Troubled Times: Voices of Tibetan Refugees, Part 2
Chagdoe Donyon (Photo courtesy Tang Danhong)
This is part two of a four-part series. Read Part 1here.
In the summer of 2010, writer and filmmaker Tang Danhong and the young Tibetan translator Sangjey interviewed older Tibetan refugees in India, people who had fled their homes as the People’s Liberation Army entered Tibetan areas and slowly tightened Beijing’s grip. Some of the interviewees joined the Tibetan volunteer army Chushi Gangdruk in its armed rebellion against the Chinese Communists, with the aid of the CIA. Others told harrowing stories of imprisonment, flight, and survival. The refugees Tang interviewed called this period Dulog Yung, the “Troubled Times.”
Last summer, Tang began to publish some of the interviews, translated by Sangjey into Chinese, on her blog, Moments of Samsara. Today, CDT begins a weekly four-part series of excerpts from three interviews, translated into English.
Tang hopes to make a documentary from the interviews, and welcomes correspondence from filmmakers via Twitter @DanHongTang.
Chagdoe Donyon was born in 1937 in Derge, Kham (Derge County, Garze Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Sichuan). The illegitimate son of the Derge princess, Donyon was raised by the noble Chagdoe family. When the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) came to Derge, Donyon left for India, then reentered Tibet as a guerilla in the the Kham Four Rivers, Six Ranges Tibetan Defenders of the Faith Volunteer Army (Chushi Gangdruk). Donyon eventually received training from the CIA, part of a US intelligence program that operated for two decades, until the eve of Nixon’s visit to China in 1972. Donyon is now the chief executive of Bir Tibetan Colony, India.
Donyon told Tan Danhong and Sangjey about his CIA training and deployment to Tibet.
One day when I was thirteen, I saw three Jeeps driving in the distance, eventually stopping at my front door. Out came a few Han Communist officials along with several soldiers. “We are here to liberate you,” they told the elders. The Han tried to explain what “liberate” meant, but the elders didn’t know how to translate “liberate” into Tibetan, let alone what the word meant. They just stood there, puzzled. They didn’t say anything about feudal serfdom; that was added in by the Communist Party later. Those Han stayed at our home that night and left the next day. That was the first time I saw the Han Communists.
It was probably about 1954 when the Communists began arresting those they called Nationalist spies. At that time our village had two Tibetan translators and two Hui merchants. There was also one Han who came to our village during the Nationalist period—he understood Tibetan and had a Tibetan wife. One day, they were all arrested. They were told to meet at the road maintenance office the next morning. Once they arrived, PLA soldiers who had been waiting there arrested them. They disappeared after that. Perhaps they were imprisoned somewhere and died. From then on, political movement gradually came to our hometown. Cadres who had previously set us at ease starting talking about democratic reform.
At that time, Chaghoe Thubten had a better understanding of the political situation. He said to us, “Right now China is undergoing land reform in places like Chengdu and Ya’an, and they will soon launch similar reforms in Derge. While it seems that the Han are kind to us now, it’s unlikely that will continue in the future. The local leaders and the wealthy families will be the first targets of reform, and then we’ll be in big trouble…” Chaghoe Thubten told us to leave. He said, “If you pretend to make a pilgrimage to Lhasa it should be okay. If you to stay at home, things won’t end well. Not a single person should stay. You should all leave! Appoint administrative and financial staff to manage things, and leave immediately. But I myself can’t leave. Only I will stay in China to see if things get better.”
Not long after we arrived in Lhasa, Chaghoe Thubten sent us a message: “Do not come back under any circumstances. The reform will bring calamity for the local leaders and wealthy families.” We completely trusted what he said and no longer harbored any fantasies about the Han. Chaghoe Thubten urged us to continue our journey towards India or some other place. In the winter of 1956, our entire family moved to India, claiming that we were on pilgrimage.
…In the summer of 1958, Gonpo Tashi established Chushi Gangdruk. I returned to Tibet from India, went to Lhokha Prefecture, and joined the army.
…After forming Chushi Gangdruk, Gonpo Tashi led a group to Ganden Monastery and forcibly took weapons from the Kashag. After taking possession of the weapons, the PLA began chasing them, and they had to retreat northward instead of returning to the Lhokha headquarters. Chushi Gangdruk’s headquarters was thus moved from Lhokha Lhokha Drigu-thang to Gyaca, not far from Tawang [Arunachal Pradesh]. I was staying at the Chushi Gangdruk headquarters then, and we stayed in Gyaca for a while. When winter came, we moved to Lhagyari, where the headquarters were located.
