Chushi Gangdruk: The CIA Trained Khampa Guerrillas and the Rescue of the Dalai Lama
April 8, 2021
April 8, 2021
CIA and the ColdWar-era fight against global communist expansion go hand and hand. In a lesser-known tale of covert operations, the agency trained Khampa warriors of Tibet waged a guerilla war against Mao’s Chinese expansion.
“My father would tell us; the Communist Chinese are enemies of Buddhism. So, since they were enemies of Buddhism, we never felt it was a sin to kill them. In fact, we were happy to kill as many as we could. When we kill an animal, we say a prayer. But when we killed the Chinese, no prayer came to our lips.” – Ratu Ngawang, Tibetan Resistance Leader
After a long civil war, the spectre of Communism, as Karl Marx so elegantly labelled it, found a new home in the Peoples Republic of China, circa 1949. Chairman Mao Zedong took the reigns as the new Chinese head of state, orating speeches full of nationalistic and anti-imperialist rhetoric, whose words echoed through Tiananmen Square on the 1st of October 1949.
“Our revolutionary work is not completed, the People’s War of Liberation and then people’s revolutionary movement are still forging ahead, and we must keep up our efforts. The imperialists and the domestic reactionaries will certainly not take their defeat lying down; they will fight to the last ditch.”
“After there is peace and order throughout the country, they are sure to engage in sabotage and create disturbances by one means or another and every day and every minute they will try to stage a come-back. This is inevitable and beyond all doubt, and under no circumstances must we relax our vigilance”.
And so, they did, although not in a strictly defensive manner. Within a year of the CCP’s establishment, their sights were pointed at Tibet – the home of the Khampa guerrillas.
Communist Chinese aggression and their desire for regional control sent the Peoples Liberation Army across the border of Tibet in 1949 with the goal of annexation. In 1950, the PLA took part in the Battle of Chamdo, which was the first major campaign, and a tactical foothold gain for the Chinese. In the Summer of 1951, the PLA marched on the capital city of Lhasa, which cemented the victory for the CCP.
By 1956, the Chinese had overtaken Tibetan society and culture – communist propaganda and public re-education campaigns promoted anti-Buddhist and anti-Dalai Lama rhetoric. It was this year that the PLA increased ruthless attacks on Tibetan cultural sites and monasteries, killing all monks and citizens within them. These attacks were the impetus of the internal resistance – the rise of the Khampa.
Kham is a province in southeast Tibet and the birthplace of the nation’s warrior class; the Khampa. In a homage to their home, the name of their guerilla outfit was the “Chushi Gangdruk” which means “the land of six mountains and four rivers”. The architect of the resistance was Gompo Tashi 51-year-old trader and bonafide alpha male.
Gompo Tashi and the cohort of other traders he belonged to had a unique skill set, in that they were grizzled travellers who knew of the routes and lands outside of Tibet. Within the nation, they were powerless and knew that in order to effectively fight the CCP, they would need foreign support. And so, a detachment of traders trekked to India, where they ended up establishing contact with the Dalai Lama’s exiled brother, Gyalo Thondup.
In a dire situation, it helps to have the right connections. In the case of the Khampa, that meeting would help them network with the three-letter agency that has a knack for empowering foreign guerilla fighters.
Saipan is a tropical paradise in the North Mariana Islands. The perfect spot to kick back, relax, sip on a mojito, read a Hemmingway short story with your toes in the sand, or if you want to get more unconventional, get trained in guerrilla warfare by CIA paramilitary officers.
For a small team of six Khampa’s, that was the case. Saipan became a testing ground to see if they could acquire the skillset needed to return to Tibet and establish communications with their US support while avoiding Chinese detection. It was there that the test group learned tradecraft, such as radio operations, espionage, and small unit warfare with modern weapons. The operation was called ST Circus, a covert plan to fight the Chinese indirectly using national proxy forces trained and supported by the US.
In 1957, Two of the Khampa guerrillas trained at Saipan were the first to practically apply the new skills they had acquired and did so by inserting into central Tibet by air, through the cover of night. In the documentary, The Shadow Circus: The CIA in Tibet, one of the Khampa on that mission, Athar Norbu, poetically described his experience.
“There were no clouds, it was a clear night. The feeling of happiness surged through me when I realized that we might make the jump.”
And they did. The jump was made, and the brave Khampa’s were able to establish radio contact with the CIA back in Washington DC. This started a stream of on the ground intelligence that gave the CIA enough information to continuously increase support, through weapons drops, and later with further guerrilla training in Camp Hale, Colorado.
Outside of giving it to the PLA on the battlefield, one of the Khampa guerrillas most successful operations was to escort the young Dalai Lama out of Tibet and into India in 1959.
Rebellion was the flavour of the year in the capital city Lhasa, and Tibet was no longer safe for the Dalai Lama. Rumours of a Chinese plot to apprehend his holiness and take him to Beijing were echoed throughout the resistance.
And so, in March of 1959, the Dalai Lama dressed as a soldier, and over a course of two weeks was led through Tibet, including through the treacherous landscape of the Himalayas. When asked about how he felt the evening of his escape from Lhasa for the book An Officer and His Holiness by Rani Singh, the Dalai Lama answered in true monk fashion.
“Oh, yes. Some fear,” Of course, some fear,” he said. “But then, before we finalized, I had some sort of hesitation. Once we finalized, then there was no hesitation.”
On the 30th of March 1959, His Holiness crossed safely into India with his faithful Khampa guerrillas alongside him. The Khampa continued to train and fight the PLA with the help of the CIA until its final arms drop in May of 1965.
Image: Resistance Efforts of Tibetan People (link)
Michael served as an infantryman in the United States Marine Corps with tours to Iraq and Afghanistan. After leaving the Corps he enrolled at Seattle Pacific University focusing on Communications studies and the relations with conflicts.