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Memories, controversy linger half-century after Lhasa rebelling of 1959


BEIJING/LHASA, March 9, 2009 -- For many people, 1959 is just a number, or perhaps a date in a textbook. But for those who witnessed events in Tibet that year, it remains an indelible memory after half a century.

Visitors look at objects that were used by serf owners to torture serfs in old Tibet at an exhibition marking the 50th anniversary of the Democratic Reform in Tibet Autonomous Region in Beijing, Feb. 25, 2009.  (Xinhuanet Photo)
Gyaga Losang Tangyai, now 81, remains forceful and energetic. In 1959, he was serving under the 10th Panchen Lama, who was the second most important religious figure next to the Dalai Lama.

The Panchen Lama controlled many temples and much land in old Tibet, just like other living Buddhas.

In 1954, Gyaga accompanied the Panchen Lama and 14th Dalai Lama on a mission to Beijing on behalf of the Gaxag government (the old Tibetan government). They were received by the late Chairman Mao Zedong.

"He told us that democratic reform wouldn't be carried out for at least six more years," Gyaga recalled.

"Democratic reform" literally meant the end of serfdom and abolition of the hierarchic social system characterized by a theocracy, with the Dalai Lama as the core of the leadership. That system had existed in Tibet for some 1,000 years.

The aim was to free about 1 million serfs and slaves who accounted for 90 percent of the Tibetan population in the 1950s. They were controlled by lamas, officials and nobles, including the Dalai Lama's family.

Mao believed that reform, despite public appeal, could only be launched when the Tibetan nobles, including the Dalai Lama, were ready to support it. Without that support, reform would have to be further postponed, Mao told the Tibetan delegation. With that understanding, they returned home.


One day five years later, Gyaga was taken by surprise at the Tashilunpo Temple in Xigaze. He was told that the Dalai Lama and his supporters had staged an "armed riot" in Lhasa, which was then-- as now -- the capital of Tibet.

"I got the news from soldiers, and the Panchen Lama soon asked me to accompany him to Beijing by way of Lhasa," he said.

They arrived in Lhasa on March 20, 1959. The city had become a totally unfamiliar place to Gyaga.

"It looked like a war zone: few people outside, craters in the streets." He and the Panchen Lama first visited the Jokhang Temple, where lamas "appeared disoriented ... There was water everywhere, and they told us that they had just put out a fire."

The situation was even worse at the Ramoche Temple, also in Lhasa, where they saw no lamas, only "bullet holes on the golden roof," he said." I felt that the rebels had gone mad," he said. "How can they damage their own city?" He gestured furiously while recounting the long-ago story.


Ngapoi Ngawang Jigme, son of a Tibetan aristocrat who later became vice chairman of the 11th National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC, the top advisory body), also recalls the riot in 1959. His account goes like this:

The Dalai Lama wanted to watch a troupe of the Tibet Military Region on March 10, but he declined to have them come to Norbu Lingka, his palace. Instead, he insisted on going to a military auditorium, where he said his supporters would meet him.

"I sensed that something would happen," because the Dalai Lama rarely left Norbu Lingka, recalled Ngapoi, now 98.

A boy watches a simulated scenario featuring serfs burning feudal documents produced in old Tibet after the Democratic Reform at an exhibition marking the 50th anniversary of the Democratic Reform in Tibet Autonomous Region in Beijing, Feb. 25, 2009. (Xinhuanet Photo)
On the morning of March 10, 1959, he said, turmoil broke out inLhasa. People were fearful that the Dalai Lama had been kidnapped.

"Some people cried out, 'let us protect our treasure! The Hans kidnapped him!' The Hans are the ethnic Chinese majority.

"This was like a bolt from the blue to pious Tibetans, who soon flooded to Norbu Lingka in shock, confusion and horror ..."

But, Ngapoi said, the rumor was spread by the Dalai Lama's supporters. Rioters soon surrounded Norbu Lingka, intent on killing and destruction, shouting "Tibet independence" and "get out, you Hans".


Lhabgyi, an 83-year-old veteran of the People's Liberation Army(PLA), who was dispatched to Lhasa in April 1959, recalled that the city was still like a "battlefield" when he arrived, with rubble everywhere.

The PLA's mission was to persuade the rioters to surrender. "We assured them that if they surrendered, they would not be killed, jailed, or denounced in public meetings," he said.

But disorder continued and spread throughout Tibet, and Lhabgyican still recall his fallen comrades.

"In a battle in May in Linzhou County, which is about 65 kilometers from Lhasa, a soldier died, while three rioters were killed. In another one, six soldiers died, including our political instructor," he said.A man leading the rioters in Linzhou was injured in his arm. "His wife persuaded him to surrender, saying that otherwise their two sons would be killed as well," Lhabgyi said. The man later became a member of the Lhasa People's Political Consultative Conference.

An old man and his granddaughter share a happy moment in Nagqu Town, southwest China's Tibet Autonomous Region, June 13, 2006. (Xinhua/Chogo)

The PLA halted the riots in Lhasa in two days. But it took nearly three years to restore peace in the entire region. There is no known accurate count of the final death toll.

According to, the website of a political periodical, nearly 90,000 people were involved in riots around Tibet, of whom 42.8 percent surrendered. The "diehard" core members numbered about 23,000.

A document in the State Archives Administration recorded a speech by Mao, who said China would welcome the Dalai Lama back and give him a role in the central government if he supported democratic reform.

But the Dalai Lama didn't return. He had already fled to India.

Lhalu Cewang Doje, now 94, had a key role in the insurgency but later became Vice Chairman of the Tibet People's Political Consultative Conference.

