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Outlook Magazine, February 15, 1999

The CIA Circus: Tibet’s Forgotten Army
How the CIA sponsored and betrayed Tibetans in a war the world never knew about

By Ramananda Sengupta

It was code-named "ST Circus". But there was nothing funny about the way the CIA funded, trained, armed and ultimately used and betrayed the Tibetan cause.

This is the war no one knew about. This is the war that shatters the popular impression that the non-violent Tibetans allowed the Chinese to stroll into Lhasa in 1951 after token resistance. A war that is relived in The Shadow Circus: The CIA in Tibet, a gripping documentary made for the BBC by Tenzing Sonam and his wife Ritu Sarin.

This was a labour of love, and it shows. Without being jingoistic, the superbly shot documentary—initiated ten years ago—vividly recounts how a few thousand Tibetans took on the might of the People’s Liberation Army. Outgunned and outnumbered, they fought a bloody guerrilla battle on the roof of the world for over a decade. And their ally for much of the time: The CIA.

Tenzing’s father, Lhamo Tsering, was a senior resistance leader and he CIA’s chief coordinator for the Tibet operation. In 1958, he was trained at CIA camps in Virginia and Colorado’s Rocky Mountains. He documented the entire movement, writing at length on the subject. Though he died on January 9 this year without realising his dream of a free Tibet, The Shadow Circus stands tribute to the man.

China invaded Tibet in late 1949, and two years later, overran the brave but tiny Tibetan army to enter Lhasa. The Dalai Lama, 17 at the time, was forced into an uneasy compromise with Beijing. But when monasteries in eastern Tibet were razed in 1956, the local Khampa tribesmen revolted and formed an underground outfit, sending out desperate calls for help. The Dalai Lama’s elder brother, Gyalo Thondup, in exile in India, promised to contact the Americans.

The Americans, in the throes of the worst stage of communist-phobia, were happy to oblige. Six men were selected from a group of Khampas that had come to India. They were secretly flown to the Pacific island of Saipan and trained in guerrilla warfare and clandestine radio ommunications.

Five months later, Athar Norbu, who now lives in Delhi, and his partner were the first men ever to be parachuted into Tibet. By then, the resistance had been forced out of Lhasa into southern Tibet. Their success against the Chinese led to the CIA making its first arms drop to the resistance. Then the agency set up a top-secret training camp in the Rocky Mountains, where conditions approximated those in Tibet. Some 259 Tibetans were trained in Camp Hale over the next five years.

"We had great expectations when we went to America. We thought perhaps they would even give us an atom bomb to take back," says Tenzin Tsultrim. "In the training period, we learned that the objective was to gain our independence," adds another grizzled veteran.

But the Americans had other ideas. "The whole idea was to keep the Chinese occupied, keep them annoyed, keep them disturbed. Nobody wanted to go to war over Tibet...It was a nuisance operation. Basically, nothing more," says former CIA agent Sam Halpern.

In March 1959, the CIA made a second arms drop in southern Tibet, where the resistance now controlled large areas. Back in Lhasa, the Dalai Lama was invited to the local Chinese military camp to attend a play—sans bodyguards, the invitation said. The citizens of Lhasa rose up in revolt; the Dalai Lama realised it was time to leave.

A few days later, the Dalai Lama, disguised as a soldier, escaped from his palace and headed south. The CIA-trained radio team met them en route, and asked the Americans to request Prime Minister Nehru to grant asylum to the Dalai Lama. Nehru, well aware of the situation, immediately approved.

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