The CIA Circus: Tibet's Forgotten Army
(by R Sengupta | Outlook | February 15, 1999)

CIA in Tibet

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 radio communications.

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 Sam Halpern.

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 soon afterwards.

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 startling revelations.

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.'

Friends of Tibet (INDIA)
Friends of Tibet (INDIA), PO Box 16674, Bombay 400050