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When the CIA first got involved in Tibet in the mid-1950s, the country was still the Shangri La of popular imagination, shrouded in myth and mystery, and the world at large had no inkling that it had recently been invaded by Communist China.

Surrounded by impenetrable mountains, the Tibetans had long discouraged the advances of the outside world, choosing instead to maintain their medieval lifestyle and to occupy themselves with spiritual matters. The Communist Chinese invasion of 1949 violently changed that. Within a few years, the fiercely traditional and religious Tibetans were thrust headlong into the realities of the modern world. Communist reforms were imposed on them and the very essence of their lives – their religion – was threatened. Soon, nomads, traders, farmers and monks joined forces and took up arms against the invaders but the resistance that emerged was hopelessly ill-equipped to fight the battle-hardened forces of the People's Liberation Army. Tibet's isolationist policies proved to be her downfall; not a single nation supported her claim to sovereignty.

But help did come from an unexpected quarter. The guerrillas had heard of America, a faraway country that figured prominently in Communist propaganda as the great enemy of the people. Now, this very nation, in the guise of the CIA, offered to support their struggle. Before long, the Tibetans, most of whom had never seen an airplane or a motor car or even a white person, suddenly found themselves drawn into the CIA's cloak-and-dagger world: clandestine border crossings into what was then East Pakistan; long flights across unimagined expanses of water to secret training camps; rigorous instruction in the rudiments of modern warfare and espionage; and finally, parachuted missions back into Tibet. Even by the CIA's own standards, its Tibetan involvement was truly bizarre, necessitating as it did, elaborate security cover-ups and a variety of logistical innovations.

By March 1959, the situation in Tibet was desperate; the Chinese army had almost total control of the country. In Lhasa, thousands of unarmed men and women, fearing for the safety of their leader, the Dalai Lama, surrounded his palace to protect him. In the confusion that followed, he was able to escape to India. The uprising was brutally quelled. The main body of the resistance, increasingly beleaguered, retreated to India as well. Pockets of armed rebellion continued but by the early sixties these were also crushed.

In the years that followed, Tibet suffered the full brunt of the Chinese takeover. An estimated 1.2 million Tibetans – a sixth of the population – died as a direct result of the occupation. Over 6,000 ancient monasteries, temples and historic sites were looted and destroyed and the practice of Buddhism, the very basis of Tibetan existence, was forbidden for many years and even today is tightly controlled. Tibet's vast reserves of untouched natural resources have been – and continue to be – indiscriminately exploited, sparking an environmental crisis that has had consequences throughout Asia. The hitherto peaceful nation was transformed into a giant military base bristling with some of China’s most significant nuclear missile facilities. Most recently, new Chinese policies are encouraging a mass influx of immigrants from the mainland into Tibet, threatening, once and for all, to destroy Tibet's identity as a distinct ethnic and cultural entity.

Although the CIA never believed that the Tibetan guerrillas could recover their country's independence, it armed, financed and helped to train the Tibetan resistance from 1957 to 1968. Several groups of Tibetans were trained at Camp Hale, a top secret, purpose-built facility in the Colorado Rockies. Between 1957 and 1961, eight separate teams of guerrillas were parachuted back into Tibet to link up with existing partisan groups and a number of arms drops were made to them. These missions mostly ended in tragedy; the majority was killed in action or else committed suicide, swallowing their CIA-provided cyanide capsules. By 1961, the resistance had regrouped in a remote corner of northwestern Nepal where the CIA helped to set up a secret base. Two thousand guerrillas were maintained there, the entire operation financed by the CIA and organized along the lines of a modern army. Its leaders were Camp Hale graduates.

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