Myth and Meaning in Tibet

By Bertil Lintner 19 January 2015

He must have been the most unlikely person to gain the dubious distinction of being the world’s first hippie.

Lt-Col Francis Younghusband, who led the 1904 military expedition to Tibet—and during the course of that colonial adventure, massacred scores of Tibetans—was so mesmerized by the spiritualism and mysticism he encountered there that he founded numerous outlandish societies after his return to London a few years later. One of those preached free love while another believed in the existence of celestials with translucent flesh on a planet called Altair.

The Russian occultist Helena Blavatsky claimed to have lived in Tibet where she had met spiritual masters with whom she remained in contact through telepathy, visions, and dreams. All that, however, turned out to be bogus. She was just capitalizing on the mystery engulfing the region on the roof of the world.

In the 1930s, the rulers of Nazi Germany sent an expedition to Tibet to find the roots of the “Aryan master race.” On the other side of the political spectrum, Franklin D. Roosevelt, US president from 1933 to 1945, named his personal retreat in the Catoctin Mountains in Maryland “Shangri-La” after the fictitious Tibetan monastery in James Hilton’s novel “The Lost Horizon.” Roosevelt’s hideaway is now the site of Camp David, a mountain retreat for successive presidents of the United States.

Tibet, and almost anything even remotely associated with it, continues to evoke eccentric, mystical pursuits, especially among Westerners. But following China’s occupation of Tibet in the early 1950s, there was a much more down-to-earth reason for the West to pay special attention to the territory once ruled by a God King called the Dalai Lama: to contain the spread of Chinese hegemony in Asia.

Tibet scholars Lezlee Brown Halper and Stefan Halper spent more than a decade researching Tibet’s struggle and putting it into perspective in their excellent book “Tibet: An Unfinished Story.” “It is an ignoble saga with few, if any, heroes, other than ordinary Tibetans,” the authors conclude wryly.

The Chinese, according to the authors, “sought nothing less than to deconstruct traditional Tibet, unseat the Dalai Lama and ‘absorb’ this vast region into the People’s Republic.” Tibet, previously closer to India than China, ceased to exist as a de facto independent entity. The US tried to counter the Chinese, but it became a mess.

Drawing on declassified Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and Chinese documents, the authors reveal the collusion between China’s Mao Zedong and the Soviet leader Josef Stalin to subdue Tibet; double-dealing by India’s prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru who wanted to improve relations with China; and how the United States see-sawed between the China lobby in Washington and Presidents Harry Truman and later Dwight Eisenhower, who initiated a covert CIA program to support the Dalai Lama and resist Chinese occupation.

The United States’ clandestine support for the Tibetan resistance, which included dropping weapons from airplanes that took off from military bases in Taiwan and Thailand, was severed in the early 1970s when Washington began to seek rapprochement with China in order to isolate their shared enemy the Soviet Union.

In 1971, then US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger went to China for talks with Premier Zhou Enlai, paving the way for President Richard Nixon’s historic visit to Beijing, Hangzhou and Shanghai in February 1972. Although it has never been formally admitted, it is widely believed that China agreed to normalize relations with the United States, provided it, among other things, agreed to stop all assistance to the Tibetan freedom fighters.

At the same time, Nepal’s king Birendra wanted to improve relations with China. The Tibetan resistance forces were driven out of their camps in Mustang near Nepal’s border with China. Even the Dalai Lama, in exile in India since a failed uprising against the Chinese overlords in 1959, sent a taped message to Mustang, urging his men there to surrender. Some of them were so distraught they committed suicide by throwing themselves into the cold, swift waters of the nearest river.

Today the Dalai Lama’s government in exile remains in McLeod Ganj near the northern Indian town of Dharamshala. A seemingly never-ending stream of foreign admirers has made pilgrimages to the town, including Hollywood celebrities Richard Gere, Pierce Brosnan and Steven Seagal. The latter even donated a large sum of money to be recognized as the reincarnation of a 17th century Tibetan sage.

The Dalai Lama’s presence in India has long been a thorny issue in relations between India and China. When I interviewed the Dalai Lama at McLeod Ganj on March 6, 1984, 25 years since the 1959 uprising and his flight to India, he made the stunning revelation that he had actually intended to go into exile in Myanmar—a point that is not mentioned in the book.

We had been allotted only half an hour with the Dalai Lama, but when he discovered that my wife came from Myanmar, they immediately began comparing the Tibetan and Myanmar languages, which belong to the same language family (Tibeto-Burman). We ended up spending an hour and a half with him.

The Dalai Lama said that to avoid creating a problem in India’s relations with China, he had wanted to settle in one of the Tibetan villages north of Putao in Kachin State. He wanted to be among his own people and thought Myanmar, being a Buddhist country—and with a neutral stance in regional power games—would respond positively. Feelers were sent out to Myanmar’s leaders who, according to the Dalai Lama, replied that they would like to welcome him but were involved in sensitive talks with China about their common border. The time, they said, was not appropriate.

That was in 1959. On Oct. 1, 1960 Prime Minister U Nu ratified the Myanmar-China border treaty at a grand ceremony in Beijing. The entire length of the 2,185-km border was demarcated. But sitting in McLeod Ganj in 1984, the Dalai Lama was no doubt content with his chosen place of exile. After the military takeover in Myanmar in 1962, no political freedoms of any kind would have been tolerated.

“Tibet: An Unfinished Story” is written in a lively and accessible style. As Hans van de Ven, professor of Modern Chinese History at the University of Cambridge, writes in his endorsement, “it is also the story of the emergence of a Tibetan myth that has become fundamental to its unique position in the world today.” This is mainly so in a spiritual sense.

We should not forget that if the Dalai Lama had settled in the mountains north of Putao in 1959, Myanmar would no doubt have felt the wrath of Beijing in a way that could have been even more devastating than Chinese support for the Communist Party of Burma in the 1960s and 1970s.

For those in Myanmar who may have thought that the West, led by the US, would come to the rescue and help them win their freedom, it is worth remembering the Tibetan experience. Geopolitical self-interest, not human rights and democracy, is the guiding principle of most states foreign policy, including the United States.

“Tibet: An Unfinished Story,” by Lezlee Brown Halper& Stefan Halper, is published by Hurst & Company.

This article first appeared in the January 2015 issue of The Irrawaddy magazine.