Gonpo Tashi tried to join with the army’s general headquarters. After we received this news by letter, our group of over two hundred Chushi Gangdruk soldiers from Derge and Lithang went to welcome Gonpo Tashi in Dagpo. After we arrived in Dagpo, we crossed a river and continued to walk for two days. We then met a messenger sent by Gonpo Tashi. He gave is a letter that said, “Do not come to receive us. You must go back to Lhagyari.” So that’s what we did.
We met at headquarters. If Gonpo Tashi didn’t want us to meet him, we had nothing to do in Lhagyari, and we would soon run out of food. At the time, we put a lot of hope in Taiwan and the US, and we thought we should send people to India to ask India, Taiwan, or the US for aid. Actually, we didn’t care where the aid came from. The most important thing was to get weapons and supplies. Before, in 1957, the CIA had already trained Tibetan resistance fighters. Athar and Lobtse from Lithang had been flown to Samye; in 1958, Wangdue and other fellow soldiers who had received CIA training were also flown to Lithang, and another snuck into Lithang by horse. But after Wangdue and the others had arrived in Lithang, the CIA never airdropped weapons. They had no choice but to leave Lithang. On their way out, Wangdue ran into one of his brothers, who was fleeing with ten or so other people. They all went together to Lhagyari. At the end of the meeting, we decided to divide into two groups: Chaghoe Namgyal Dorje, Lobsang, and Chundak would go to India to get in touch with Gyalo Dhondup [the contact for the CIA training program]; Wangdue, a CIA trainee, and I would go to Darjeeling, India along with thirty other soldiers. Some of us would prepare to receive CIA training.
We got into India easily. A man named Lobsang Gyaltsen came to receive us. He was a good friend of Kunma Tsang, a Bhutanese official, who provided 40 entry permits that would allow Tibetans into Bhutan. So we made it to Darjeeling via Bhutan. In our party was a Han couple and their daughter, who came with a Tibetan named Gyalo Kyentse. I don’t know if they belonged to the Nationalist Party or what, and had no idea what happened to them after we got to Darjeeling.
Gyalo Dhondup was in charge of arranging everything for the CIA training. I didn’t know the details. I heard that Gyalo Dhondup made his connection with the US embassy in Kolkata through an introduction from the Mongolian lama Wangyal. After we arrived in Darjeeling, my adoptive father Changhoe Namgyal Dorje informed us that we would leave for training in the US soon.
Soon, Tibet was occupied. We then paid a special visit to see His Holiness the Dalai Lama inSiliguri. His Holiness took a train to Siliguri to meet his faithful followers. Ten days after we returned to Darjeeling from that visit, we departed for the US.
On the night of our departure, Gyalo Dhondup drove us himself. He dropped us off by the side of the road and said a truck would pick us up. We got into that truck, and it stopped along the way to pick up more people. In the end, there were 21 of us, 18 trainees and three interpreters. From Darjeeling to Siliguri, we then reached the India-Bangladesh border, where we got off and followed a guide. We didn’t know where we were going or what we were going to do. Everything had been pre-arranged by Gyalo Dhondup. We had a little trouble at the border: we were detained by the Indian police for one night and then released. In Bangladesh, the guide left us in a house, where another man came and trucked us to the train station. It was only us and some Bangladeshi soldiers in our train car. The soldiers seemed to be monitoring us. We had no food or drink. The train stopped near a small airport, and another person came to take us to where some CIA trainers were waiting for us. We stayed at the airport that night. The next day, the CIA flew us to the training camp in Colorado.
In the past, Athar and others were trained at a US military base in Japan, but we were trained in Colorado. Before we arrived, six other Tibetans had been trained there, including Gonpo Tashi’s nephew. They had finished training and were expected to leave anytime. We didn’t know any English, so the six stayed to help the CIA trainers teach us how to use weapons, parachutes, and telegraphs. Our training lasted six months. The other group of Tibetans left before we finished, taking Lekshay, Kyilha Tashi, and Taba from our group with them. Those three hadn’t finished their training, but they’d already mastered the basic skills. We didn’t know where they’d be deployed. Later I heard they were dropped in Namtso. But not only could they not establish contact with the local resistance movement, they also exposed their whereabouts. The manager of Thargye Temple in Namtso reported them to the Han, so they had to retreat to India through Nepal.
