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<-Back to WTN Archives 45 years ago, witness to Dalai Lama's flight did not know history being made (AFP)
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World Tibet Network News

Published by the Canada Tibet Committee

Wednesday, March 17, 2004

2. 45 years ago, witness to Dalai Lama's flight did not know history being made (AFP)

by Lobsang Wangyal

DHARAMSALA, India, March 17 (AFP) - Forty-five years ago Wednesday, the
Dalai Lama disguised himself as a soldier and sneaked out of Lhasa where his
predecessors ruled supreme for centuries, in one of the most dramatic
flights of the 20th century.

The Dalai Lama has never stepped foot again in Tibet. But for one foot
soldier who accompanied the Tibetan spiritual leader out of his palace on
March 17, 1959, it had not been immediately apparent how fateful that day
would be.

Mingyur, who at age 29 had already served 11 years in the Tibetan army, was
told only to follow the Dalai Lama and protect him.

"But I didn't know where the Dalai Lama was heading and what lay in the
future," said Mingyur, who uses only one name and who like the Dalai Lama
now lives in the north Indian hill station Dharamsala.

The Dalai Lama and a 37-strong entourage crossed into exile in India on
March 30, 1959, after a 13-day trek that crossed the Himalayas and a
500-meter (-yard) wide stretch of the Brahmaputra river.

Mingyur said the Dalai Lama's escape route was clearly in the range of
Chinese troops.

"There was more mental than physical stress during the journey," he

"We were concerned about the safety of His Holiness. We weren't feeling
physical exhaustion or pain."

It had been more than eight years since China sent troops into Tibet, which
it considers an inalienable part of its territory, but trouble boiled over
in Lhasa on March 10, 1959 as rumours spread that the Dalai Lama was to be

The Dalai Lama had been invited to a Chinese army camp three kilometers (two
miles) away. While many historians doubt the Chinese were planning to abduct
the monk, then 23, who had a nominal role in administering Tibet, the mere
thought of mistreatment of the reputed incarnation of the Buddha brought
thousands to the streets.

"The Chinese must go! Leave Tibet to the Tibetans!" the protesters chanted.

According to the Dalai Lama's recollections, three mortar shells were heard
from the palace on March 17, 1959, and his aides believed he must leave at

"It was I who had to find the answer and make the decision; but with my
inexperience in the affairs of the world it was not easy," the Dalai Lama
wrote in his autobiography, "My Land and My People."

"If I did escape from Lhasa, where was I to go, and how could I reach
asylum? Everything was uncertain. Our minds were overwhelmed by such
unanswerable questions. We could not tell where the journey would lead or
how it would end," the Dalai Lama wrote.

At 10:00 that night, the Dalai Lama traded his maroon monastic robes for the
clothes of a common soldier like Mingyur, put on a fur cap, slung on a
rifle, and sneaked incognito out of his winter palace, Norbulingka.

Mingyur, now 74, recalled his shock.

"I felt like blacking out on seeing His Holiness looking like that," Mingyur
said. "I knew bad times were striking Tibet."

Despite the astute attention the Chinese authorities had given to keeping
the Dalai Lama as at least a figurehead in Tibet, he escaped below the radar
screen as he made his way to India.

When bombs fell on the Norbulingka palace on March 20, the Dalai Lama was
already well away. But he would later say that news of the crackdown
persuaded him to cross into exile.

"When I left the Norbulingka, and throughout this first hectic part of the
journey, I was not thinking of going straight to India. I still hoped to be
able to stay somewhere in Tibet," the Dalai Lama wrote.

The night he left Lhasa, the entourage crossed the Kyichu River and into the
protection of Khampa guerrillas, who with US support had been battling
Chinese troops in eastern Tibet.

The Tibetan government-in-exile based in Dharamsala says the flight of the
Dalai Lama was organised purely by Tibetans and denies allegations made
periodically by China and Western media reports that it was aided by the US
Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

But the exiled Tibetans acknowledge that the Khampa guerrillas used their
radio contacts with the CIA to let the United States know of the Dalai
Lama's plans and ensure India was ready to grant him asylum.

Mingyur said the Dalai Lama's entourage never anticipated China's
iron-fisted crackdown of the 1959 rebellion, in which Tibetans say thousands

"What they did was beyond our imagination. We thought the whole thing would
be over in a short time. If India didn't provide asylum then, I don't know
what would have happened," Mingyur said.

The Dalai Lama's brother Ngari Rinpoche, who is now 58, was among the
Tibetans who fled into India, whose first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru
let them have Dharamsala as a base in 1960.

"It is hard for me to remember and to tell how I was feeling then.
Nevertheless, it was a very exciting time for a 13-year-old boy," he said.

But he said the situation has since become "very complex," with an
increasingly confident China boasting it has dramatically improved Tibet's
economy since it "liberated" the territory.

While the Dalai Lama says he is seeking autonomy for Tibet within China,
Beijing frequently accuses him of separatism and demands he definitively
give up aspirations for independence and recognise Taiwan as part of China
before a settlement can be reached.

Ngari Rinpoche said that rather than dwelling on the past, Tibetans should
look to the future and figure out what to do after the death of his elder
brother, whose gentle demeanor has won him a worldwide support network.

"This topic cannot be avoided. It is a reality that he will one day pass
away," Ngari Rinpoche said.

"There cannot be a vacuum after his passing away. I feel it is very
important for Tibetans to discuss this."

Articles in this Issue:
  1. Rights group challenges US to sponsor UN bill condemning China (AFP)
  2. 45 years ago, witness to Dalai Lama's flight did not know history being made (AFP)
  3. China bans book on Tibet (AFP)
  4. A Buddhist on good, evil and Gibson (SFC)

Other articles this month - WTN Index - Mail the WTN-Editors

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