difficult to handle at present, I am trying tactfully to draw a line separating the progressive people among the government officials from those opposing the revolution. In a few days from now, when there are enough forces I can trust, I shall make my way to the Military Area Command. When that time comes, I shall first send you a letter. I request you to adopt reliable measures. What are your views? Please write me often.

‘The Dalai Lama’377