On November 3, 2015, the opening lines of an article in The Indian Express caught my eye:
“In the summer of 1960, a thousand People’s Liberation Army troops crossed into Nepal and advanced towards Bu Ba La. Ever since the Tibetan rebellion began the previous summer, Bu Ba La had become a base for insurgents who, aided by the CIA, were staging strikes against Chinese troops. Nepal’s King Mahendra had given China permission to strike deep inside his territory, even arranging for police to arrest the insurgents as they fled.”
The central claim astonished me, as did most of the rest of the detail. A quick check for the source of this information revealed that it was from a paragraph of the book Protracted Contest: Sino-Indian Rivalry in the Twentieth Century by John W. Garver, published by University of Washington Press in 2001 (148). Garver is professor emeritus in the Sam Nunn School of International Affairs at the Georgia Institute of Technology, and the author of eleven books and over one hundred articles dealing with China’s foreign relations.
It is worth quoting the paragraph in full:
Almost as troubling to New Delhi as the Kathmandu-Lhasa road was the beginning of secret military cooperation between China and Nepal. As rebellion spread across Tibet in 1959, many refugees fled into Nepal. Several of the camps where those refugees assembled became centers of support activity for the insurgents inside Tibet. Men were recruited and trained, supplies and food assembled, and operations planned from these camps. One of the largest refugee camps was in the Bu Ba La (transliterated from Chinese) area of western Nepal, a region not effectively administered by the Kathmandu government but controlled by a local tribe in cooperation with the Tibetan refugees. In 1960 the Chinese government explained to Nepal’s leaders the serious, hostile nature of the activities emanating from this camp, and the Nepali government invited China to send PLA forces into Nepal to expel the insurgents cum refugees. In a highly secret operation about a thousand PLA soldiers advanced quickly on the rebel base/refugee camp. No artillery was used so as to lessen chances of outside detection. Nepali liaison officers accompanied Chinese forces, and the Chinese advance was coordinated with deployments of Nepali police. The Chinese advance pushed the Tibetans into a Nepali police net, where they were detained for deportation. The entire operation lasted only a week or so and from the Chinese point of view was highly successful. It was a highly secret operation so as not to to disturb India. Indian intelligence assets within Nepal nonetheless learned of the operation and informed New Delhi. (Footnote 20)
As indicated, the source for all that is claimed is contained in a footnote. Another footnote in the same chapter gives the full details: “Yang Gongsu, ‘Xin zhongguo duiwai yu wai zhengce yu waijiao shilu (1949–1982)’ [New China’s foreign policy and diplomatic practice (1949–1982)], MS” (Footnote 14). In the acknowledgements we learn the specific provenance of the manuscript: “Thanks are due especially to Ambassador Yang Gungsu, who shared with me a manuscript on China’s diplomacy.” In the book the reader is informed that Yang Gungsu was “the young foreign affairs assistant of the central government team dispatched to Lhasa in 1951.” He later became a senior diplomat as he headed up the Chinese team in crucial talks with India on the border dispute in 1960–61.
Very little of the information that stems from this shared manuscript is corroborated in any other account of the history of the period. No other authority that I have seen supports the claim that in the summer of 1960, or at any other time, the Nepal government invited a 1,000-man PLA force into Nepal “to expel insurgents cum refugees,” with Nepali liaison officers accompanying the Chinese forces, and with the advance coordinated with deployments of the Nepal Police. There is, however, a mass of evidence that convincingly refutes it. It must be a matter of conjecture why the location of this claimed major military operation is given an unrecognized name “transliterated from the Chinese.” We are told that it is an “area of western Nepal, a region not effectively administered by the Kathmandu government but controlled by a local tribe in cooperation with the Tibetan refugees.”
This can only relate to Mustang, and there might be a clue in the use of the obscure term “Bu Ba La.” “La” designates a pass in Tibetan, and in a map associated with the 1961 Boundary Treaty, the Kora La Pass, close to the Nepal-Tibet border in northern Mustang, appears in Nepali as the Kuku-la. The pinyin transliteration of the Chinese characters that designate the same pass on the same map is “Peng Peng la.” The term “Peng” rhymes with “sung,” so is pronounced “Pung Pung la.” Possibly this is the origin of Garver’s mysterious Bu Ba La. Only he and his Chinese source can properly explain why a Himalayan pass at a height of 4,600 meters is designated as the spot housing “one of the largest refugee camps,” and why he deliberately avoided using the area designation of Mustang.
