Abstract: Kunga Samten Dewatshang, a trader born in Lithang in 1914, is perhaps the most influential layperson in Tibetan history hailing from Eastern Tibet. He relocated to Lhasa with his family immediately preceding the Communist victory in 1949. He was a vehement critic of the Communists, and a chief founder and leader of the Chushi Gangdrug, a guerilla organization that opposed Chinese aggression and later assumed the role of the Dalai Lama’s secret service during his escape to India. He was chiefly responsible for the successful flight of His Holiness the Dalai Lama from Norbulingka in 1959, but was consequentially forced to flee to India. Kunga’s account closes in May 1985 while his family is living at Bomdila. He wrote with the hope that his tale would inspire those living in freedom to appreciate their blessing, and also sought to perpetuate Tibetan ingenuity and passion in defending their motherland against the Chinese.
The Chushi Gangdrug, a guerilla group partially led by Kunga Samten Dewatshang, was responsible for the successful flight of His Holiness the Dalai Lama into exile in 1959. On March 10, 1959, thousands of Tibetans swarmed the Norbulingka, the Dalai Lama’s summer palace, fearing he was going to be kidnapped by the Chinese. Chaos abounded between March 11th and 17th: the Dalai Lama was trying to cover his impending flight from Lhasa, corresponding with Communists using their jargon. He was trying to assuage their concerns by calling the Tibetans gathered around the palace as “reactionary evil elements” and “the reactionary clique” whose actions were “heartbreaking” (Dewatshang 3). While the Dalai Lama was stalling the Chinese forces, Kunga Samten Dewatshang, a trader and family man from Lithang, Kham, was debating with fellow leaders of Chushi Gangdrug, figuring out what was to be done about the Norbulingka situation. On the judgment of an act of divination, it was decided that Kunga was to accompany the Dalai Lama in his escape.
Kunga led and planned the mission to escort His Holiness out of Chinese clutches. The Dalai Lama was to leave the palace at ten in the evening, dressed as an ordinary soldier, and was to then meet Kunga and his party nearby. Perhaps most significantly, the Norbulingka officials were to bring all arms in the Tibetan army’s possession to Kunga and company. In other words, the Tibetan central government and the Tibetan army were surrendering their military position to protect the Dalai Lama and bring him to safety. In sacrificing a good portion of their defensive capabilities and armaments, they essentially sacrificed their homeland, but in doing so they preserved their political and spiritual leader. Kunga commented on both the pressure and the sense of duty he felt in protecting the Dalai Lama, “The presence among us of the single most important person in the country inspired us to carry out our duties to the best of our abilities. We were vigilant at all times… In our care was the holy being for whom tens of thousands of Tibetans were ready to lay down their lives, the very person upon whose safety hung the future of Tibet. He was not only our spiritual teacher but our political leader as well. Every Tibetan, no matter where he or she came from, or which tribe he or she belonged to, placed their faith in him. He was to us the very heart of Tibet,” (Dewatshang 11).
Within Tibetan communities, word traveled quickly regarding the Dalai Lama’s flight, and in doing so endangered the entire operation. When traveling through Kyishong, villagers received word of his path and went to see him. The Chinese had a multitude of spies across Tibet, and this knowledge of the Dalai Lama’s whereabouts greatly worried Kunga: “What worried me was the question of how they had come to know of our arrival. It occurred to me that the messenger who went on ahead of us must have spread the news. This was frightening. What if the information had reached the Chinese instead of these villagers?” (10). Further compounding this danger was a lack of communications technology. Though the differing branches and companies of the Chushi Gangdrug needed to collaborate to safely escort His Holiness, this communication posed a danger to the entire mission because, as evidenced in the previous example, scouts could compromise the mission’s secrecy. Kunga observed, “We traveled in separate groups, the guerilla escorts keeping in touch with each other. We had scouts coming and going to keep us informed about the route. With no modern devices like wireless, we had no other recourse” (Dewatshang 11). The Dalai Lama was successfully handed off to the next group of guerillas. Kunga had planned and fulfilled his portion, arguably the most vital and dangerous, of His Holiness’ flight from Lhasa.
