The following is an excerpt from “Chapter 5, The Dalai Lama’s Great Escape” of Freeing Tibet: 50 Years of Struggle, Resilience and Hope by John B. Roberts II and Elizabeth A. Roberts.
At the beginning of the Tibetan year of the Earth-Pig, 1959 in the Western calendar, Lord Chamberlain Phala and Gompo Tashi Andrugtsang had urgent business. CIA officer Roger McCarthy, the new head of the Tibet Task Force, needed a contingency plan for bringing the Dalai Lama safely across the Himalayas to India.
Since 1951, the United States had urged the Dalai Lama to leave Tibet and go into exile. But in 1951, and again five years later at the end of the Buddhist Jayanti celebrations in 1956, Tenzin Gyatso had chosen to return to Lhasa. McCarthy was worried about his safety. The United States had airdropped tons of weapons and ammunition to the resistance, and fighting was growing across Tibet. Frank Holober was departing as head of the Task Force, and McCarthy was about to assume full responsibility for the operation. McCarthy feared that it was only a matter of time before the Chinese retaliated against the Dalai Lama, possibly by taking him prisoner or even killing him. He knew the time to get the Dalai Lama out of Tibet was nearing.
Phala and Gompo Tashi were in the best position to plan an escape. They knew the countryside intimately. Travel would have to be by horseback. A journey would take several weeks to complete at this time of year, when passes were still snowbound. Gompo Tashi would coordinate an escort of Khampa warriors to serve as bodyguards. Still more resistance fighters would be deployed to block strategic passes to prevent the Chinese from pursuing and capturing the Dalai Lama.
Once the details were set, the CIA was notified of the proposed escape route in coded radio transmissions. This way the Agency could be prepared if it became necessary to drop supplies from the air once the plan was underway. But for the time being, it remained a contingency plan. The Dalai Lama was still not ready to leave Lhasa.
Fighting escalated in late January. NVDA fighters overran an entire Chinese garrison at Tsethang, a strategic crossroads town only 35 miles from Lhasa. In February, the guerrillas began attacking PLA supply lines across Central Tibet. The Chinese responded by sending more troops and aircraft into Tibet.
General Tan Guensen, China’s political commissar in Lhasa, demanded that the Dalai Lama order Tibet’s army to quash the guerrilla revolt. Although Tenzin Gyatso had not sanctioned Gompo Tashi’s resistance movement, he would not send Tibetan troops against it. His refusal infuriated the Chinese general. In answer, the Chinese officials stripped the Dalai Lama’s brothers, Gyalo and Norbu, of their citizenship. This gesture of retaliation for their role with the resistance was futile. Neither man intended to return to occupied Tibet.
On March 1, shortly before the Dalai Lama was due to take important monastic exams that would confer the equivalent of a doctor of divinity degree on him, General Tan had two orderlies hand deliver an invitation. A visiting Chinese dance troupe was scheduled to perform in mid-March at the Military Area Command, the Chinese military garrison on Lhasa’s outskirts. General Tan wanted the Dalai Lama to be his guest. The usual way to issue such invitations was through the Tibetan government, not directly to His Holiness. Although surprised by the breech of protocol, Tenzin Gyatso wrote and accepted the offer without specifying the date on which he would attend.
The final exams were held in the Tsuglakhang, the 1300-year-old edifice that is Lhasa’s central cathedral. Before an audience of 20,000 monks, the 24-year-old Dalai Lama debated Buddhist theology with 80 Tibetan scholars. The examinations took from eight in the morning until ten at night, with only two breaks for tea and refreshment. Having satisfied the scholars and abbots of Tibet’s top monasteries, Tenzin Gyatso was pronounced validated as the reincarnation of Chenrezig, the country’s sacred protector.
A regal procession accompanied the Dalai Lama’s March 5 return to the Norbulingka, the summer palace whose name means “garden of jewels,” or Jewel Park. The occasion should have been celebratory, but the atmosphere in Lhasa was tense. Refugees from the fighting crowded the city. They were joined by 25,000 Buddhist monks, who had made pilgrimages from monasteries across Tibet.
General Tan pressed the Dalai Lama to attend the dance performance, and the date was set for March 10. Normally, a bodyguard of 25 men would accompany him and his route would be lined with Tibetan soldiers. On March 9, one of Tan’s officers called the head of the Dalai Lama’s bodyguard to a meeting, where he told him that Tenzin Gyatso could bring only two guards—unarmed.
Word of the unusual Chinese demand spread quickly. Rumors of a plot to kidnap the Dalai Lama raced through the streets. Adding to the intrigue were three Chinese aircraft that had flown into Lhasa and were parked on the runway, quite possibly to transport the Dalai Lama to Beijing as a prisoner.
Excerpted from Freeing Tibet: 50 Years of Struggle, Resilience, and Hope by John B. Roberts II and Elizabeth A. Roberts. Copyright © 2009 John B. Roberts II and Elizabeth A. Roberts. Published by AMACOM Books, a division of American Management Association, New York, NY. Used with permission. All rights reserved. http://www.amacombooks.org.