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Studies in Low-Intensity Conflict: The Tibetan Rebellion
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IDR Research Team | Date:08 Oct , 2021 0 Comments

First published in Print issue of Indian Defence Review 3.1, Jul-Dec 1988.

The Rise of Low-intensity Conflict

The ides of March in 1988 will always go down as a significant period in recent history. The signing of the Geneva Accord marked a major retreat of Soviet power from Afghanistan and a significant success for low-cost, low-intensity conflict which can even ‘bleed a superpower white. The Americans have made a significant investment in this Low-Intensity Conflict (LIC) in the period of the Reaganite revival of the anti-communist crusade. This is evidenced by the great enhancement in funding for Special Forces and Unconventional Warfare in this period.

The budgetary allocation for Special Forces devoted to LIC had touched a peak figure of one billion dollars in 1960 at the height of the Vietnam War. It fell sharply to 100 million dollars in, 1975. Ever since the advent of Reaganism it has risen dramatically to 500 million dollars in 1985 and 600 million in 1986, an increase of 80 per cent. A new bureaucracy has been spawned in the Pentagon which deals exclusively with LIC. It comprises multi-service Joint Special Operations Agencies and reports directly to the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The strength of the Special Forces is being raised from the present figure of 14,980 (Active) and 32,000 (Reserve) to 20,900 (Active) and 38,400 (Reserve).

In affluent countries of the West a large segment of the populations have gone soft and are not likely to stand up to the rigours of a protracted land war. However, there is a miniscule minority of physically tough ‘elite’ for whom the Special Forces ‘mystique’ exerts a considerable psychological pull. This means that large conscript armies extracted from the universities are out and elitist Special Forces, specializing in Unconventional Warfare (UW) or plain LIC are in. The Americans have learnt this as the bitter lesson to their cost in Afghanistan. The white races are turning militarily soft and must rely on an increasingly narrow segment of their militant ‘populations’ to prosecute unconventional wars.

Afghanistan: Soviet Tactical Withdrawal?

What is the reason behind this sudden weakening of the Soviet will in Afghanistan? Is it a collapse of its will to power? So close to its geo-political backyard? It is unthinkable. A more plausible explanation is a conscious Soviet tactical decision to ‘fight fire with fire’, to meet LIC with LIC and cut long-term costs. For the past, two years it has been laying increasing stress on Spetznatz or Soviet Special Forces Operations and ‘nativization’, using Afghans to fight Afghans (something which the British had excelled at in the colonial period). The Soviet decision to withdraw from Afghanistan achieves two objectives:–

    • Dilutes the Mujahideen cause. The intensity of Afghan emotions has been aroused by the presence of the ‘Shaurvi’ (Russian) troops in their homeland. This presence provided a powerful nationalist cause that had engendered fierce combat motivation for the Mujahideen guerillas.
    • Splintering the Mujahideen alliance. The seven Afghan Islamic guerilla groups just cannot hold together in the absence of the ‘Soviet Ogre’ to unify them. The Soviet withdrawal could well turn out to be a brilliant tactical stroke that splinters the Mujahideen alliance and opens it to defeat in detail by the Najibullah Regime. It is a high-risk operation but in keeping with the bold and innovative character of the new Soviet regime. It may well just work.

Either way, the prime lesson to note is that East or West, LIC (fought ‘by elitist special forces and rag-tag guerilla outfits) is the best. We in this country need to take this lesson to heart. The situation in Punjab and the Darjeeling Hills is alarming. It just seems to be more doses of the same low-cost prescription that our regional adversaries seem to have used with such success elsewhere. Like the) Soviets we may well have to conclude that fire is best fought with fire. At any rate, it would only be sane to make a deep study of the defensive aspects of this conflict. We may possibly lack the political will and nerve to retaliate in kind but we will have no option but to defend ourselves against this virulent form of war.

To that end it would be useful to carry out case studies of LIC in our region and form a rich and diverse data bank.

