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American Anthropologist, Vol. 103, No. 4, December 2001

The Shadow Circus. 1998. 50 minutes, color.
A film by Tenzing Sonam and Ritu Sarin, produced by White Crane Films ( For more information, contact University of California Extension Center for Media and Independent Learning, 200 Center Street, Suite 400, Berkeley, CA 94704;

by Meg McLagan,
Assistant Professor, Department of Anthropology, New York University

For those who associate Tibet with the Dalai Lama and his celebrity Buddhist followers, such as Richard Gere, Harrison Ford, and Steven Seagal--this documentary might come as somewhat of a surprise for it tells a different story, one that predates Tibet’s emergence as the fashionable political cause in North America and Europe, and until recently has remained shrouded in secrecy. In place of images of non-violent and religious Tibetans that have become common currency in the Western popular imagination, this film portrays the armed guerrilla movement that sprang up after Chinese communist forces entered Tibet in 1950. Led by Tibetans from the Eastern region of Kham, the resistance received covert support from the CIA between 1956 and 1974. Employing standard documentary conventions of archival footage and talking head interviews to tell its story, the film presents a compelling and tragic narrative of this Tibetan-American collaboration told from the point of view of retired CIA officers and former guerrillas. The unguarded interviews are remarkable documents in and of themselves, with many individuals speaking frankly on camera for the first time about their experiences. Their stories fill in important gaps in our knowledge of this critical period of modern Tibetan history and flesh out our understanding of cold war politics in Asia at the time.

Efforts to internationalize the Tibet issue began in the 1940s. American involvement started in 1942 in the context of World War Two when President Roosevelt sent OSS officials to Tibet to scout for possible overland supply routes to the Kuomindang (KMT). The only concrete results from the encounter was a commitment by Washington to send radio transmitters and receivers, and generators to Lhasa. Meanwhile, consumed by regional tensions and crippling internal quarrels between and within the clergy and laity, the ruling elite in Tibet remained largely oblivious to larger changes taking place in China and elsewhere. These deep differences left them dangerously isolated and ill prepared to face the communists who came to power in 1949 vowing to "liberate" the whole territory of China, which they argued included Tibet. It was only after Mao’s victory that the Dalai Lama’s central government scrambled to mobilize support from Great Britain and the United States in the face of such threats.

Both the U.S. and the U.K. equivocated at first, urging the Dalai Lama to seek assistance instead from the government of India (GOI). But by 1951 official American attitudes shifted with the rise of anti-communist fervor and the U.S. indicated that it would be willing to provide support "if Tibet intended to resist communist aggression" (Shakya 1999:23). Resistance to the Chinese did in fact emerge in the eastern part of the country after implementation of land reforms and collectivization between 1954-56. Fierce fighting took place as Tibetans attacked Chinese cadres in towns across the area. News of the "Kanding revolt" spread internationally as Khampa refugees began spilling into India, further spurring American interest. Having been unsuccessful in establishing a direct line of communication with the Dalai Lama, the U.S. shifted its tactics. Instead of trying to influence the Lhasa government, the Americans decided to focus its attention on the emerging resistance movement, seeing it as a valuable means through which to achieve their cold war aim of destabilizing communist China through covert action.

The Shadow Circus documents the period of CIA’s involvement with the Tibetan resistance which lasted from 1956 to 1974. It traces the outline of the covert operation–code named St. Circus–which included training of Tibetan volunteers in Saipan and Camp Hale, Colorado in "hit and run tactics" of guerrilla warfare. Upon completion of their training, the men were airdropped into Tibet (along with weapons and radio equipment) where they were expected to make contact with Tibetan resistance forces and with the Dalai Lama’s government in Lhasa. We hear from Athar Norbu, one of twelve who survived the operation inside Tibet, who fondly recalls his experience of working with an American named Roger "Mac" McCarthy ("he was like a Khampa" says Norbu) in Saipan. Norbu and Lotse were airdropped in 1957 with radio equipment which they used to communicate with the Americans about conditions on the ground in Tibet. In the film, Norbu describes meeting up with the Dalai Lama’s escape party once it had left Lhasa and radioing the U.S. about the Tibetan leader’s progress and intentions. Norbu’s memories are an important reminder that it was the Dalai Lama’s own decision to flee his homeland, not one made for him by the CIA, as some have claimed.

