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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

Extending the Revolt to Lhasa – Urban Insurgency

Lhasa, the seat of the Dalai Lama, the focal point of the Buddhist Mahayana world, was the most logical objective of the Tibetan rebellion. Mimang Tsong Du, a Tibetan resistance organization had become active here. Ironically the Chinese themselves had, in the initial phases, helped to set up these Mimangs (many peoples associations). These unwittingly created the first cells of organized resistance. These were later banned by the Chinese and promptly went underground. These were to play a pivotal role in the Lhasa uprising that led to the escape of the Dalai Lama to India. This uprising has been very well documented in the Dalai Lama’s book My Land and My People and in many other books as also in the press, for the escape of the Dalai Lama was a major world-media event. The Khampa guerillas played a pivotal role in this affair. The KMT had started regular airdrops over Lokha. Emboldened with this, Khampa forces began to strike closer to Lhasa. By mid-1958 the Khampas had made themselves masters of South-East Tibet. In December 1958 they attacked a Chinese garrison barely 25 miles from Lhasa. In January 1959 they attacked and laid siege to Tse Tang Gombu, a major Chinese garrison just 30 miles from Lhasa. This was manned by over 3000 Chinese troops. These moves seemed to coincide well with the Lhasa uprising that broke out in March 1959. The Chinese Commander in Tibet, General Chang-Ching Wu, was away and the revolt was mishahdled by his Deputy, General Tan-Kuansan. The Dalai Lama escaped from Lhasa, and Kunga Samten’s Khampas spirited him across Lokha and into India, via Towang in NEFA to Tezpur.

The Chinese mustered 15,000 troops and 50 tanks (Noel Barbara’s account, Land of the Lost Continent) and crushed the Lhasa uprising. The Potala was damaged in the artillery and mortar shelling that ensued but with their God-King out of harm’s way the Tibetans breathed a sigh-of relief as it were.

The Chinese mounted a determined counter-insurgency campaign on 7 April 1959 to destroy Khampa bases in Lokha. A two-pronged attack was launched from Lhasa in the North (from across the Brahmaputra) and in the South by the Chinese garrisons located opposite Sikkim in Yatung. The Chinese effected an assault crossing of the Brahmaputra which was fiercely contested by the Khampa bands of Kunga Samten and Wangchuk Tshering. The Chinese brought in tanks and recaptured Lhuntze. They advanced along the Dalai Lama’s escape route to link up with their forces advancing from Yatung.

As per official Chinese records, in two weeks the PLA fought 47 engagements and killed 2000 rebels. They lifted the siege of Tse Tang. The southern pincer advancing from Yatung came up to the Bhutan border and attacked Towa Dzong – the HQ of Amdo Lehse from the rear. Fierce battles took place along the course of the Manas river. A large portion of Amdo Lehse’s gang was forced to escape to Bhutan where they were disarmed. Some other gangs led by Kunga Samten and others escaped into Arunachal Pradesh where they were intercepted by the Assam Rifles and disarmed. Most of these however re-entered Tibet via Kalimpong.

The Tibetan rebels now regrouped in central Lokha around the Yamdrok and Trigu lakes (located at a mean altitude of 15,000 feet). This was better suited for receiving airdrops of arms and supplies and was better cavalry country which suited the Kharnpa horsemen. In winter the Brahmaputra river and the lakes froze and heavy airdrops were started by the CIA and KMT. A massive refugee influx started into India as a result of the Chinese counter-insurgency campaign. By end: 1959 over 11,000 Tibetan refugees had crossed into India. By end 1963 this figure had gone up to 80,000. The Tibetan rebels continued raids and ambushes on the Chinese communications.

In 1960 a serious leadership crisis overtook the National Volunteer Defence Army (NVDA) as the Tibetan rebels called themselves. The traditional Khampa leaders, the Pangdatshangs, were not given the leadership and finances. Gyalo Thondup, the Dalai Lama’s brother, assumed leadership: As a result a large number of Khampa rebel bands were left to fend for themselves. The Khampas were forced once more to turn to the KMT Chinese, who recruited refugees in large numbers from the Tibetan refugee camps in Mussoorie, Kalimpong and Kathmandu for direct enrolment in Chiang Kai Shek’s army.

