Book Review: ‘Echoes from Forgotten Mountains’ is a Monumental Account of the History of Tibetan Armed Resistance Against PLA and CCP

Jamyang Norbu’s book ‘ECHOES FROM FORGOTTEN MOUNTAINS: TIBET IN WAR AND PEACE’ presents a detailed history of those brave Tibetans who bravely fought back against the military might of colonialist China. 

By Vijay Kranti

Dominance of Buddhism and Dalai Lama in most of popular narratives on Tibet has led to a common belief that occupation of Tibet by China in 1950-51 was a cake walk. Chinese systematic and concerted propaganda about presenting the colonial grabbing of Tibet as ‘peaceful liberation’ too has made many outsiders believe further that Tibetan people’s faith in Buddhism and Dalai Lama’s commitment to non-violence had converted Tibet into a land of the timid and the Tibetan masses as indifferent people who had neither the desire nor capacity to push back the Chinese communist aggression. Hence the destiny of Tibet to live with the curse of colonial occupation for over seven decades now. 

This popular but unfounded belief about Tibet needed an authentic, explosive and monumental book like “Echoes From Forgotten Mountains” (891 pages) to shatter it into pieces. This book, written by famous Tibetan writer and researcher Jamyang Norbu, successfully brings out the self-respecting, brave and heroic facet of Tibetan people who vigorously fought, though vainly, against a far better placed Chinese Communist Party and its People’s Liberation Army (PLA) which outweighed the ceremonial Tibetan army enormously in terms of equipment, manpower, fighting experience and, more than everything else, the strategic wisdom of the national leadership. There have been surely some books, focused on Tibet’s armed resistance against the Chinese occupation – some by the CIA operatives and other outsiders who had authentic knowledge of Tibetan guerrilla operations( e.g. Roger McCarthy’s ‘Tears of the Lotus’; Conboy and Morrison’s ‘The CIA’s Secret War in Tibet’; Mikel Dunham’s ‘Buddha’s Warriors’; Carole McGranahan’s ‘Arrested Histories’; and John Kenneth Knaus’ ‘Orphans of the Cold War’). And then there was an eight volume autobiographic ‘Resistance’ by Lhamo Tsering who himself was among the top ranking leaders of Tibet’s most fearsome guerrilla force ‘Chu Shi Gangdruk.’ But Jamyang’s book is unique in many ways. The strongest point of this book is that it is based on Jamyang Norbu’s years long research of all available material on the Tibetan resistance movement and his one to one personal meetings with surviving Tibetan soldiers, guerrilla fighters, secret agents, peasants, merchants and even some surviving beggars who were either direct participants or were firsthand witnesses to many important developments or their close associates and family members. 

Jamyang being himself a Tibetan guerrilla soldier of ‘Chu Shi Gangdruk’, now defunct but has been the most respected national guerrilla freedom army of Tibet between 1950s and mid 1970s, and a highly acclaimed political commentator, historian, novelist and a popular playwright is among the most suitable Tibetans to write on the subject of this book. His earlier books like ‘Illusion and Reality’, ‘Buying the Dragon’s Teeth’,’ Shadow Tibet’ and ‘Don’t Stop the Revolution’ have been received quite well both by Tibetan as well as non-Tibetan scholars on China and Tibet. His novel ‘The Mandala of Sherlock Holmes’ won the Crossword Book Award in 2000 and has been translated in over a dozen languages. 

And more than all this, Jamyang is a unique Tibetan writer among the Tibetan diaspora who has inspired and educated all three generations of opinion leaders and ordinary Tibetans over past seven decades through his forceful theatre and writings. Within my limits of knowledge of Tibetan society over past five decades I can say that Jamyang leads the class of Tibetan thinkers and opinion leaders who, like Lhasang Tsering, Karma Choephel, Karma Yeshi, Tenzin Tsundue  or the brave Tsering Woeser from inside Chinese occupied Tibet, have kept the fire of national independence alive. Their job has been surely not easy in the face of serious disagreement and opposition from the highly influential and powerful section of the exile Tibetan establishment who have formally given up the demand for national independence (‘Rangzen’) in return for ‘genuine autonomy’ for Tibet within the Chinese constitution. This is one more reason which is going to make this book popular among the pro-‘Rangzen’ section of Tibetans in exile and those living inside Chinese occupied Tibet. Jamyang’s popularity among this section of Tibetan society reflects from the Beijing-based Tibetan poet and blogger (Ms.) Tsering Woeser who has described him as the “Lu Xun of Tibet”. 

