The CIA Circus: Tibet's Forgotten Army
(by R Sengupta | Outlook | February 15, 1999)
How the CIA sponsored and betrayed Tibetans in a war the world never knew about
It was code-named 'ST Circus'. But there was nothing funny about
the way the CIA funded, trained, armed and ultimately used and
betrayed the Tibetan cause. This is the war no one knew about. This
is the war that shatters the popular impression that the non-violent
Tibetans allowed the Chinese to stroll into Lhasa in 1951 after
token resistance. A war that is relived in
The Shadow Circus: The CIA in Tibet,
a gripping documentary made for the BBC by Tenzing Sonam and his wife Ritu Sarin.
This was a labour of love, and it shows. Without being jingoistic,
the superbly shot documentary —
initiated ten years ago —
vividly recounts how a few thousand Tibetans took on the might
of the People's Liberation Army. Outgunned and outnumbered, they
fought a bloody guerrilla battle on the roof of the world for over
a decade. And their ally for much of the time: The CIA.
Tenzing's father, Lhamo Tsering, was a senior resistance leader
and the CIA's chief coordinator for the Tibet operation. In 1958,
he was trained at CIA camps in Virginia and Colorado's Rocky
Mountains. He documented the entire movement, writing at length
on the subject. Though he died on January 9 this year without
realising his dream of a free Tibet, The Shadow Circus stands
tribute to the man.
China invaded Tibet in late 1949, and two years later, overran the
brave but tiny Tibetan army to enter Lhasa. The Dalai Lama, 17 at the
time, was forced into an uneasy compromise with Beijing. But when
monasteries in eastern Tibet were razed in 1956, the local Khampa
tribesmen revolted and formed an underground outfit, sending out
desperate calls for help. The Dalai Lama's elder brother, Gyalo
Thondup, in exile in India, promised to contact the Americans.
The Americans, in the throes of the worst stage of communist-phobia,
were happy to oblige. Six men were selected from a group of Khampas
that had come to India. They were secretly flown to the Pacific
island of Saipan and trained in guerrilla warfare and clandestine
Five months later, Athar Norbu, who now lives in Delhi, and his
partner were the first men ever to be parachuted into Tibet.
By then, the resistance had been forced out of Lhasa into southern
Tibet. Their success against the Chinese led to the CIA making
its first arms drop to the resistance. Then the agency set up a
top-secret training camp in the Rocky Mountains, where conditions
approximated those in Tibet. Some 259 Tibetans were trained in Camp
Hale over the next five years.
'We had great expectations when we went to America. We thought
perhaps they would even give us an atom bomb to take back,'
says Tenzin Tsultrim. 'In the training period, we learned
that the objective was to gain our independence,' adds another
grizzled veteran. But the Americans had other ideas. 'The whole
idea was to keep the Chinese occupied, keep them annoyed, keep
them disturbed. Nobody wanted to go to war over Tibet...It was a
nuisance operation. Basically, nothing more,' says former CIA agent
In March 1959, the CIA made a second arms drop in southern Tibet,
where the resistance now controlled large areas. Back in Lhasa,
the Dalai Lama was invited to the local Chinese military camp to
attend a play —
sans bodyguards, the invitation said. The citizens of Lhasa rose
up in revolt; the Dalai Lama realised it was time to leave.
A few days later, the Dalai Lama, disguised as a soldier, escaped
from his palace and headed south. The CIA-trained radio team met
them en route, and asked the Americans to request Prime Minister
Nehru to grant asylum to the Dalai Lama.Nehru, well aware of the
situation, immediately approved.
On March 31, 1959, after an arduous trek across the mountains,
the Dalai Lama and his entourage entered India. This sparked off
an exodus of refugees from Tibet to India —
leaving behind only small pockets of resistance in southern Tibet.
Undeterred, the CIA parachuted four groups of Camp Hale trainees
inside Tibet between 1959 and 1960 to contact the remaining
resistance groups. But the missions resulted in the massacre of
all but a few of the team members.
The CIA cooked up a fresh operation in Mustang, a remote corner of
Nepal that juts into Tibet. Nearly two thousand Tibetans gathered
here to continue their fight for freedom. A year later, the CIA
made its first arms drop in Mustang. Organised on the lines of a
modern army, the guerrillas were led by Bapa Yeshe, a former monk.
'As soon as we received the aid, the Americans started
scolding us like children. They said that we had to go into Tibet
immediately. Sometimes I wished they hadn't sent us the arms at all,'
says Yeshe. The Mustang guerrillas conducted cross-border raids
into Tibet. The CIA made two more arms drops to the Mustang force,
the last in May 1965. Then, in early 1969, the agency abruptly cut
off all support. The CIA explained that one of the main conditions
the Chinese had set for establishing diplomatic relations with the US
was to stop all connections and all assistance to the Tibetans. Says
Roger McCarthy, an ex-CIA man, 'It still smarts that we pulled out
in the manner we did.'
Thinley Paljor, a surviving resistance fighter, was among the
thousands shattered by this volte-face. 'We felt deceived, we felt
our usefulness to the CIA is finished. They were only thinking
short-term for their own personal gain, not for the long-term
interests of the Tibetan people.' In 1974, armtwisted by the
Chinese, the Nepalese government sent troops to Mustang to demand
the surrender of the guerrillas. Fearing a bloody confrontation,
the Dalai Lama sent the resistance fighters a taped message, asking
them to surrender. They did so, reluctantly. Some committed suicide
Today, the survivors of the Mustang resistance force live in two
refugee settlements in Nepal, where they eke out a living spinning
wool and weaving carpets. 'The film is for the younger Tibetans,
who are unaware of the resistance, as well as for Americans, who don't
know how their own government used and betrayed the resistance,'
says Tenzing. 'Though it was a story begging to be told, funding
it was almost impossible,' adds Ritu.
The couple have been making films since 1983, on subjects from
reincarnation to the expat Sikh community in California and Tenzing's
first trip to Tibet. A full-length Tibetan feature film is in the
pipeline, but The Shadow Circus is likely to be remembered for its
The most poignant summary comes from Tenzing's father: 'We were able
to utilise [the American] help for our own ends. We couldn't just
go and fight the Chinese with empty hands. I don't see our armed
struggle as something that was helpful only at a certain point in
our history, something that is finished. We should look at it as
one chapter in our continuing struggle for freedom, one that still
has some meaning.'