Phase three (1960-61) – The Shift to Tsang

The Tibetan rebels decided to make a second strategic shift of their base area to the Tsang province opposite Nepal. The Lokha bases had come under heavy Chinese pressure. Tsang is the most populous region of Central Tibet and contains the large towns of Shigatse and Gyantse. This region is the seat of the Panchen Lama. Since he was a Chinese protege, the PLA was confident that the revolt would not take hold in this region. The Khampa rebels’ decision to shift the epicentre of the rebellion to this area opposite Nepal caught the Chinese by surprise. Another reason for the CIA and KMT intelligence to shift operations to Nepal was the alarm of the Indian Government over the intensifying Tibetan rebellion. It was becoming difficult to maintain the heavy clandestine support required by the Khampa rebels in opposition to the Indian Government’s wishes. The Chinese had built up heavy pressure in the Lokha area and this decision to shift was tactically sound.

The 800 miles of the Sino-Nepal border has some of the highest peaks in the world. It had countless infiltration routes for smuggling in arms and above all for the evacuation of the wounded. Both sides of this border were inhabited by Tibetan speaking people and hence local support was ensured. The Khampas established their bases in Khamba Dzong and Tingka Dzong. In the winter of 1960 intense fighting broke out in Tsang as the Khampas made an all-out attempt to capture the towns of Tingri and Nagar. Later they struck out 200 miles to the West to cut off the Lhasa-Sinkiang highway in Nagri district (Western Tibet). Simultaneous revolts broke out in Kham itself in the Chamdo and Markhan areas. Due to the intense conflict Sino-Nepal border trade had to be closed. Once more Chinese garrisons from Yatung attacked the Khampa Headquarters at Khamba Dzong from the rear.

Sinkiang Revole the Soviet Card

Piessels has given an excellent account of the tie-up between the Khampa and Sinkiang rebellions (Cavalien of Kham: The Secret War in Tibet, p. 181). The Sinkiang Moslems had first rebelled in 1950. In March 1960 the first of a series of clashes had broken out between Soviet and Chinese troops in Sinkiang. The Soviets were alarmed by the rise d Han chauvinism and their untamed aggressiveness. The communist regime in China had extended the borders of China to the very extremities of its historical reach generated by past conquests. In the heady sixties it seemed intent on pushing further. The Soviets were alarmed by the Chinese claim to vast tracts in Soviet Turkistan and Siberia. Soviet and Chinese nationalism came into violent collision in Central Asia.

The Soviets played their Khazak card and in 1960 engineered major revolts amongst the Khazak Muslim tribes in Sinkiang. Soviet Commander Askaroff was the greatest patron of a major non-Han revolt to cut the Chinese peril to sue. He dreamed of united uprisings of the Khazaks, Uighurs, Kirghiz, Tartars and Tadjiks. Askaroff openly admitted to Professor S.N. Sinha that the Russians would have to coordinate the Tibetan revolt with the Sinkiang rebellion. Without achieving this aim he felt the Soviets could not consider their eastern borders safe.

Accordingly the Khampas tried to extend their operations into the wilderness of the Changthang plains and made several forays to cut the Sinkiang – Tibet road in Western Tibet. Fierce fighting brake out all over Tibet and Sinkiang. These were also the years of economic disasters caused by the failure of the Chinese ‘Great Leap Forward’. Faced with concerted revolts amongst the non-Han’ minorities in their far-flung border provinces and economic disaster at home, the Chinese became paranoid. An unfortunate accident of history brought the Indians into direct conflict with China. It just so transpired that in their desire to consolidate their national frontiers, the Chinese had been increasingly resorting to the use of force. Adverse domestic reaction forced the Indian Government to contest Chinese military encroachments and this brought the two countries into a historic collision course. Dr Frances Watson claims that the Chinese viewed Indian moves to effect physical occupation of their border claims (especially their Forward Policy in Ladakh) as a threat to the Aksai-Chin highway that linked Tibet with Sinkiang and they retaliated fiercely. This aspect will be dealt with separately in this article – but the Sino-Indian border war had its roots in the course of the Tibetan rebellion. The Indians paid the price of being blissfully unaware of was going on in their geo-political backyard. The result was a traumatic military defeat for the Indian Army.

