The Myths Surrounding his Escape from Tibet

The release of the Hollywood movie Kundun in 1997 sparked fresh interest in the Dalai Lama’s escape from Tibet in 1959. Careful investigation into the actual stages of this escape reveal a variety of conflicting versions, which when considered altogether expose one common truth – the Fourteenth Dalai Lama is a shameless liar and master at creating his own deceptive reality in the face of the truth.

Having a leader of the Tibetan people who was a communist sympathiser and admirer of Mao placed those Tibetans rebelling against the Chinese in a very difficult position. For the rebels it became imperative to get him out of Lhasa and to sever his connection with the Chinese.

The image of a beleaguered Dalai Lama as a virtual prisoner, not of the Chinese but of the Tibetan rebels, is reflected in a remarkable series of letters between him and the Chinese General Tan Yuan- san (see Appendix 6). In Lhasa at around 4 p.m. on 17 March 1959, two mortar shells landed harmlessly in a marsh inside the palace grounds. The Tibetans say these were fired from the direction of the Chinese camp, but this has always been open to question. Grunfeld points out that at this time the Dalai Lama:

‘… was writing to General Tan, informing the Chinese of his support and of his plans to move to their camp. Why would the Chinese have fired shots, thereby precipitating a crisis? On the other hand, the rebels, undoubtedly disturbed by the Dalai Lama—Tan correspondence, needed some grand gesture to get the Dalai to finally break with the Chinese. Logically, the mortars could have come from the rebels.’144

The mortar shells created panic in the palace and the Dalai Lama turned to his oracle for advice. But which oracle did he consult? There are conflicting accounts; over forty years later the Dalai Lama claims in his most recent autobiography that just before the two mortar shells were fired he consulted the Nechung oracle:

‘I again sought the counsel of the oracle. To my astonishment, he shouted, “Go! Go! Tonight!” The medium, still in his trance, then staggered forward and, snatching up some paper and pen, wrote down, quite clearly and explicitly, the route that I should take out of the Norbulingka, down to the last Tibetan town on the Indian border. His directions were not what might have been expected. That done, the medium, a young monk named Lobsang Jigme, collapsed in a faint, signifying that Dorje Drakden [Nechung] had left his body.’145

Eye-witnesses alive today however say that the Dalai Lama did not consult the oracle of Nechung but rather the oracle of Dorje Shugden.146 In 1998 Swiss National TV interviewed Lobsang Yeshe, the assistant of the previous abbot of Sera Monastery and someone who accompanied the Dalai Lama on his escape from Tibet. Lobsang Yeshe stated that he went to the oracle of Dorje Shugden to request exact instructions about the escape. In the SNTV programme:

‘Lobsang Yeshe tells us that the oracle gave precise instructions as to how and by which route the escape should take place with the monks as his bodyguard.’147

Helmut Gassner, for many years the German-language translator for the Dalai Lama, has also pointed out:

‘… the Dalai Lama’s Chamberlain, Kungo Phala … organized His Holiness’ escape from the Norbulingka Summer Palace … The preparations for the escape were made in absolute secrecy and strictly followed instructions received by [the oracle of] Dorje Shugden. I asked him [Phala] what thoughts were on his mind when he had to make his way through the crowds surrounding the Norbulingka with the Dalai Lama, disguised as a servant, just behind him. He said that everything happened exactly as the Dorje Shugden Oracle from Panglung Monastery had predicted …

‘According to all trustworthy witnesses I know and consulted, the State Oracle [of Nechung] did not provide any help on that occasion. After the Dalai Lama and his retinue had fled, the State Oracle only found out the following day that he had been left behind.’148

This last statement is supported by the testimony of the medium of the Nechung oracle himself, except that he says he only found out three days later! In Exile from the Land of Snows Lobsang Jigme, the medium of the Nechung oracle, says that he was ill at this time and mentions nothing about the Dalai Lama consulting Nechung or telling him to go that night. After an invocation on March 20th, three days after the Dalai Lama left, Lobsang Jigme and his attendants ‘one and all lapsed into silence, pondering Dorje Drakden’s other statement: the stunning news of the Dalai Lama’s flight from the Norbulinka … .’149 This clearly contradicts the Dalai Lama’s account.

Also, by revealing that the Nechung oracle, although sick, was obliged to find his own way out of Tibet, this account shows the lower level of respect and importance at which the Nechung oracle was held at that time. It may also help to explain the subsequent resentment of the Nechung oracle towards the Shugden oracle and by extension towards Dorje Shugden.

