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Trapped in the Middle

By Bertil Lintner

The Dragon in the Land of Snows: A History of Modern Tibet, by Tsering Shakya. Pimlico, Random House, London. Pounds 12.50.

Orphans of the Cold War: America and the Tibetan Struggle for Survival, by John Kenneth Knaus. Public Affairs, New York. $27.50.

Forty years after the People's Liberation Army crushed a popular uprising in Lhasa, the suppressed history of Tibet is finally being written. The emerging picture is bound to excite those who care about the intrigues of Central Asia--and will displease almost every player in the tangled web of social and political conflict that has for decades been the hallmark of Tibetan history.

China will undoubtedly refute Tsering Shakya's detailed account of its occupation and brutal rule of Tibet. The Dalai Lama's followers will be outraged at the suggestion, from one of their own (Shakya is a Tibetan) that young, ethnic Tibetans were among the most radical Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution, ransacking monasteries and driving Buddhist monks and nuns into secular life.

There will be red faces in Washington as it becomes increasingly clear that for years, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency trained and armed resistance forces in Tibet. According to both Shakya and John Kenneth Knaus, the Americans continued their support until the early 1970s, until U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger abandoned them as a Chinese precondition for establishing diplomatic relations.

In 1957, the first batch of Tibetan warriors was flown to an undisclosed American military base on the Pacific island of Saipan. A year later, the first plane carrying arms and ammunition for the Tibetans took off from Takhli air base in Thailand. More than 30 airdrops were carried out over the following three years; altogether 259 Tibetans were taken to Camp Hale, Colorado, where they were trained in guerrilla warfare in the campaign against the Chinese invaders.

Knaus, a former CIA operations officer, was part of the operation, codenamed "ST Circus," which was the first of many secret and not-so-secret CIA wars in Cuba, Laos, Nicaragua, Angola and Afghanistan.

One of the most fascinating aspects of Orphans of the Cold War is the author's frank description of his own involvement. The backdrop of this secret war in Tibet was the aftermath of the Korean War, which pitted the U.S. and its allies against the China-led communist bloc in Asia. The purpose: to annoy and distract the Chinese, but not really to support Tibetan independence.

In The Dragon in the Land of Snows, Shakya shatters the popular perception of his country as a Shangri-La that was turned into a huge labour camp by the PLA. He argues that the Tibet of pre-invasion days was not a mystical, spiritual paradise, but a poor country held back by medieval social conditions.

China, meanwhile, has its own perception of itself and how the country relates to the rest of the world. In a recent paper published by the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, analyst Koro Bassho writes:"The Middle Kingdom was not simply Asia's largest state, but the world itself . . . In theory, there were no boundaries between the Empire and neighbouring nations, which were seen as little more than 'barbarian' lands owing different levels of allegiance to the Emperor."

For Tibetans--and many other countries in China's periphery--sending money, gifts and concubines to the emperor was one way of keeping his troops and tax collectors out of what they perceived as their own lands. That, in essence, remains China's fundamental problem with Tibet today. Even after the various covert operations ceased and the Cold War ended, China still wants Tibet to remain on its periphery, paying its allegiance to the "Imperial Court" of Beijing.

Tibet has become an example of how old perceptions and modern concepts have clashed--and burned--by being caught up in Cold War-era superpower rivalries.

The books by Shakya and Knaus aren't the first to describe covert operations in Tibet. The intrepid French traveller and writer Michel Peissel published The Secret War in Tibet in 1972; Welsh mountain-climber Sydney Wignall tells very vividly in his 1997 book, Spy on the Roof of the World: A True Story of Espionage and Survival in the Himalayas, how in the early 1950s, he was recruited by the Indian secret service to infiltrate Tibet and report on Chinese military activities in the then newly invaded Tibet.

But not until now has anyone provided such objective and insightful accounts of the developments in Tibet. Both authors have made excellent contributions to the understanding of one of Asia's longest and most tragic conflicts.

Their different approaches to the problem complement each other--and both books also show, as the introductory blurb to Knaus's book says, "that the Great Game in High Asia has never really ceased, though the players and prized have changed."

This article first appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review, December 2, 1999

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