The Dalai Lama’s proclaimed path of ahimsa sets the theme for Tibetan refugees. But for a while, there was Chushi Gangdruk, the Tibetan guerrilla resistance, which operated along Nepal’s northern frontier.
The 23 “tribes” of Kham and Amdo provinces met in Lhasa in July 1957 to form the resistance organization called the Chushi Gangdruk (“Four Rivers, Six Ranges”). It was these guerrillas, together with the Mimang Tsongdu (Peoples’ Deputies), who made possible the Dalai Lama’s escape to India.
In 1959, the United States Government, seeking to counter the communist threat, stepped up its support for the Tibetan resistance. From among the Chushi Gangdruk members, who were then regrouping in the Uttar Pradesh hill station of Mussoorie, the CIA began its programme of taking Tibetans for guerrilla training to Camp Hale, in the Rockie Mountains of Colorado. So secret was the affair that many recruits never knew they were in the United States. The plan was to train 4100 rebels, in groups of 400, who would launch guerrilla activities from a new base.
The 750 square mile principality of Mustang, which protrudes from Nepal into Tibet, was chosen as this base, and Gen Yeshi, a Baba-Khampa, as the commander. The rebels set up their headquarters at Kesang, at the base of the Nilgiri Himal across the Kali Gandaki river from Jomosom, and the first batch of 400 arrived. But the news had leaked, and soon hundreds of Tibetans joined the resistance. With its cover blown, the CIA halted its aid for six months. After an arduous winter, help to Tibetans came from a new quarter: India.
After its humiliating defeat in the 1962 Sino-Indian border war, New Delhi had decided to coordinate its actions with the Americans and the British. Under CIA sponsorship, India created the Special Frontier Force (SFF), made up entirely of Tibetans, and codenamed “Establishment 22,” to guard its northern borders. Under it came a new force called the Tensung Danglang Magar, or the National Volunteer Force Army (NVDA), under the leadership of Gyalo Thondup, the brother of the Dalai Lama.
By 1964 there was a major NVDA presence among the 6000 guerrillas scattered along the frontier, in Mugu, Dolpo, Manang, Nubri, Tsum, Langtang, and Walangchung Cola, with Kesang Camp, under Gen Yeshi, as the headquarters. While the rebels were called “Khampas,” which is the word for Tibetans from the province of Kham (notwithstanding numerous connotations), there were Tibetans from all parts of Tibet.
It is believed that the CIA used the USAID premises at Rabi Bhawan in Kathmandu to transport supplies in a Bell “bubble-top” helicopter and STOL aircraft to Pokhara. In late 1962, military cargo flying in from south-east Asia dropped supplies such as rifles, 80-mm recoilless guns, two-inch mortars, solar batteries, miniature cameras, medicine, food and Nepali money. Subsequent airdrops are also believed to have brought in anti-aircraft guns.
Between 1963 and 1966, the different NVDA camps carried out operations to destroy road links, engage Peoples’ Liberation Army convoys, and gather intelligence. With the increased guerrilla presence, the Chinese established eight new army camps near the border. They also put pressure on the Nepali Government to take action.
But the occasional NVDA raids into Tibet were only minor irritants to the PLA, whose response was generally swift, often resulting in high Tibetan casualties. In 1966, when the NVDA was at its strongest, new orders came from the CIA. According to Gen Yeshi, inexplicably, the CIA instructed him to halt further attacks on the Chinese and to concentrate on espionage. Asked to forego military action, many rebels began to settle down in the Nepali mountains. According to a Western researcher who traveled to Nubri in 1973, the Khampas seemed busy “beating their swords into plough shares.”
Rumour among the rebels had it that Gyalo Thondup had got the Americans to divert the money elsewhere. Gen Yeshi was informed that only 400 NVDA members would be kept in Mustang while the others would be based in India. Yeshi apparently saw no sense in this as in Mustang, NVDA activity was under Indian and not Tibetan control. In time, Yeshi was ousted from his leadership position, and Kesang Camp was put under two leaders, Gyatso Wangdui and Lhamo Tsering. Gen Yeshi’s supporters accused Tibetans in New Delhi of misappropriating funds.
Yeshi organized 200 supporters in a camp just east of Mustang, and fighting between the two groups broke out; with it the divisions came along old “tribal” and regional lines. Between 1969 and 1974 the rival factions engaged in skirmishes, imprisonment of opponent rebels, and propaganda campaigns. It was then that the Nepal Government called Yeshi to Kathmandu to investigate the dispute. Yeshi offered to surrender his guns if Wangdui did the same. Amidst the hearsay, one source has it that Yeshi “pleaded for protection and then, in exchange for a grant of political asylum, gave the Nepalese a detailed account of the NVDA’s troop strength, supplies, weaponry and positions.” What is known is that the Nepali Home Ministry provided rehabilitation for Yeshi’s followers.
Meanwhile, as the rift among the rebels deepened in the early 1970s, the United States and China bagan to hold secret talks aimed at normalising relations. With that, the CIA’s aid to the NVDA dried up, and Wangdui’s supporters, too, began making their camps into settlements. By then Tibetan rebels had occupied the northern areas for a decade and a half, and along with their economic and political muscle, they also shared religious and cultural ties with the local inhabitants.
But the Chinese did not forget. In 1973, Mao Zedong reportedly threatened military action unless the Nepalis closed down the NVDA bases. Nepal acted swiftly. Declaring the region a “restricted zone,” the Royal Nepal Army marched up the Kali Gandaki gorge. Though the rebels were outnumbered two to one, they knew the terrain like the back of their hand, and they had supplies to last two years.
Full-scale fighting, however, was prevented by the intervention of the Tibetan exile government, whose emissary flew up to Jomosom with a 20-minute taped message from the Dalai Lama, asking them to peacefully disarm. Rebels were anguished to hear the message, but they complied.
Once the surrender began, Nepali forces conducted “search and seize” operations, arresting rebels who had disarmed. Hearing of this breach of the terms of surrender, Wangdui and 40 rebels fled west. Wangdui was eventually killed on the group’s approach to the 17,800 ft-high Tinkar Pass. Many Nepali soldiers, too, were killed in that last encounter. A few rebels made it to India.
The next day Gen Yeshi was flown by helicopter from Kathmandu to identify the body of Wangdui. Satisfied, a ceremony was held at which 200 medals, certificates and cash were awarded. Everyone, from the sergeant credited with killing Wangdui, to the Home Minister, decorated. A large tent on the Tundikhel parade grounds exhibited Wangdui’s personal items, such as his guns, spurs, drinking cup, and his protective amulet.
After several months in custody, the rebels were free to settle in Nepal. Many chose to join the ranks of “Establishment 22” in India. Seven camp commanders were jailed until December 28, 1981, when they were granted amnesty. Gen Yeshi lives in Kathmandu, many of his followers in Jorpati and in other settlements in Nepal.
Balestracci was a student in the Wisconsin Study Programme in Nepal in 1989-80.