What we do know for certain is that the build up in Mustang of the 2,000-strong CIA-backed Tibetan armed force did not start until September 1960, following a seven-man reconnaissance party which arrived in June. All were recruited in India, mostly from the Darjeeling-Kalimpong area, but also from the Bomdila and Misamari refugee camps, and from Mussoorie and elsewhere. Many had been part of the Chushi Gangdrug (Four Rivers, Six Ranges) army inside Tibet, which had been formed in 1958 to bring together all the Tibetan resistance groups fighting the Chinese army, the PLA. Many had been working in road-building gangs, mostly in Sikkim. None of the 2,000 who quickly assembled in Mustang came directly from Tibet into Mustang, though later some refugees from across the border were conscripted into the group.
There is only one record of a group of CIA-trained fighters being in Mustang for a short period in late 1959. They were a nine-man group who had trained in Colorado for nearly a year before being parachuted into Tibet near the Nam Tso, Tibet’s second largest saltwater lake, 190 kilometers north of Lhasa. Their mission was to meet up with a resistance group who were reportedlyDi operating in this area. They were dropped near a PLA encampment and, frightened of detection, they fled the scene without pausing to recover any of the supply bundles that had been dropped with them. These bundles contained their radio and would also have had the reserve ammunition in them. They then found that the resistance group they were to meet had departed six months previously. Their lack of equipment and shortage of ammunition meant that they were in no state to take offensive action against anyone. They had no option but to abort the mission.
With the exception of this one drop near Nam Tso, all the agents parachuted into Tibet were inserted well to the east of Lhasa. When the Chinese started to get the upper hand over the resistance groups, following the rapid and massive deployment of the PLA, the escape route for the agents and other fighters was directly south to India. This was not an option open to this nine-man group. If they had gone directly south to India they would have bumped into major PLA concentrations south of Lhasa. Hence their decision to exit Tibet by taking a circuitous southwest route to Mustang, a distance of over 500 kilometers. The arrival of this group would have made a deep impression on all who met them. A few of them might have stayed in Mustang but, for the reasons already given, they were in no position to take any offensive action. Most returned to India to convey the message to the resistance leaders living there that “their ethnic kin in Mustang were generally supportive.” This was one of a number of factors that led the leaders to approach the United States in February 1960 to seek support for setting up a base in Mustang. (See Conboy and Morrison, The CIA’s Secret War in Tibet, 119 and 146.) Key to the case was Mustang’s remoteness, which made it an area where Nepali central government control was weak. Knowledge that a 1,000-man PLA invasion had just taken place would have forced a fundamental reassessment.
I am grateful to Carole McGranahan (author of Arrested Histories: Tibet, the CIA, and Memories of a Forgotten War), for pointing out to me that it is her understanding that Mustang was not necessarily the preferred location of the Tibetans, rather it was the U.S. government that forced King Mahendra to station them there. As the Tibetans saw it, Mustang was too far away from the action for it to truly be useful as a military base. As the Americans saw it, Mustang was available due to the weakness of the Nepali monarch to say no, and was potentially useful as an intelligence base rather than a military one. Carole McGranahan has also pointed out to me that the men in Mustang referred to themselves as soldiers in the Chushi Gangdrug army—many but not all of the soldiers came from the eastern Tibetan province of Kham—and that they should not be denied the right to be referred to by the designation they rightly claimed: soldiers in Chushi Gangdrug.
The first of three CIA airdrops of weapons to the Chushi Gangdrug in Mustang took place on the evening of April 2, 1961. The drop zone was 10 kilometers inside Tibet. The first cross-border raid from Mustang took place in September 1961. There is no record of any other raids from Nepali territory before this date. It follows that Garver’s assertion, that “in 1960 the Chinese government explained to Nepal’s leaders the serious, hostile nature of the activities emanating from this camp,” does not make sense, to put it mildly. No such hostile camp existed in Mustang or anywhere else in Nepal in the summer of 1960.
