Home / 50th Anniversary of Democratic Reform in Tibet / Change & Reform Tools: Save | Print | E-mail | Most Read | Comment
Memories, controversy linger half-century after Lhasa uprising of 1959
Adjust font size:


Lhabgyi, an 83-year-old veteran of the People's Liberation Army (PLA), who was dispatched to Lhasa in April 1959, recalled that the city was still like a "battlefield" when he arrived, with rubble everywhere.

The PLA's mission was to persuade the rioters to surrender. "We assured them that if they surrendered, they would not be killed, jailed, or denounced in public meetings," he said.

But disorder continued and spread throughout Tibet, and Lhabgyi can still recall his fallen comrades.

"In a battle in May in Linzhou County, which is about 65 kilometers from Lhasa, a soldier died, while three rioters were killed. In another one, six soldiers died, including our political instructor," he said.

A man leading the rioters in Linzhou was injured in his arm. "His wife persuaded him to surrender, saying that otherwise their two sons would be killed as well," Lhabgyi said. The man later became a member of the Lhasa People's Political Consultative Conference.

An old man and his granddaughter share a happy moment in Nagqu Town, southwest China's Tibet Autonomous Region, June 13, 2006. [Xinhua photo]

An old man and his granddaughter share a happy moment in Nagqu Town, southwest China's Tibet Autonomous Region, June 13, 2006. [Xinhua photo]


The PLA halted the riots in Lhasa in two days. But it took nearly three years to restore peace in the entire region. There is no known accurate count of the final death toll.

According to www.huanqiu.com, the website of a political periodical, nearly 90,000 people were involved in riots around Tibet, of whom 42.8 percent surrendered. The "diehard" core members numbered about 23,000.

A document in the State Archives Administration recorded a speech by Mao, who said China would welcome the Dalai Lama back and give him a role in the central government if he supported democratic reform.

But the Dalai Lama didn't return. He had already fled to India.

Lhalu Cewang Doje, now 94, had a key role in the insurgency but later became Vice Chairman of the Tibet People's Political Consultative Conference.

He later wrote a book, "Rise and Fall of the Lhalu Family," about his family, some of whom had been Panchen or Dalai Lamas.

He said that after being arrested in the riots, he thought the central government would execute him. Hence, he refused to confess anything. Once he was taken to a public denunciation where some people threatened to beat him, he said, but two soldiers protected him.

Lhalu said it was then that he began to believe in the policies of the Communist Party and confessed. He was jailed in 1959 and released in 1965. When he left prison, he got back his prized possessions: golden earrings, a watch and a pen.


In the Chinese version of his autobiography, "Freedom in Exile," the 14th Dalai Lama tells a different story. He writes that his followers in the Tibet uprising met their deaths in many violent ways, being "crucified, dismembered and disemboweled ... beheaded, burned, lashed, buried alive, dragged by galloping horses, hanged, and thrown into freezing water with their limbs tied."

The book also states: "I also heard from refugees that the central government aimed cannons at the Potala Palace and the Jokhang Temple, after bombarding Norbu Lingka. Buildings in these places were severely damaged." The Chinese government has disputed this account.

Although their accounts differ, both sides acknowledge that the Dalai Lama fled Tibet for India, where he has lived since. His departure shocked and distressed his followers and many Tibetans.


The riot changed everything in Tibet. The Communists soon decided that democratic reform should be carried out immediately to demolish the entire old system led by the Dalai Lama.

The Preparatory Committee of Tibet Autonomous Region replaced the Gaxag government and set out to lead the reform.

From 1959 to until 1966, when the Cultural Revolution began, 1 million slaves were granted land, houses and their freedom. One of those slaves was Migmar Dondrup, now 75, who got 1.4 hectares of land. He served for 11 years in Parlha Manor, an aristocrat's home, as a nangsan, the lowest level of serfdom.

Migmar was a tailor and his wife was a maid, and both worked from dawn until midnight. If they didn't satisfy their masters, they might be whipped or even killed.

Their home was a dark, 7 sq m adobe house, where they lived with their daughter. The family had to subsist on 28 kilograms of barley, the basis for the traditional Tibetan dish of tsampa.

He was lucky compared with one of his relatives, a groom, who was beaten to death because the landlord believed he had wasted fodder when feeding the horses.

Many such tales are on display in the Museum of Tibet, with about a score of black-and-white photos depicting the brutality of landowners: slaves' eyes gouged out, fingers chopped off, noses cut and the tendons of their feet removed.

Again, the Dalai Lama's account of these days differs. In the fifth chapter of his autobiography, he claims that "in Tibet, the relationship of landowners and their slaves was much better than that in the inland of China, and there were no such cruel punishments as manacles and castration, which prevailed all over China."

     1   2   3    

Tools: Save | Print | E-mail | Most Read
Pet Name
China Archives
Related >>