How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
The Fourteenth Dalai Lama and his brother, Gyalo Thondup, could scarcely be more different. But the ties that bind them are unbreakable. They are two sides of the same struggle for the survival of Tibet. In the politics of modern Tibet, only the Dalai Lama himself has been more important than Thondup. The Dalai Lama is the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhists and of Buddhist believers everywhere, but for the last 60 years, Thondup has been at the at the heart of a more earthly epic struggle: protecting and advancing Tibet in the face of unreliable allies and devious rivals, playing an utterly determined and unique role in a Cold War high-altitude superpower rivalry. Thondup sees himself as an obedient, selfless, and loyal servant to the Dalai Lama and Tibet. But his work has been conducted in secret, out of the limelight, in the nitty-gritty of international politics and the violence of a clandestine war of resistance.
Of the five male siblings who lived to adulthood, Thondup was the only one not to become a monk. Instead, from the time his family moved to Lhasa in 1939—just after his brother Lhamo Thondup had been anointed as the Fourteenth Dalai Lama—he was groomed to serve his brother on matters of state. Then, in 1946, Thondup was sent to study in China at the behest of Reting Rinpoche, the regent who had been chosen to serve as head of state until the young Dalai Lama reached majority and who considered relations with China to be of immense importance and Tibetans’ knowledge of their giant neighbor to be weak. Chinese President Chiang Kai-shek became Gyalo Thondup’s sponsor.
When Chiang and his Nationalist Party lost the civil war to the Chinese Communist Party in 1949, China’s long latent threat to Tibet soon turned real. The Tibetan government was forced under duress to sign the Seventeen Point Agreement, which ceded Tibetan sovereignty to the recently established government of the People’s Republic. As parts of Tibet rose up in resistance against their new rulers, Thondup, then in exile in India, became the secret interlocutor between the CIA in the United States and Tibet’s underground freedom movement. His efforts kept the resistance movement alive. When the Dalai Lama was forced to flee his compound in Lhasa in March 1959, Thondup was at the border just inside India to greet him, having obtained from Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru a grant of political asylum for his brother and everyone who had accompanied him in flight.
With the Dalai Lama safely in India, Thondup became a leading figure within the new Tibetan government-in-exile, serving as the major spokesman for Tibet to the Indian government and the outside world, including the United States and the United Nations. A rarity among Tibetans, Thondup is fluent in Tibetan, Chinese, and English, allowing him to communicate directly with many of the world’s most powerful leaders. In 1979, after the death of Mao and the ascent to power of Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping, Thondup was the obvious choice as interlocutor when the new Chinese statesman decided to re-establish contact with the Dalai Lama and the Tibetans in exile. For more than two decades, Thondup shuttled between India and China, trying without success to negotiate an agreement that would allow the Dalai Lama to return to his homeland.
A TALE OF TWO COUNTRIES
The narrative of Tibet as told in official Chinese reports and the story told by most Tibetans often seem almost hopelessly irreconcilable. Thondup’s story, too, differs radically from that of official China’s. Tibet, he argues, has never been a part of China. But Thondup is also sharply critical of the Tibetan political and ecclesiastic elite for their gross mismanagement of their relations with China. Even he and his brother the Dalai Lama do not always agree on the details.
Some of Thondup’s sharpest criticism is reserved for the United States. He holds the United States culpable for much of what went wrong for Tibetans in the early years under communist rule, when the CIA gave limited support to the underground resistance movement within Chinese-occupied Tibet. By the mid-1950s, CIA operatives were sending teams of local Tibetan resistance fighters for guerilla training in Colorado, then airdropping them back into Tibet to fight Chinese troops. But the weapons and equipment were never enough. “If the United States had really wanted to help, the least they could have done would have been to supply enough arms and equipment for the Tibetans to put up a good fight,” Thondup says. He believes that his cooperation with the Chinese provided the Chinese with an excuse for launching massive reprisals against the Tibetan people. Tens of thousands died as a result. The CIA’s Tibet program was a failure, and it was discontinued by the early 1970s to pave the way for U.S. President Richard Nixon’s rapprochement with China.
