The issue of recruiting Tibetans in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has recently come up in the Indian media.
It is presently not easy to find out what is true and what is exaggerated, but I will try to give here a historic background to understand better the issue.
The debate has started after Nyima Tenzin sacrificed his life during an Indian Army’s operation to take control of the Kailash range on the southern bank of the Pangong tso (lake) in Ladakh on August 29, 2020.
At that time, many in India discovered the existence of the Special Frontier Force (SFF), a Tibetan Army, also known as Establishment 22 or Vikas Regiment (read my post The History of the First Months of Establishment 22 – Special Frontier Force ).
Nyima Tenzin had joined the force in 1987 at the age of 18; he went to an Army base in Leh, asking to be recruited into the secretive commandos opearting under the Cabinet Secretariat and the Indian Army; his candidature was accepted and served the following decades with the SFF.
During the night of August 29-30, the Tibetan commandos managed to capture a string of strategic high-altitude areas on the Kailash range. It was a resounding victory for India.
One should be grateful for the SFF and other Special Forces for this.
The Seventeen-Point Agreement
But let us travel in history.
Seventy years earlier, after the Tibetan Army was defeated during the battle of Chamdo and the local commander (and governor of Kham province) Ngabo Ngawang Jigme shamelessly surrendered to the PLA on October 18, 1950; the doors were opened for Mao Zedong to ‘negotiate’ a agreement with the Dalai Lama’s government; this resulted into the 17-Point Agreement signed ‘under duress’ by Ngabo, then a PoW in Beijing.
In the Agreement the PLA is mentioned in five of the 17 articles. It has to be noted that the Chinese knew that the Tibetans have always be good warriors, notwithstanding their Buddhist faith:
2- The local government of Tibet shall actively assist the PLA to enter Tibet and consolidate the national defenses.
5- Tibetan troops shall be gradually reorganized into the PLA, and become a part of the PRC’s defense force.
13- The PLA entering Tibet shall abide by all the aforementioned policies, and shall also be fair in all commerce, and shall not arbitrarily take a needle or thread from the people.
15- In order to ensure the implementation of this agreement, the Central People’s Government (CPG or Beijing) shall set up a Military and Administrative Committee and a Military Area headquarter in Tibet and – apart from the personnel sent there by the CPG – shall absorb as many local Tibetan personnel as possible to take part in the work. Local Tibetan personnel taking part in the Military and Administrative Committee may include patriotic elements from the local government of Tibet, various districts and various principal monasteries; the name list shall be set forth after consultation between the representatives designated by the CPG and various quarters concerned and shall be submitted to the CPG for appointment.
16 Funds needed by the military and Administrative Committee, the Military Area HQ and the PLA entering Tibet shall be provided by the CPG. The local government of Tibet should assist the PLA in the purchase and transport of food, fodder and other daily necessities.
Probably not trusting the Tibetans, who had just been ‘liberated’, the Chinese inserted Article 5: “Tibetan troops shall be gradually reorganized into the PLA, and become a part of the PRC’s defense force,” but the Tibetan Army would never be assimilated into the PLA, probably due to what is known as ‘Han Chauvinism’.
It is also true that the situation fast deteriorated on the plateau in the 1950s.
The Tibetan Army dissolved
During the following years, the Tibetan Army ceased to exist and most of the Tibetan soldiers joined the guerilla against the occupiers (at least those from Eastern Tibet).
Then March 1959 saw the Tibetan uprising, followed but the flight of the Dalai Lama to India via Southern Tibet and NEFA (see my post, How the Tibetans were emancipated …by the guns).
On March 28, 1959, New China News Agency reported the ‘Proclamation of the Tibet Military Command of the Chinese PLA’ which had been issued on March 20 (eight days earlier):
For a long time the Tibet Local Government [the Dalai Lama’s Government] and the upper strata reactionary clique have plotted rebellion in collaboration with imperialists and reactionaries outside the country. For quite some time they have assembled rebellious bandits and connived at their ravages, destruction of communications, plunder of merchants and travellers, rape, and arson, and murder in various parts of Tibet, thereby inflicting suffering on the people. The Central People’s Government, adopting an attitude of magnanimity, repeatedly ordered the Tibet Local Government to punish the rebels strictly and protect social order. But the Tibet Local Government only feigned compliance. It not only evaded responsibility for putting down the rebellion, but encouraged and supported it and thus inflamed the rebellious bandits.
