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The Saturday Telegraph, London
14 November 1998

A Secret War in Shangri La
By Patrick French

ONE morning in spring 1974, a 15-year-old Tibetan refugee, Tenzing Sonam, came into the quad of the Darjeeling school where he was a boarder to read the newspapers pinned up on the bulletin board. 'There was a headline, which said something like "Tibetan Bandits on the Rampage - Warrior Leader Arrested",' he remembers. 'I read on and realized that the leader was my father. I just went into class and didn't say anything to the other boys. Later, my mother came to the school and told me what had happened, or as much as she knew.'

Up until that point, Tenzing Sonam had believed that his father was in New Delhi, working for the Dalai Lama's Tibetan government in exile following the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1950. In fact, he had been captured in Nepal where he was co-ordinating a CIA-inspired proxy war against the Chinese in one of the least known but most unusual operations in the Cold War, code-named 'ST Circus'. Now, 24 years later, Tenzing Sonam and his wife, Ritu Sarin, have made a remarkable documentary film for the BBC which reveals the work of the CIA in Tibet and shows how desperately the Tibetans fought to get rid of the Chinese. For the first time, retired CIA agents and Tibetan veterans have given a full account of Washington's secret war in the remote Himalayan Buddhist kingdom.

It turns out that his father, Lhamo Tsering - like his son and most Tibetans, he does not use a surname - was much more than a bandit leader. He was the trusted link-man between the Tibetan resistance and the CIA for nearly 20 years. When the resistance fighters were eventually abandoned by the CIA, he was arrested and imprisoned in Nepal for eight years. Now in his late-70s, he lives in exile in India. As a young man in the early Forties, he won a scholarship to a college in the Chinese city of Nanjing. 'My family were farmers from Nagatsang in eastern Tibet,' says Tenzing Sonam, 'which at that time was under the control of a Chinese warlord. My grandparents thought it would be a good idea for one of their sons to learn Chinese and develop an understanding of how China worked.' While he was living in Nanjing, Lhamo Tsering became the secretary and confidant of the present Dalai Lama's elder brother, Gyalo Thondup. When Chinese Communist troops began to close in on Tibet in 1949, the two of them fled from Nanjing to Shanghai and escaped on a boat to India. After a brief return to Tibet, Lhamo Tsering based himself in Kalimpong, near Darjeeling.

It was not until 1958, by which time he had met and married a maidservant of another member of the Dalai Lama's family, that Lhamo Tsering was taken into Gyalo Thondup's full confidence. He told him that he was working with the CIA, which had secretly begun to train Tibetan resistance fighters on the remote pacific island of Saipan.

'My father was sent off to a training camp in Virginia,' says Tenzing Sonam, 'and later, to Camp Hale in the Rocky Mountains in Colorado. It was incredibly secret - even in the United States very few people knew what was happening. Most of the Tibetans were learning about sabotage, laying mines, operating weapons, detonating explosives, that sort of thing, but because my father was better educated, and spoke English and Chinese, the CIA wanted him as a co-ordinator. He was trained in espionage. They even got him to practise doing dead letter drops in the Library of Congress.'

Lhamo Tsering returned to Darjeeling, where he became the on-the-ground administrator of ST Circus, selecting Tibetan refugees for training, and co-ordinating the extraction of intelligence from inside Tibet. Once a month, he would hitch a lift down to Calcutta on a cargo plane. 'He would wait on Park Street with a newspaper under his arm until a beaten-up car came,' says Tenzing Sonam. 'In the back would be an American, usually "Mr John" - that was all he knew him as - who would hand over a big bundle of rupees. My father would pass whatever information he had, and they would discuss arms drops, or whatever.'

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