In the six years since the Chinese arrived in Lhasa, the capital had changed immensely. An entirely new section of the city, including army barracks, a hospital and school, had been built to accommodate the Chinese. Violence in other parts of the country continued… As a result, the Chinese adopted more brutal intimidation tactics. His Holiness wrote, ‘Tibet was rapidly slipping not only from Chinese control, but also from my own.’
Right after the Great Prayer Festival on 9 March (1959), Brigadier Fu, who was in charge of PLA troops in Lhasa, invited the Dalai Lama for a theatrical performance at their headquarters. He instructed… that His Holiness should come without protection and in secret… The news spread like wildfire and on 10 March, large crowds gathered outside the Norbulingka palace to prevent the Dalai Lama from going, suspecting it was a ruse by the Chinese to hold him hostage or worse, harm him. By midday, the huge crowd of thirty thousand grew restive. A popular uprising was taking shape. Earlier that year on 18 February, in a secret ‘situation report’, Chairman Mao had said, ‘The more chaotic Tibet gets, the better. We can train troops, and toughen the masses. Furthermore, this furnishes sufficient reason for future pacification and reform.’ The situation at Norbulingka had become a tinderbox. To ease tensions, Tibetan officials reassured the crowds that the Dalai Lama would not attend the Chinese function.
On 10 March, General Tan Kuan-sen threatened ‘drastic measures.’ Later that day, Tibetan officials repudiated the 17-Point Agreement. The General wrote to the Dalai Lama, asking him to move to their military headquarters for his safety. On 11 March, the Kashag requested leaders of the crowd outside the palace to withdraw. On the General’s second request to move to their headquarters, the Dalai Lama tactfully agreed. He also ordered the Tibetan government to remove barricades placed on a road outside Lhasa, which were blocking the movement of Chinese troops.
The Nechung oracle advised His Holiness to remain in Lhasa and engage with the Chinese… A few tense days later, a second visit… yielded the same message… On 16 March, the General informed the Dalai Lama that the Chinese were preparing to attack the Norbulingka.
The thought of violence and the inevitable loss of life greatly upset His Holiness. The next day, he sought out the oracle again. This time – the oracle, swaying in a trance – said dramatically ‘go, go, go tonight’ and even gave instructions on the exact escape route to take, and then fell unconscious on the floor. Just at that moment, two shells exploded outside the palace building. On the night of 17 March, the twenty-three-year-old Dalai Lama, disguised as a soldier, left his summer palace and embarked on a long, dangerous journey to India into exile, not knowing when he would see his country or people again.
…Tibet’s destiny would change forever on the fateful day of 17 March 1959…
For one last time His Holiness visited his personal shrine dedicated to Mahakala, the protector deity for the Dalai Lamas. After offering a silkkhatag, His Holiness finished his prayers and left. Shortly before ten at night, he dressed as a soldier in trousers and a Tibetan chuba (robe) and walked out of Norbulingka. Slung across his left shoulder was a cylindrical case which housed a very precious item – a thangka of the protector-goddess Palden Lhamo that had once belonged to the Second Dalai Lama. The thangka was an object of great spiritual significance. Slung across his other shoulder was a rifle… With over tens of thousands of PLA soldiers in the area, the likelihood of being spotted and detained was a real risk. His Holiness and those accompanying him quickly crossed the Kyichu River, where the two groups were waiting on the other side. It was only then, His Holiness recalled later, that he put his glasses back on and was again able to see clearly.
The escape party rode most of the night, only stopping briefly on their way to the Che-La mountain pass, and reached the top at daybreak. His Holiness stopped to look around. It would be the last time he would get a glimpse of Lhasa. After a short prayer, they moved on towards the Yarlung Tsangpo, or the Brahmaputra river, to cross over into southern Tibet. His escape had not yet come to light, but fighting had broken out as the Tibetan forces were supporting the people of Lhasa. The Chinese launched greater attacks and on 20 March, they started shelling Norbulingka palace. It was only the next day that the Chinese found out that His Holiness had escaped.
…two CIA-trained Tibetan radio operators, Athar and Lhotse, who were with the resistance forces holding Lhuntse Dzong, not far from the Indian border…On 25 March, they sent a message to the Americans, in Tibetan Morse code developed specifically for communications between the CIA and the radio operators – by Geshe Wangyal, a Buryat lama living in New Jersey. The Dalai Lama was safe. Every twenty-four hours, the updates about the progress of the escape party were placed before President Eisenhower… newspapers around the world were reporting the escape journey. His Holiness received news of the Chinese attacks in Lhasa and all hopes of a negotiated settlement were lost. A human tragedy of great proportions was unfolding. It later came to light that in the one-year period following the uprising, the PLA had eliminated over 87,000 Tibetans in Central Tibet alone… there was imminent danger if the Dalai Lama remained in Tibet. Consequently, messages were conveyed to the Indians and the Americans that His Holiness desired to cross over into India seeking asylum. John Greaney, a senior CIA officer… sent a covert message to New Delhi informing them of the Dalai Lama’s request for asylum. Around this time, Gyalo Thondup writes that he visited Prime Minister Nehru… Nehru enquired if His Holiness was safe and when informed of his asylum request, he immediately said yes. Both the secret escape and the asylum request seemed to be just in time.
…on 31 March…The party of approximately eighty people crossed over from the Land of Snows into the Tawang District, in the North East Frontier Agency (NEFA), now the state of Arunachal Pradesh. Waiting on the other side was the Indian Assistant Political Officer, TS Murthy, with greetings from Prime Minister Nehru. The exhausting, stressful two-week journey had finally come to an end.
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