• September 18, 2017
  • CIA

Did the CIA fund the Dalai Lama?


There are few global icons more associated with peace and harmony than the Dalai Lama. The exiled Tibetan religious leader has long been held up as a philosophical proponent for non-violence. He’s met with world leaders and celebrities, been hosted by the United Nations, and traveled the world. But there’s more to this figure than meets the eye, including the theory that the Dalai Lama has been funded and helped by the CIA for decades. But could this be true?


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We should start with some background. Who exactly is the Dalai Lama? Well, he’s not a single person, as such. Dalai Lama is actually a title – like president or pope – given to the spiritual leader of Tibet and its people. He’s the leader a specific spiritual order, Tibetan Buddhism, and has been since the 16th Century. The man we know today as the Dalai Lama is the 14th person to hold the title and he has done so since the 1950s. According to surveys, he’s one of the most respected world leaders.

The history of the Dalai Lama as a title is fascinating, but we simply do not have the time to cover the complicated history of Tibet and its religion in this article. Instead, we will focus on the 20th Century and how the title began to be used as a political tool.

Tibet is a controversial country. To some, it’s not even a country at all. According to China, Tibet is simply a region of China and should not be treated as an individual nation or state. Historically, they are somewhat correct. Before the Yuan dynasty (a period between 1271 and 1368), they were separate nations until the Chinese invaded and took over, uniting the two countries. According to the Chinese government, this has remained the case ever since. But some people disagree. Variously, they claim that Tibet has been independent or ruled by another country during that time.

The People’s Republic of China (the current regime) invaded Tibet in 1949. The Tibetan government went into exile. Whereas China believes they were simply moving troops into an area which historically was part of their territory, many disagreed. China’s insistence on its right to rule Tibet has become a political issue, much like the existence of Taiwan. Accordingly, few countries risk China’s wrath and do not recognize Tibet as an independent nation.

So where does the Dalai Lama come into this? During the 1949, the Dalai Lama and his followers fled to India, fearing for their lives. There, they formed a government in exile, leading the fight for a free Tibet. At the head of this movement was the Dalai Lama. As well as being a religious figure, the Dalai Lama has become the figurehead and the symbol for a free (or at least, an autonomous) Tibet. Simply by existing, he displeases the Chinese state.

But he did not reach this position alone. In the 1950s and 1960s, during the height of the Cold War, the United States was obsessed with the ideological war. Communism was the enemy. While they viewed the USSR as their chief antagonist, the People’s Republic of China was a similar communist threat to western capitalism. In fighting this Cold War, the Dalai Lama became a political pawn to be deployed against the Chinese government.

The CIA’s Tibetan Program built up gradually until it was discontinued in 1972. Many elements of the program have since been declassified, allowing us to get an insight into the aims, objectives, and methods of the program.

The key aim was to limit, lessen, and restrict the capabilities and influence of the People’s Republic of China. This took many forms, including the training of Tibetan guerrillas to fight against the Chinese regime and the airlifting of supplies and equipment into Tibet. In various reports created towards the end of the 1950s, the CIA noted that the Tibetans were resisting Chinese rule and fighting back against what they viewed as an occupying force. They were being led by the Dalai Lama, who was very much limited to his base of operations in India at the time.

In exile, the Dalai Lama was put into contact with the CIA by Gyalo Thondup, his brother. Many years earlier, Gyalo had been recruited by the CIA as an asset. He proved his use by establishing contact between the American spy agency and the acting head of the Tibetan resistance movement. This contact led to a number of high-ranking Tibetans being flown back to the US for combat training.

Growing Chinese occupation of Tibet in 1951 made it more difficult for the CIA to help with direct combat measures. Growing Chinese power also threatened Tibet’s diplomatic relationship with India, limiting the Tibetans ability to stay safely in India. This culminated in the Sino-Indian treaty of 1954, part of which forbade India from helping anyone who might vouch for Tibetan independence.

A strong, American-assisted rebellion began in the late 1950s, continuing to the early 1960s. Part of the Chinese plan to quell the rebellion was to kidnap the Dalai Lama, or at least to force him to stop the rebellion. They failed and, backed by CIA funds, the Dalai Lama and his supporters fled.

By backing the Dalai Lama, the CIA accomplished a number of objectives. They were able to establish an anti-communist movement in Tibet as a means of opposing Chinese influence. They were able to occupy Chinese resources and funds, forcing the Chinese to spend time, men, and money in dealing with an uproarious region. And they were able to gain a key understanding of Chinese military capabilities.

Essentially, by funding the Dalai Lama as an anti-Chinese agent, the CIA added another tool with which they could wield power in the Cold War. By the end of the military uprising in Tibet, the Dalai Lama became an international figure. Drawing a $180,000 annual wage from the CIA up until the mid-1970s, the Dalai Lama was a constant international embarrassment to the Chinese government, though the links between him and the CIA were never made public.

In later years, the Dalai Lama criticised the CIA. They did not believe in Tibetan independence, he said, they simply believed in all anti-communist activities. The CIA discontinued their support throughout the 1970s. By that time, then-President Richard Nixon had embarked upon his quest to normalize relations with the Chinese. This culminated in his 1972 trip to China, after which time relations between the United States and China thawed considerably. After this time, it was not politically expedient for the CIA to antagonize the Chinese.

But the Dalai Lama has since emerged as a true world figure. Though initially funded by the CIA as an anti-Chinese asset, he has built on that platform and now travels the world discussing religion and politics. Though he has since become less conspicuous in his demands for a free Tibet, he is still a controversial figure in China. This is, in a large part, due to the funding provided by the American spy agency in the mid-20th Century. For decades, the peaceful old man so respected around the world was simply another weapon in the CIA arsenal.

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