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May 26, 2011

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Peace and prosperity in Tibet

THIS month marks the 60th anniversary of the liberation of China's Tibet Autonomous Region. Yuan Ye, Bai Xu and Li Keyong speak to Tibetans and former PLA soldiers about their experiences dealing with one another all those years ago.

Tibetan boy Lopalden was herding yaks at the foot of snow-capped mountains on May 23, 1951. He was nine years old at the time and did not know that a decision made about 4,000 kilometers away on that very day would forever change his life and the vast land of Tibet.

In Beijing, representatives of the central government and the Kasha, the former Tibetan government, signed an agreement on the peaceful liberation of the Himalayan region, declaring that "Tibetan people will return to the big family of the (newly established) People's Republic of China."

Lopalden had never heard of Beijing as he lived in the mountain-locked town of Garze in the heart of Kham Tibetan region, which included parts of western Sichuan Province, eastern Tibet Autonomous Region and areas of Qinghai and Yunnan provinces.

In those days he was curious about the large deployment of Han soldiers, who had just been stationed near his village. For months, young soldiers were involved in heavy work to build a runway on the outskirts of Garze.

"Occasionally a giant, strange 'bird' hovered above our village and made a really big noise. I was scared, so I hid at home," Lopalden said, standing in front of his two-story house which still overlooks the deserted runway.

"I was afraid of those soldiers at first. But they turned out to be very friendly, and often helped villagers plough or fetch drinking water from the river," said the now 69-year-old farmer. "We call them 'new Han people' because they were different from the corrupted soldiers in the past."

Lian Youxiang was one of those "new soldiers" belonging to the 52nd Division under the 18th Corps of the People's Liberation Army. Before arriving in Garze in early 1951, they had trekked hundreds of kilometers over snow mountains and steep valleys from Sichuan. They were ordered by the central government to liberate Tibet peacefully.

Unlike Lopalden, Lian knew some changes would take place soon.

In April, a negotiation team of the Kasha, led by Ngapoi Ngawang Jigme, stopped in Garze on their way to Beijing to discuss the future of Tibet, a place which the central government said was still under the suppression of "imperialist invaders" and local aristocrats.

Thousands of PLA soldiers, including Lian, attended a ceremony to bid farewell to the delegation.

"We all knew that the liberation of Tibet was inevitable, and that peaceful liberation would be the best result. No one wanted a war," said Lian, 85, who fought numerous communist-led battles against Japanese invaders and later the Kuomintang army, before the founding of new China in 1949.

"That's why we were so excited after learning that the central government and Tibet's local government signed the 17-point agreement (on peaceful liberation) in Beijing," said the veteran, who now enjoys a peaceful life in Chengdu.

A black-and-white photo published in the latest issue of Tibet Geographic magazine showed smiling soldiers applauding and embracing each other after the news arrived.

The move to build an airport in Garze was also part of late Chairman Mao Zedong's proposals for peaceful liberation of Tibet, Chen Liang, another veteran of the 18th Corps, wrote in his memoirs.

"Soon after arriving in Garze, we were told to build an airport in a short period to facilitate supplies to the army. We weren't allowed to burden the local people as they were already very poor," he said.

Among the joyful soldiers included Ngawang Tenzin, a then 18-year-old Tibetan from Batang, not far from Garze.

"I joined the PLA in 1950 because I saw how our people were exploited and suppressed by the aristocrats. As a young person, I was eager to embrace the new life," he said.

Using their language skills, Ngawang Tenzin and some other Tibetans helped the troops and local people to communicate, explaining the 17-point agreement to locals.

He can still recite some articles in Tibetan: "The status of the Dalai Lama shall not be changed," or, "The PLA entering Tibet shall strictly abide by rules of discipline. They shall not take a single needle or piece of thread from the masses."

Neither Lian Youxiang nor Ngawang Tenzin knew the difficulties and arguments behind the agreement.

In January 1950, just three months after the establishment of the PRC, Mao and the Central Military Commission made the decision to liberate Tibet, a move resisted by Tibet's aristocrats who intended to seek support from Britain and the United States.

From the very beginning the central government made clear that "every effort must be made to negotiate with the local Tibetan government" for a peaceful liberation, said Qie Jinwu, a former high-ranking officer in the 18th Corps.

But the envoys sent to Lhasa for peace talks were all turned away. One of them, highly respected living Buddha Gedar Tulku, was even poisoned to death in Qamdo.

"We made every effort. Even the Qamdo Battle in October 1950 was designed to urge the Kasha to come to the negotiation table," said Qie, now 91.

The battle in the eastern Tibet town, in which the PLA defeated the Tibetan regional government's army, quickly shook the Tibetan rulers' confidence to resist.

Phundre, now 88, worked as a translator for the Kasha delegation during the talks in Beijing.

"Of course there were a lot of debates. And the focal point was whether the liberation army should enter Tibet," recalled the former vice secretary general of the China Tibetology Research Center.

"The aristocrats were against the plan (for the PLA to enter), at the excuse that food in Tibet was not enough for the troops," Phundre said.

Negotiations, which started on April 29, 1951, came to a standstill.

Finally, the central government pledged to provide supplies for the army. "The Tibetan delegates had no more excuses then."

The negotiations eventually were completed nearly one month later. On May 23, both sides signed the agreement, which included articles that the Tibetan local government would assist the PLA to enter Tibet and consolidate national defense. It also pledged regional autonomy and religious freedom in Tibet.

On October 24, the Dalai Lama said in a telegram to Mao that he supported the leadership of the central government led by the Communist Party of China. "Tibet's local government, monks and people support stationing of the PLA in Tibet."

But after his exile to India in 1959, the Dalai Lama insisted the agreement had been signed under duress.

Phundre said that he did not agree with the "duress" claim because both sides were allowed to debate, sometimes fiercely, before the final version of the agreement was signed.

According to Peng Qingyun, a former officer of a PLA detachment entering Tibet from Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, his comrade Yang Tianren once dropped out on the march in western Tibet and collapsed due to hunger and cold weather.

Yang was saved and cared for by a local herdsman. But he insisted on adhering to their disciplinary code of not staying inside the home of locals. Four days later, before he left, Yang gave the herdsman a silver dollar as payment.

"What the herdsman didn't know was the silver dollar had been cherished by Yang for 18 years. He didn't use it even when he begged on the street because it was given to him by his mother, who sold herself to a man in exchange for several silver dollars to ensure her son's survival," Peng said.

"The successful entry of the 18th Corps is the result of a complete and earnest implementation of the central government's policies toward Tibet and accordingly, the sincere support from the people," said Ngawang Tenzin.

On the top of hills adjacent to Garze's deserted airport runway there are nine tombs of unnamed soldiers.

Padma, a 75-year-old woman who lives nearby, said it was in Spring 1951 that a snowstorm caused a cave where the PLA soldiers lived to collapse. Nine female soldiers were crushed to death.


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