Airdropping a message into Tibet

On Monday, January 28, 2013, in Culture & History, by Todd Stein

I had the pleasure of attending a discussion on January 24 by Ken Knaus on his new book, Beyond Shangri-La: America and Tibet’s Move into the 21st Century. Mr. Knaus is an author and former CIA officer who played a part in the training of Tibetan resistance fighters by the United States in the 1950s. That history and his role in it are chronicled in his previous book, Orphans of the Cold War.

In this latest work, Mr. Knaus takes a broader look at the history of relations between Tibet and the United States, going all the way back to 1908, when a Dalai Lama first met with a U.S. official, and coming all the way up to the Obama Administration. My colleague John did a blog reviewing the book.

During his presentation (a recording of which can be viewed here), I was struck by one part of Mr. Knaus’ story. He talked about his time with the Tibetan trainees and their efforts to create propaganda materials for use among the population back in Tibet. Mr. Knaus wanted the Tibetans to articulate what they were fighting for. They result was a pamphlet featuring various messages about the Tibetan struggle against the occupying Chinese Communist forces, and some basic information about how to run an insurgency. These pamphlets were then airdropped by clandestine U.S. aircraft over Tibet in 1960-61.

My curiosity was piqued. I asked him whether such pamphlets were publicly available. Ken said, indeed they were.

The next day I got an e-mail from someone I met in 2010 at the ceremony to put a commemorative plaque up at the CampHale, Colorado, site where the Tibetans were trained. In fact, the pamphlet had been imaged, with translations, by Lisa Cathey as part of her CIA in Tibet project (Lisa is the daughter of another former CIA trainer). You can see read her blog about the airborne leaflet campaign, and view the images of the pamphlet. Plus, she posted a video interview with Mr. Knaus as he describes the pamphlets and notes that the expressive drawings were all done by the amateur Tibetans.

My two favorite pages from the pamphlets are:

“Example of what Tibetans need to do for the freedom of Tibet,” featuring images of armed Tibetan resistance fighters with raised fists; and

“Tibetan Volunteer Army for the Defense of Religion.” On one side, under an image of the Tibetan flag, is written “Those who wish for happiness follow the path of your country. On the other side is a Chinese flag with “Those who wish for suffering follow the path of Communist China.”

As Ken mentioned, this was a product of an exercise to craft the message of what the Tibetans were fighting for. If pamphlets were air dropped into Tibet today, what would they say? What are Tibetans fighting for? In fact, the message is coming out of Tibet, not being sent in. Some 100 Tibetans have lit themselves on fire, a dramatic, horrific and often fatal act, calling for freedom for Tibet and return of the Dalai Lama.

Outside of Tibet, it is a time of transition. His Holiness has given up his political duties. His
Middle Way
policy has been put in suspended animation with the pause in dialogue. Decisions are now in the hands of a new elected Tibetan leader in exile. Governments who seek improvements in the Tibetans’ situation are increasingly stonewalled by Chinese officials.

What is the message to send back into Tibet? Is there a clear, concise message to be found? Is there anything that the international community can do that will catalyze a quantitative shift in the conditions on the ground in Tibet? Or, if a shift can only come through fundamental change inside China and Tibet, what role should we play on the margins?

Presidents, foreign ministers, Sikyongs, diplomats, scholars, journalists, and anyone who contemplates the Tibet problem have been asking these questions. If any of them has found the magic answer, they haven’t revealed it.

But maybe we’re looking in the wrong place. I’m imagining a group of Khampas, raw but energetic, untrained but patriotic, sitting around a campfire with an eager, young U.S. intelligence officer, on a cool evening in a mountain valley. Add a case or two of beer and endless imagination. Inspiration came this way before, maybe it can again.

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