The Lhasa Uprising

- through Fabrice Groult

Published on

From March 1 to 10, 1959, the capital of Tibet was the scene of a massacre perpetrated by the Chinese army and the first Tibetan uprising. A look back at those few days that would put the Roof of the World back on the map.

For several weeks now, the streets of Lhasa have been filled with men and women from Kham, recognizable by their accent and their outfits, fur hats and mats mixed with red woolen threads, daggers in their belts. They camp everywhere, especially around the great temples of the capital, the Ramoche and the Jokhang. Leaving the eastern province in the grip of the Chinese invasion, which was opposed by the resistance led by Gompo Tashi, at the head of the national voluntary defense army, known as "Chushi Gangdruk" (four rivers, six mountains), they reached the holy city with a double intention: to place themselves under the spiritual protection of the Dalai Lama by getting closer to him, but also protecting him by if necessary blocking with their corps the threats posed by the presence in Lhasa of a heavily armed Chinese expeditionary force.

The 24-year-old Dalai Lama has settled with his government, the Kashag, in Norbulingka (literally the “Park of Jewels”), the Summer Palace more comfortable and less central than the imposing Potala. The previous week, the young monk devoted all his energy to the examination of gueshe larampa (doctor of Buddhist philosophy) which he has been preparing for ten years, which takes place in public in the center of Lhasa, in the Jokhang monastery. Thousands of monks and nuns also made the trip to the capital on this occasion. These massive displacements worry the Chinese occupying forces.

The 17-point agreement

Beneath a polite exterior, the Dalai Lama's relations with the Chinese military authorities are far from being good. In 1951, in Peking, its representatives had to sign, with a gun to their head, a seventeen-point agreement, which accepts the "return" to the bosom of the Chinese motherland, subject to the latter's commitment to maintain Tibet a broad and authentic autonomy.

The Dalai Lama receives many visitors and knows nothing of the abuses committed in his home province, Amdo, and in neighboring Kham, by an indoctrinated Chinese army which attacks monks and lamas, and monopolizes the lands of the monasteries under the pretext of abolishing the old regime. Anxious nevertheless to preserve what can be preserved, he accepted the idea of ​​a meeting with General Chiang Chin-Wu, on the occasion of a dance performance whose date was finally fixed for March 10, at headquarters of the occupying troops.

“Dressing in trousers and a long black coat such as I had never worn before, I slung a rifle over my right shoulder and tossed an ancient thangka (painting roll) that had belonged to the XNUMXnd Dalai Lama to the left. Then I put my glasses back in my pocket. The time had come to leave. I was very scared. The Dalai Lama.

The day before, the head of the Dalai Lama's security officials, the kusun depon, was summoned to the Chinese general staff, where an officer explained to him that the meeting would take place in simplicity: the Dalai Lama should not be accompanied by his usual security service, but only by two unarmed bodyguards.

In the evening, the news spread in Lhasa like wildfire. Within hours, nearly twenty thousand Tibetans surrounded Norbulingka and prevented the Dalai Lama from leaving the palace.

Protect Kundun at the risk of their lives

On the morning of March 10, three emissaries went to the Chinese headquarters to announce to General Tan Kuansen, a member of the general staff, that the Dalai Lama, held back by the crowd, would not go to the planned show. Anger of the senior officer who is threatening with regard to "traitors" and "imperialist rebels", accusing the Tibetan government of having organized all this agitation against the Chinese authorities. He suggests to the Dalai Lama to come and place himself under his “protection”, in the very premises of the headquarters, where he will be safe.

In the evening, several members of the Tibetan government and military officials present at the Summer Palace sign a declaration proclaiming the independence of Tibet and the abolition of the seventeen-point agreement. Displayed in the streets of Lhasa, the declaration galvanizes the population which organizes many processions with the cry of “Chinese out of Tibet”.

The Chinese army retaliated by firing cannon at the gathered civilians and monks, and took the Iron Hill (Chakpori), located just opposite the Potala, as their objective, reducing the shrine dedicated to the medicine Buddha Sangye Menla to ashes.

This does not stop the demonstrators who remain massed around the park with jewels. The Dalai Lama's entourage is beginning to consider a forced departure. The oracle of Nechung, consulted, whispered three times in the ear of the young prelate an explicit order: “Leave this evening! and scribbles a precise route for his escape. Shortly afterwards, in the course of the afternoon, two Chinese shells damaged a surrounding wall, without reaching the place of residence of the Dalai Lama.

On the evening of March 17, the final preparations take place

After having meditated one last time in the chapel dedicated to Mahakala, his personal protective deity, the Dalai Lama goes out into the cool night. Let him do the talking: “Dressing in trousers and a long black coat such as I had never worn before, I slung a rifle over my right shoulder and threw an old thangka (paint roll) that belonged to to the XNUMXnd Dalai Lama. Then I put my glasses back in my pocket. The time had come to leave. I was very scared. Two soldiers arrived, charged with escorting me to the door of the inner enclosure. When we arrived at the outer wall, we were joined by the head of my cabinet, whose sword could be seen in the shadows. In a reassuring tone and in a low voice, he told me to stay beside him at all costs. Passing through the door, he quite naturally announced to people that he was on an inspection tour. That's how the crowd let us pass. »

During the three days that followed, Lhasa became the scene of a veritable massacre, in which the Chinese soldiers indulged. Civilians and fighters who had taken refuge in the temples were crushed under the bombardments, which did not spare the Potala Palace. The smell of gunpowder and blood fills the old town. There are thousands of deaths, 15 according to the figures of the Chinese themselves. The monastery of Sera, located a few kilometers from the capital, is largely destroyed. No foreign journalist, photographer or filmmaker is on site. It is only much later that the testimonies of these atrocities will come out.

Informed of the possibility of the Dalai Lama's departure, Mao Zedong would have instructed his troops not to prevent him: "If the Dalai Lama and his retinue flee, our army must not get in the way. of his way. Let them pass”. No doubt he did not imagine that thirty years later, the fugitive would be one of the most popular personalities in the world, a symbol of wisdom and peace, rewarded with a Nobel Prize.

For their part, the Tibetans in exile and their many friends around the world celebrate the March 10 Uprising every year.

photo of author

Fabrice Groult

Fabrice Groult is an adventurer, photographer and Buddhist who has traveled the world since a young age. After studying Buddhism in India, he embarked on an eighteen-month journey through Asia that took him to the Himalayas, where he discovered his passion for photography. Since then, he has traveled the world capturing images of Buddhist beauty and wisdom. He was a guide for ten years, and is now a journalist with Buddhist News.

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