Today was perhaps the most significant day in Tibetan history. On March 10th, 1959, Tibetans surrounded the Dalai Lama’s summer palace to defend it from the Chinese occupation.
It came after almost a decade of military occupation. One year after China entered the Communist orbit, forces from the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) entered Tibet. A year after, the Tibetan authorities yielded to China’s aggression. They signed a treaty that preserved the Dalai Lama’s administrative powers in Tibet.
The peace was uneasy. The following years saw a building of anti-Chinese rage that eventually boiled over into a number of revolts in eastern Tibet in 1956. The revolts failed to drive the Chinese from Tibet but laid the groundwork for a much larger revolution. Lhasa, Tibet’s capital, was ready to erupt by December of 1958. The PLA responded by threatening to bomb the city if the unrest wasn’t curtailed.
The March, 1959 Lhasa uprising was a response to a rumor circulating that the Chinese were plotting to kidnap the Dalai Lama and hold him captive in Beijing. Chinese officers invited the Dalai Lama to watch a theatrical performance at the PLA headquarters, but told him he had to come alone and no Tibetan bodyguards would be permitted entrance.
On March 10, over 300,000 Tibetans surrounded the Norbulinka Palace to prevent the Dalai Lama from accepting the invitation. After a week of hostilities, the Chinese military aimed their heavy artillery at the palace. The Tibetans responded by evacuating the Dalai Lama to India.
Two days later, Lhasa was engulfed in fighting. On March 21, the Chinese started shelling Norbulinka. Tens of thousands of Tibetans were killed. The Chinese went on to execute the Dalai Lama’s guards and raze Lhasa’s monasteries. They also killed thousands more.
Tens of thousands of Tibetans followed the Dalai Lama into the Himalayan foothills, where they established a government-in-exile. The CIA stepped in and offered the Dalai Lama’s administration $1.7 million USD per year to conduct guerrilla military operations against China.
In 2001, the Dalai Lama ceded his partial power over administrative affairs to a parliament of elected officials. He originally sought full Tibetan independence, but by the late 1980’s was willing to compromise on behalf of high-level autonomy.
Doma Gyari, deputy speaker of the parliament-in-exile, said: “If the middle path fails in the short term, we will be forced to opt for complete independence or self-determination as per the UN charter.”
The Dalai Lama is one of the most popular leaders in the world and is considered a spiritual authority.