An Uprising that Failed: The Tibetan Rebellion

One of the major operations of the CIA in the post-Second-World-War period was its covert support to the Khampa uprising in Tibet from the late fifties through to the sixties and early seventies. The operation has been well documented. Victor Marchetti unveiled in his book CIA and the Cult of Intelligence. Earlier books, especially by George Patterson, The Revolt in Tibet, and Michal Piessels, The Cavaliers of Kham: The Secret War in Tibet, have documented this revolt in very great detail. Peissels’ book in fact provides a blow’ by blow account of a secret war that was clandestinely fought under our very noses for almost two decades. The Chinese crushed this revolt brutally. The 1962 invasion of this country was deeply linked with the course of this rebellion. It is about time that we made a deep and detailed study of its course and drew object lessons.

The revolt has been crushed but the spirit of rebellion persists defiantly in the people of Tibet. The bloody rioting incidents in Lhasa in 1987 and again in March 1988 have shown how volatile the situation is. It will have to be closely monitored.

The thrust of this paper is primarily historical. Its aim is to draw object lessons that may be of use to us in context. The Khampa rebellion was primarily a rebellion that drew its inspiration from predominantly religious and racial causes. The Chinese, time and again, attacked religious institutions using the full force of violence at their command. The Litaing Monastry of Kham was besieged, for months and bombed by jet bombers. A full-scale attack was launched on the Potala, ostensibly to rescue the Dalai Lama in 1959. Religious institutions have been wantonly attacked time and again during the course of the cultural revolution. This fundamentalist religious aspect should be of profound interest to us for obvious reasons.


The Tibetan people have a unique cultural identity. Inhabitants of the highest region (the literal roof of the world), they were a fierce and warlike people. They reached their height of power around AD 630 under a legendary king, Songtsen Gampo, who conquered the whole of Central Asia. He forced the Chinese Emperor to give him his daughter in marriage and extracted tribute from him. He conquered Mongolia, Swat and Samarkand and his invading armies almost reached the Ganges. One of his Nepalese wives converted him to Buddhism and that triggered the spread of Buddhism to this land. The Tibetans persevered in their warlike ways for quite some time. In 763 Songtsen Gampo’s great grandson invaded China and captured Sian (the then capital of China). The secular rulers of Tibet were subsequently replaced by a succession of incarnate Dalai Lamas. Tibet slipped into Chinese suzerainty and but for the reigns of the 5th and 13th Dalai Lamas, remained under Chinese over-lordship. However, in Tibet proper, the hold of Chinese authority has been tenuous at best and non-existent for most of the time.

The Chinese hold in Eastern Tibet, in the large province of Kham was greater. The recent history of this region is marked by a series of bloody uprisings to throw off the Chinese warlords. In 1918, the Khampas had risen to drive out Peng, the cruel Chinese warlord. In 1932 there was another Khampa rebellion against Liu, another Chinese warlord.

Historically, the Chinese were able to consolidate their military hold over Tibet only in the wake of the long and bloody civil war between the Kuomintang and the Communists. China under Mao Zedong experienced a xenophobic cultural revival. In 1949 the Peoples Republic of China was at the zenith of its power and had, decided to consolidate the Chinese Empire to the last extremities of its historic reach. In 1950 came the invasion of Tibet. It, was a logistical nightmare. The Chinese Commander had come via Sikkim and India to assume charge. Yet somehow the invasion succeeded astonishingly and Tibet slipped quietly into a Han oblivion.

Ethnic and Geographic

Before we elaborate upon the details of the Tibetan rebellion it would be proper to delve into the ethnic and geographical factors briefly. The seat of the Tibetan civilization is based upon the Utsang plain of South Central Tibet. This is the plain formed by the great bend of the Tsang-PO or the Brahmaputra and is the granary of Tibet. Its spiritual and political centre is the ‘Forbidden City’ of Lhasa. To the East lies the province of Kham, perhaps the most rugged region of all Asia. Through this province some of the mightiest rivers of South East Asia have carved fearsome gorges. These rivers are the Salween, the Mekong, the Yangtse and Yalong. Between these lie the countries of the Kham province to include Hobba, Dergi, Batang, Markham, Litang and Chamdo.

Kham is the home of the Khampas, a magnificent race of warriors whose average height is six feet or more. They have been traditional bandits (much like the people of the Chambal ravines in India) and have” been for centuries a law unto themselves. Further North live the Amdos (Andoweans), another fierce race of tall warriors. Still further North dwell the wild Lo-Lo, Golok and Mantzu tribes who had caused severe headaches to the PLA in the course of its long march. This grouping of tribes comprises some of the fiercest fighting material in all Asia.