The Khampa forays in Western Tibet (Gangri) in early 1960 led the Chinese to possibly read a sinister pattern in the Indian moves to military occupy their border.

Khampa Raids

Heavy fighting had broken out on 8 January 1960 in Ngari province. The Lhasa-Tingri and Tingri-Shakar roads were cut by the Khampas. They also cut the Sinkiang Tibet highway at Sakya. 2000 Chinese troops came within’ 12 miles of the Nepal-Tibet border. This sent alarm bells clanging in Kathmanciu. Chinese pressure on Khampa bands became intense. The Chinese capability to move large-scale forces to remote regions was a tribute to the thoroughness of their initial logistical preparations in Tibet immediately after the 1950 invasion. The Khampa bands tried their best to link up with the Khazak rebels in Sinkiang via Changthang – but the Chinese used their air power to good effect in these barren plains. Once again the Khampa rebels began to take heavy losses.

Phase four: Shift to Mustang (1961-74)

The Khampa leaders carried out a serious reappraisal of their strategy with their CIA advisors. The Chinese had time and again demonstrated their military capabilities in this remote region. They had not hesitated to we air power to good effect in the barren and open terrain where no cover was available. Khampa guerilla units based on horsed mobility were outmatched totally and had taken heavy losses. It was clear that no secure base areas could be formed in Tibet proper at this stage. Accordingly the Tibetan rebellion shifted out of Tibet into the Mustang plateau of Nepal.

This 600 sq km plateau juts out like a thumb from Nepal. It is a remote region, 24 days’ march from Kathmandu and 8 days’ march from Lhasa. It was then ruled by a Tibetan King Angun Tensing Trandil, a vassal of Nepal. The writ of the Nepalese Government did not run in this remote region and therefore it served as an ideal base. This 15,000 ft high plateau dominated the Brahrnaputra valley astride which lay the vital. East-West Chinese highway linking Tibet and Sinkiang.

Accordingly, by the winter of 1961, ten Tibetan Magars comprising some 6000 Khampa guerillas moved into Mustang and settled down in 12 major camps. Their Command Headquarters was located at Samdruling, a small and obscure monastry. As per PiesseIg, the CIA had established an airfield at Jomosom, where small planes could land with medical supplies for treating the Khampa wounded. The CIA had set up a proprietary civilian airline in Nepal which flew in weapons, equipment and supplies and occasionally parachuted guerillas into Tibet. Most of the guerilla operations were now on foot and comprised primarily convoy ambushes on the Sinkiang-Tibet road. Victor Marchetti recounts in his book CIA and the Cult of Intelligence that one of the major CIA intelligence windfalls came from a Khampa ambush of a Chinese convoy in which a number of Chinese documents were recovered. These conclusively proved that the ‘Great Leap Forward’ had failed badly.

In 1963, the Chinese successfully engineered a split on tribal lines between the Khampas and Amdo tribes which resulted in serious clashes amongst the guerillas in Mustang. The KMT were primarily responsible for this break-up. However, by autumn 1964 general rebellion had again broken out in Tibet. The Panchen Lama, a loyal Chinese protege, himself defected over to the Tibetan resistance and was promptly imprisoned by the Chinese. By spring 1965 much of Tibet was up in arms. On 18 July 1965 Chinese-controlled Radio Lhasa itself announced that armed rebellion had broken out in several parts of Tibet. 5000 Chinese reinforcements were sent to South Tibet to quell this rebellion. Revolt also broke out in Changthang plains. Here the Russians paradropped arms and supplies to the Khampas in a rather brazen fashion.

