Tsongkha Lhamo Tsering (1924–1999)

Tsongkha Lhamo Tsering (1924–1999)

Lhamo Tsering was born in 1924 in the village of Sina Nagatsang near Kumbum Monastery in Amdo, then under the Chinese Muslim (Hui) warlord, Ma Bufang. Nagatsang was close by Taktser, the Dalai Lama’s birthplace. Chinese immigration had, since Ming times, asserted itself in those parts of Amdo, and Nagatsang had over fifty Chinese families to two Tibetan. Till the age of eight Lhamo Tsering was a monk at Kumbum Monastery, when he began attending the local Chinese primary school in the nearby village of Rusar. On finishing primary, school he went to the Teacher’s Training School in Xining city and graduated from there.

The end of his schooling in Xining coincided with the Sino-Japanese war and he was briefly conscripted into the Youth Volunteer Force of the Nationalist Chinese Army. Before he saw action, the war came to an end. He then went to the Institute for Frontier Minorities in Nanjing to pursue further studies. There, in 1945, he met the Dalai Lama’s older brother, Gyalo Thondup, who had also come to study in Nanjing. Lhamo Tsering became Gyalo Thondup’s assistant and close companion.

In 1949, Communist forces were taking China’s major cities one by one. Lhamo Tsering and Gyalo Thondup escaped from Nanjing to Shanghai. Gyalo Thondup then departed for Hong Kong and left Lhamo Tsering behind to collect a bank transfer. But the money didn’t arrive on time, and Communist troops surrounded Shanghai. Lhamo Tsering once told me of his experiences at that time. His vivid description of the period stirred in me boyhood memories of poring over photographs (probably Cartier Bresson’s) in an old Life magazine, of Shanghai’s last days: panic-stricken Chinese men in double-breasted suits or traditional long gowns topped with fedoras, women in Anna May Wong cheongsams and cloche hats desperately pushing and shoving each other to get to the closed door of a Shanghai bank; bedraggled Kuomintang officers and their mountains of possessions alongside other desperate refugees at the railway station, waiting for a train that would probably never come; and of course the inevitable abandoned baby by the tracks. Lhamo Tsering narrowly managed to escape Shanghai before the city fell. He and another Tibetan forced a local fisherman to row them out beyond the harbour to the open sea where a last ship bound for Hong Kong picked them up.

Lhamo Tsering settled in Kalimpong, the Indian frontier town and centre for the wool trade with Tibet. In February 1952, he accompanied Gyalo Thondup to Lhasa. This was Lhamo Tsering’s first trip to the Tibetan capital. Here he was able to observe and experience first-hand the implications of the Communist Chinese invasion of Tibet. After four months, Gyalo Thondup and Lhamo Tsering managed to leave Lhasa and returned to India. On 6 August 1954, Gyalo Thondup, along with Tsipon W. D. Shakabpa and Jamyangkyil Khenchung, founded the Tibetan Welfare Association in Kalimpong. Lhamo Tsering was its main administrator. The objectives of the Tibetan Welfare Association were to oppose the Chinese occupation, to publicise internationally the Tibetan situation, and to initiate underground movements inside their homeland.

In 1956, the CIA decided to help the Tibetan Resistance movement. Their main contact was Gyalo Thondup. In July 1958, Lhamo Tsering secretly led a group of eleven Tibetans to America. They were trained first at a secret camp in Virginia, and then at the newly reactivated Camp Hale in Colorado. Lhamo Tsering was also trained separately in Washington DC in intelligence tradecraft. The Americans did not at first tell the Tibetans where they were being trained but Lhamo Tsering managed to find out. He told me in an interview in 1991 how he had done it: “We were not told where the camp was. It was not a very mountainous area but it was well forested… I managed to find out through helping out in the kitchen. Our supplies were purchased in the city and delivered to our cook every day, along with the bills and receipts. One day I took a quick peek at a receipt. Below the name of the store were the words, ‘Richmond, VA.’ We were in Virginia.”

Following his return to India in August 1959, Lhamo Tsering created and headed an office for intelligence operations in Darjeeling. Its main function was to liaise between the CIA and the various Resistance operations that were being launched from India and Nepal. These included radio teams that were being parachuted into Tibet; radio teams that went overland; and the Mustang Resistance Force that was started in Northern Nepal in mid-1960. The ailing leader of the “Four Rivers, Six Ranges” Force and the undisputed leader of the resistance movement, Gompo Tashi Andrugtsang (1905–64) was then convalescing in Darjeeling. He passed on to Lhamo Tsering the old battle standard of the “Four Rivers, Six Ranges”, first flown in June 1958 when the force set up base at Driguthang in Lhoka district. The old man also gave Lhamo Tsering his own Browning automatic pistol and sixty rounds of ammunition. He also entrusted to him his personal seal, made when the desperate Tibetan government at Lhuntse Dzong in March 1959 gave him a dzasak title and appointed him Commander-in-chief of all Tibetan military forces.

From 1964 to 1974, the activities of the Darjeeling office were expanded and a tripartite office was created which had its base in New Delhi. Lhamo Tsering headed the Tibetan section of this office. The main operations of this office included the Mustang Resistance Force and the intelligence gathering missions inside Tibet. With a new era of Sino-American relationship heralded by Nixon’s visit to China, the CIA terminated their support of the Resistance in 1969. The Chinese began to put pressure on the Nepalese government to do something about the Tibetan guerrillas in Nepal.

