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Memories of 1959 -- Fleeing from Tibet With the Dalai Lama

In March 1959, the Dalai Lama fled from Tibet. He was not alone. An estimated 100,000 Tibetans followed him into exile in India. One of them was Phukang Rinpoche. The 66-year-old now lives in Germany, near Bonn. He was studying at the Ganden Monastery near Lhasa when the Chinese People’s Liberation Army invaded in 1950 -- he was nine years old.

March 1959: The Dalai Lama flees Tibet

March 1959: The Dalai Lama flees Tibet

Neatly dressed, with snow-white hair, nothing about Jampa Kelsang Phukang evokes the turbulent days of his flight from Tibet almost 50 years ago. Reminiscing about that time, he says his initial encounters with the Chinese were positive: "When the Chinese came to Lhasa I was pleasantly surprised. They were very friendly and helpful to the people."

But things changed in 1957. The Chinese authorities had started introducing socialist reforms in the eastern part of the Tibetan settlement area. They cracked down bloodily when people rebelled against them. The first wave of refugees arrived, says Phukang: "Many fled from eastern Tibet to central Tibet. We met many refugees and that’s how it all began."

Demonstrations in Lhasa

Tension began to build up between Tibetans and Chinese in Lhasa as well. "The atmosphere was very serious and exciting", recalls Phukang. "People would organise demonstrations spontaneously. They would shout ‘we are sovereign, the Chinese should go’. Tibetans are very emotional. Everywhere, there were soldiers with weapons. I thought that nothing good would come of all this."

In March 1959, the Dalai Lama received an invitation to a dance performance at a Chinese military base. He was asked to come alone. The Tibetan people thought he might be kidnapped. Tens of thousands of people surrounded his summer palace and prevented him from going to the military camp. This was the beginning of the people’s uprising against Chinese rule. Phukang was 17. "The message came one day that the Dalai Lama had fled. We all said that we had to flee too."

Yaks cleared the snow for the refugees

There was hardly any time to prepare. The Chinese troops were hot on the tail of the refugees. When they were almost at the Indian border, the Tibetans were suddenly surrounded. The only way was via the snow-covered mountains in the south. The soldiers were just one day away.

"We all stood there -- looking at each other, thinking we would have to wait for the Chinese and we would then fight and die. But one person had a good idea. All the yaks in the area were sent up the mountains to pave a way through the snow." The Tibetans followed the yaks up the mountain. The Chinese troops arrived the very same evening. Many of those who had stayed behind lost their lives.

Ready to fight with all means

But Phukang made it to India where he put his monk’s robe back on and continued his religious studies. He had taken off his robe to flee Tibet. "We knew we would probably have to kill", he explains. "We wanted to be able to fight with any means if ever we fell into Chinese hands."

Phukang came to Bonn to teach at the university’s Tibetology institute. He has been here for 40 years but he has never forgotten his homeland. Now he is preparing for a demonstration on March 10 -- 50 years after the Tibetan uprising against Chinese rule began and changed his life forever.

  • Date 09.03.2009
  • Author DW staff 09/03/09
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  • Permalink http://p.dw.com/p/LsJV
  • Date 09.03.2009
  • Author DW staff 09/03/09
  • Print Print this page
  • Permalink http://p.dw.com/p/LsJV