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Thursday, December 13, 2007

Invasion of Tibet and fall of Chamdo

On October 1, 1949 the People’s Republic of China was founded. Soon after, Radio Beijing began to announce that “the People’s Liberation Army must liberate all Chinese territories, including Tibet, Xinjiang, Hainan and Taiwan.” In response, the Tibetan Foreign Office wrote to Mao Zedong on November 2, 1949 to say that “Tibet has from the earliest times up to now been an independent country whose political administration had never been taken over by any foreign country; and Tibet also defended her own territories from foreign invasions.”(4) The Foreign Office letter asked for direct negotiations for the return of Tibetan territories annexed by China’s earlier governments. Copies of this letter were sent to the Government of India, Great Britain and United States. But these governments advised Tibet to enter into direct negotiations with China as any other course of action might provoke military retaliation.

In the meanwhile, the PLA marched into eastern Tibet and circulated a ten-point document, asking Tibetans to cooperate with China in “liberating” Tibet from foreign imperialists. This struck as a curious statement to the Tibetan government who knew that there were fewer than ten foreigners in the country. It responded by making a series of radio announcements stating that there were no foreign imperialists on Tibetan soil, that Tibet had never been part of China, and that if China invaded Tibet just as big insects eat small ones, Tibet would fight back even if it were reduced to the female population.(5)

At the same time, the Tibetan government decided to send a delegation, consisting of two senior officials—Tsepon W.D. Shakabpa and Tsechag Thubten Gyalpo—and five assistants to negotiate with the PRC in a third country, possibly the USSR, Singapore or Hong Kong. China suggested Hong Kong as the venue, to which the Tibetan government agreed and directed its delegation to discuss the Foreign Office letter to Chairman Mao Zedong and the threatening Chinese radio announcements about an imminent “liberation of Tibet”. The government also instructed the delegation to secure the Chinese assurance that the territorial integrity of Tibet would not be violated, and to drive home the point that Tibet would not tolerate Chinese interference.(6)

On March 7, 1950 the delegates reached Kalimpong en route to Delhi. On reaching Delhi, they ran into an unforeseen problem: the British would not issue them the visas to travel to Hong Kong, probably because they did not want to antagonise China as the visa would have to be stamped on the passport issued by the Tibetan government. Thus, in June 1950 the Tibetan government instructed its delegates to hold negotiations in Delhi. The Chinese did not want this and suggested that the Tibetans should come to Beijing after a preliminary round of talks in Delhi with their new Ambassador to India.(7)

In the course of the negotiation, the Chinese Ambassador, Yuan Zhong Xian, demanded that the Tibetan delegation accept a three-point proposal: i) Tibet should be recognised as part of China ii) Tibetan national defence will be handled by China; iii) Tibet’s political and trade relations with foreign countries must be conducted through China. They were then to proceed to Beijing in confirmation of the “agreement”.

The Tibetan government instructed the delegates to reject the Chinese proposal, particularly the first point. So the negotiation was suspended. By then China had already started its military offensive on Chamdo, eastern Tibet’s provincial capital. It happened on October 7, 1950 when Commanders Wang Qimei and Zhang Guohua led 40,000 PLA troops from the South-West Military Region in an eight-pronged attack on Chamdo. The Tibetan force, numbering 8,000 troops, engaged the PLA troops in fierce battles. By October 19 the Tibetans had fought 21 battles and lost over 5,700 men.(8) Chamdo fell to the PLA and Kalon Ngabo Ngawang Jigme, provincial governor, was captured.(9)

The Chinese aggression came as a rude shock to India. In a sharp note to Beijing on October 26, 1950, the Indian Foreign Ministry wrote: “Now that the invasion of Tibet has been ordered by Chinese government, peaceful negotiations can hardly be synchronised with it and there naturally will be fear on the part of Tibetans that negotiations will be under duress. In the present context of world events, invasion by Chinese troops of Tibet cannot but be regarded as deplorable and in the considered judgement of the Government of India, not in the interest of China or peace.”(10) A number of countries, including the United States and Britain, expressed their support for the Indian position.

Back in Lhasa, the Tibetan Government decided to secure the UN mediation on Tibet’s behalf. It wrote to the UN Secretary General on November 11, 1950, appealing for the world body’s intervention. The letter said, in part: “Tibet recognises that it is in no position to resist the Chinese advance. It is thus that it agreed to negotiate on friendly terms with the Chinese Government...Though there is little hope that a nation dedicated to peace will be able to resist the brutal effort of men trained to war, we understand that the United Nations has decided to stop aggression wherever it takes place.”(11)

The Tibetan National Assembly convened an emergency session and requested the Dalai Lama, only fifteen (12) at that time, to assume full authority as head of state and move his government temporarily to Dromo (Yatung), near the Indian border, so that he would be out of personal danger. At the same time the Tibetan Foreign Office issued the following statement: “Tibet is united as one man behind the Dalai Lama who has taken over full powers ... We have appealed to the world for peaceful intervention in (the face of this) clear case of unprovoked aggression.”(13)

On November 17, 1950 the Dalai Lama assumed power at a formal ceremony and wrote to Mao Zedong: “The relationship between Tibet and China has deteriorated during my minority. Now that I have taken responsibility, I wish to revive the past harmonious relationship between us.” The Dalai Lama asked Mao to release the Tibetan prisoners of war and withdraw Chinese troops from the Tibetan territory.(14)

On that very day El Salvador formally asked that the aggression against Tibet be put on the UN General Assembly agenda. However, the issue was not discussed in the UN General Assembly at the suggestion of the Indian delegation who asserted that a peaceful solution which was mutually advantageous to Tibet, India and China could be reached between the parties concerned. A second letter by the Tibetan delegation to the United Nations on December 8, 1950 did not change the situation.

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