We have no good figures for the number of deaths that occurred in Tibet as a result of Chinese rule—deaths that would not have occurred had Tibetans themselves been in control, but we do know that the toll has been high, as it also was in many parts of China. In October 1950, when Chinese troops were marching on the Tibetan outpost of Chamdo, villages throughout most of China were in the middle of a tumultuous land reform. The process was often violent, as Communist Party cadres roused local villagers, friends, neighbors, and even relatives in the struggle against the so-called landlords, tearing apart communities that had lived together for centuries. In 1959, when the people of Lhasa revolted against Chinese rule and the Dalai Lama was forced to escape, China was in the early stages of what was to become the worst famine in its long famine-filled history. Somewhere between 35 and 43 million people died before the famine was over.
THE ROAD TO KALIMPONG
The heavily trafficked route from the Bagdogra airport to Kalimpong is always intense. It begins outside Siliguri on a hot, arid plain along a long, flat road lined with countless open-air stalls and jammed with cows, dogs, goats, carts, overfilled buses, motorcycles, bicycles, slow-moving cars, and throngs of colorful humanity. “Honk horn,” the sign on the rear of the larger vehicles reads, and the sound of honking is constant and exuberant—conversational, rather than angry.
Crossing the Teesta River on the final leg of the journey, the road to Kalimpong is named according to the number of miles from the river to the city’s center, and this last part of the journey always seems the longest—a combination of anticipation and the numerous switchback curves that slow the climb to a crawl. The center of Kalimpong is at 10-Mile Road. Thondup’s compound is two miles below, just up a hill off 8-Mile Road. It is enclosed by a coral colored stucco wall broken by two turquoise wooden gates, the first giving access to trucks coming in and out of the noodle factory—for which he has received a local reputation of excellence. A discrete plaque at the entrance identifies the place as Taktser House, named after the family’s village in Amdo.
The gate to the compound opens to a broad sweep of deep green lawn bordered ahead by tropical jungle and on either side by four substantial buildings, the most impressive of which is the three-level family home, which was constructed from a blueprint bought in San Francisco for one hundred dollars during Thondup’s first visit to the United States in 1951. From inside, numerous large windows look out over the grounds.
Down a hill from the main house, just at the edge of the jungle, is a small cemetery where the ashes of Thondup’s mother Diki Tsering, who died in 1981, his daughter Yangzom Doma, who was killed in an automobile accident in 1983, and his wife Diki Dolkar, who died in 1986, are buried. At one edge of the lawn, tall Tibetan prayer flag stands next to a white incense-burning stupa, much like the one on the family property in Taktser. The stupa is lit on special occasions such as Losar, the Tibetan New Year, when a long rope with fluttering Tibetan prayer flags in blue, white, green, red, and yellow is hung across the lawn from the roof of the family home to the roof of the guest quarters. The stupa might also be lit in times of particular need, such as when noodle sales are down, to convey prayers to the family’s mountain god in Amdo. The mountain god’s powers are believed to extend to persuading people who live as far away as West Bengal and Bhutan to purchase more noodles.
Within the compound, Thondup has solved the perennial lack of electricity with a generator that assures electricity even during the daily outages. A 100,000 gallon water tank that sits underneath the noodle factory and cost more than the main house to build assures they will never run out of water. Internet connections are less reliable than electricity. Two aging Tibetan mastiffs protect the property. They sleep in their wooden doghouses by day, and are set loose in the yard at night. Two lively mutts guard the noodle factory on the other side of the fence. Only once in the forty-five years since the land was purchased did an intruder actually make it on to the Taktser House grounds. The dogs were asleep in their kennels at the time and wakened only when the would-be thief was discovered by the staff.
TIME TO MAKE THE NOODLES
The noodle factory stands at the far end of the compound, closest to 8-Mile Road, and it looks out over the Teesta valley to row upon row of mountains, behind one of which is Darjeeling and beyond the last of which is Mount Kanchenjunga.
Everything about the Kalimpong noodle factory is antiquated. The building is made of wood, and the bought-in-Calcutta equipment is old fashioned and often in need of repair. Some 15 workers staff the factory, arriving a bit after nine in the morning, breaking at noon to go home for lunch, returning around one and ending the day around four. Tasks are allocated by gender, with the men mixing the dough, running it through the flattening machines, cutting the flattened dough into noodles, and hanging the cut noodles to dry. The women weigh, bundle, and package the noodles in a large room with plywood tables, concrete floors, and a couple of usually unlit light bulbs overhead. A prayer scarf-draped photograph of the Dalai Lama, perched atop a red calendar with the Chinese character for “prosperity,” smiles down on them as they work. The factory is manned 24 hours a day. The drying of the noodles requires constant heat, and the fire must be stoked through the night. Jhangchu Dorjee, the factory foreman, oversees this task.