It was all lies; the Tibetans were just fighting for their survival.
The ‘proclamation’ continued in this vein mentioning the uprising (or ‘rebellion’ for the Chinese) of March 10, to conclude: “We hope that all the people in Tibet, religious and secular, will energetically help our army in the campaign to put down the rebellion and not shelter the bandits, supply the enemy or provide the rebellious bandits with information. As to the rebels, our army will treat them in accordance with a policy of leniency in various ways: no account will be taken of the past misdeeds of those who desert the rebellious bandits and return to us; those who make contributions will be awarded; all those captured will be well-treated, they are not to be killed, insulted, beaten or searched and deprived of their personal effects. Those who persist in error and carry out stubborn resistance will be punished strictly.”
Nobody in Tibet was ready to help the PLA to suppress further the inhabitants of the Roof of the World.
The Tibetan Defenders of the Faith Volunteer Army
At that time, the Chushi Gangdruk (‘Four Rivers, Six Ranges’, also known as ‘Tibetan Defenders of the Faith Volunteer Army’), a Khampa Tibetan guerrilla warfare group was extremely active in Southern Tibet; it was the Khampa troops who eventually escorted the Dalai Lama to the Indian border in March 1959.
From 1956 onwards, the Chushi Gangdruk fought the Chinese and on June 16, 1958, it took a formal shape, it officially came into being (over the years, they would receive the assistance of the CIA).
The Force had the blessings of the Dalai Lama who conferred the rank of ‘Dsasak’ to Andrug Gompo Tashi, the Force Commander.
In a letter, the Tibetan leader wrote:
“You have led the Chushi Gangdrug force with unshakeable determination to resist the Chinese occupation army for the great national cause of defending the freedom of Tibet. I confer on you the rank of Dzasak (the highest military rank equivalent to general) in recognition of your services to the country. The present situation calls for a continuance of your brave struggle with the same determination and courage.”
According to Wikipedia: “In 1974, guerrilla operations ceased after the CIA, given the realignment of Sino-American relations initiated by President Richard Nixon, terminated its program of assistance to the Tibetan resistance movement and the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan spiritual and temporal leader, taped a message telling the Tibetans to lay down their weapons and surrender peacefully.”
In the meantime, the SSF had been created in India …to take the relay of the Chushi Gangdruk.
I dealt elsewhere with the history of the creation of the Force (see link above).
Recruitment of Tibetan Youth in PLA in Tibet
A report entitled ‘Confidential Study on Deployment of Chinese Occupational Force in Tibet’, was prepared at the behest of the CIA in the 1980s by a Tibetan called Tashi Chutter; it contains a few lines on the recruitment of Tibetans in the PLA. This partially answers the often-asked question: “Why the PLA did not recruit Tibetans earlier”.
In his report, Chutter explains: “Prior to 1980, class background was the foremost criterion while recruiting Tibetan youth in PLA. The sons of former aristocrats, wealthy traders and peasants and of those who took part in uprising movements against Chinese were totally barred from recruitment. Only the sons of so-called proletarian families with clean background and sound health could find their way in PLA. Educational qualification of the aspirants was not counted at that time.”
Later, when Deng Xiaoping initiated his ‘Open Door Policy’: “class distinction for recruitment was waived off and everyone gets equal treatment. Unlike in the past, now more stress is made on educational qualification of recruits and aspirants are required to have at least primary schooling. Also the language barrier between Tibetan recruits and Chinese army instructors which in the past proved a big problem exists no more now,” writes Chutter.
It was the time when Hu Yaobang, the then General Secretary of the Communist Party visited Tibet and strongly spoke in favour of a greater autonomy for the Roof of the World.
Chutter goes on explaining the military arrangements on the Tibetan plateau: “The recruitment for PLA is generally carried out during winter months annually, which coincides with the slack farming season when youths are easily available for drafting. The minimum age for recruitment is 18 years and the minimum height is 150 cm and each recruit should weigh 85 Gyamas i.e. 42.5 kg. The medical test prior to recruitment is vigorous and thorough, consisting of dozen things to do.”