Jamyang has liberally used his personal life story and the history of his own family to make this massive narration interesting, authentic and easy to understand the story of Tibetan armed resistance. Jamyang’s courage to present his perspective of history to his audience makes his voice stand out in the cacophony of present day Tibetan society which stands divided along a deep trench between its Rangzen and the Umaylam (middle path of rapprochement with China) factions. One example is his description of the events of 1950 which led to Chinese PLA’s first major and key victory in the eastern Tibet. While the Tibetan Kashag  (Cabinet of Dalai Lama’s exile government)  paid glowing tributes to its former minister colleague Ngabo Ngawang Jigme on his death in Beijing as an active collaborator of China in 2009, Jamyang has exposed  his role as a coward and traitor Governor of the Tibetan region. In this context it is interesting to remember that on Ngabo’s death the Chinese government officially described him as “a great patriot, renowned social activist, good son of Tibetan people, outstanding leader of China’s ethnic work and a close friend of CPC.” Surprisingly, the Kashag in Dharamshala also issued an official tribute which referred to Ngabo as “Honest and Patriotic who always spoke truth even under the most trying and difficult circumstances”. Jamyang writes in details (page-81/82) how keen was Ngabo to surrender his brave and ready to fight 2,500 Tibetan soldiers including the Tibetan commander General Muja before just one hundred ‘exhausted’ PLA soldiers. Jamyang’s narration includes his interviews with Robert Ford (1923-2013), the only radio operator of the Tibetan government and the only foreigner living permanently in Tibet when China’s PLA attacked and occupied a big part of Eastern Tibet. Quoting Ford he writes, “When Muja finally came out of the monastery, he was angry and grim-faced. He told Ford that Nagabo had ordered him to surrender. He apologized to Ford for delaying him and ordered his men to make camp. Then Muja, ford and the 2,500 soldiers of the Tibetan army of Chamdo waited haplessly before the walls of Drugu Monastery till eventually … one hundred exhausted PLA troops from the Ngamda crossroad arrived, and Ngabo was finally able to surrender.”

The book also presents Jamyang’s  eye for details and his narration of very simple and obvious looking things to make his story interesting and informative. For example, he describes striking similarities of architecture and other characteristics between various towns at the entry points to Tibet even if they were located hundreds of kilometers apart from each other. His observations about such similarities between Kalimpong and Darjeeling from Bengal direction; Gangtok from Sikkim side; Dartsedo (Kangding) from Sichuan and Satham Lijiang from Yunnan are interesting.

The variety and quality of a good number of old and historic photos included in the book add extra glamour and value to it. For example, vintage photos from Jamyang’s own family album; many historic personalities and scholars related to Tibet; heroes of Tibetan battles and public uprisings against the invading PLA; prominent guerrilla fighters of Chu-Shi-Gangdruk; real photos of Chinese atrocities during the Cultural Revolution; and photos of Chinese, Tibetan, British and Japanese spies make it a rich collection. However, nearly complete set of photos of the CIA-trained Tibetan guerrilla fighter paratroopers who were secretly air dropped in Tibet make this book unique and a collectors’ pride. 

Another set of visuals which help the reader in grasping the story of Tibetan resistance against the PLA are the maps included in the book. Some maps which deserve to be preserved by the reader include a detailed map of Tibet of 1950s showing location of all major towns and cities; routes connecting Tibet to Gangtok and Darjeeling; a large map depicting routes and directions of Chinese advance and Tibetan fighters’ retreat in early 1950s; the routes taken by Chu-Shi-Gangdruk’s founder commander and the supreme hero of Tibetan guerrilla resistance Andrug Gonpo Tashi right from Paksho in the East to Nyemo and Shigatse in the West; and, of course, the map of Mustang guerrilla bases in Nepal showing the location of each of the 16 Company camps of Chu-Shi-Gangdruk.

