Join our Mailing List

"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

Accepting CIA aid contributed to destruction of Tibetan culture, says Dalai Lama brother

May 11, 2015

By Michael Fathers

Book review: The Noodle Maker of Kalimpong

By Gyalo Thondup and Anne F. Thurston
PublicAffairs, 353 pages

Wall Street Journal, May 10, 2015 - ‘The Noodle Maker of Kalimpong” is a fatuous and demeaning title for a fascinating and important book. Gyalo Thondup is the Dalai Lama’s older brother and former chief of staff. His life and work have been largely carried out in the shadows, but his book provides extraordinary insight into Tibet’s struggle against China to regain its independence.

In 1945, when he was 17, Mr. Thondup was sent from Tibet to China to be educated for his role as his brother’s chief adviser on temporal matters. The Dalai Lama’s guardian believed that the Chinese would have a growing influence on Tibet, then independent, and that it was essential to know how to deal with them.

The Chinese Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek appointed himself the young Tibetan’s guardian and patron, paid him a substantial allowance, and urged him to study Chinese history at Nanjing University. According to the author, Chiang Kai-shek said that if Tibet preferred to remain an independent nation “without foreign exploitation,” he was prepared to accept it. Tibet was China’s back door, he said, and the two countries would always have close ties.

The Communist victory in 1949 ended Mr. Thondup’s life in China. A year later the People’s Liberation Army invaded Tibet. Married to the daughter of a general in the defeated Nationalist army, Mr. Thondup made his way from Hong Kong to India, where his life as a diplomatic go-between began. To support themselves, he and his wife bought land on the outskirts of Kalimpong, close to a major border crossing into Tibet, and a noodle factory, hence the title of the book.

There are few heroes, Tibetan or foreign, in Mr. Thondup’s narrative of the decades that followed. The villains include not only China’s Communist rulers and greedy Tibetan aristocrats—who were only too happy to accept titles and well-paid jobs from the Chinese occupiers—but also Western secret intelligence services. The book reveals a catalog of lost opportunities to open a dialogue between the Tibetan government in exile in India and Beijing in search of a settlement that would allow the Dalai Lama to return home and provide Tibet with a degree of self-government. In each case the overtures were sabotaged by the CIA or India’s intelligence service, or they were brushed aside by Britain’s MI6. The British were concerned for the security of their Hong Kong colony and suggested that the Tibetans look to the Americans for military and political support. In 1954, the CIA made its first contact with Mr. Thondup in Kalimpong. Two years later, six Tibetan youths slipped across the Indian border into what was then East Pakistan, now Bangladesh. They were met by Pakistani and American officials and flown in an unmarked aircraft to U.S.-occupied Saipan island for military training. After basic training they were parachuted back into Tibet. This first group achieved little. Subsequent U.S. military support was meager, and its impact on the rebellion against the Chinese military occupation was marginal. On the Chinese side, however, U.S. support led to ever greater violence against Tibetans.

In 1968, in New Delhi, Mr. Thondup was ushered into Russian company by T.N. Kaul, the head of India’s foreign ministry and an ex-ambassador to Moscow. He was told that the Americans were preparing to ditch the Tibetan resistance. Two Soviet agents who had flown from Moscow to India revealed that secret talks between Beijing and Washington were taking place in Poland. The Chinese were demanding two preconditions for detente: The U.S. must sever diplomatic relations with Taiwan; and it must terminate all contact with and assistance to Tibetan groups under the leadership of the Dalai Lama.

The Russians offered to take over the U.S. role and said that they would deliver “real results,” setting up a headquarters in Tashkent where Tibetan insurgents would be trained and armed. Their offer was rejected when they refused to drop their support for China at United Nations voting on Tibet. The decision also took into account the growing tension between Moscow and Beijing and the violent impetus that Soviet military support might give to Chinese repression in Tibet.

In a painful assessment of the U.S. role in Tibet, Mr. Thondup writes that he genuinely believed the Americans wanted to help Tibetans fight for their independence. Eventually, he said, “I realized this was not true. . . . They just wanted to stir up trouble, using Tibetans to create misunderstandings and discord between [communist] China and [nonaligned] India.” They were successful in that, he notes, pointing to the 1962 border war between the two Asian giants.

Henry Kissinger in particular is seen as no friend of Tibet as he sought to open relations with China in the early 1970s. He accepted the Chinese Communist Party view that Tibet was an integral part of China and that the Dalai Lama was merely the head of a Buddhist sect rather than the leader of a nation. Neither President Nixon nor Mr. Kissinger “knew anything about Tibet,” Mr. Thondup writes. “Neither of them cared.” The consequences of accepting CIA military aid and training still cause Mr. Thondup “terrible pain.” It provoked the Chinese, he says, and led directly to massive reprisals against Tibetans in which tens of thousands were killed. It “contributed to the complete destruction of Tibetan culture.”

The book’s co-author, Anne F. Thurston, has turned what were probably notes and memories into a crisp and magnetic story. The strength of this memoir is the pictures it paints of an old, traditional, medieval Tibet, of squabbles among exiles over finance, of the perfidy of Tibet’s Western supporters, and of the barbarism of the Chinese military. In today’s reformist China, Beijing’s grip on Tibet has tightened. But Mr. Thondup is convinced that Tibetans and, in some form, their culture will survive and that, eventually, China’s rulers will have to treat Tibetans as equals.

Mr. Fathers is co-author, with Andrew Higgins, of “Tiananmen: The Rape of Peking.”

CTC National Office 1425 René-Lévesque Blvd West, 3rd Floor, Montréal, Québec, Canada, H3G 1T7
T: (514) 487-0665
Developed by plank