Lhasa 1959

Potala Palace, Lhasa

The month of March is a time when Tibetans reflect on their history. They do so because March was the month of the 1959 Lhasa Uprising against Chinese rule.

Tibet had then been under Chinese control for 10 years. There had been armed resistance in eastern Tibet for most of that time. In the first months of 1956 the fighting had developed into a major regional revolt. In central Tibet, on the other hand, resistance had mostly taken the form of political push and shove between the traditional Tibetan administration based in Lhasa and its new Chinese supervisors. By February 1959 the push and shove had brought the administrative arrangements close to collapse.

Lhasa's population in the 1950s is generally said to have been around 30,000. Additionally, there are said to have been a total of 25,000 monks in Sera, Drepung and Ganden monasteries. Sera and Drepung are within 5 kilometres of Lhasa; Ganden is about 35 kilometres away.

By 1959 Lhasa was swelled by an unknown number of refugees from the fighting in eastern Tibet. In the last days of February and the first days of March it was swelled still further by people who had come from all over Tibet for the Monlam prayer festival, held in the first month of the Tibetan year.

On the morning of 10 March a rumour - very likely mistaken - that the Chinese were planning to kidnap the Dalai Lama brought thousands of people onto the streets. The Dalai Lama estimates in his memoirs that 30,000 people gathered.

On the first day of demonstrations the people's anger was directed mainly against Tibetan officials who were thought to have betrayed Tibet, Buddhism and the Dalai Lama. An official wrongly thought to have been a collaborator was killed. Over the next few days the demonstrations became a revolt against Chinese rule. Tibetans barricaded the road leading from Lhasa towards China.

On 12 March thousands of women marched through Lhasa carrying banners calling for Tibetan independence.

On 13 March thousands of people turned up in response to a call for representatives to form a Peoples's Assembly. The mass meeting that ensued was perhaps the largest demonstration that had ever been held in Lhasa, according to historian Tsering Shakya. The crowd repudiated the 17-Point Agreement between China and Tibet – an agreement that had been imposed by Chinese arms in 1949 and provided for Tibet's "national regional autonomy under the leadership of the Central People's Government" [of China]. The repudiation was issued in the name of Peoples's Assembly.

The Assembly seems to have been made up of about 300 people including Tibetan Government officials, monks, soldiers and representatives of craft guilds and mutual aid societies. It continued to act as the leadership of the uprising in the days that followed. Tibet's traditional ruling body, the Kashag, appears to have had little to do with these events and to have concerned itself mainly with the security of the Dalai Lama.

Chinese forces began shelling parts of Lhasa on 17 March. Two shells landed near the Norbulinka Palace, the Dalai Lama's residence. It was inevitable that Chinese forces would re-take the city, inevitable that the Dalai Lama, if he survived the assault, would be captured, inevitable that the Chinese would then try to use him to suppress the uprising. The Dalai Lama left Lhasa secretly that night with a handful of others. He had personally informed the "popular leaders" about the escape plan a short time in advance, according to the his memoirs. He was just 23 years old.

The Chinese assault on Lhasa began on 20 March. Some of the defenders were equipped with arms released from Tibetan government armouries. Many were either unarmed or equipped with makeshift weapons. The fight for Lhasa went on for 3 days, but the outcome can never have been in doubt.

On 23 March the Chinese hoisted the Red Flag over the Potala Palace. Resistance in Lhasa was over. But the uprising spread to other parts of central Tibet and resistance continued in eastern Tibet on a large scale.

There is no reliable figure for the number of people killed during and immediately after the Lhasa Uprising. Jianglin Li, a Chinese historian based in New York, says that Chinese figures released during the 1990s claim that 63 Chinese soldiers were killed and 210 injured, against 545 Tibetans killed and 4,815 wounded and taken prisoner. A Chinese communique quoted in a 1968 book (Tibet 1950-1967, Union Research Institute, Hong Kong ) states that 4000 people were arrested. The prisoner count presumably includes those – perhaps a considerable number – who were later executed.

For a town of 30,000 people, 545 dead would be a very substantial loss, to say nothing of the arrest and removal of a further 4000 people. But the real figures may be worse.

Sera, Drepung and Ganden monasteries were all shelled by Chinese forces and brought under Chinese control. It might reasonably be supposed that there would have been significant casualties amongst the monks.

A BBC report broadcast on 31 March 1959 said that 2,000 people died during the fighting in Lhasa and that "all fighting-age men who had survived the revolt were deported." It also said that Chinese troops had been reported by "those fleeing the scene" to have been burning corpses in the city for 12 hours. The BBC broadcast included a claim that the Norbulinka Palace had been razed to the ground by Chinese shelling. The claim was repeated elsewhere, but was incorrect. Norbulinka had been the scene of heavy fighting and had been damaged, but was far from having been razed. On the other hand, the Chakpori medical college, a grand building located on a hilltop and linked to the Potala Palace, was indeed completely destroyed by a direct hit from a Chinese shell.

A report ( Tibet Under Communist China—50 Years - pdf document) published by the exile Central Tibetan Administration in 2001 states that the suppression of the uprising "resulted in 10,000 to 15,000 deaths within three days." Other documents published by organisations sympathetic to the Tibetan diaspora refer to 10-15,000 people having "disappeared" from Lhasa as a result of the uprising. This is 2 or 3 times larger than the total number of Tibetans that Chinese sources say were killed or captured.

A Chinese document produced by the political department of the Tibetan Military District and captured by Tibetan guerillas in 1966 stated that 87,000 rebels had been "eliminated" (xiaomie) between March 1959 and October 1960. This appears to refer to people "eliminated" throughout Central Tibet, not just Lhasa. "Eliminated" in this context can hardly mean anything other than "killed", though there have been attempts to argue otherwise.

Whatever casualty figure you pick, it's easy to see that the effect on Lhasa would have been apocalyptic.

In late March 1959 the Dalai Lama arrived at the southern township Lhuntse Dzong and announced the creation of a new temporary Government of Tibet based there. He says in his autobiography that he repudiated the 17-point agreement while at Lhuntse Dzong, but the statements that went on record fall somewhat short of this.

The Lhuntse Dzong base quickly became untenable in the face of the Chinese advance. After just two nights there the refugees continued their flight, reaching India on 30 March. In June the Dalai Lama issued a statement unambiguously repudiating the 17-point agreement, in effect giving his backing to the decision taken by the People's Assembly in Lhasa on 13 March.

Tsering Shapka's history of modern Tibet, The Dragon in the Land of the Snows, Jamyang Norbu's article March Winds and the Dalai Lama's autobiography Freedom in Exile all include accounts of the 1959 uprising. I have relied mainly on these three sources for my sketch of the uprising. Jianglin Li's book 1959 Lhasa!, published in July 2010, promises to be of great interest, but is only available in Chinese.

A discussion of the figure of 87,000 people "exterminated" in central Tibet can be found in the extensive footnotes of the book Tibet The Facts by Paul Ingram, published in 1990.

The image of the Potala Palace is copyright © Shutterstock.