To the West of the Lhisa plains lies the Changthang wilderness of ice-swept plains, ‘wilderness’ even by Tibetan standards. Human settlements are impossible in this region. South-West of Lhasa is the region of Tsang that lies opposite Nepal. This is the realm of the Panchen Lama and is a fertile and well-populated region which contains the ‘towns of Shigatse and Gyantse.

To the West of Tsang beyond the Mayum pass lies the district, of Gangri (Hyendes) that lies opposite Ladakh. To its East lies the hilly district of Kailash-Mansarover. Two regions that were of great relevance to the fortunes of the revolt are:–

  • Lokha province. This is the densely wooded region south of the Brahmaputra adjacent to Arunachal Pradesh and Bhutan. It is ideal for the conduct of guerilla warfare and was used as such by the rebels.
  • Mustang area. This is a minute kingdom on the Nepal-Tibet border that juts out like a thumb into the underbelly of Tibet. Most of the Khampa operations in the closing phases of the revolt were staged from here.

Evolution of Revolt

In conformity with the Palu-Jen code of conduct, the advance units of the PLA were under strict instructions to treat the local population well. All this changed later, as the Chinese tried to bulldoze a deeply religious and feudal society into a modem, communist mould – too fast, too soon. The Tibetans resented attacks on their religion and attempts to cut down, the economic powers of the monastries. The Han chauvinist attitude of arrogance and racial superiority made the Chinese treat the Tibetans with contempt as an inferior and ‘barbarian’ culture. All this led to deep unrest all over Tibet. The Chinese watched this build-up of tension with unease. Trouble was most evidently brewing up in Kham. The Chinese had begun a herculean programme of road construction and logistic build-up. They decided to pre-empt issues and called upon all Khampas to surrender their arms.

In retrospect this decision was to prove an unmitigated disaster and provided the final spark that set off the Tibetan revolt.

The Kanting Rebellion

Ever since they marched into Tibet the Chinese had undertaken a very methodical and painstaking programme for the construction of lines of communication and logistical infrastructure to tie up Tibet closely with the mainland. This involved a major strategic road construction programme, construction of large airbases and military cantonments. This was a far-sighted move that laid the logistical framework for large-scale anti-guerilla operations and later a more serious military conflict with India. By 1956 the Chinese had inducted almost’ 8 divisions into Tibet. Perhaps the reassurance of the new logistical capabilities emboldened the Chinese to force the pace of ‘reforms’ and ram communism down the throat of a feudal and deeply religious society. The attempt blew up in their faces. The Kanting rebellion broke out in the winter of 1955, and early 1956 in the Eastern Province of Kham. The Khampas were incensed by the call to surrender their weapons and perceived it as a major threat to their traditional way of life.

The monastries soon became the centres and arsenals of the rebellion. Unlike our experience in Punjab, the Chinese did not display the slightest hesitation in using the full coercive power of their Armed Forces to attack the religious sanctuaries. Litang was the largest monastry in Kham. It is almost a sprawling township and comprises over 30 chapels. It had become the direct centre of resistance. The Chinese tried to storm it with about 3000 troops and failed. They then laid siege to it. The siege lasted 63 days. On the last day the Chinese called in IL-36 (Illushyn) jet bombers. The bombers savagely attacked the monastry and reduced it to rubble.

This broke the back of the Tibetan resistance in Litang. The abbot of Litang, Lama Khang-shar, was hanged and his deputy Sokru Khantul was shot. Another Lama leader of the rebellion, Unze, was tortured to death. Thereafter the Chinese threw aside all restraints and bombed 300 monastries and towns in Kham. All isolated forts (Dzongs), monastries (Gompas) and settlements that could shelter the rebels were subjected to a concerted bombing offensive. The Chinese had clearly decided to use overkill’ in their counter-insurgency campaign.

