Background: 1959 Tibetan uprising

Tibetans carry a photograph of their spiritual leader the Dalai Lama while others shout slogans during Sunday’s protest march. Photo: AP

Beijing (AP) – China is defending its often-criticized rule in Tibet 60 years after the Dalai Lama fled into exile amid an abortive uprising against Chinese control, saying those who question its policies are merely showing their anti-Chinese bias.

The statements in official media came as Tibetans and their supporters marked the anniversary Sunday and called for greater international support. Despite decades of such calls, however, the Himalayan region appears no closer to gaining greater autonomy, particularly as China’s global influence grows.

China’s official Xinhua News Agency said in an editorial dated Saturday that economic growth, increases in lifespan and better education in the region refute the claims of critics that Tibetans suffer oppression from Beijing.

On Sunday, an editorial in the Communist Party-run Tibet Daily attacked the Dalai Lama, Tibet’s traditional Buddhist leader, for what it said are his efforts to “sow chaos in Tibet.”

The following quotes some background information about the Tibetan uprising in 1959.

Evil started from the mind of Chairman Mao

In mid-February 1959 the CCP Central Committee’s Administrative Office circulated the Xinhua News Agency internal report on how “the revolts in the Tibetan region have gathered pace and developed into a nearly full-scale rebellion.” in a “situation report” for top CCP leaders. When Mao Zedong read it on 18 February, he commented:

“The more chaotic [the situation] in Tibet becomes the better; for it will help train our troops and toughen the masses. Furthermore, [the chaos] will provide a sufficient reason to crush the rebellion and carry out reforms in the future.”

The next day, the Chinese leader saw a report from the PLA General Staff’s Operations Department describing rebellions by Tibetans in Sichuan, Yunnan, Gansu, and Qinghai. He again stressed that “rebellions like these are extremely favorable for us because they will benefit us in helping to train our troops, train the people, and provide a sufficient reason to crush the rebellion and carry out comprehensive reforms in the future.”

Lhasa Rebellion

On 1 March 1959, as a traditional event, a theatrical performance at the Chinese military headquarters outside Lhasa invited officials to attend. According to a Communist source contradicting the 14th Dalai Lama’s account, the Dalai Lama suggested proactively that he would like to attend.

According to historian Tsering Shakya, some Tibetan government officials feared that plans were being laid for a Chinese abduction of the Dalai Lama, and spread word to that effect amongst the inhabitants of Lhasa. On 10 March, several thousand Tibetans surrounded the Dalai Lama’s palace to prevent him from leaving or being removed. The huge crowd had gathered in response to a rumor that the Chinese were planning to arrest the Dalai Lama when he went to a cultural performance at the PLA’s headquarters.

On 12 March, protesters appeared in the streets of Lhasa declaring Tibet’s independence. Barricades went up on the streets of Lhasa, and Chinese and Tibetan rebel forces began to fortify positions within and around Lhasa in preparation for conflict.

On March 12th thousands of women gathered in front of the Potala Palace in Lhasa on the ground called Dri-bu-Yul-Khai Thang. The leader of this nonviolent demonstration was Pamo Kusang. This demonstration, now known as Women’s Uprising Day, started the Tibetan women’s movement for independence.

On 15 March, preparations for the Dalai Lama’s evacuation from the city were set in motion, with Tibetan troops being employed to secure an escape route from Lhasa. On 17 March, two artillery shells landed near the Dalai Lama’s palace, triggering his flight into exile. The Dalai Lama secretly left the palace the following night and slipped out of Lhasa with his family and a small number of officials. The Chinese had not strongly guarded the Potala, as they did not believe it likely that the Dalai Lama would try to flee.

On 20 March, the Chinese army responded by shelling the Norbulingka to disperse the crowd, and placed its troops at a barricade that divided the city into a northern and southern part in the following night. The battle began early on the following day, and even though the Tibetan rebels were outnumbered and poorly armed, the street fighting proved to be “bloody”.


Professor Colin Mackerras states, “There was a major rebellion against Chinese rule in Tibet in March 1959, which was put down with the cost of much bloodshed and lasting bitterness on the part of the Tibetans.” The Tibetan government-in-exile reports variously, 85,000, 86,000, and 87,000 deaths for Tibetans during the rebellion, attributed to “secret Chinese documents captured by guerrillas”.

A Tibetan Government in Exile (TGIE) official surnamed Samdup released a report for Asia Watch after three fact-finding missions from 1979 to 1981, stating that a speech by premier Zhou Enlai, published in Beijing Review in 1980, confirmed the 87,000 figure.


Chinese authorities have interpreted the uprising as a revolt of the Tibetan elite against Communist reforms that were improving the lot of Tibetan serfs. Tibetan and third party sources, on the other hand, have usually interpreted it as a popular uprising against the alien Chinese presence. Historian Tsering Shakya has argued that it was a popular revolt against both the Chinese and the Lhasa government, which was perceived as failing to protect the authority and safety of the Dalai Lama from the Chinese.

The Dalai Lama has been living in the northern Indian town of Dharmsala since he fled from Tibet after a failed 1959 uprising against Chinese rule. Beijing accuses him of seeking to separate Tibet from China, which he denies.

Tibet is enveloped in smothering layers of Chinese security and many Tibetans abroad say the Himalayan region’s resources are being exploited for Beijing’s benefit while Tibet’s language and unique Buddhist culture is gradually being destroyed.

Edited by staff writer


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here