Other first-hand accounts by veterans of the guerrilla force reveal gaps of understanding between Tibetans and their American supporters, gaps that raise serious questions about the human cost of these kinds of operations mounted by the U.S. during the Cold War. In one of the film’s most poignant moments, Thinley Paljor, a former guerrilla turned carpet seller in Nepal, describes the Tibetans’ interpretation of the fact that a signed photograph of President Eisenhower hung on the wall at Camp Hale: "we thought he was giving us his direct support." The Americans who worked closely with Tibetans grew fond of their trainees as Don Cesare points out in the film: "we were working directly with people who believed in their own cause--we got hooked on these people and learned about their cause." Unfortunately but not surprisingly, those further away in Washington felt no such attachment to the Tibetan cause. As Sam Halpern, another retired CIA officer interviewed puts it, "the idea was to keep the Chinese occupied--it was a nuisance operation and didn’t cost us much...our objective was never to get an independent Tibet." His point is underlined in an anecdote about CIA head Allen Dulles who at an agency briefing on the operation is reported to have asked "Now, where is Tibet?" The sense of betrayal created by this misunderstanding is one of the main themes to emerge in the film.

Throughout the 1960s, the resistance forces launched raids into Tibet from their remote base in Mustang, Nepal. The CIA provided money and arms to the guerrillas until the American rapprochement with the PRC. The CIA’s decision to make a "clean break" with the Tibetan guerrillas left some with deeply disappointed and betrayed. As one guerrilla states in the film, "all of a sudden, the CIA stopped our program. We felt we’d been deceived, our usefulness to the CIA was finished. We were only good for the short-term." Despite the cut-off of funds, the Tibetans maintained their resistance until 1974, when China pressured the Nepalese into closing down the base at Mustang and the Dalai Lama had to get directly involved. Ugyen Tashi recalls this moment with sadness: "he sent a tape with a message saying you must lay down your arms...some men cried, we had no choice but to turn in our weapons." Another guerrilla, Ato Chodak tells us that "for some men, it was better to die than to give up. Sonam and four or five others killed themselves." Veterans of the Mustang force still live together in two camps in Nepal where many eke out a living spinning wool.

The film concludes with some self-reflection by CIA officers on the operation and whether or not they had in fact betrayed their charges. Weighing both sides of the argument, one American notes, "you could argue that the CIA just stirred up the that human lives were lost...I made mistakes and misunderstood...but we had good intentions." The final word goes to a Tibetan who claims that we should not regard the guerrillas simply as cold war proxies. "Our armed struggle was just one chapter in our continuing struggle for still has meaning." His attempt to recuperate this moment of Tibetan history, despite the movement’s ultimate failure, is what distinguishes the Shadow Circus from the majority of documentaries made about the issue today. Instead of depicting Tibetans as passive victims of the Chinese, the film represents Tibetans as historical agents who make choices, in this case one to take up arms in defense of their religion and homeland. For that reason alone it is worth watching.

The Shadow Circus, directed by Tenzing Sonam and Ritu Sarin, is based on extensive primary research, a result of the fact that Sonam is the son of the late Lhamo Tsering, chief field officer for the CIA in Tibet and Mustang. The filmmakers’ unprecedented access to information and living survivors of the resistance movement makes this film an important historical document, one that will be of interest to students of Tibet and the diaspora as well as to those with an interest in international relations and American politics during the Cold War. In the classroom, the film could be supplemented by readings from two recent books on the subject, both published in 1999. One is by Tibetan historian Tsering Shakya, The dragon in the land of snow: A history of modern Tibet since 1947, and the other by the former head of the CIA operation in Tibet, Kenneth Knaus, Orphans of the Cold War: American and the Tibetan struggle.

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