The Beginning of CIA Involvement

The Kanting rebellion caught the CIA by surprise. It had hardly any data on Tibet bun it quickly set to work. The maps and aerial photos of World War II were dug up from the archives in Washington. Fortunately the American Volunteer Group (the Flying Tigers), the 10 USAF, had flown thousands of supply missions over Kham to Chungking over what is famous as the Hump route in World War II. These air photograph mosaics and maps were ferreted out of the old files. In 1954 the CIA Tibet file had only two reports by OSS agents, Colonel Ilya Tolstoy and Delan, who had crossed over into Tibet in 1944 to find an alternate route to China after the Japanese occupation of Burma. Leonard Clark, of the OSS, became the first foreigner to penetrate deep into the territory of the fierce Golok tribes.

The Pangdatshangs

The CIA and their surrogate intelligence agencies of the Kuomintang (Nationalist Chinese in Taiwan) soon established contact with the Pangdatshang brothers, the most important traders and smugglers of Kham. They had made a tidy fortune smuggling arms to the nationalist Chinese troops still left behind in these remote regions after the Chinese Civil War. Their smuggling routes stretched from Mela Bazar in Assam via Bhutan to Kham or via Towang and East from Saidiya and then over the great bend of the Brahmaputra. The Pangdatshang brothers (Yamel and Rapgya) fled to India in 1955 to organize arms traffic to the Khampa rebels. They based themselves in Kalimpong where they had excellent cover as traders engaged in Indo-Tibetan cross-border trade. The CIA and KMT intelligence services forged close links with the Pangdatshangs who became the chief instruments for smuggling arms and ammunition to the Khampa rebels in Tibet.

Thubten Norbu. The eldest brother of the Dalai Lama and the abbot of Khum Bum (the largest monastry in Amdo) was a close friend of Yamel Pangdatshang. He had slipped out of Tibet in 1950 with the Dalai Lama’s orders to seek help.

Gyalo Thondup. The second brother of the Dalai Lamaa had fled from Tibet to Taiwan where he had married the daughter of one of the most trusted advisers of Chiang Kaishek. The American Society for Free Asia, a CIA front organization, provided a visa for the Dalai Lama’s eldest brother. The Taiwan based nationalist Chinese saw a golden opportunity to discomfit China by exploiting the Khampa rebellion. Kham was 1600 miles from Taiwan and it required all the cunning, ingenuity and resources of the CIA to organize one of the most complicated and major clandestine operations in its history.

Topgay Pangdatshang began to smuggle recruits for training out of Tibet. These recruits would mix up with smuggler caravans, proceed to Gauhati, and on to Calcutta from where CIA or KMT chartered civilian aeroplanes would slip them out under the very noses of Indian intelligence. They were taken via Bangkok and Hongkong to Taiwan. Most of them were imparted guerilla training in Taiwan including parachute training. Some selected men were taken to Camp Hale in Colorado-for advanced training by the CIA.

On completion of training a majority of the Khampas were smuggled, back via Calcutta into Tibet via the land route. Large groups were flown by CIA and KMT aircraft over Burma and Batang and parachuted into Kham by night. KMT aircraft began paradrops of arms, ammunition and supplies. The Khampa rebels began a concerted campaign of raids and ambushes and created such terror along the Lhasa-Chamdo highway that the Chinese truck drivers nicknamed it ‘the road of death’.

The Chinese reacted viciously. Large-scale ‘search and destroy’ operations led to the death of over 4500 Tibetan civilians in the Kandze area alone. A systematic campaign of brutal reprisals was started. News of this spread all over Tibet and Central Asia and triggered off revolts amongst the Golok tribes and the Amdo Sherpas of the Kansu region. There were simultaneous revolts amongst the Khazakh and Uighur Muslim tribes of Sinkiang. The entire Central Asian heartland seemed to be going up in flames. The Chinese were alarmed. In July 1956 Marshal Chen Yi was sent to Tibet to investigate what could be done to stop the spreading rebellion. His party was ambushed and he was almost killed. Chinese conciliatory gestures failed to bring the Khampas around. The Chinese had made the mistake of using Norbu, an infamous Tibetan Quisling, to act as mediator. This angered the Khampas who spurned negotiations. The Chinese intensified their brutal counter-insurgency campaign to such a pitch that they were openly accused of genocide and mass murder of the Tibetan people by Amnesty International and other humanitarian agencies.