The Cultural Revolution

The chaos of the Cultural Revolution spread to Tibet in 1966. This led to serious clashes between the Red Guards and the PLA. The overzealous Red Guards began a brutal campaign against Tibetan monastries and denounced the PLA’s incompetence to crush the Tibetan rebellion. The veteran PLA Commander in Tibet, General Chang Kuo, Hua, reacted strongly and used armoured cars to quell the Red Guards in Lhasa. This created panic in Peking. Three divisions were sent to bring the Tibetan PLA units to heel, The Khanipas took advantage of this and chaos broke out in Tibet. The Chinese Supreme Commander Marshal Lin Piao sent back General Chang Kuo Hua to restore order. In October 1967 a bloodbath broke out in Lhasa when the Red Guards tried to kidnap General Hua. The PLA units rescued him. Obviously General Hua was immensely popular with the troops. By 1968 General Hua succeeded in crushing both the Khampas and the Red Guards. The Tibetan rebellion was largely over. It sputtered on however till 1974. There were brief flare-ups in December 1969 and 1970 but it was clearly a losing Battle.

The USA under Nixon-Kissinger had made a strategic opening to China to exploit the Sine-Soviet conflict. They unceremoniously dumped the Khampas, wound up the CIA operation and sold the proprietary airline in Nepal at a huge loss. The Khampa guerillas were left bitter and disillusioned. The Tibetan rebellion had been decisively crushed by the Chinese. In 1974 the Government of Nepal cracked down on the last Khampa bands in Mustang and disarmed them.

The 1962 Sino-Indian War: The Khampa Dimension

That in brief is an authentic account of the ill-fated Tibetan rebellion as gleaned from the very informative books of Piessels and George N. Patterson. It provides some object lessons to all those engaged in engineering or combating low-intensity conflicts in the form of ethnic insurgencies. Before we recount these lessons it is important to dwell on a very important but grossly overlooked historical fact – the impact of this rebellion on the Sino-Indian War of 1962. As will be recalled the US, Kuomintang and even the USSR had conspired to engineer massive and widespread revolts amongst the non-Han minorities of China, especially in Sinkiang and Tibet. This coupled with the economic disaster of the Great Leap Forward caused panic in the Chinese ruling elite. It drove them to paranoia. China was in a state of siege and seething with frustration. It was not really in a position to retaliate against the superpowers. Being a land power China did retaliate militarily against the USSR and a number of serious clashes took place on the Sino-Soviet border.

The Indian elite then had a naive and pacific view of international relations which laid undue emphasis on personal diplomacy and peace initiatives to secure vital national interests. The Indian Government was blissfully unaware of the true nature and scale of the Tibetan rebellion that was raging in its geo-political backyard. Blinded by its own peace rhetoric it had taken no concrete steps to fortify or secure its own northern borders. It ignored geo-political and military realities in trying to fortify a border on the basis of a mere ‘treaty of peace and friendship’ which took little account of power realities on the ground.

The Chinese had taken no chances. As they set about fortifying their far-flung frontiers – they were bound to clash with the Indian state. A series of border incidents inflamed public opinion in India. Public hysteria forced the Indian Government into a military showdown for which its Army (and ruling elite) was woefully unprepared.

When it awoke at last to the Northern menace in the late fifties its feeble steps to establish its territorial claims by establishing militarily unteriable posts provoked the Chinese who saw it as part of the larger superpower plot to destabilize the Chinese state. Like innocents abroad, the Indian state was pushed into a military confrontation with the well-prepared Chinese. Seething with frustration at their problems with the superpowers, the Chinese found a weakened and willing victim to whom they could ‘teach a lesson’. It was a humiliating lesson in real politik for the Indians. One cannot ignore power realities in the pursuit of national interests. The Indian forces who had been pushed and force-marched to the extremities of NEFA (Arunachal Pradesh) suddenly found themselves face to face with the well-acclimatized and battle-hardened Chinese Regiments that had just crushed the revolt in South Lokha. The results were tragic and long-lasting. The Indian Army had gone to seed in the post-independence phase. A local command failure in Kameng further compounded its humiliation. But in the long term it was the greatest- blessing in disguise for the Indian state.

