The True Story of Maoist Revolution in Tibet

Life Under the Dalai Lama in Exile

Revolutionary Worker #765, July 17, 1994

In the mid-1950s, revolutionary land seizures started on some estates ruled by Tibetan lamas and aristocrats. Tibet's feudal ruling class responded by making a secret alliance with the U.S.'s Central Intelligence Agency and attempting armed resistance in 1957 and 1959. (See "The Dalai Lama and the CIA") They were quickly defeated and the Dalai Lama fled to India.

Most of the Tibetan ruling class and conservative forces from other classes followed the Dalai Lama into exile, mainly during 1959-1963. Few came after 1965. The estimates of these conservative Tibetan refugees vary from 30,000 to 100,000.

They were met at the border by agents of the CIA eager to organize them as a force against the Maoist revolution. CIA agents started an anti-communist army among the Dalai Lama's exile forces and a propaganda machine was set up to package "their story" for worldwide consumption.

In the United States, an "American Emergency Committee for Tibetan Refugees" (AECTR) was hastily formed in March 1959. Headed by right-wing journalist Lowell Thomas and liberal anti-communist Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, this agency had a brief life--a few months spent funneling money into India to set up the Tibetan feudalists in exile. Tibet historian A. Tom Grunfeld writes: "Although the complete story of the committee is yet untold, there remains much speculation and considerable circumstantial evidence that a major source of its funding was the CIA."

Many refugees were also robbed by corrupt Indian border officials. Grunfeld reports that one refugee complained that the corruption and bribery in India "were every bit as common as they used to be in Tibet."

One Tibetan memoir reports that "the sons and daughters of Tibetan aristocrats and wealthy Tibetans, studying in colleges or working around Darjeeling, did not come to help." Such indifference is typical of old Tibet's lazy, self-centered ruling class.

Under the watchful eyes of the Indian government and the CIA, the refugee camps were set up to preserve what the exile leadership considered most precious of the old Tibetan order. For decades, the Dalai Lama's forces have traveled the world denouncing the changes made in Tibet by the Maoist revolution during the stormy class struggles of 1959-1976. So it is only fair that we Maoists discuss what these Tibetan settlements in India reveal about the class nature of the Dalai Lama and his exile headquarters.

Forced Labor for India's War Machine

The Indian government was extremely unhappy about having a powerful revolutionary army at its northern border--especially after 1959 when the hurricane of peasant land revolution swept into Tibet. India itself is a vast semi-feudal country--it was filled with exploited peasants who were watching the lessons and methods of Maoist revolution closely.

As the Tibetan refugees arrived in India, the Indian military was feverishly preparing for war with Mao's "Red China." The Dalai Lama and his Kashag cabinet reached an agreement with India's Nehru government: in exchange for settlement land and supplies, the Dalai Lama offered thousands of Tibetan refugees as forced labor. They were sent to high mountain workcamps building military roads for the Indian army to attack the Maoist revolution in China.

In 95 workcamps, 18,000 to 21,000 Tibetan refugees were worked under horrible conditions. They were paid 30 cents a day, not enough for food. Many starved or were simply worked to death. Many died of illnesses, dynamite explosions and landslides. Grunfeld reports that even Tibetan refugee officials admitted in 1964 that these workers were worse off than they would have been if they had remained in Tibet.

When the refugees were sent to the workcamps, many of their children were forcibly taken from them. Grunfeld says that "five thousand children were taken from their parents to live in permanent refugee camps. Three thousand others were permitted to stay with the parents in the road camps...and there were frequent reports of children under the age of fifteen engaged in hazardous work."

Some lamaist hypocrisy needs to be pointed out here: For decades the Dalai Lama denounced the Maoist revolutionaries for building roads in Tibet--and accused the revolutionaries of using "forced labor." His lamaist propaganda machine denounced the revolution for making his lamaist clergy do physical labor (like raising their own food) and for supposedly weakening the traditional Tibetan family. Meanwhile the exile forces of the Dalai Lama basically handed over Tibetan refugees to be forced labor for the Indian government on road gangs and took their children from them.

In his 1990 autobiography the Dalai Lama specifically describes how he personally worked out the details for the work camps in discussions with India's Nehru, and the Dalai Lama notes that there were former nuns and monks out on the road gangs. The Dalai Lama adds that, at the time, he tried to look at the positive aspects of these ordeals, saying "pain is what you measure pleasure by." Ulag forced labor is a key social custom of traditional Tibetan feudalism, in which feudal masters can demand forced labor from "their" serfs and slaves.

