A Secret War in Shangri-La
14 November 1998
-- Patrick French, The Daily Telegraph , London
A Tibetan filmmaker reveals how the CIA once helped his people fight their
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 realised 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
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
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.'
In Tibet, the CIA-trained Tibetans were attempting to link up with the
indigenous resistance, the Chushi Gangdrug or 'Four Rivers, Six Mountain
Ranges' movement, which controlled swathes of southern Tibet. As the
Chinese Communists tightened their control in the late Fifties, an
increasingly violent war developed between the Tibetan rebels and Mao
Zedong's People's Liberation Army.
Almost 300 Tibetans were trained in the Rocky Mountains, many being
parachuted into Tibet from US planes during covert overflights. Their
survival rate was extremely low, and the only living member of the first
mission, Bapa Legshay, has described the operation as 'like throwing meat
into the mouth of a tiger'. 'We had made up our minds to die,' he said. 'We
had been given cyanide capsules so that we wouldn't be caught alive by the
In March 1959, the Dalai Lama escaped from the Tibetan capital, Lhasa,
disguised as one of his own bodyguards. Accompanied by his senior
officials, he rode on horseback towards the border with India. It was here
that the American connection became especially useful, albeit in a
different form from the romanticised version of his escape found in the
recent spate of Hollywood films about Tibet.
Using a hand-cranked Morse radio, Athar, a member of the US-trained Tibetan
resistance, sent a message to Washington asking for political asylum in
India for the Dalai Lama. It was received late on a Saturday night by a
senior CIA officer, John Greaney, who immediately put through an urgent
call to his boss. Four hours later, the CIA's man in New Delhi sent a wire
back to Washington saying that the Indian Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru,
had granted asylum to the Dalai Lama and his entourage.
In the Sixties, ST Circus changed tack. Instead of training selected
Tibetans in the United States, the CIA decided to set up a larger operation
in Mustang, a mountainous spur of land which juts out of Nepal into
southern Tibet. Groups of Tibetans would be armed with mortars, carbines
and 55mm recoil-less rifles, and from there would set up guerrilla units
and conduct raids inside Tibet. Recently declassified US intelligence
documents show that the CIA was spending more than $1.7 million annually on
Lhamo Tsering now had a difficult job on his hands. As rumours of the new
Mustang base spread among the 100,000 Tibetan refugees in India and Nepal,
they began to make their way there in their hundreds, anxious to fight for
the freedom of their motherland. But this coincided with a ban by President
Eisenhower on covert overflights - following the shooting down of a U2 spy
plane over the Soviet Union in May 1960 - which meant that supplies could
not be dropped to the Tibetan rebels.
'It was a terrible situation,' says Tenzing Sonam. 'There were more than
2,000 people up in the mountains with nothing to eat. They were even
boiling their shoes and eating the leather. People died. There was nothing
my father and the other leaders could do until later that year the
Americans made their first drop of arms and supplies.'
During the Sixties, the Mustang guerrillas were organised along the lines
of a proper army, and conducted repeated raids into Tibet. The most
successful raid, on the Xinjiang-Lhasa highway in 1961, resulted in the
capture of a significant haul of documents.
Forty armed horsemen ambushed a Chinese military convoy. 'The truck came to
a stop,' one fighter, Acho, remembers. 'The driver was shot in the eye, his
brains splattered behind him and the truck came to a stop. The engine was
still running. Then all of us fired at it. There was one woman, a very
high-ranking officer, with a blue sack full of documents. This was
carefully collected by our leader.'
The documents showed for the first time the extent of the famine and unrest
in both China and Tibet created by Chairman Mao's Great Leap Forward, and
the causes of the Sino-Soviet split. Ken Knaus, a CIA officer, describes
the contents of the blue sack as 'one of the greatest intelligence hauls in
the history of the agency'.
Nevertheless, the activities of the Mustang freedom fighters were of
limited effectiveness. The guerrillas were useful to the US principally for
their nuisance value against the Chinese, and their ability to supply
intelligence about a country that was closed to the outside world. They
never managed to establish a proper resistance army inside Tibet, since
they did not have a strong enough level of military backing.
As the Cultural Revolution got under way, Tibet's ancient monasteries and
temples were destroyed, many monks and nuns were killed or imprisoned and
famine ravaged the country. At the same time, the Mustang operation became
mired in internal feuding between the CIA-trained generation of fighters,
and the tribal leaders who had started the original resistance.
The final nail in the Tibetan resistance movement was President Nixon's
historic rapprochement with China in 1971-72. As Sino-American relations
thawed, the Tibetans were left to fend for themselves. After a final burst
of funding, the CIA's involvement with Mustang was severed.
The base in Mustang continued operations until 1974, when the Nepalese
government decided, under Chinese pressure, to put a stop to it. When the
leaders of Mustang refused to surrender, the Dalai Lama intervened to try
to prevent a bloodbath. He sent a taped message ordering the fighters to
lay down their arms, which was played in each of the camps.
The effect was terrible. The rebels felt they had no choice but to obey
their political and spiritual leader, but many of them saw such a surrender
as tantamount to suicide. Several soldiers threw themselves into a river
and were drowned, and one man, a CIA-trained senior officer named Pachen,
handed over his weapons and promptly slit his own throat with a dagger.
Wangdu, the Commander of Mustang, tried to flee to India but was ambushed
at the Tinker Pass by the Nepalese army and shot dead.
Tenzing Sonam points out that, 'These were men who had been fighting the
Chinese since the mid-Fifties, people who had grown up with guns and
knives, being asked to surrender their weapons. . . It was the end of
everything for them.'
His father was arrested in Pokhara and brought to the Central Jail in
Kathmandu, where he was charged with raising a rebel army and smuggling
arms. Although for a time it looked as if they might face the death
penalty, he and six other Tibetan resistance leaders were sentenced to life
imprisonment. He was eventually released in 1981, after an amnesty by the
King of Nepal.
Tenzing Sonam sees the struggles of the resistance movement as 'a forgotten
chapter in recent Tibetan history. It doesn't fit in with our image of
nice, happy, smiling, peaceful people with tinkling bells up in Shangri-la.
. . There was a culture of violence in Tibet. We didn't just lie down and
ask the Chinese to roll over us.'
For Tenzing, the process of researching the story of CIA involvement in
Tibet has made him see his father in a new light. 'It was a revelation to
me. I feel much closer to him now that I know what he was doing all through
my childhood. In a way, the film is an act of filial devotion. . . I think
it's amazing what he did coming from his background, having such
single-minded devotion to the cause of Tibetan freedom. He, and a whole
generation of our people.'