One may wonder, where did this protector of the Dalai Lama come from? Surely his family must have been a relatively wealthy, Lhasa-born member of the aristocracy with high monastic ties to have this level of power and trust on the Dalai Lama’s behalf to play such a central role in his flight? Actually, this could not be further from the truth. Kunga was born in 1914 in the village of Mohla Kashar in Litang, in the Pobar region of Kham. He was the seventh child of the Dewatshang family, and like two of his older brothers, was placed in the monastic system. At eight years old, he was sent to Monzo Gonpa, the local monastery. Spending several trying years as a monk, Kunga returned home to discover nothing remained the same. His second eldest brother, Bobo Khyenrab, tried to establish a career in business but was plagued by bad luck and inexperience. He left the family’s finances in ruins, destroyed their honor, and lost their ancestral home. Seeking to recoup these losses, Kunga took a temporary leave from the monastery to sort out his family’s well being.
Kunga pursued a career as a trader, receiving an apprenticeship from a prominent businessman, Kunga Tsultrim, in 1931. The apprenticeship required Kunga to accompany his mentor, Kunga Tsultrim, to Lhasa with a caravan of assistants. Kunga above all sought to restore his family’s name in becoming a wealthy trader, but also saw the allure of Lhasa. Kunga wrote, “My main aim was to learn how to trade, but there was also the lure of Lhasa. It was every Eastern Tibetan’s dream to visit Lhasa once in his or her lifetime. Although the journey was hard, this discouraged no one. Lhasa was both our national capital and the center of our religion and culture. His Holiness the Dalai Lama resided in this holy city” (Dewatshang 35).
Kunga seems uncharacteristically devoted to the Dalai Lama, the Lhasa central government, and Lhasa in general, for a Khampa. Perhaps explaining Kunga’s strong allegiance to the Dalai Lama and his reverence for Lhasa as both a cultural and a political capital were historical underpinnings connecting his home region with Lhasa. The seventh and tenth Dalai Lamas were both born in the Lithang region, which strengthened this area’s relationship with the Ganden Phodrang government, and with the Dalai Lama as well. Due to this connection, “Successive Dalai Lamas and their regents paid special attention to the welfare of the people of Lithang” (Dewatshang 17). Also, the Dewatshang family had a historic connection to the Dalai Lama’s Ganden Phodrang government. Kunga remarked, “We Dewatshangs had also been honored and rewarded a certificate for our service to the Dalai Lama’s Ganden Phodrang government,” (Dewatshang 27). It seems as though servicing the Dalai Lama ran through both Kunga’s blood and his ancestral land. Though Kunga spends the majority of his time detailing his cultural and spiritual ventures, he does have success in his apprenticeship, specifically in selling livestock to patrons of an outdoor market in Lhasa.
Kunga’s newfound confidence and experience in trade allowed him to take up his own business in order to fulfill his “burning desire to restore our [his] familial honor” (Dewatshang 63). In order to become a businessman and fulfill his desire to avenge his family’s name, he needed to officially withdraw from the monastery. He detailed the processes he had to go through to give up his vows, which were lengthy, expensive, and drove a division between him and his teacher, though his teacher did approve of his leaving. As a layperson, he could now get married, and was betrothed to a nine-year-old girl of a nearby village, whom he married at age 13 and moved in with at 15. When his wife entered the family, Kunga attested to a relative equality in gender roles between men and women.
On the invitation of an official at the Monzo Gonpa, Kunga decided to make another trip to Lhasa, though this time it was strictly a religious pilgrimage. His wife thankfully decided to accompany him on the trip, for they never returned to Litang, but took up residence in Lhasa. Not long into the course of their new life in Lhasa, in 1949, the Chinese Communist Party reigned victorious in the Chinese civil war and Radio Peking broadcast a message that said Tibet was an indivisible part of China that would soon be liberated. Kunga noted that this was the first time China took a real interest in taking over Tibet. Kunga’s life, the life of those in Lhasa, and to a certain extent, Central Tibet as a whole, remained relatively unchanged in the beginning. The Tibetan government, concerned about the Communist’s claim to Tibet, sent a letter to Chairman Mao, which went unanswered, and then issued another decree. It was carried by the Tibetan delegation that traveled to Beijing. It read, “Tibet, the abode of the snow, ruled by the successive reincarnations of Avalokiteshvara, is an independent and peace-loving country dedicated to religion. The nation’s peace is being disturbed and threatened by the potential infiltration of Chinese soldiers defeated during the Chinese civil war” (Dewatshang 89). This decree asserted Tibet as an independent entity, its own country, without directly stating so. He later described the second Dalai Lama’s construction of the monastery near Lhamoi Latsho in 1509, noting that Lhamoi Latsho was, “dedicated to Pa[l]den Lhamo, the protectress of the unified nation of Tibet” (Dewatshang 96).