The recruitment happened at the military office of the sub-military District (SMD or Wu Tang Phu in Chinese) in every dzong (county) of the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR): “[the officer] in-charge of the Wu Tang Phu is equivalent to Thoantang i.e. Regiment Commander and only those elderly officers who cannot perform duties in border areas are posted in Wu Tang Phu offices. As such, most of the officers are senior and aged ones, who are responsible for drafting fresh recruits for PLA from areas of their respective jurisdiction. The Wu Tang Phu offices are also responsible for mobilization of local Militia men.”
The CIA report says that the annual recruitment from areas under seven MSDs is about 250-300 men: “However, of late it has come to the notice that this average of fresh recruitment is falling down year by year simply due to unwillingness on part of Tibetan local youths who are reluctant to join PLA as they do not see any future prospect after their discharge from their 3 years service.”
Till recently, the number of recruits remained the same.
The fresh recruits were then trained in physical exercises and the use of small arms as well as in jungle warfare: “Only selected few are trained in handling artillery and machine guns. At the time of recruitment each soldier is given two sets of winter and two sets of summer uniforms in olive green colour, two pairs of shoes, a pair of boot with fur lining inside for winter and one pair of canvas shoes for summer, two pairs of socks, three caps with fur for winter use, one jungle hat and one ceremonial P cap, one leather belt for three years use, two stockings, two pyjamas (one for winter and one for summer).”
There was never a great enthusiasm from the side of the Tibetans to join the PLA. Could it be otherwise?
To create a purely Tibetan unit would probably be an enormous risk that the Han-dominated PLA is probably not ready to take.
The 1962 War against India
A Chinese report of 1962 Sino-Indian war has a few paras about ‘People of Each Nationality Throughout the Nation Provided Active Support to the Front’. It confirms that the Tibetans were not involved in the operations, but the PLA used some of them for support tasks.
The Report says: “The victory in the counter attack operation in self defence [it is the way the Chinese call the 1962 border War] carried out in the Sino-Indian border areas was completed with the vigorous support of the people of each nationality of the entire nation and all the forces.”
This refers to Tibetans and Uyghurs (for the Western front).
The Reports continues: “At that time, the entire country contributed large quantity of material also collected a large batch of material equipments and even various types of specialists from the entire army were sent.”
It is further mentions “In the aspects like rising up supply and transportation of such material, Chamdo military region, Lanzhou military region and the party government, military and civilian of Sichuan and Qinghai provinces and Yu office and Tibet Office of General Logistic Department all did their best.”
The ‘nationalities’ are mentioned: “a part of 76th automobile transport regiments day and night fought bravely for timely transporting combat material to the front lines through thousand miles long transportation line passing through snow covered plateaus with heavy wind. Especially the people of all nationalities from Tibet and Xinjiang autonomous region supported the front by their entire strength. All these have created conditions for the victory in the counter attack battle in self defence.”
As can be seen, there was no Tibetan active participation, though some local Tibetans on the borders might have been used for recce and intelligence gathering, especially to indicate the routes to the advancing PLA.
This state of affairs must have continued to the following decades, with very few Tibetans joining the PLA; the majority of the new recruits being in the militia.
Recently an article in The Hindustan Times, followed by another one of the IANS spoke of the PLA recruiting “exclusive military formations manned by ethnic Tibetans.”
That would be entirely new. Persistent rumours have circulated to this effect; they are however difficult to corroborate.
In previous post, I have dealt with some of these issues.
A Copper Wall and Iron Wall
Let us jump to the present times.
During the Seventh Work Forum in August 2020, several decisions were taken (‘The Ten Musts’) one in particular received a lot of coverage, sinicizing Tibetan Buddhism. (See my post: A Tibet Forum without Tibetans).
Xi Jinping also pointed out that it was necessary to “extensively mobilize the masses to participate in the struggle against separatism, and form a copper wall and iron wall for maintaining stability. It is necessary to carry out in-depth education on the history of the Party, the history of New China, the history of reform and opening up, and the history of socialist development, and the history of the relationship between Tibet and the motherland.”
The teaching about a truncated History of China has been going on since tis time in China …and in Tibet.
For Beijing, indoctrination of the Tibetan masses and the fight against the Dalai Lama is the need of the day.