Just as incredible is the assertion that King Mahendra gave permission to the Chinese to move deep inside Nepali territory, and even arranged for police to arrest the insurgents as they fled. King Mahendra was shocked by the margin of the Congress Party victory in Nepal’s first general election on February 18, 1959. After B. P. Koirala became prime minister, the king intensified his foreign visits. On April 10, 1960, he left for a trip to Japan and the United States and did not come back to Kathmandu until July 28, 1960. He was not, therefore, in the country to give permission to any Chinese military to move deep into Nepal in the summer of 1960, and, given the constitutional arrangements at the time, there would have been political mayhem in Kathmandu if he had attempted to do so.
Most telling of all, there is the indubitable fact of history that on June 28, 1960 Chinese troops fired on an unarmed party of Nepal Police in the area of the Kora La in northern Mustang, killing one, wounding one, and capturing others. By any standards this was an important story that generated a considerable number of tough diplomatic exchanges between the governments of Nepal and China. It was quickly reported by the international media and generated stories in many western capitals, as this headline from The New York Times of June 30, 1960 exemplifies.
Unsurprisingly, the claims in the Garver book find their way into other academic literature as accepted truth. One example is M. Taylor Fravel’s, Strong Borders, Secure Nations: Cooperation and Conflict in China’s Territorial Disputes, acclaimed in a review in Pacific Affairs as a “tour de force work of scholarship.” On page 91, supported by a footnote to page 148 of the Garver book, Fravel writes, “Subsequently, sometime in 1960, Nepal allowed China to conduct military operations against rebel groups stationed in Nepal . . .” Then on page 93, quoting from another source, and seemingly unaware of the incongruity of it, he writes, “On June 28, 1960, Chinese and Nepalese forces clashed in the Mustang region of Nepal. At the time, PLA units were pursuing Tibetan rebel groups near the border, violating the terms of the March 1960 agreement. Chinese troops killed a Nepali border patrol officer and captured fifteen others, which threatened to become a cause for Nepal to jettison the boundary agreement.”
Fravel does at least include some details of the June 28 incident. Garver’s book has a 30-page chapter on “Indian-Chinese rivalry in Nepal.” Within this there is a lengthy section detailing the period of the late 1950s and early 1960s. It is striking that there is not a single mention of the June 28 border incident, its significant diplomatic aftermath, and the bad publicity it generated for China internationally. Instead, we are offered what is essentially a piece of fiction, culled from a manuscript of a retired Chinese diplomat, which seems to be an attempt to turn what all published sources, and all known historical scholarship, portray as a major Chinese blunder into a great Chinese triumph. The silence is all the more surprising as Garver in his text makes numerous references to Leo Rose’s book, Nepal: Strategy for Survival, and there are other references too: “based on a personal conversation with Leo Rose.” In the acknowledgements he thanks Rose for having read and commented on some selected sections of the draft. In his book, Rose devotes three full pages to describe the June 28 border shooting, under the heading of “The Mustang Incident.” It is worth giving his assessment of it as a prelude to the rest of this article:
“The behaviour of both the Nepali and Chinese governments in the Mt Everest and Mustang incidents is curious indeed, and it is difficult to avoid the impression that much more lay behind these events than was apparent on the surface. Is it really possible that the Chinese expedition to Everest and the assault on an unarmed Nepali police party were unintentional infringements of Nepal’s rights and sensitivities? It seems most unlikely. It is far more reasonable to presume that these were deliberate provocations carried out in such a way as to constitute a subdued but pointed reprimand to the B.P. Koirala government, and a reminder of the ease with which China could create difficulties all along the border” (229–231).
So what is the truth? Some details are still disputed, but a 1960 British Foreign Office file in the National Archives in London (FO 152554 “Political Relations China”) has over 100 pages of information containing contemporaneous reports from the British ambassador and other officials. These are based on personal observations and conversations with B. P. Koirala and other political leaders and senior bureaucrats. This essay draws directly on details in the file, and also on statements and documents in China–South Asian Relations, 1947–1980, vol. 2, edited by Ravindra K. Jain, to describe what happened close to the Kora La Pass in northern Mustang on June 28, 1960 and to detail its diplomatic consequences. Particular reference will be made to two long reports about the incident from the British ambassador: Kathmandu Dispatch No. 28 of July 13, 1960 and Kathmandu Dispatch No. 31 of August 4, 1960.