It is therefore clear that much of what the Dalai Lama has said about his escape from Tibet is untrue. A lot has been written of this dramatic escape – how at any moment the Chinese could have caught up with them, how brave the Tibetan soldiers were and how arduous the journey was. However, two points are now seen to be glaringly omitted from these popular accounts. First of these is that the party was accompanied by a US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)-trained operative who was in radio contact with the CIA network throughout the escape. As reported in the American George Magazine:

‘Around 3 a.m. on March 18th, they rested for a few hours near the Che-La pass separating Lhasa valley from the Tsangpo valley. It was then that the first coded radio message on the Dalai Lama’s progress was broadcast from Tibet to a CIA listening post on Okinawa, Japan. The message was relayed to CIA headquarters near Washington, D.C., where Allen Dulles waited for news of the Dalai Lama’s journey. Soon Dulles would brief President Eisenhower. Tibet’s war for independence was about to begin.’150

The CIA involvement was not just limited to radio operators:

‘… the Dalai Lama was accompanied by a Khampa who had been trained and equipped with a movie camera and sufficient color film to preserve a visual record of the flight. The Americans used a Lockheed C130 aircraft—modified especially for flight over the thin air of Tibet—to drop food and fodder for the Dalai’s party and were able to do so thanks to the training other Khampas had in learning how to place distinctive panels in the snow as targets for the pilots.’151

As Grunfeld has quoted:

‘… this fantastic escape and its major significance has been buried in the lore of the CIA as one of the successes that are not talked about. The Dalai Lama would never have been saved without the CIA.’152

Another feature of this mythical flight that is rarely reported is the Chinese claim to have deliberately let the Dalai Lama go. Two British visitors to Tibet in the early 1960s report that the Dalai Lama’s party was followed by observation aircraft, and that no attempt was made to pursue the slowly-moving entourage, which included the Dalai Lama’s mother, elderly people and children.153 Credence is given to this claim by the fact that China announced his arrival in India before anyone else did, causing the Indian government acute embarrassment. The Chinese also state that Mao gave orders to the PLA to allow the Tibetan leader to cross the border. Mao Zedong is reported as telling the Soviet Ambassador in Beijing, ‘If we had arrested him, we would have called the population of Tibet into rebellion.’154

The western and Indian media reacted immediately and with considerable glee to these dramatic events on the roof of the world. One journalist writing in the Atlantic magazine described how:

‘Kalimpong became deluged with journalists from around the world, who were inundated with phone calls from frantic editors pleading for colorful, descriptive accounts of burning monasteries. So relentless was this pursuit of “information” that one reporter from a major British newspaper was heard to declare in exasperation, “Fiction is what they want. Pure fiction. Well, by God, fiction is what they are going to get.” ’155

Grunfeld comments that ‘… fiction is what they got. Stories circulated of two thousand to one hundred thousand Tibetans killed.’ The media feeding-frenzy was such that correspondents were filing stories that had not even been witnessed.156

The Dalai Lama himself has contributed to the prevailing view of Chinese destruction and mayhem, describing the Norbulingka Palace after the rebellion had been quelled as ‘a deserted smoking ruin full of dead’.157 He wrote in his autobiography:

‘The shelling had begun at two o’clock in the morning on March twentieth, just over forty-eight hours after I left, and before the Chinese had discovered that I had gone. All that day they shelled the Norbulingka, and then they turned their artillery on the city, the Potala, the temple, and the neighbouring monasteries. Nobody knows how many of the people of Lhasa were killed, but thousands of bodies could be seen inside and outside the Norbulingka. Some of the main buildings within the Norbulingka were practically destroyed, and all the others were damaged in different degrees, … In the great monastery of Sera there was the same useless wanton devastation.’158

The Dalai Lama further maintains that the Chinese soldiers searched through the corpses in the Norbulingka looking for him, and that having failed to find him ‘either alive or dead they continued to shell the city and monasteries’, deliberately killing ‘thousands of our people, who were only armed with sticks and knives and a few short range weapons against artillery, … .’159

Yet European visitors in Lhasa shortly after this ‘wanton destruction’ describe little damage to the city, the Potala, the monastery of Sera or the Norbulingka. Indeed, in 1962 the Gelders attended a holiday celebration in the grounds of the Norbulingka and reported no signs of serious damage. The book of their travels includes a photograph of one of them sitting on the steps of the Dalai Lama’s favourite residence in the palace, the Chensel Phodrang, with all its contents meticulously preserved.160

From this we can see that the Dalai Lama lied repeatedly about the events surrounding his leaving Tibet. These lies have been nurtured ever since by the Tibetan exile government, and perpetuated by the world’s media who seems eager to believe whatever the Dalai Lama says and portray him as the wronged ‘underdog’ in the face of Chinese aggression.