On October 7, 1950, the People’s Liberation Army invaded Kham, easily defeating the Tibetan garrison. The Dalai Lama responded by appealing to the United Nations, but his appeal went relatively unanswered. At the young age of 16, the Dalai Lama was conferred full temporal power: he officially became the political hope for the nation. Kunga then described the circumstances surrounding the 17-Point Agreement, which he asserts the Tibetans were coerced and forced into by the Chinese. He stated, “After being given an ultimatum and being personally threatened, the Tibetan delegation signed what was known as the 17-Point Agreement on May 23, 1951” (Dewatshang 91). The Chinese, at first, were very respectful. According to Kunga they paid for everything they bought without bargaining and were courteous. This kindness was, however, short lived. “Democratic reforms” were enacted and though some, such as the revision of land taxation, were initially welcomed, these reforms eventually became all-encompassing and increasingly radical. Kunga described the situation, particularly the Chinese forcing the Tibetans to provide labor to their administration and the Chinese claim to Tibetan surplus possessions and stocks of food. The greatest offense was the attack on religion and the monastic system, which Kunga wrote about, “The reforms that led to the greatest discontent and prompted the beginning of armed resistance were the confiscation and desecration of monasteries and restrictions on the practice of religion” (Dewatshang 91). Kunga illustrated the centrality of religion to Tibetan society. In his work with the Chushi Gangdrug as well as in Tibet as a whole, the desire to protect and preserve religion, the monastic system, and the Dalai Lama took precedence above all else, for Tibet’s political and cultural survival was, and still is, innately connected with religion.
The Chinese managed to effectively bring Tibet into their domain by squeezing Tibet in terms of social class dynamics and personal wealth, and then proceeded to simultaneously destroy the economy, political structure, and religious traditions. Once they had brought Tibetans, as individuals, down, they were able to commence the systematic destruction of all elements of Tibetan identity. Tibetan families were required to take account of their wealth and armaments and report these numbers to the Chinese, who then systematically claimed the possessions and capital as their own. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) officials then wreaked havoc on the economy as Kunga stated, “In order to maintain their 20,000 strong PLA soldiers, the Chinese authorities demanded 4,000 tons of barley from the government granaries. The immediate result was inflation on such items as grains, meat, and household sundries. Many prices increased tenfold. This led to the formation of a resistance movement in Lhasa called Mimang Tshongdu” (Dewatshang 95). This was the first resistance movement in Lhasa that Kunga explicitly named, and it ushered in an era of awareness in which the Tibetans began to increasingly oppose the Chinese.
While at Kalimpong, news began to surface regarding the tightening of Chinese control, especially in the East. Kunga noted that the tension increased between the Communist Chinese and the Tibetans as the PLA and CCP worked to impose their restrictive reforms on the unwilling people of Tibet. Returning to Lhasa, Kunga and his wife felt the atmosphere change. New reforms targeted wealthy families: Kunga and his family were forced to move out of their home, while those in Eastern Tibet faced greater injustices and atrocities. In February 1956, monks and laypeople near Litang Gonchen, a large and prominent monastery near Kunga’s hometown, began a revolt by attacking a nearby Chinese camp. In May 1956 the revolt spread and there arose a unified opposition force to the Chinese in Eastern Tibet, Kham in particular. By 1957, the situation had reached a critical level; more Khampas and Amdos entered the region daily and Chinese restrictions on the possession of arms infuriated the Tibetans. Kunga and a group of his business associates agreed that all of these conditions made, “abundantly clear that the time had come for action” (Dewatshang 112). The unification of Tibetans had begun.