Buddhism has a special place in this scheme that is why the Communist Party strived to “actively guide Tibetan Buddhism to adapt to the socialist society and promote the Sinicization of Tibetan Buddhism.”
The new theory of ‘Buddhism with Marxist characteristics’ was further elaborated in later speeches of the Chinese leaders.
While the Party would like to sinicize the Religion, it appears that at the same time, it tries to Tibetanize the defence forces ‘to form an Iron or Copper Wall).
There is a dichotomy that it will be difficult to understand or reconcile.
Training on the Plateau
On September 30, 2020, Chinanews reported: “Recently, a regiment of the Tibet Military District (TMD) frontier defense organized a heavy firearms training for newly elected non-commissioned officers in the autumn, and conducted job rotation training for various types of heavy firearms professional non-commissioned officers, pushing the new non-commissioned officers to the exercise.”
Hu Tangsheng, the team leader told the new agency: “The front-line ‘quenching’, through high-intensity, high-altitude, and high-standard training, further improves the military capability and quality of new non-commissioned officers. It is reported that this training camp is divided into two stages. The first stage completes with the theoretical study of weapon equipment and some practical exercises. At the end of this stage, the actual use of weapons and equipment will be assessed, and those who fail to pass will enter the ‘repetition’ stage. …You must use the ‘hard levers’ that are ‘fast, ruthless and accurate’ when shooting with live ammunition to test the military quality and abilities of newly recruited non-commissioned officers,” said the article.
This does not specifically speak of Tibetan troops.
Strengthening Military Training for High School Students
Another aspect is the strengthening of military education in High Schools.
The National Defense Mobilization under the Central Military Commission (CMC) recently released a “Syllabus for the Military Training of High School Students.” It is to be implemented on August 1, 2021.
The syllabus mentions that the military training curriculum for Chinese high school students should not be less than 56 class hours or 7 days in total to implement fully ‘the Party’s education policy’. According to a press release, it is necessary to implement the fundamental requirements for strengthening the military and “comprehensively regulate the military training of high school students in order to strengthen the national defense reserve forces.”
‘A mandatory educational activity’ in high schools helps to comprehensively implement the “strategic military policy for the new era and the overall national security concept.”
Again this is not specific for Tibetans.
Preaching the Tibetans
On June 4, China National Defense News reported about the National Defense Education under Conditions of Dispersion, i.e. for nomads and farmers living in remote ‘dispersed’ place.
A farmer living near the border told the agency: “Our village has a special geographical location, and our home is connected to the ‘gate of the nation’ [border with India]. To protect the home is to defend the border…”
The website said that in early summer (2020), Tibet’s Shigatse Military Sub-District (SMD) sent a national defense education propaganda team to the border: “The alpine pasture in Jiru Village, Kampa County [north of Sikkim], carried out national defense education for the grazing people on the borders. …The military sub-district is focusing on national defense education …and it often sends out preaching teams to open ‘mobile classrooms’ to ensure that national defense education covers all personnel and that everyone participates.”
It is explained that national defense education is of great significance for enhancing the people’s national defense concept, forging the consensus of strengthening the country and the PLA and strengthening the awareness of jointly guarding the border.”
According to the divisional leader of the Army, Shigatse SMD has a large number of pastures near the border: “…It is difficult to organize national defense education in a concentrated way, especially when the masses are nomadic in summer.
When returning from duty, officers and soldiers will also serve as preachers part-time, and they will randomly attend a national defense education class when they encounter nomads.”
The Tibetans are told “grazing means guarding the border. You must pay attention to border security wherever you go, and report suspicious persons in time…”
Tashi, a herder explained to the reporter: “national defense is closely related to production and life, and he wants to take the lead in striving to be a builder of a happy homeland and a guardian of the sacred border.”
That is the formula repeated ad nausea by the Party cadres; the website says: “the military division also organically integrates national defense education with conscription propaganda. According to statistics, in the past two years, the number of young people of school age in Shigatse City who applied for enlistment has increased by an average of 25.8%. With the continuous advancement of the preaching squad, the national defense awareness and concept of the herdsmen have continued to increase, and it has become the norm for the military and civilians to join hands to defend the border.”
It is clear that the recruiters are trying to reach the border populations.
On March 10, 2021, China Tibet News mentioned the recruitment process.
