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<-Back to WTN Archives The CIA Circus: Tibet's Forgotten Army How the CIA sponsored and betrayed Tibetans in a war the world never knew about
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World Tibet Network News

Wednesday, February 10, 1999

1. The CIA Circus: Tibet's Forgotten Army How the CIA sponsored and betrayed Tibetans in a war the world never knew about

[Outlook is one of India's leading English-language weeklies]

OUTLOOK, February 15, 1999
By Ramananda Sengupta

It was code-named "ST Circus". But there was nothing funny about the
way the CIA funded, trained, armed and ultimately used and betrayed the
Tibetan cause.

This is the war no one knew about. This is the war that shatters the
popular impression that the non-violent Tibetans allowed the Chinese to
stroll into Lhasa in 1951 after token resistance. A war that is relived
in The Shadow Circus: The CIA in Tibet, a gripping documentary made for
the BBC by Tenzing Sonam and his wife Ritu Sarin.

This was a labour of love, and it shows. Without being jingoistic, the
superbly shot documentary-initiated ten years ago-vividly recounts how a
few thousand Tibetans took on the might of the People's Liberation Army.
Outgunned and outnumbered, they fought a bloody guerrilla battle on the
roof of the world for over a decade. And their ally for much of the
time: The CIA.

Tenzing's father, Lhamo Tsering, was a senior resistance leader and he
CIA's chief coordinator for the Tibet operation. In 1958, he was trained
at CIA camps in Virginia and Colorado's Rocky Mountains. He documented
the entire movement, writing at length on the subject. Though he died on
January 9 this year without realising his dream of a free Tibet, The
Shadow Circus stands tribute to the man.

China invaded Tibet in late 1949, and two years later, overran the
brave but tiny Tibetan army to enter Lhasa. The Dalai Lama, 17 at the
time, was forced into an uneasy compromise with Beijing. But when
monasteries in eastern Tibet were razed in 1956, the local Khampa
tribesmen revolted and formed an underground outfit, sending out
desperate calls for help. The Dalai Lama's elder brother, Gyalo Thondup,
in exile in India, promised to contact the Americans.

The Americans, in the throes of the worst stage of communist-phobia,
were happy to oblige. Six men were selected from a group of Khampas that
had come to India. They were secretly flown to the Pacific island of
Saipan and trained in guerrilla warfare and clandestine radio

Five months later, Athar Norbu, who now lives in Delhi, and his
partner were the first men ever to be parachuted into Tibet. By then,
the resistance had been forced out of Lhasa into southern Tibet. Their
success against the Chinese led to the CIA making its first arms drop to
the resistance. Then the agency set up a top-secret training camp in the
Rocky Mountains, where conditions approximated those in Tibet. Some 259
Tibetans were trained in Camp Hale over the next five years.

"We had great expectations when we went to America. We thought perhaps
they would even give us an atom bomb to take back," says Tenzin
Tsultrim. "In the training period, we learned that the objective was to
gain our independence," adds another grizzled veteran.

But the Americans had other ideas. "The whole idea was to keep the
Chinese occupied, keep them annoyed, keep them disturbed. Nobody wanted
to go to war over Tibet...It was a nuisance operation. Basically,
nothing more," says former CIA agent Sam Halpern.

In March 1959, the CIA made a second arms drop in southern Tibet,
where the resistance now controlled large areas. Back in Lhasa, the
Dalai Lama was invited to the local Chinese military camp to attend a
play-sans bodyguards, the invitation said. The citizens of Lhasa rose up
in revolt; the Dalai Lama realised it was time to leave.

A few days later, the Dalai Lama, disguised as a soldier, escaped from
his palace and headed south. The CIA-trained radio team met them en
route, and asked the Americans to request Prime Minister Nehru to grant
asylum to the Dalai Lama. Nehru, well aware of the situation,
immediately approved.

On March 31, 1959, after an arduous trek across the mountains, the
Dalai Lama and his entourage entered India. This sparked off an exodus
of refugees from Tibet to India-leaving behind only small pockets of
resistance in southern Tibet.

Undeterred, the CIA parachuted four groups of Camp Hale trainees
inside Tibet between 1959 and 1960 to contact the remaining resistance
groups. But the missions resulted in the massacre of all but a few of
the team members.

The CIA cooked up a fresh operation in Mustang, a remote corner of
Nepal that juts into Tibet. Nearly two thousand Tibetans gathered here
to continue their fight for freedom. A year later, the CIA made its
first arms drop in Mustang. Organised on the lines of a modern army, the
guerrillas were led by Bapa Yeshe, a former monk.

"As soon as we received the aid, the Americans started scolding us
like children. They said that we had to go into Tibet immediately.
Sometimes I wished they hadn't sent us the arms at all," says Yeshe.

The Mustang guerrillas conducted cross-border raids into Tibet. The
CIA made two more arms drops to the Mustang force, the last in May 1965.
Then, in early 1969, the agency abruptly cut off all support. The CIA
explained that one of the main conditions the Chinese had set for
establishing diplomatic relations with the US was to stop all
connections and all assistance to the Tibetans. Says Roger McCarthy, an
ex-CIA man, "It still smarts that we pulled out in the manner we did."

Thinley Paljor, a surviving resistance fighter, was among the
thousands shattered by this volte-face. "We felt deceived, we felt our
usefulness to the CIA is finished. They were only thinking short-term
for their own personal gain, not for the long-term interests of the
Tibetan people."

In 1974, armtwisted by the Chinese, the Nepalese government sent
troops to Mustang to demand the surrender of the guerrillas. Fearing a
bloody confrontation, the Dalai Lama sent the resistance fighters a
taped message, asking them to surrender. They did so, reluctantly. Some
committed suicide soon afterwards.

Today, the survivors of the Mustang resistance force live in two
refugee settlements in Nepal, where they eke out a living spinning wool
and weaving carpets.

"The film is for the younger Tibetans, who are unaware of the
resistance, as well as for Americans, who don't know how their own
government used and betrayed the resistance," says Tenzing. "Though it
was a story begging to be told, funding it was almost impossible," adds

The couple have been making films since 1983, on subjects from
reincarnation to the expat Sikh community in California and Tenzing's
first trip to Tibet. A full-length Tibetan feature film is in the
pipeline, but The Shadow Circus is likely to be remembered for its
startling revelations.

The most poignant summary comes from Tenzing's father: "We were able
to utilise [the American] help for our own ends. We couldn't just go and
fight the Chinese with empty hands. I don't see our armed struggle as
something that was helpful only at a certain point in our history,
something that is finished. We should look at it as one chapter in our
continuing struggle for freedom, one that still has some meaning."

Articles in this Issue:
  1. The CIA Circus: Tibet's Forgotten Army How the CIA sponsored and betrayed Tibetans in a war the world never knew about
  2. US Official Makes Asia Predictions
  3. More ranchers yak it up in today's tough cattle climate

Other articles this month - WTN Index - Mail the WTN-Editors

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