What compelled the Chinese to withdraw in 1962? Logistical overstretch! The Chinese were amazed by their own success. It was, as they, admitted, an operation that had gone out of control. The Khampa threat to their communications in South Tibet must have been a major consideration that compelled them to vacate – for we must remember that this withdrawal was confined to Kameng alone.

Lessons from the Revolt

There are some invaluable lessons in this campaign that concern us directly.

    • The very first is the need for high quality intelligence. We simply cannot afford to be ignorant of events in our neighbourhood. The Indian intelligence seemed to have no clue of the real magnitude and scale of the Tibetan revolt and the effect it could have on Sino-Indian relations. Our hastily assembled, rag-tag 4 Corps was pushed on foot to remote regions where we had never dreamt of fighting a major war. It ran slap into battle-hardened Chinese formations that had just concluded a highly successful, counter-insurgency campaign in Lokh – the area bordering NEFA (Arunachal Pradesh). That was the main cause of our disaster.
    • Chinese logistical overstretch. The results of the unequal 1962 campaign have led to some serious misperceptions. The Sinkiang and Khampa rebellions clearly highlight that in these strategic border provinces the Chinese are at the extremities of their logistical reach. The crucial factor is the distance from rail heads. Not building proper border roads in our own area is no one’s fault but our own. In the Iong term, if we exert ourselves, we are on logistical interior lines vis-a-vis China in Tibet. We will always have the advantage, should we choose to press it home.
    • Use of religious places as insurgent bases. The Khampa rebels were religious fanatics of sorts and the monastries in Tibet were centres and bases of the rebellion. Unlike us in Punjab, the Chinese showed not the least hesitation in attacking these. They used not only the Army but their Air Force to bomb these. The Chinese have showed no squeamishness in their counter-insurgency campaigns. These have, in fact, been marked by a ruthlessness bordering almost-son brutality and genocide. It could turn out to be counterproductive in the long run. The Chinese themselves seem to be admitting this now and have reversed earlier repressive policies.
    • Air power. Air power played a major role in crushing the Khampa rebellion in the open areas of Tibet – especially Kham, Changthang, Ngari and Tsang.
    • Foreign base areas. The Khampa rebellion shifted its base areas thrice – from Kham to Lokha, to Mustang (Mustang lay outside Tibet). Once here the rebellion became ineffective. We can draw parallels with the move of Naga insurgent to the Somra tracts in Burma. However the Chinese forced the Nepalese to crack down on the Khampas in Mustang – which they did in 1974. We should induce the Burmese to do the same. Foreign base areas, however, are never as effective as bases inside the target nation.
    • Low-‘investment’ conflict. At minimal cost the CIA and KGB had caused severe problems to the Chinese Government. To support one soldier in Tibet cost the Chinese as much as 30 yuan (35 US cents) per pound. This is practically the cost of air freight. Truck convoys took 16 days from Kansu and Sinkiang (32 days turn around). Areas of logistical over-reach therefore are logical areas for launching LIC against a hostile state.
    • Air maintenance vs ground support. Air maintenance is no substitute for good ground infiltration routes for guerillas, Air support in mountainous regions can be most unreliable as it turned out in the Khampa campaign. Smugglers are the best conduits for such over-land support.
    • Medical facilities. Lack of medical facilities was to prove the Achilles heel of the Khampa rebels.
    • Premature resort to conventional warfare. The Khampas were brave but rash and foolhardy. They directly began to engage Chinese troops in regular operations in the Lokha and Tsang areas and suffered heavily. The insurgent organization must avoid set piece action and preserve itself in the initial stages.
    • Need for tough infantry. India and China are the only states to have successfully put down insurgencies in recent times. The USA and USSR have notably failed in Vietnam and Afghanistan respectively. This highlights the fact that there is no substitute for tough and motivated infantry. Only a country that has this resource can hope to prevail in LIC.

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

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