The diplomatic build up to the incident
Three months before the incident, in March 1960, B. P. Koirala had visited China. The Chinese appeared not to be upset with him for continuing to resist their proposals to build a road from Lhasa to Kathmandu or for his criticism of China’s policy in Tibet. The Chinese were receptive to his concerns about the border, and on March 21, 1960 a boundary agreement was signed that set in motion the formal process of delineation and demarcation. Article 4 of this agreement stated: “The Contracting Parties have decided that in order to ensure tranquility and friendliness on the border, each side will no longer dispatch armed personnel to patrol the area on its side within 20 kilometres of the border, but only maintain its administrative and personnel and civil police there.” China’s claim to control all of Everest had already led to anti-China demonstrations in Nepal. After the visit it was not clear if this claim had been abandoned, but on April 26, during a short visit to Kathmandu, the Chinese prime minister, Chou En-lai, announced that Mao Tse-Tung had told B. P. Koirala during a private meeting that China could follow the Nepali delineation, which showed the mountain on the boundary line, and that this was now the Chinese government’s official position. Not all in Kathmandu were happy with this news as many saw it as a surrender of Nepal’s claim to the whole mountain. Presumably this is why B. P. Koirala did not disclose what Mao said to him on the issue when he returned to Kathmandu. Keeping anti-China feeling simmering strengthened his hand in dealing with other Chinese demands. The papers in the embassy file speak of “Chou En-lai being received in Kathmandu with correctness, but without enthusiasm.”
The program for the Chinese party included a visit to Pokhara. On arrival, “the Chinese noted a group of Khampa refugees who either by accident or design were collected on the airfield, and Chou had to be hurried away, in some trepidation, to the King’s bungalow on the shores of the lake.” His short visit included what is described as “typical Nepalese Army entertainment during which Chou En-lai applauded the performance of one Subedar [Officer] Bam Prasad.” No one there could have imagined that just two months later the officer would be killed by Chinese bullets on the Tibetan frontier in Mustang. The Chinese pressed for the signing of a “Treaty of Friendship and Non-Aggression,” but B. P. Koirala resisted, arguing “it would imply some differentiation between the Chinese and others which accorded ill with Nepal’s position of complete neutrality.” The Chinese had to be content with the signing of a treaty of “Peace and Friendship.”
On the evening prior to the Chinese party’s departure, a reception was held at which “Chou En-lai turned on the charm and walked among the guests carrying a bottle of Chinese liqueur and calling on one after the other to drink, and manfully drinking glass after glass of the fire water without any apparent outward effect.” Unfortunately, all the good will achieved evaporated a few weeks later when news reached Kathmandu that a Chinese party had begun an attempt on the Everest summit on May 17 and had succeeded ten days later. The authorities in Kathmandu were upset by China’s failure to seek consent to make the climb or even to inform them that it was taking place. Public opinion was inflamed and Rose has a footnote that states: “BP Koirala told newsmen on May 28 that China was under no obligation to inform Nepal about the expedition but maintained that this did not affect his government’s claim that Everest belonged to Nepal and to Nepal alone” (41, page 227). One can imagine that, given all that had gone before, this would not have been well received in Beijing.
This was the politico-strategic background to the shooting near the Kora La Pass in northern Mustang on the morning of June 28, 1960. The British embassy passed to London details of the incident as they emerged, including the ambassador’s two long personal dispatches referred to earlier. The file contains details of the messages and personal letters exchanged between B. P. Koirala and Chou En-lai, beyond those that I have seen published. Some of the information came from personal briefings to the ambassador from B. P. Koirala. A major complication in handling the diplomatic aftermath was that until July 10, 1960, there was no direct diplomatic representation of Nepal in Beijing or of China in Kathmandu. All the exchanges, some oral and some written, took place in Delhi between the Chinese ambassador, Mr. Pan Tzu-li, and the Nepali ambassador, General Daman Shamsher Rana, who received his instructions from Kathmandu partly by telegraph and partly by air courier.
