The Tibetan Army (Tibetan: དམག་དཔུང་བོད་) was the military force of Tibet after its de facto independence in 1912 until the 1950s. As a ground army modernised with the assistance of British training and equipment, it served as the de facto armed forces of the Dalai Lama government.
The Tibetan Army was established in 1913 by the 13th Dalai Lama, who had fled Tibet during the 1904 British invasion of Tibet and returned only after the fall of the Qing power in Tibet in 1911. During the revolutionary turmoil, the Dalai Lama had attempted to raise a volunteer army to expel all the ethnic Chinese from Lhasa, but failed, in large part because of the opposition of pro-Chinese monks, especially from the Drepung Monastery. The Dalai Lama proceeded to raise a professional army, led by his trusted advisor Tsarong, to counter "the internal threats to his government as well as the external ones".
The internal threats were mainly officials of the Gelug sect of Tibetan Buddhism, who feared British Christian and secular influence in the army, and who fought the defunding and taxing of the monasteries to feed military expenditures. The monasteries had populations rivaling Tibet's largest cities, and had their own armies of dob-dobs ("warrior monks"). As a result, those monks who feared modernization (associated with Britain) turned to China, which being the residence of the 9th Panchen Lama, portrayed itself as ally to the Tibetan conservatives. Residents evacuated the city during the Monlam Prayer Festival and Butter Lamp Festival of 1921, fearing violent confrontation between the monks and the Tibetan Army, which was eventually barred from Lhasa to keep the peace.
The Army also received opposition from the 9th Panchen Lama, who refused the Dalai Lama's requests to fund the Tibetan Army from the monasteries in the Panchen's domain. In 1923, the Dalai Lama deployed troops to capture him, and so he secretly fled to Mongolia. The Dalai and Panchen Lamas exchanged many hostile letters during the latter's exile about the authority of the central Tibetan government. Many monks perceived the Panchen's exile as a consequence of the Dalai Lama's militarization and secularization of Tibet. The Dalai Lama himself grew gradually more distrustful of the military upon hearing rumors in 1924 of a coup conspiracy, which was supposedly designed to strip him of his temporal power. In 1933, the 13th Dalai Lama died, and two regents assumed the head of government. The Tibetan Army was bolstered in 1937 by the perceived threat of the return of the Panchen Lama, who had brought arms back from eastern China.
By the time of the 1949 Chinese Revolution, China's Communists had consolidated control over most of eastern China, and sought to bring peripheral areas such as Tibet back into the fold. China was aware of the threat of guerrilla warfare on Tibet's high mountains, and sought to resolve Tibet's political status by negotiations. The Tibetan government stalled and delayed negotiations while bolstering its army.
In 1950, the Kashag embarked on a series of internal reforms, led by Indian-educated officials. One of these reforms allowed the Kashag's military chiefs, Surkhang Wangchen Gelek and Ngapoi Ngawang Jigme, to act independently of the government. Although the Kashag appointed a "Governor of Kham", the Tibetan Army did not have effective control over Kham, whose local warlords had long resisted central control from Lhasa. As a result, Tibetan officials feared the local people, in addition to the People's Liberation Army (PLA) across the Upper Yangtze River.
The Tibetan Army held the dominant military strength within political Tibet from 1912, owing to Chinese weakness because of the Japanese occupation of part of eastern China. With the assistance of British training, it aimed to conquer territories inhabited by ethnic Tibetans but controlled by Chinese warlords, and it successfully captured western Kham from the Chinese in 1917. Its claim to adjacent territories controlled by British India, however, strained its vital relations with Britain and then independent India, and then China's relationship with the latter. The 1914 Simla Accord with Britain was designed to settle Tibet's internal and external border issues, but for various reasons, including the refusal by the Chinese to accept it, warfare continued over territory in Kham.
The military authority of Tibet was located in Qamdo from 1918, after it fell to Tibetan forces; during this time, the Sichuan warlords were occupied with fighting the Yunnan warlords, allowing the Tibetan army to defeat the Sichuan forces and conquer the region. The Tibetan Army was involved in numerous border battles against the Guomindang and Ma Clique forces of the Republic of China. By 1932, the defeat of the Tibetan Army by the KMT forces limited all meaningful political control of the Tibetan government over the Kham region beyond the Upper Yangtze River.