In 1974, Lhamo Tsering was arrested in Nepal and used as a bargaining chip by the Nepalese government in its efforts to disarm the Mustang guerrillas. But he refused to co-operate and managed to send a message to the guerrillas to disregard his capture. Finally, the Dalai Lama sent a message to the guerrillas asking them to give up their weapons. Following the surrender of the guerrillas, Lhamo Tsering was imprisoned in Nepal for seven years. In Kathmandu Central Jail, Lhamo Tsering and six other Tibetans were housed together in one large cell. There was a real possibility of demoralisation, especially since they were left pretty much alone by the authorities and liquor was freely available through the prison Mafia. In the same interview, in 1991, he told me of his prison experiences:

I said to the others that it would be difficult to survive if we didn’t organise ourselves. I suggested that we kept strictly to an active and productive routine every day without fail. The others agreed. I wrote down the routine and pinned it up on our cell wall. It went like this: We got up at six and then held a prayer service. After that we exercised till eight when we had our breakfast. From nine we had classes in English, Hindi and Nepali. Teachers were no problem. The jail was crowded with lawyers and teachers from the banned Congress Party and other dissident political groups. In our jail there were more than one hundred such people. The previous prime minister of Nepal was in our jail for some time. 1

After lunch we played volleyball till tea time at three, after which you could do as you pleased. Little Tashi used to fly kites. He was from Lhasa and had a passion and the skill for the sport. Ngagtruk and Pega were great chess players, and also very religious. They meditated a lot and both managed to recite the “Praises to Tara” over hundred thousand times. The rest of us weren’t that spiritual. Our speciality was humour. Rakra was tremendously funny and had an inexhaustible fund of hilarious stories and jokes. But Chatreng Gyurme was even better at making up strange tales. He made them all up in his head, and they were weird. Our jailers and the Nepalese prisoners were puzzled by the constant laughter that would come from our cell.

So we kept ourselves busy and were never bored. In fact, I never seemed to have enough time for my own writing and reading. One of the books I did read at the time was Leon Uris’s Exodus. I was deeply impressed and moved by the courage and sacrifice of the Jews in their struggle to create an independent nation. We managed to keep up this routine till the day we left that jail — and we stayed healthy and mentally disciplined. The consequences of not doing so were only too clear in the Central Jail. There were many suicides.

Our education programme was a great success. Everyone became quite proficient in Nepali and Hindi except for me. I sadly lack the gift for languages. We shared our food and tea with our Nepali teachers. They did everything they could to help us, advising us on legal matters, drafting our petitions and helping to prepare our defence. Since many of these lawyers and dissident politicians had friends in the various government offices, they even managed to get some documents concerning our case copied and smuggled into prison.

One day, the jailed leader of the Nepalese Communist Party, Manmohan Adhikari 2 dropped by to talk to us. He had to apply for high level clearance from the Home Ministry for the visit, which surprisingly, they gave him. Adhikari told us he hadn’t come to discuss ideology or Communism, as we all had different views on this. He said that fundamentally we were all brothers in this world. He advised us that if we did no more than hope for clemency, we could be in jail for the rest of our lives. He suggested various ways in which we could try to advance our case and stressed that we were not to overlook even the slightest advantage or the most insignificant contact we had outside. He then went on to tell us not to pay too much attention to Nepali government propaganda about “Khampa bandits” and “atrocities”. We were to remember that what we had done was for the sake of our country and people. In times of war unfortunate things happened, but that was life, and we should not become disheartened. Before he left he said he had a personal request to make of us: that we keep in good spirits, good health and not lose hope.

We stuck to our routine till the last day of our jail term. We were released in December 1980.

Lhamo Tsering was back in harness after a short seven-month break. Though his former work had been of vital national importance, his role had not exactly been a recognisedly official one, and he was generally known as “Yabshi Drunyik-la” or honourable secretary to the Dalai Lama’s family. This time he worked directly in the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) of the Dalai Lama. From 10 April 1981 until 1 October 1985, he was additional general secretary of the Department of Security (CTA). From 1986 until 1993, he was a member of the Advisory Board of the Department of Security (CTA). From 9 August 1993 until 3 June 1996, he was elected minister of the Department of Security.

After his release, Lhamo Tsering also started work on a detailed history of the Resistance movement that he had been intimately involved in. The entire twelve volume series, entitled Resistance, is being published by Amnye Machen Institute (AMI), Dharamshala. The first volume, The Early Political Activities of Gyalo Thondup, Older Brother of H. H. the Dalai Lama and the Beginnings of My Political Involvement, 1945–1959, was published in 1992. The second volume, The Secret Operations into Tibet: 1957–1962, was published in 1998.

Future volumes will include a five-part account of the Mustang Resistance Force; a two-part account of underground organisations inside Tibet; a four-part account of the underground organisations and intelligence-monitoring units set up inside Tibet; and finally, an account of the resettlement programme of the former guerrillas of the Mustang Resistance Force. These books cover the entire period from 1945 to 1988. All the volumes have already been written, and are being edited by the director of AMI, Tashi Tsering.

After a long illness, Lhamo Tsering died in New Delhi on 9 January 1999. He is survived by his wife Tashi Dolma, a son, Tenzing Sonam, daughters: Dolma, Diki Yangzom, Tenzing Chounzom, and an adopted daughter, Tsering Yangzom.

Source: Silent Struggle: Tsongkha Lhamo Tsering (1924–1999) by Jamyang Norbu



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