The workers are paid the equivalent of two to two and a half dollars a day, and the women earn less than the men. For those with a similar level of education, between seven to nine years of schooling, the pay is about average for the area, although no one doubts that the workers are poor. The cost of daily necessities such as rice, cooking oil, and vegetables is high, and inflation cuts into wages. Most of the workers in the Taktser House factory live no more than a five minute walk away, and Thondup gives them the flexibility to work when they want or to stay at home without pay if they like. Rarely is anyone fired.
Some of Thondup’s staff have been with him for decades. One staffer, Gyalpo, was in his mid teens when he was hired and has now worked on the compound for 26 years. His father fled from Tibet sometime in the 1970s, leaving his wife behind and carrying Gyalpo and his little sister in baskets slung from a bamboo shoulder pole. When his father remarried and his stepmother kicked him out, Gyalpo knocked on the gate of Taktser House in search of a job. Today, he oversees the operations of just about everything that happens inside the compound, from shopping and cooking and upkeep of the property to delivering noodles to vendors, seeing that the factory is running as it should, and negotiating payments to repairmen. For this, he receives some 9,000 rupees, about $120 a month, free food, and free—but decidedly modest—housing just outside the property gates. Thondup pays for the education of Gyalpo’s two children, for medical care when he or his family members are ill, and provides generous yearly bonuses.
The Dalai Lama first visited Taktser House in May 1974, well before he had attained the international stature that now requires a large staff and 20 Indian security soldiers when he travels. He stayed for several days, blessing the property, planting a tree in the front yard, and giving the main house its name—Lhundrob Gartsel, which roughly translates as “abiding success and happiness.” A special multicolored wooden throne for the Dalai Lama was constructed for the occasion, and Thondup’s wife Diki Dolkar supervised the hundreds of townspeople who came to the compound to receive the Dalai Lama’s blessing from his seat on the throne.
His later visit in 2011 was shorter—a quiet family affair. Thondup’s staff prepared a chicken curry and rice and the Dalai Lama’s staff made the momos (dumplings) that are a staple of Tibetan cooking. The whole town of Kalimpong and hundreds more people from nearby areas turned out to welcome the Dalai Lama, and thousands attended the teaching he gave in the Tharpa Choling Monastery nearby. The Dalai Lama’s throne still sits in the room designated as his, ready for his next visit.
Gyalo Thondup is elderly now, long since retired from his role as interlocutor. For several years between 2002 and 2010, officials of China’s United Front and representatives of the Dalai Lama met periodically in Beijing to discuss the issue of Tibet, but the talks were always inconclusive and stopped for lack of progress. Many Tibetans in exile would like to see a dialogue resume, but interlocutors, both Tibetan and Chinese, are hard to find. Interested U.S. officials who are called upon for advice seem not to know who on the Chinese side would be willing and able to jump start a new dialogue. The Chinese government has recently declared that it will assume responsibility for choosing the next Dalai Lama, a possibility that flies in the face of Tibetan Buddhist tradition and would thus render any Chinese choice illegitimate to religious believers. The Dalai Lama has hinted that the next Dalai Lama must be found in a democratic country, thus eliminating China as a possible place for his successor to emerge. But the Dalai Lama is also toying with the idea of not being reincarnated at all, thus threatening to leave Tibetan Buddhists without a spiritual leader.
As the Dalai Lama ages (he celebrated his eightieth birthday last July), his followers grow increasingly anxious about what will happen upon his passing. Tibetans I met in Dharamsala last summer could not image life—indeed some would not want to live—without a Dalai Lama. Some hope that the Dalai Lama will soon make up his mind. The seventeenth Karmapa Rinpoche, Ogyen Trinley Dorje, was particularly straightforward in his hope that the fourteenth Dalai Lama will soon decide whether and how he will be reincarnated. He hopes the Dalai Lama will convey that decision unequivocally to the world. The seventeenth Karmapa Lama was discovered in China but escaped as a young teenager to India in 1999, where he was ultimately recognized by the Dalai Lama as a true incarnation. The Karmapa feels confident that once the Dalai Lama announces his decision to the world, and clearly specifies where his next incarnation will take place, whatever the Chinese may decide will make little difference. Tibetan Buddhist believers know that only the Dalai Lama can choose his own reincarnation. It is up to those who were closest to him to find him (or, perhaps next time, her).