Shift to Lokha, 1957

The grand strategists of the CIA found the Khampa rebellion tottering in the face of the vastly superior firepower of the PLA. Most of the Khampa bands (Magars) comprised hot-blooded Khampas who were prone to rash and purposeless displays of daring. This led them to make serious tactical errors and engage the Chinese army in pitched battles. The Chinese were then veterans of 30 years of ceaseless fighting and such Khampa efforts at conventional warfare proved very costly. Besides Kham was too far away for logistical support from Taiwan. Paradrops were only possible in clear weather. This was a rarity in ‘this region. It was clear that the focus of the rebellion would have to be shifted away from Kham which was well within the logistical reach of the PLA and taken deeper inside Tibet. Thus in 1957, based on the advise of CIA case officers, the Khampa bands began to shift the epicentre of their rebellion to the southern province of Lokha (south of the Tsang-PO – the Brahmaputra river). This was a densely wooded region and had the following advantages:–

    • Overland, infiltration routes for arms, and supplier were available through Bhutan and NEFA.
    • The region was closer to Lhasa — the key spiritual and political centre in Tibet.
    • Chinese communications were overstretched in this region.
    • It reduced Chinese against Khampa civilians by shifting the battle away from their home province.

This shift to Lokha was a master stroke that gave a new lease of life to this rebellion. Subsequently the Tibetan resistance was to shift its base three times.

Phases of the Tibetan Revolt

Based upon these base area shifts the Tibetan revolt can be divided into the following distinct phases:–

    • Phase One (1956). The Kanting rebellion in Kham which sparked off the Revolt in 1956.
    • Phase Two (1957-59). The Shift to Lokha, south of the Brahmaputra river.
    • Phase Three (1960-61). Shift from to the plain of Tsang opposite Nepal the towns Shigatse and Gyantse).
    • Phase Four (end 1961-74). The shift to Mustang plateau in Nepal.

The Kanting rebellion or phase one has been covered earlier. Let us see the progress of operations in the remaining phases.

Phase Two: The Guerilla war in Lokha

Kampa Guerilla Organizations. In end 1956 the Khampa guerillas were divided into tribal bands called Magars (literally armies). Leadership was on tribal lines. Some were governed by tribal councils and in these discipline was loose and decisions were arrived at by debate and consensus. In some bands however there was strong central leadership and these generally did much better in combat. Commanders were called Pombos. Each Khampa’s dearest possession was his horse and his weapon. They also had trained mastiff dogs. A dozen or so girls were attached to these bands for cooking and administration.

High command. In early 1956 the high command of guerilla commanders in the field comprised Amdo Leshe, who led the largest Khampa band (aided by the KMT) and Kunga Samten, who operated subsequently in the vicinity of Lhasa.

Important leaders. Other important leaders operating in various regions were:–

    • Tshering – Chamdo
    • Pangdatshang – Po
    • Kesang – Litang
    • Andruthshang – Dergi
    • Nawang – Eastern Amdo
    • Chime Yudong – Jey Kundo
    • Lobsang Yeshe – Changthang
    • Urgyen – Klongpo

The Lokha area had a number of ancient Dzongs (forts) which had been built in the thirteenth century AD by the Phagmograpa kings of Tibet. It was fertile and densely forested. It bordered the prestigious political centre of Lhasa where the Dalia Lama was located. It had excellent infiltration routes to India and Bhutan. A panic migration of Khampas had started from the Kham province in the wake of the Chinese repression. Large Khampa refugee bands established camps on the outskirts of Lhasa where they thought their God-King would protect them from the Chinese. Over 15,000 families migrated td these refugee camps in Lhasa.

In early 1957, the Khampa Magars began a concerted campaign to occupy the Lokha region as the base area of their revolt. The Chinese had established a number of garrisons to control this region and built a number of lumber roads to exploit its rich timber resources. The Khampas attacked and captured the Chinese stronghold of Gya-La Dzong and Guru Nakye Dzong along the Brahmaputra river. They then captured the Chinese posts at Lhotsu Dzong, Tows Fort and Lhuntze which controlled the routes to NEFA and Bhutan. Amdo Lehse, the supreme commander of the Tibetan rebel forces, established hi headquarters in Towa.

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