During our training, Gyalo Dhondup visited us. We demonstrated our shooting abilities to him. He encouraged us to train hard and said that, though Gonpo Tashi’s troops were in India, they were ready to return to Tibet to fight anytime. In actuality, we didn’t need any encouragement. We only worried that we might not be allowed to go back to Tibet to fight the Han because the Dalai Lama and the Chushi Gangdruk army had arrived in India. The founding mission of Chushi Gangdruk was to contribute to the Tibetan political and religious cause. We had never forgotten what we had sworn. We were enthusiastic for having the opportunity to contribute to our country and our people, and didn’t care about our own lives. We had no fear of parachuting back into Tibet.
As our training was nearing the end, we were divided into three small groups. I was in charge of a group of six, and the other two groups had five members each. The American officers told us we’d soon be dropped into Tibet, and pointed out the location on the map. We were going to be dropped where Gonpo Tashi used to be stationed. Perhaps the location had been chosen by Gonpo Tashi and Gyalo Dhondup? Maybe they believed there was still a local resistance there? Our first task was to contact the local resistance, assess the situation, and report to the Americans. After establishing a relationship with the local resisters, we would ask for weapons from the Americans. Next, we would teach the resisters to use the weapons and other guerrilla tactics, and collect information about the Han in Tibet.
…Our group was lucky—we landed in a field and no one was injured. But it took us some effort to find all the equipment that was dropped. The other groups landed in the mountains and two people were lightly injured. We found everything and burned what we didn’t need any longer, like the parachutes.
In the end, we organized a complete Chushi Gangdruk [force] made up of resisters from every tribe in Ja Lha Penba. We would all fight battles along separate routes.
Of course we knew the strength of the Han. I remember when I was still in my hometown, I once saw the Eighteenth Army gather at the Garze Airport. There were so many soldiers that the entire area turned the color of their fatigues. That was the army we were facing, and with such few Tibetan soldiers? We knew beyond the shadow of doubt that we could not beat the Chinese army. Our goal was to resist invasion and make a sacrifice for Tibet.
We trainees didn’t personally lead the soldiers to the battlefields, but mainly provided strategy and conducted guerrilla attacks. In the beginning, we initiated attacks on the Han army. In Bomi, we fought all the way to the Pore area and killed many PLA soldiers. In Sog County, we obtained telegraph equipment from the PLA, attacked one of their transport teams, and took a great deal of food, horses, and camels. All three of our groups had some victory.
But since the Chushi Gangdruk was made up of resisters from different tribes and different areas, many civilians and refugees traveled with the army. Our success was sometimes bogged down by the burden of elderly or weak tagalongs, children, and livestock, not to mention the extremely challenging terrain. So when the PLA attacked us, we sustained heavy casualties in Ja La Penba. The PLA laid siege to our troops, attacking us on land and from the air. I heard that 40,000 PLA soldiers were moved from Lhasa, Xining, and Chamdo. Fighter jets flew above, while infantry and the cavalry swarmed on the ground. The jets first bombed the Penba Monastery, then everywhere else. The casualties were mostly fleeing tribal refugees. You could see dead bodies everywhere. Even though we had our defenses in all areas, we couldn’t beat an army that had so many more soldiers than we did, and we had to retreat. Soon, we fought our way out and left Ja La Penba.
We then retreated to Tagang, where locals said that a small tribe from the Pechung Alliance, whose leader was Tashi Gyaltsen, was under siege by the PLA and had to retreat to Tagang. In Tagang, after they’d shot their last bullet, they smashed their guns on the rocks and grabbed knives to fight until all the men died. The women told their leader, “We’ve run this far, but the Han are still everywhere. There’s no way to escape. If all the men are dead, we will die, too.” So after all the men had died in battle, the women drowned themselves and their children in the river. Some women jumped into the river with three or four kids. There was not a single person left alive from that small tribe. Another tribe, Damdul, was also attacked by the PLA, and had severe casualties. Their leader was captured, and many other tribal members died or were arrested.
Tashi Gyaltsen and Damdul were the leaders of those two small tribes from Pechung in Nangchen. I knew them both. They had come to our headquarters to get weapons and attend meetings. Tashi Gyaltsen’s tribe had over 50 families following him. When I returned to Tibet in 1981, I asked around about the Tashi Gyaltsen’s tribe, and was told that no one had survived.
…I am not a “traitor.” I fought not for my own food, clothing, or money, but because I hated the Chinese government’s policies, and needed to resist China’s attempts to destroy our religion, culture and customs. So the Chinese called me a traitor. But I didn’t go against the Derge King, the Dalai Lama, or Tibet. [Chinese Source]