What makes Jamyang unpopular among the Tibet’s exiled establishment is his frankness and courage to speak up his mind on sensitive issues. This book highlights this aspect of his personality at many places. And all this comes from his enthusiasm about conducting his own studies and research. A major part of his book is based on his personal and detailed interviews, spread over many years, with numerous individuals who were first hand witness to Tibet’s war with China. His description of the daring role of many Tibetan women fighters  like Gyari Dorje Yudon of Nyarong, Ani (Nun) Pachen Lemdatsang of Gonjo and Lhalu sonam Deki as well brave political leaders like Ani (Nun) Glingshar, Gurten Kunsang, Dolma Chonzom, Sampho Ngudup Wangmo and Lobsang Dekyong reflect the widespread anger and opposition to the Chinese colonial rule in Tibet.

Ford told Jamyang about his discussions with General Karchung of Tibetan army who had faced first attack of PLA on 7 Oct 1950 at Riwoche and later was in Chinese captivity along with Ford. Quoting from his long interviews with Ford, Jamyang points out that there was only one radio receiver at Ford’s command when PLA entered Tibet. If Tibetan army had one more radio at Riwoche and another at Markham then the history of Tibet would have been different. “In just, possibly, a week or so, the many high passes in that region would have become snowbound………… Chinese would have had to force their pack animals and porters through the many snowbound passes to Chamdo, and that would unquestionably have led to a disaster (for PLA)….” 

In the chapter titled ‘Requiem’ Jamyang has, like a surgeon, finely analyzed the reasons behind the defeat of Tibetan army and guerrilla warriors at the hands of invading PLA. He writes, “The organization of the Tibetan army was indeed archaic. The individual Tibetan soldier was not as well trained, certainly not as well equipped as his European, American or Chinese counterpart. But he had native toughness, courage and amor patriae. No Tibetan soldier threw down his weapon and fled at the first sign of the enemy. Even when defeated he gave a good account of himself……..” While describing the valor and fighting spirit of the Tibetan warriors Jamyang also points out some weak points too. At one point the book says, “….When (Tibetan people’s) troops went to the front line, they took their families with them. With (General) Muja’s men now came as many women and children, with all their household goods and personal belongings piled up on yaks and mules….”

The formal Tibetan army was defeated on the Eastern front in the very first Chinese attack in October 1950. This defeat was quick and decisive against an enormous, well equipped and experienced PLA as the Tibetan army not only lacked drastically on its manpower front but also because of utter paucity of necessary training, equipment. Moreover, it was near total absence of planning, vision or desire on the part of Lhasa government to have and maintain a good national army. The role of Ngapo Ngawang Jigme, the Tibetan governor of the region, who was already known for his pro-China tilt and who decided to not only to surrender to the PLA but also ordered blasting of entire Tibetan armory which proved as the proverbial last straw for the Tibetan side. His decision not only deprived the willing Tibetan soldiers to fight back but it also closed door on the arms and ammunition reaching those soldiers and lay people who had decided to carry on the fight. But thanks to the self-respecting and fighting spirit of the ordinary Tibetans, especially those from the frontline provinces of Kham and Amdo, entire responsibility of armed resistance against the occupying PLA across Tibet for coming decades was shouldered by groups of local chieftains, ordinary citizens, Lamas and Nuns. 

