I have a vivid memory of the 1987 March 10 Tibetan National Uprising Day. An eighth grader, I walked up from our school in lower Dharamsala, India, to Gangchen Kyishong, the location of the government-in-exile, where His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama was to address the gathering. China’s paramount leader, Deng Xiaoping, had signalled the possibility of dialogue less than a decade prior, and the new policy in Tibet was relaxed with a special focus on economic progress.
That day, however, the Dalai Lama told us, “It is a mistake to presume that mere economic concessions and liberalizations can satisfy our people. The issue of Tibet is fundamentally political, with international ramifications, and as such only a political solution can provide a meaningful answer.”
With the official speeches over, we schoolchildren marched downhill, clutching cardboard signs with anti-China slogans and chanting rallying cries until our throats gave out. At lower Dharamsala, we formed a circle around an effigy of Deng. After another round of fiery speeches and noisy slogans, a tall man in a white sheepskin robe approached the effigy with his dagger raised. He stabbed the ersatz Deng in the chest and produced a sheep’s heart concealed there. As we all shouted, “Down with Deng Xiaoping!” “Free Tibet!” “UN, We want justice!” the man sliced off a piece Deng’s heart and chewed a morsel. He spat on the figure and set it on fire; flames licked the wounded effigy, firecrackers burst in the air, smoke rose, and sparks whizzed in all directions. And so we’ve continued the annual demonstrations over the decades, though the effigy-burning has stopped.
This year, March 10 marks the 60th anniversary since Tibet lost her freedom, and Tibetans and friends of Tibet must reflect on how we ended up where we are and the challenges that are still ahead.
Immediately after coming into power in October 1949, Communist China began its military takeover of the Tibetan Plateau, and by early 1959, over 20,000 People’s Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers were billeted in Lhasa. Tension mounted in Tibet’s capital city.
In early March of that year, the PLA invited the young Dalai Lama to attend a dance show at its headquarters in Lhasa with a directive that no Tibetan bodyguard was to accompany him, as the PLA would assure the Tibetan leader’s safety. Furthermore, they said that the trip must be kept secret. This was impossible, since the Dalai Lama’s visits were always public events with tens of thousand lining the streets to glimpse their leader.
So Lhasa’s population became suspicious. Around that time, in Eastern Tibet, high lamas had been invited to such shows by Chinese military commanders and were never seen again. The date for the theatrical show was set for March 10. On that day over 30,000 Tibetans gathered at Norbu Lingkha, the Dalai Lama’s summer palace, pressuring him not to attend the Chinese show.
The Dalai Lama, who was then 24, faced a difficult dilemma. It was, as he writes in his autobiography, “as if I was standing between two volcanoes, each likely to erupt at any moment. On one side, there was the vehement, unequivocal, unanimous protest of my people against the Chinese regime; on the other hand, there was the armed might of a powerful and aggressive occupying force.” With the huge crowd surrounding his palace, it was nearly impossible for him to leave.
The PLA generals were enraged when three of the Dalai Lama’s ministers told them he would not be attending. A couple of days later, the Chinese army fired two mortars at the summer palace. With the situation at a boiling point, on the night of March 17, the Dalai Lama escaped into exile. Disguised as an ordinary soldier, he marched out of his palace “unchallenged [and moved] towards the dark road beyond,” according to his autobiography.
In the early morning of March 20, Chinese troops began bombardment of Norbu Lingkha and the surrounding areas, which lasted for several days. A confidential official Chinese document, Tibet’s Status and Basic Duties and Education, published by the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) Military’s Political Bureau in October 1960, states that “from March 1959 [to 1960] 87,000 enemies were exterminated.” Irrespective of whether the number of Tibetans killed was in Lhasa alone, this is damning evidence that thousands were slaughtered. This pivotal moment in modern Tibetan history led to China’s overall occupation of Tibet.
In exile, the first March 10 anniversary was held in Mussoorie, a small town in the northern Indian state of Uttarakhand, where the exiled government, the Central Tibetan Administration, was also established. In 1960, the Dalai Lama and his nascent administration moved to Dharamsala, a tiny abandoned hill station in Himachal Pradesh, and since then, all subsequent March 10 anniversaries have been held there.
Being born in Tibet during the Cultural Revolution, I had no concept of Tibet as a separate or occupied country. I didn’t even know that the Chinese were racially and ethnically different from Tibetans. My political awareness, like my education, only began at refugee schools in India. Taking part in the annual March 10 anniversary had a deep impact on me—listening to speeches and witnessing older Tibetans shout slogans, often in broken English and Hindi. They displayed so much passion.
For me, the 10th of March is not merely another day to be marked on the calendar or an empty ritual. It is a historical link to what befell Tibet in the past, what we honor now, and what must be passed down to the next generation. Like the Buddhist principle of the interdependence of all things, March 10 connects me to our history, memory, resistance, and resilience.
The large-scale migration of Tibetans from India, Nepal, and Bhutan to the West beginning in the 1990s has made the 10th of March a global phenomenon observed in Toronto, New York, Paris, and Sydney. The last time I took part in the Uprising Day protest in New York City, over 2,000 people marched in the streets and gathered in front of the Chinese Consulate, which battens down on this day every year.
As this year marks the 60th anniversary, the protest marches, demonstrations, appeals, and sloganeering are likely to be more extensive, more numerous, and more vocal than in all previous years. Like I have for over three decades, I will join this year’s March 10 anniversary right here at the seat of the exiled government in Dharamsala. This is a fervent reminder to me that our struggle for freedom endures and that the long road will lead us back to our homeland.
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.