Sat, Mar 16, 2019 - Page 5 News List

The Dalai Lama’s escape 60 years ago


The Dalai Lama is pictured on May 22, 1959, in the Birla House Park, Mussoorie, India, where he was invited by the Indian government with his family, members of his court and Tibetan dignitaries, following his flight from Tibet.

Photo: AFP

In March 1959, Tibet’s ruler and spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, fled his homeland amid a deadly Chinese crackdown, escaping to India in a gruelling two-week trek.

There he would form a government-in-exile and demand autonomy for Tibet, going on to earn international renown and respect, while remaining a bete noir for China.

Following is an account of his dramatic escape.


Buddhist Tibet, a vast Himalayan area of plateaus and mountains, declared independence from China in the early 20th century.

However, China took back control in 1951, having sent in thousands of troops.

Lhamo Dhondup, chosen at the age of two in 1937 as the 14th incarnation of Tibetan Buddhism’s supreme religious leader under the name Tenzin Gyatso, was enthroned as head of state after the Chinese invasion.

His co-existence with the Beijing authorities was tense and when the Chinese authorities summoned him to an event without his bodyguards on March 10, Tibetans feared a trap that could endanger their leader.

Thousands assembled at his summer palace to prevent him from leaving; thousands more demonstrated in Lhasa to demand the Chinese depart, the Dalai Lama would later say.

Beijing poured more troops into Tibet: As tensions mounted, they opened fire on March 17, targeting and eventually razing the Dalai Lama’s palace.

The revolt was suppressed by March 21, ending in a bloodbath.

The government-in-exile later claimed the Chinese army killed tens of thousands.


The outside world was largely unaware of the turmoil engulfing isolated and remote Tibet. Only India had diplomatic representation there and rare reports of the unrest trickled out via its media.

On March 22, Agence France-Presse reported from India that there was concern over the fate of the Dalai Lama, then aged 23, who seemed to have disappeared.

“According to some rumors, the young man could be in his Lhasa palace or under Chinese military guard,” the report said, citing India’s the Statesman newspaper.

It later emerged that he had been able to slip past Chinese troops massed around his palace on March 17.


He left the palace dressed as a soldier and met up with a group of Tibetan resistance fighters 60km out of Lhasa, AFP reported, again citing the Statesman.

His entourage included his mother, sister, younger brother and several top officials. They traveled for two days and two nights without stopping, on foot and on horseback, a Tibetan official later said.

A month’s supplies were carried by mules. To cross the major 457m-wide Brahmaputra River, they used a single boat made of yak skin, the official said.

The group then continued on foot, walking only at night through the harsh Himalayan terrain.

They had a head start on Chinese troops who had not realized the Dalai Lama had disappeared until two days later, only then sending out a ground and air dragnet, and combing monasteries where he could be hiding.

It was “one of the most fantastic escapes in history,” an AFP story said.


On March 31, the Dalai Lama walked across the border into the Indian state of Assam.

“The Dalai Lama entered India on March 31 in the evening,” then-Indian prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru announced on April 3, AFP sending out the information in a top priority flash.

In mid-April an official statement provided details of his escape.

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