Jamyang’s book is a systematic, the most voluminous one so far and commendable documentation of this struggle which, unfortunately, could not keep up against a giant and shrewd opponent. He has presented a detailed history of various stages and forms of Tibetan armed struggle through stories and deeds of individual freedom fighters belonging to various big and small groups across Tibet. However, a good part of the book is dedicated to the Chu-Shi-Gangdruk (i.e. ‘Four Rivers Six Ranges’) which was a volunteer guerrilla force lead by legendry Andrug Gompo Tashi, the most fearsome, brave  and highly respected fighter of modern Tibetan history. The book tells the force’s story right from its formation as a volunteer army and later its adoption by American secret service CIA for training at Colorado’s secret Camp-Hale and subsequent armed operations inside Tibet. Unfortunately the US and CIA’s support lasted only until the US government started its love affair with Mao’s China in 1970s. CIA’s sudden decision to pull out its hands from under the guerrilla force and leaving it unprotected only to be massacred jointly by the Nepal’s Royal Nepal Army and the Chinese PLA in mid 1970s. 

In addition to telling stories of many individual Tibetan guerrilla soldiers Jamyang has also interviewed many of CIA’s American trainers and the coordinators who were involved in training the Tibetans in handling arms and ammunition, running battery less transmitters, secret coding of wireless messages and air dropping of arms and paratroopers deep inside Tibet.  He has also described the role of Dalai Lama’s two elder brothers Taktser Rinpoche and Gyalo Thundup in the CIA operations. 

Jamyang describes in good details how Taktser Rinpoche personally stayed at Colorado and was provided a special house at the Camp Hale as he played an important role in the training of Tibetan guerrillas. Gyalo Thundup’s role, true to his nature and specializations was focused on liaison with the US government and, as described by Mikel Dunham in his CIA focused book ‘Buddha’s Warriors’, was involved in managing the American CIA funds for Chu-Shi-Gangdruk. In their later years Taktser Rinpoche finally joined California University as a professor and remained a vocal and strong supporter of the idea of complete freedom (i.e. ‘Rangzen’) for Tibet till his last breath. However, Gyalo Thundup has been living in his so many avatars which include his close and controversial association with Beijing that has led to convincing Dalai Lama to shift his goal from ‘Rangzen’ to the ‘Middle Way Approach’ (MWA) which means accepting Tibet as a part of China under Chinese constitution in exchange for ‘genuine autonomy’ for Tibet. It is not surprising that Jamyang as one of the most vocal proponents of ‘Rangzen’ and strongest opponents of the MWA has invited all kinds of reactions, including opposition and condemnation, from many Tibetan quarters including the exile Tibetan establishment in Dharamshala. I am amused to note that while he has given details about the valor and the role played by many less known individual participants of Tibetan armed struggle, Gyalo Thundup is conspicuous by his near total absence from this voluminous book despite latter’s prominent role in the CIA sponsored armed guerrilla war.

A good section of the book is focused at the aggressive conduct of the Chinese Communist Party and the PLA after occupation of Tibet. He has probed and described in details how ordinary Tibetan people including monks, nuns and nomads across Tibet opposed and resisted the Chinese imposition of the communist system in the guise of ‘Democratic Reforms’. He also describes the 1959 Lhasa-Uprising of Tibetan people against Chinese rule which finally prompted Dalai Lama to secretly escape from Tibet to India. 

The fact remains that the armed struggle of helpless and friendless Tibetan people failed to match Chinese power machine over past seven decades. In the face of millions of new Han settlers across Tibet, a massive machine of soldiers, policemen, informers and a sophisticated digital surveillance system has left no space for an armed resistance inside today’s Tibet. But the unending stream of self-immolation by Tibetan people which has seen over 150 young boys and girls, monks and nuns making the supreme sacrifice over recent years to give voice to the Tibetan people’s refusal to accept China’s rule and dominance over their country is an unambiguous indication of Tibet and Tibetans’ resolve for freedom. 

It may not be easy to comment on all issues covered in this 891-page book in a single review but one can say for sure that this book is a monumental documentation of the brave armed fight of Tibetan people against a powerful and ruthless colonial power. On the strength of my, whatsoever limited, knowledge and understanding of Tibet and the people of Tibet over past five decades I can safely predict that this book is going to prove one of the most detailed and authentic monographs of Tibetan people’s armed struggle and their desire for national independence. 

The reviewer is a senior journalist and a Tibetologist. He is presently the Chairman of the Centre for Himalayan Asia Studies and Engagement, New Delhi.  He can be contacted at  | | +91 9810245674

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