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Tibetan officer remembers 1959 escape with Dalai Lama

March 15, 2009

Thu Mar 12, 2009 9:43pm IST

By Matthias Williams

DHARAMSALA, India (Reuters) - Kelsang Damdul was just a low-ranking
officer in the Tibetan army when he was part of a secret group who
helped the Dalai Lama escape to India in 1959, under what he says was
the protection of Buddhist deities.

Unlike many younger Tibetans who are frustrated with the Dalai Lama's
"middle way" approach to greater autonomy for Tibet, Damdul, 83, said he
still fully supports his spiritual leader despite years of failed diplomacy.

"I feel very proud. If a leader like the Dalai Lama had not been there,
I would have suffered more than I could imagine," he told Reuters at an
old people's home in the northern Indian hill station of Dharamsala.

"There's a strong feeling. It's been fifty years since we have come here
and still the oppression is going on in Tibet."

His attitude reflects how an older, exiled generation of Tibetans
unreservedly back the Dalai Lama, who marked the 50th anniversary of the
failed Tibetan uprising by saying the homeland he fled half a century
ago had become a "hell on earth".

Damdul grew up in the Tibetan capital Lhasa, a flashpoint of bloody
protests against Chinese rule in the past year, but now lives in
Dharamsala, the seat of the Tibetan government-in-exile.

After escorting the Dalai Lama to the Indian border, Damdul went back to
fight for an independent Tibet.

But after the rebellion was crushed, he escaped to the Indian state of
Sikkim where he worked on road construction, and later became a member
of the exiled Tibetan parliament.

Damdul can still remember life before the Chinese took hold of the
region. "At that time the Tibetans never had to rely on anyone and were


Damdul was one of a handful of people present in the room when the Dalai
Lama decided to flee to India. But he knew little about his mission when
called to a high-level meeting amid fears of a plot to imprison or
assassinate the young leader.

"It was secret ... We had no idea what was happening," he said, adding a
sense of duty helped him overcome the fear of the magnitude of his task.

"The only idea I had in mind was the security of the Dalai Lama. I had
no idea where we were going or what would happen."

Dressed in civilian clothes -- a Tibetan coat called a chupa -- Damdul
had been sent to wait for the Dalai Lama by the banks of a Lhasa river.
They later joined up with Tibetan rebels stationed along the escape route.

"With the grace of all the protective deities and the Buddha, the
Chinese had no idea the Dalai Lama was fleeing."

Damdul was thrilled when the Dalai Lama, whom Beijing vilifies as a
dangerous splittist, asked what his name was.

"He was young and he was very different from anyone else," he said.
"Even when you just catch a glimpse of him, there's a special charisma
that you just can't describe."

The Dalai Lama has repeatedly said his faith in the Chinese people to
bring a solution to Tibet is unshaken even though his hope in the
Chinese government has faded.

"I pray and wish that under the grace of the Dalai Lama I will be able
to go back to Tibet. My body is in India but my mind and heart is always
in Tibet," Damdul said.

(Additional reporting by Abhishek Madhukar; Editing by Alistair Scrutton
and Sanjeev Miglani) ((; +91-997 111
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