The actions of the Chinese ushered in an unprecedented level of collaboration and cooperation across all corners of Tibet. It was not until the Chinese posed this great threat to the Tibetan socio-economic hierarchy and Tibetan culture that a sense of Tibetan unity was born. Kunga was present for the first meeting of Tibetan local officials on July 4, 1957 in Lhasa. He noted that this was, “The first major meeting of the leaders of the 23 tribes of Kham and Amdo” (Dewatshang 113). These meetings were fruitful and when combined with the leaders voicing displeasure with Chinese activities in Lhasa, yielded the formal creation of the Chushi Gangdrug organization. This was a united and pan-Tibetan effort meaning “Four Rivers and Six Ranges,” which represented the vast territory of Tibet [editor’s note: this is actually a term that is only describes Kham, though it is often misunderstood to represent Tibet more broadly]. It was an underground movement that met under the disguise of religion as to not arouse Chinese suspicions. The leaders of Chushi Gangdrug regularly made a traditional offering to the Dalai Lama, which allowed them to demonstrate both their loyalty and admiration for the Dalai Lama, while providing a cover for their regular meetings.
Chushi Gangdrug, though an underground movement outside the purview of the Kashag, was in contact with the Dalai Lama and his associates. Kunga facilitated the connection between Chushi Gangdrug and the Dalai Lama, “Through Phala Thubten Woden, the Dronyer Chenmo, or the Lord Chamberlin, His Holiness was informed about the formation of Chushi Gangdrug. All our future communications with His Holiness were routed through him. We took these precautions to avoid implicating His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government directly, and to maintain our own secrecy” (Dewatshang 113). Gyalo Thondup, one of His Holiness’ elder brothers, sought to rally foreign support for the guerilla movement. He eventually arranged for the CIA to train Khampas in guerilla warfare and to parachute them into Tibet. This CIA mission, unfortunately, failed. This was due in large part to Chinese knowledge of the mission. It was imperative that the operation be kept covert so the Chinese would not learn of the Khampa’s plan. But, “Although they had tried to be discreet, word of their arrival soon got around. Perhaps the guerilla’s families were to blame. They probably thought that with the CIA’s help the Chinese were going to be given a good thrashing. Little did they know that it wasn’t going to be as easy as all that and most important of all, the Chinese knew they had arrived” (Dewatshang 116). The Chinese, vastly superior in their number of troops, soon dominated all of Eastern Tibet and were tightening their grip over Lhasa and the surrounding areas. They began instituting the “Dagpo Chingdol,” or the releasing of serfs from their bondage to feudal lords. This was followed by “Democratic Reforms” in which the wealth of the rich was distributed amongst the people. Those resisting the reforms were arrested or publicly executed. Kunga’s elder brother Bobo Khyenrab was publicly executed in the Chinese-led witch hunt.
It was when the Chinese started to really oppress religion that Chushi Gangdrug truly leaped into action. The Chinese had initially pledged that religion would be unaffected during the reform movements, but they broke this promise. Kunga described the situation, “Monasteries were razed to the ground, their holy scriptures and images looted and destroyed. Monks were disgraced and tortured. Religious practices were forbidden. The Communists announced that those who wore religious robes were enemies of the people and their fraternal Chinese liberators” (Dewatshang 117). On June 16, 1958, in response to these attacks on religion, Chushi Gangdrug held their first official meeting near their headquarters in Lhokha. Five thousand volunteers attended the meeting, and a code of conduct, objectives, and a flag were drawn up. Kunga and others felt accomplished at this, “We had now openly defied Chinese authority. Our movement which until this time had functioned underground, now emerged into the open” (Dewatshang 118). Kunga’s wife fell critically ill and he returned to Lhasa to care for her, balancing his responsibilities as a leader of Chushi Gangdrug with his responsibilities as a husband and father. He would venture out of Lhasa in secrecy, carry out a mission, and then return.
The Chushi Gangdrug organization was quickly transformed from a guerilla group to a quasi-autonomous branch of resistance that drew support from all walks of life and authority. Chushi Gangdrug was supported by monks and trained by the Tibetan army, and became increasingly successful at pushing back the PLA. In a conflict outside of Dra, monks from the local monastery at Gongkar aided Chushi Gangdrug units in ambushing a PLA caravan. Kunga recalled, “We could see traces of the destroyed Chinese trucks down in the valley. The monks had rolled down large boulders, some of which had hit the trucks directly… We were joined here by members of the Tibetan Army, who taught us drills” (Dewatshang 133). While camped there, he and his companions heard of the situation at the Norbulingka that led to their successful escort of the Dalai Lama out of Lhasa.