He later wrote a book, "Rise and Fall of the Lhalu Family," about his family, some of whom had been Panchen or Dalai Lamas.

He said that after being arrested in the riots, he thought the central government would execute him. Hence, he refused to confess anything. Once he was taken to a public denunciation where some people threatened to beat him, he said, but two soldiers protected him.

Lhalu said it was then that he began to believe in the policies of the Communist Party and confessed. He was jailed in 1959 and released in 1965. When he left prison, he got back his prized possessions: golden earrings, a watch and a pen.


In the Chinese version of his autobiography, "Freedom in Exile," the 14th Dalai Lama tells a different story. He writes that his followers in the Tibet uprising met their deaths in many violent ways, being "crucified, dismembered and disemboweled ... beheaded, burned, lashed, buried alive, dragged by galloping horses, hanged, and thrown into freezing water with their limbs tied."

The book also states: "I also heard from refugees that the central government aimed cannons at the Potala Palace and the Jokhang Temple, after bombarding Norbu Lingka. Buildings in these places were severely damaged." The Chinese government has disputed this account.

Although their accounts differ, both sides acknowledge that the Dalai Lama fled Tibet for India, where he has lived since. His departure shocked and distressed his followers and many Tibetans.


The riot changed everything in Tibet. The Communists soon decided that democratic reform should be carried out immediately to demolish the entire old system led by the Dalai Lama.

The Preparatory Committee of Tibet Autonomous Region replaced the Gaxag government and set out to lead the reform.

From 1959 to until 1966, when the Cultural Revolution began, 1 million slaves were granted land, houses and their freedom. One of those slaves was Migmar Dondrup, now 75, who got 1.4 hectares of land. He served for 11 years in Parlha Manor, an aristocrat's home, as a nangsan, the lowest level of serfdom.

Migmar was a tailor and his wife was a maid, and both worked from dawn until midnight. If they didn't satisfy their masters, they might be whipped or even killed.

Their home was a dark, 7 sq m adobe house, where they lived with their daughter. The family had to subsist on 28 kilograms of barley, the basis for the traditional Tibetan dish of tsampa.

He was lucky compared with one of his relatives, a groom, who was beaten to death because the landlord believed he had wasted fodder when feeding the horses.

Many such tales are on display in the Museum of Tibet, with about a score of black-and-white photos depicting the brutality of landowners: slaves' eyes gouged out, fingers chopped off, noses cut and the tendons of their feet removed.

Again, the Dalai Lama's account of these days differs. In the fifth chapter of his autobiography, he claims that "in Tibet, the relationship of landowners and their slaves was much better than that in the inland of China, and there were no such cruel punishments as manacles and castration, which prevailed all over China."


It was in the autumn of 1959, as Migmar recalled, when more than 500 people gathered in a garden in the Parlha Manor, where he was then a serf. A PLA soldier told them they would soon get their own land, and people applauded enthusiastically. More than 30 households held a draw for the land.

"I could hardly express my happiness then," he said emotionally. When he was a low-ranking serf, he didn't have any land. "When I was a nangsan, I wasn't even allowed to keep a cat."

Some serfs had been working the land under contract. They set fire to those contracts and to receipts for usurious loans. Then they danced, cried and drank.

In the living room of the old man's two-story house, there still hangs a black-and-white photo of Mao that shows him working in a field wearing a straw hat. Migmar put a khata, or white Tibetan scarf on it, a symbol used to show respect.

"Even my parents couldn't give me land, but he did," the former serf said.

Lhabgyi, the PLA veteran, said that almost every household had photos then had photos of Mao, whom they revered.

"Of course there were people who disbelieved the policies of the Communist Party," he recalled. But soldiers managed to dispel their suspicions by being helpful.


As for former aristocrats who were not involved in the riot, they were not left empty-handed, and received financial compensation for their land. Gyaga Losang Tangyai in Xigaze had several manors and some 20 ha of land. When democratic reform took place, he was worried and "dared not to expect any compensation.

"I said all I wanted was a peaceful life, but the government gave me about 10,000 yuan," he said. That amount is equivalent to about 1,470 U.S. dollars at contemporary rates.

More than 600 people who served under the Panchen Lama stayed behind in Xigaze, except for one who moved to India for business. Gyaga was a member of the national committee of the CPPCC for 15 years.


While Gyaga and Migmar were starting new lives, the situation in Tibet came controversial worldwide.

In September 1959, Christian Archibald Herter, then U.S. Secretary of State, told the UN General Assembly that the Chinese Communist Party was imposing colonial rule in Tibet.

The Dalai Lama has maintained a government-in-exile since 1959,and China has charged that this group was behind last year's riot in Lhasa and other Tibetan areas of China.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of democratic reform in Tibet. In that half-century, Tibet has experienced great changes but the controversy over the past persists.

Zhu Xiaoming, research fellow at the China Tibetology Research Center in Beijing, said some foreign countries and international organizations continued to use the Tibet issue as a lever against China.

"I once discussed this with some scholars in the United States," he said.

"I said that Abraham Lincoln was revered after signing the Emancipation Proclamation for black slaves, and Chairman Mao abolished the serf system in Tibet. But why was the former hailed as protecting human rights and the latter was denounced as human rights infringement? The scholars were speechless."

The Dalai Lama, now 74, has also taken note of the approaching 50th anniversary. Chinese analysts said that he was likely to use the date to "make a last attempt" at independence for Tibet.

Even after his death, they said, the controversy would linger, since it was unclear who would inherit his position.

For Migmar, it is simple. "Life is getting better each year. I wish I was younger, so I would have longer to enjoy my happiness."


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