In 1990 the Dalai Lama admitted that some Tibetan exiles were still working in such road camps. But, he wrote that this is not deplorable because today's poor Tibetans are on road gangs "of their own free will"--as wage labor.

The Golden Rule

The ruling Tibetan exiles left Tibet because the coming revolution in land threatened the basis of their class and its power--the feudal ownership of land. Class distinctions and privileges was key to the "traditional culture" the Lamaists intended to preserve.

The old Tibetan government and ruling class emerged as the rulers over the refugees. The Dalai Lama's Kashag cabinet represented the most powerful clerical and aristocratic interests. His family, especially his powerful brothers, emerged with their hands on key funds, especially CIA money. The Dalai Lama himself served as the top ruler with his hand firmly on many purse strings.

The hereditary ties of serf and lord did not carry over in the exact same forms to the chaos of exile, but new oppressive class structures were created. In the main they were based on modern capitalism's "Golden Rule": He who has the gold makes the rules.

Over the years, the Dalai Lama has maintained his power over an intensely squabbling and divided movement by keeping his tight control over the money. From the beginning, he controlled millions of dollars--from a treasure trove of gold and silver extracted from the masses of Tibetan people. The Dalai Lama says it was worth $8 million.

Grunfeld writes: "One of the major sources of political power for the Dalai Lama is his ability to control relief funds, educational scholarships and the hiring of Tibetan teachers and bureaucrats."

Each camp was run by a "Camp Leader" appointed by the Dalai Lama. One scholarly study of these exile camps reports that the Camp Leader "is considered the king of the settlement. He can virtually command people within the settlement."

The corruption of the Tibetan exile camps is notorious. Relief supplies, particularly medical supplies, have been found on sale in the market in MacLeod Ganj, less than two miles from the Dalai Lama's place of residence.

Grunfeld reports that "the relief operations have been bedeviled with organizational rivalry and the intrigues of `unsavory members of the Tibetan ruling clique.' " The Dalai Lama's late sister Tsering Dolma was a well-known example of the "unsavory"--she was widely hated for the haughty and corrupt way she ran a personal empire of children's "boarding schools" containing over 3,000 children.

Grunfeld writes, "while the children in her care were frequently on the verge of starvation (a refugee worker recalls an incident in which she was attacked by starving children as she was carrying a plate of breakfast scraps) she was noted for her formal, twelve-course luncheons. Meanwhile in bitterly cold weather the children were clad in `thin, torn, sleeveless cotton frocks--though when VIPs visit the Upper Nursery every child is dressed warmly in tweeds, wool, heavy socks and strong boots.' "

Deadly Class Distinctions

Eighty percent of the Tibetan refugees settled in India--with most of the rest settling in Bhutan, Nepal, and Sikkim. The Indian government did not want all the Tibetans concentrated in one area--so settled them in 20 camps widely scattered throughout India.

The lowland camps in southern India were deadly to Tibetans who were not accustomed to living in a hot, humid climate. The old Tibetan feudal customs regarding sewage, garbage, washing and cooking proved deadly in the heat--where disease ravaged the refugees. In one early camp half the refugees died in the first year.

The Dalai Lama's clique developed a simple system for deciding who settled where. Rich feudals and the anti-communist activists stayed in the cool, hilly camps of north India. The poor serf-exiles went to the hot, humid, crowded, deadly camps of the south.

One study of Tibetans in the north found that 25 percent described themselves as previously very rich, 20 percent as rich, 40 percent as middle class, 15 percent as lower-middle class. None said they had been "poor" back in pre-revolutionary Tibet. The researcher summed up that in northern settlements, "The refugees disproportionately represented the monastic hierarchy, upper classes and the active participants in the Tibetan resistance movement."

A study of the Mundgood settlement in the south found that almost all had been poor serfs, herders and artisans in old Tibet. Not only was life in the south a death sentence for many poor exiles, but over the following years much less money was spent on creating jobs and schools in those southern camps.

Class exploitation appeared within the camps too. The Dalai Lama describes how he cashed in his gold stash and set up capitalist enterprises using Tibetan refugees as wage labor--an iron pipe factory, a paper mill and other enterprises he calls "money-spinning projects."

One southern camp at Bylakuppe eventually got some capital to set up a dairy farm and carpet factories. A section of exiles used the "aid" to became full-scale exploiters--working neighboring landless Indian peasants as field hands and house servants.

Meanwhile, the masses of poor exiles live in wretched conditions. Grunfeld quotes an American doctor saying in 1980 that most refugees were "living in extreme poverty in unhealthy settlements on `leftover' land in the poorest areas of India. Most of their energies are devoted to the personal struggle for survival...the people sink into poverty, apathy, illness, alcoholism and despair."

