Jampa Chodok is 83 years old but he remembers his days as freedom fighter in Tibet as if they happened last week. He joined our small tour group just as we were finishing lunch at the Jampaling Tibetan refugee settlement, located about 12 miles east of Pokhara, Nepal. He sat in the sun, as old men often do to warm their bones, and, squinting in the bright light, began telling us about a life sacrificed to years of war.
Hostilities began in 1949, when Mao Zedong proclaimed the People’s Republic of China and made it a top priority to incorporate Tibet into the PRC. The government of Tibet sent letters to the U.S. State Department, Great Britain and Chairman Mao, declaring its intent to defend itself against occupation “by all possible means.” China sought negotiations with Tibetan government officials but they refused to talk, instead stationing more than 8,000 ill-trained and nominally equipped Tibetan soldiers on their eastern border with China. Chinese troops invaded on October 7, 1950; 12 days later 5,000 Tibetan soldiers were dead and the army had surrendered.
Jampa Chodok, Tibetan freedom fighter now living in a refugee settlement near Pokhara, Nepal
Jampa was only 22 years old at the time and not involved in the fighting. Like other Tibetans, he watched helplessly as China amassed 20.000 forces on their eastern border, advanced to within 120 miles of the capital, Lhasa, and then stopped. Surprisingly, the Chinese government demanded Tibet send a delegation to Beijing to negotiate an agreement. Although they were given no authority to sign any such agreement, representatives put their seal to the Seventeen Point Agreement for the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet, giving China sovereignty over Tibet. It was signed and sealed in Beijing on May 23, 1951 and confirmed by the government in Tibet, which later repudiated the agreement, claiming it had been signed under duress and threat of attack.
China immediately began implementing land redistribution in the far eastern part of Tibet, where the indigenous Khampas and nomads of Amdo traditionally owned their own land. By 1956, fighting had broken out in both Amdo and eastern Kham and in 1958, when the Chinese ratcheted up their efforts to fully incorporate the still semi-autonomous area around Lhasa into the PRC, Jampa, now 33 years old, joined the resistance forces forming in the capital.
In March of 1959, Chinese officials invited the Dalai Lama to attend a theatrical performance at the Chinese military headquarters outside Lhasa and insisted that he not be accompanied by his traditional armed escort. Thousands of citizens of Lhasa, alarmed by rumors that the Chinese army was mounting an attempt to kidnap the Dalai Lama, surrounded Norbulingka Palace, where the Dalai Lama was in residence, preventing him from attending the event. Within days, protesters were marching in the streets of Lhasa, proclaiming Tibet’s independence and infuriating the Chinese. As the Dalai Lama was preparing to flee the city, the Chinese army surrounded Norbulingka and began shelling the palace.
Miraculously, the Dalai Lama, accompanied by a lone security guard, made his way through the Chinese lines and escaped. Jampa and his fellow resistance fighters accompanied the Dalai Lama and his small group of followers for nearly a month as they trekked across the Himalayas on foot and on horseback, bound for northern India. When they had safely delivered their spiritual leader, Jampa and his fellow soldiers headed back to Tibet to fight, however the Chinese forces in Lhasa were so overwhelming that they soon had no choice but to return to India.
Can’t view this YouTube video of Tibetan refugees telling their stories of escaping from Tibet during the 1959 Chinese invasion? Click here.