It appears that some 3,800 people applied for recruitment in Tibet in the first half of the year; it is not specified if they are Tibetans, they probably are, but the recruitment must also be covering the People’s Armed Police (PAP) and the militia.
A picture showed the medical staff of the Physical Examination Center of the General Hospital of the TMD examining some female postulants.
The article explains: “This year is an important year for Tibet to implement biannual conscription. At present, the conscription work in Tibet in the first half of the year has entered the final stage. As a key part of ensuring the quality of the troop source, the TAR’s Recruitment Office has always attached great importance to the medical examination of conscription.”
But it is presumably it is not the main problem for the Tibetans, who are better accustomed to the climate that the Han recruits.
On March 8, 22 young women from all seven Cities (also known as Prefectures) in the TAR passed the preliminary screening and then took part in the final conscription medical examination at the TMD hospital: “Relevant officers in charge of the Recruitment Office came to personally inspect and give instructions [to the staff]. Each medical examination test has a different person responsible in order to strictly control the registration, paperwork, blood test, etc,” says the article.
The young women candidates went through medical examinations such as internal medicine, surgery, ENT, ophthalmology or Doppler ultrasound tests.
The Recruitment Office had set up four groups respectively responsible for physical examinations, physical fitness tests, political assessments, and interviews “to ensure that aspiring female youths meet the standards of physical and psychological quality.”
The women candidates had already undergone two rounds of examinations in their respective counties and the prefectures (the last one was at the level of the TAR).
In the first half of 2021, the number of applicants in Tibet was more than 3,800, of which 3,069 were young men and 753 were young women: “The key targets for the first half of the year were college students, all with college degree or above. After the physical re-examination of male soldiers in various Cities (Prefectures) had been fully completed, the political re-examination and comprehensive quality assessment followed,” continues the reporter.
The Recruitment Office in Lhasa is fully responsible for physical re-examination, political re-examination, and comprehensive quality evaluation.
According to the website mentioned above, the Military Recruitment Office is to select the best candidates “based on the physical re-examination status, physical fitness test and other comprehensive quality assessment; 17 young women are to receive pre-service education and training. The recruits are expected were officially inducted on March 16.”
While the conscription work for the first half of the year was over, the process for the second half one was about to begin: “Many aspiring young people who have not had time to register can also apply for the recruitment in the second half of the year.”
The registration period for male soldiers in the second half of the year is from April 1 to August 15. The applicants are usually young people (including college students) who have graduated from high school (including secondary school, vocational high school and technical school) and above i.e. college students; they are usually between 18 to 22 year-old.
Male soldiers must complete military service registration before appearing for the tests.
According to the China’s ‘Military Service Law’, male citizens who have reached the age of 18 should register for military service before June 30 of each year.
The female soldier’s application period for the second half of the year is from June 26 to August 15. The applicants are regular high school graduates and full-time college graduates and current students, who are 18 to 22 years old.
If the above information is correct, (17 women selected out of 753 candidates) the induction of Tibetans is minimal, some 2% for the women, which means 60/65 men would be selected. One can think that the proportion will be higher for the men, but even it is 5%, it makes 150 recruits. Considering that there is two recruitment sessions every year, one can evaluate the number of new male recruits to 300 per year.
This is without taking into account ‘special recruitment drive’. We don’t know much about it, though it was reported in the Indian media.
But it is certain that the large number of candidates will be unable to pass the ‘political’ examination, which is crucial for the PLA or the paramilitary forces like the militia.
There is no doubt that Communist China and in particular the PLA sees with a certain envy, not to say, jealousy, the fact India has managed to recruit several thousands of its Special Force troops among the Tibetan community in exile.
From the Chinese point of view, Tibet has been liberated 70 years ago and according to the propaganda, ‘Happiness’ is widely spread across the plateau (every day, photos/videos show smiling Tibetans ‘guarding the border’).
The physical reality is however different.
The PLA also knows very well that they can’t trust the Tibetans; a word of their Leader in Dharamsala and the troops may desert.
It is easier to do propaganda films than to change the hearts of the local population.
One can only hope that the new Administration in Dharamsala will issue a statement saying that it stands with India and would not like Tibetans fighting against the Tibetans. It would go a long way to calm the present recruiting ardours of the PLA.
The issue needs to be followed closely.