When people talk of "preserving traditional Tibetan culture" they should remember the deadly class distinctions central to that feudal society.

Preserving Some Customs, Modifying Others

For obvious reasons, Tibet's exiled lamaists don't talk publicly about preserving central Tibetan traditions like ulag (forced labor) and serfdom. In the recent pro-lamaist film Little Buddha, for example, lamas are shown carrying whips when they instruct courtyards filled with young monk-novices--but the whips are portrayed as a gentle instructional device (like a coach's whistle).

In his 1990 autobiography, the Dalai Lama admits that he had to forbid some traditional "formalities" in front of foreigners. For instance, by tradition lower-class Tibetans were punished if they looked above the knees of their masters. In the old society, many had never seen the faces of their oppressors. And everyone was required to "prostrate" themselves face-and-belly-down in front of the Dalai Lama. Outsiders seeing those customs got a glimpse of the repulsive elitism so central to the Lamaist teachings--the rulers of old Tibet claim to be divine, perfected reincarnations of immortal Buddha-like spirits. The Dalai Lama modified such "formalities" to help create a romanticized version of "traditional Tibetan culture" for public consumption.

At the same time, the lamaists set up highly conservative communities that did, in fact, preserve many core feudal traditions. For example, Grunfeld writes: "Women are even worse off than their male counterparts, for they need permission--from a male--to leave the camp; they cannot vote; and they are given second preference when it comes to education."

Grunfeld estimates that half the Tibetan children in exile receive no education--in keeping with lamaist hostility toward mass education. And those youth who go to school are often indoctrinated in lamaist teachings hostile to science, innovation and work. Grunfeld cites one discontented Tibetan who claimed that his nephew, after nine years of schooling, had never read a newspaper or an entire book.

Another hypocrisy must be pointed out here: For years, Tibetan exiles have denounced Maoists for the fact that, even during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, advanced education in Tibet was often taught in the Han (Chinese) language. There were two reasons for this: There were basically no books or teachers available to teach many advanced political and scientific subjects in the Tibetan language, and it helped the unity of the revolutionary movement to have Tibetan activists and cadre able to communicate in the written language widely used by many language groups in China. At the same time, Maoist revolutionaries mobilized the Tibetan people to develop Tibetan-language typewriters and to create condition where the Tibetan language could be used far more broadly in higher education and government.

Meanwhile, it must be pointed out that the lamaists adopted English as the main language of instruction in their exile school system. The Dalai Lama tries to justify this practice in his 1990 autobiography by repeating the argument used in India's neocolonial school system--that English is "the international language of the future."

There is more hypocrisy: In their propaganda, the Tibetan upper class exiles make a fetish about "Tibet's traditional culture." In reality, many have contemptuously shed this traditional culture, sending their children to expensive English boarding schools. The Dalai Lama's authorized biographer Roger Hicks describes how, by the late 1960s and early 1970s, that younger generation was becoming largely westernized.

The Dalai Lama's youngest brother, Tendzin Choegyal, is a famous example of this. He is supposed to be the eighth incarnation of an immortal spirit called Ngari Rimpoche. He was educated at the prestigious Catholic St. Joseph prep school in Darjeeling, where the rector claimed Choegyal had "forgotten all that nonsense about being an Incarnation." Hicks reports that Choegyal himself says, "I'm a banana--yellow on the outside and white on the inside."

Grunfeld points out that the exiled Dalai Lama's money and power only continues as long as there are many stateless refugees. Consequently, it was to the benefit of the exile leadership to keep the masses of Tibetans in children's homes, transit camps and temporary facilities for decades. For the same reasons, the Dalai Lama's "government" opposes mixed marriages between Tibetan exiles and Indians and opposes masses of exiled Tibetans applying for citizenship in India--even though this legal status would make their lives much easier. Meanwhile it is common for the wealthy Tibetan upper class to apply for non-Tibetan status--including two of the Dalai Lama's brothers who are U.S. citizens.

Many poor Tibetan exiles have their own reasons for rejecting the ways of old feudal Tibet. Grunfeld writes: "An anthropologist who interviewed many of the poorer refugees reported that they viewed the old society with some sense of shame and discussed it with outsiders only with extreme reluctance; he reported that `a number indicated to me that they would prefer to remain in Mysore [India] rather than return to Tibet as it was under the old system."

The Dalai Lama's public relations apparatus feeds the outside world a travel brochure image of Tibetan exile life: as a spiritual Shangrila of noble monks waiting to bring their blessed "traditional culture" back to an impatiently waiting Tibetan people. This media image is essentially a cruel and brutal hoax.

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