The Tibetan Army's first encounter with the PLA was in May 1950 at Dengo, ninety miles from Qamdo. Fifty PLA soldiers captured Dengo, which gave strategic access to Jiegu. After ten days, Lhalu Tsewang Dorje ordered a contingent of 500 armed monks and 200 Khampa militiamen to recapture Dengo. According to the historian Tsering Shakya, the PLA attack could have been to either put pressure on the Kashag or to test the Tibetan defense forces. Following repeated Tibetan refusals to negotiate, the PLA decisively routed the Tibetan Army at Qamdo.
In 1950, the government also poured 400,000 rupees from the Potala treasury into its military, buying arms and ammunition from the British government, as well as the service of Indian military instructors. For an additional 100,000 rupees, the Kashag purchased 38 2-inch mortars; 63 Ordnance ML 3 inch Mortars; 14,000 2-inch mortar bombs; 14,000 3-inch mortar bombs, 294 Bren guns, 1,260 rifles; 168 Sten guns; 1,500,000 rounds of .303 ammunition, and 100,000 rounds of Sten gun ammunition. From India, the Kashag bought 3.5 million rounds of ammunition and 1,500 Bren guns.
However, the British were loath to create too powerful of a Tibetan army, because of Tibet's irrdentism claims on British Indian territory. The Indians were also annoyed with Tibet's large outstanding debts for purchased arms, and hesitated to fulfill additional Tibetan requests for arms until previous supplies were paid for.
In infrastructure, Lhasa established wireless base stations across the borderlands, such as Qiangtang and Qamdo. In 1937, the Tibetan Army had 20 detachments along its eastern frontier comprising 10,000 troops with 5,000 Lee-Enfield rifles and six Lewis Guns. Smaller battalions were stationed in Lhasa, and adjacent to Nepal and Ladakh. By 1949, 2,500 Tibetan Army troops were stationed in Qamdo alone, and enlistment there increased by recruiting from Khampa militias.
In 1914, Charles Alfred Bell, a British civil servant who was posted to Tibet, recommended the militarization of Tibet and the recruitment of 15,000 soldiers to guard against "foreign foes and internal disturbances". The Tibetans eventually resolved to build a 20,000 man army, at a rate of 500 new recruits per year. Bell told the Tibetan government that when China governed Tibet, it did so on terms not favorable to Tibet, and had tried to extend its influence over the Himalayan states (Sikkim, Bhutan, Ladakh), threatening British India. Also, Britain wanted a "barrier against Bolshevist influence". Under this reasoning, Bell proposed to the British government that Tibet be able to import munitions from India yearly; that the British government would provide training and equipment to Tibet; that British mining prospectors come inspect Tibet; and that an English school be established in Gyangze. By October 1921, all of the proposals were accepted.
The government of Tibet had many foreigners in its employ, including Britons Reginald Fox, Robert W. Ford, Geoffrey Bull, and George Patterson; Austrians Peter Aufschnaiter and Heinrich Harrer; and the Russian Nedbailoff. The army in particular had Japanese, Chinese, and British influence, although the British influence was of such an extent that the Tibetan officers gave their commands in English, and the Tibetan band played tunes including "God Save the King" and "Auld Lang Syne".
From the fall of the Qing Dynasty, which had effectively controlled Tibet, to the 1949 Chinese Revolution, a Chinese mission remained in Lhasa. The mission repeatedly attempted to reestablish the office of the Qing Amban, interfered with the enthronement of the 13th Dalai Lama, and presented the Tibetan aristocratic government (Kashag) with a list of demands for the restoration of effective Chinese sovereignty. Following the advice of British consul Hugh Richardson, the Kashag summoned Tibetan Army troops on July 8, 1949 from Shigatse and Dingri to expel all the Han Chinese from Lhasa. The expulsion prompted Chinese accusations of a plot to turn Tibet into a British colony, and a consequent vow to "liberate" it.
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