After escorting the Dalai Lama out of Lhasa, he focused his attention on holding back the Chinese. Collaboration between Chushi Gangdrug and the Kashag evolved to a level such that the guerilla fighters held the status of a secret service-type agency, sanctioned and supported by the government. The Kashag opened their vaults to Kunga and his peers. Kunga revealed, “I was given a letter by the Kashag authorizing me to make use of whatever government property I wanted” (Dewatshang 134). Chushi Gangdrug faced opposition by some Tibetans because some people posed as volunteer fighters and looted the belongings of peasants. These incidents were instigated by the Chinese and made it difficult at times for the guerillas to find towns to stay in, as villagers feared they were imposters.
While Kunga escorted the Dalai Lama to safety and continued fighting for Tibetan freedom, his wife and daughters were forced to flee the Chinese. Stopping near a monastery in Jayul, his wife received word that Chushi Gangdrug fighters were accompanying His Holiness to safety, and they were to pass through Jayul. His wife requested an audience with His Holiness that was initially denied but later allowed due to her husband’s assistance to the Dalai Lama, which one of his handlers commented on, saying, “Of course, you can [have an audience]. Your husband Kunga Samten has done a great job. He was responsible for escorting His Holiness out of Norbulingka” (Dewatshang 140). After meeting with the Dalai Lama, she and Kunga met up, coming to the sad realization that the Chinese pursuit of their family was going to be relentless. Meeting with the head of the Chushi Gangdrug network, Adrug Gonpo Tashi, and many other high ranking Chushi officials, it was decided that their mission had to be put on hold for the time being; it was too unsafe and their primary mission, safely escorting His Holiness to the Indian border, had been accomplished. Kunga remembered his sadness on this day, and wrote, “It was with a heavy heart that I realized for the first time that we would actually have to take refuge in India. Although it always had been an option in the back of our minds, we never seriously thought about it while we were still fighting” (Dewatshang 143). With that, he and his family made the long and difficult crossing into India.
Upon entering India, they experienced immediate difficulties. There was a language barrier, and the food was foreign. The family faced constant upheaval as they were driven from one town to the next by the Indian government. They were supposed to travel to Misamari, deeper in India, with other Tibetan refugees but stayed near Bomdila in the village of Rupa instead. They wanted to remain in Bombdila for they assumed there would be a return of autonomy to Tibet and the retreat of the Chinese Communists in the near future. Kunga professed, “Above all, if Tibet were to become independent, it would be easier to return” (Dewatshang 152). After settling in Rupa, they hosted a plethora of guests, including government officials. They, too, applauded Kunga’s decision to stay near Tibet: “Kungo Wangdu remarked that for a temporary place to stay, I had chosen well. When Tibet was independent once more, it would be easy for me to return” (Dewatshang 156). Their life developed in Rupa; Kunga sent his two eldest daughters to school in Dharmsala and eventually France, and started a general store. The breakout of the Sino-Indian War disrupted their life and caused them to flee to Shimla. Once the war quieted, they returned to Bomdila and settled there permanently. The publishing of His Holiness’ first memoir, “My Land and My People,” coincided with their return to Bomdila and brought the family fame and admiration within the community.
Kunga’s account closes in May 1985 while his family is living at Bomdila. However, his account was not written until 1997 (by his son), which gave him a long time to reflect on the current situation in Tibet, and his role in modern Tibetan history. He concludes with an appeal to his readers, a sort of plea to the masses who live in freedom, to help propagate at the very least universal human rights to all those who lack the most basic of freedoms, especially in the exile community. He applauds the government in exile but bemoans the current political situation in Tibet, “Under the leadership of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, we Tibetans in exile have done quite well. Despite its limited resources and many pressures, our government in exile is vibrant and dynamic. My last wish is to return to an independent Tibet, where freedom and peace prevail” (Dewatshang 176). Sadly, Kunga, at age 95, will probably never return to an independent Tibet, but he can still hope that his children and grandchildren could return to a Tibet that is at least independent in a cultural sense.