Details of the incident and the diplomatic aftermath
The first indication the Nepal government received of impending trouble on the frontier came from the Indian embassy on the evening of June 26. Earlier that day a message from the raja of Mustang had been transmitted by radio from the Indian checkpost in Mustang, one of eighteen that had been established in the early 1950s to cover the main passes on Nepal’s northern frontier. (For details of these checkposts, see my article here.) The message was a request for 500 army reinforcements to deal with the sudden appearance of a large number of Chinese troops on the border. It was not clear if an incursion had taken place. On the same day in Delhi, the Chinese ambassador verbally briefed General Daman Shamsher Rana that Chinese troops had entered the 20 kilometer zone north of the frontier because of “[a] batch of rebel bandits who are making harassment within our territory close to the Sino-Nepalese border. This not only affects local public security, but also hampers the implementation of the Sino-Nepalese Agreement on the Boundary Question. We have decided to send troops to suppress them so as to ensure tranquility on the border between the two countries and so that Sino-Nepalese friendly relations will not be affected thereby” (Jain 328). Assurances were given that the border would not be crossed in pursuit and that Chinese troops would retire beyond the 20 kilometer zone as soon as the rebels were dealt with. The Chinese Foreign Ministry on June 30 issued a long statement on the incident that included full details of this briefing. When General Daman Shamsher passed this information to Kathmandu he was instructed to protest immediately in the strongest possible terms about the violation of the demilitarized zone.
On June 27, the day after Chinese troops appeared at the border, an order was passed to the Nepal Army commander attached to the Indian checkpost for security purposes to send out a party to verify the raja’s report. On the morning of June 28, the assembled group of 17 set out on horseback. Among the party were Nepal army soldiers from the checkpost security detachment, a customs officer, and some local residents, including a village headman who was familiar with the position of the traditional frontier. All were in civilian clothes and, in accordance with the border agreement with China, unarmed. On approaching the frontier they saw what they claimed were up to 2,000 Chinese soldiers. Three hundred yards short of the border, they came under fire. Subedar Bam Prasad was killed and another man wounded. The rest of the party dismounted and took what cover they could. Ten men, including the wounded man, and the horses were taken into Tibet under PLA control, as was the body of the Subedar. Six members of the party fled the scene and were able to bring the news to the outside world. By that evening full details of what had occurred had been sent to Kathmandu via the checkpost radio.
This speedy action gave the initiative to Nepal as it is clear from later events that Beijing first learned of the incident from foreign press reports. On the morning of June 29, a special air courier was sent to the Nepali embassy in Delhi with a message from B. P. Koirala to Chou En-lai. General Daman Shamsher Rana passed it to the Chinese ambassador for onward transmission to Beijing. It gave details of the incident and demanded an apology and the immediate release of all those captured. Chou En-lai’s response to B. P. Koirala of June 30, is worth giving in full:
Your Excellency’s letter of June 29, 1960 reached me at 10a.m. on June 30. Before I received Your Excellency’s letter, we had already learnt from foreign despatches the news that there had occurred on Sino-Nepalese border the killing of a Nepalese national by Chinese troops.
The Chinese Government is much concerned about this and has immediately contacted the local authorities for finding out the truth of this matter.
The Government of Nepal will be immediately informed as soon as a report is received.
If the unfortunate incident of the killing of a Nepalese national referred to in Your Excellency’s letter is true, the Chinese Government will express its deep regret. If it has actually happened that any Nepalese nationals have been detained, they will of course be released expeditiously. (Jain 350)
The details and tone of this letter were reflected in the official statement issued on June 30 by the Chinese Foreign Ministry. The statement said, “According to foreign news agency reports of June 29, an incident took place on the Sino-Nepalese border on June 28, in which Chinese troops killed and captured personnel of the Nepalese side. The Chinese government is deeply surprised at the news and extremely concerned over it.” The statement also repeated details from both B. P. Koirala’s message and Chou En-lai’s letter.
These were the opening salvos, and more exchanges were soon to follow. The first was a long letter from Chou En-lai on July 2:
I suppose Your Excellency has received my reply of June 30. The Chinese Government has now received a report from the frontier guards in the ARI district of China’s Tibet Region on the recent incident on the Sino-Nepal border. The course of the incident was as follows:
At 16.45 hour on June 28 a unit of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army suppressing Tibetan rebel bandits within our territory near the Sino-Nepal boundary discovered, at about one kilometer north of the Kore Pass, a group of men with horses advancing towards it. Mistaking them for Tibetan rebel bandits, the Chinese troops fired, killing one man, and captured ten (one of whom was wounded). It was then found that they were not Tibet’s rebel bandits but were Nepalese. It can be seen from the above factual account that was an unfortunate incident resulting entirely from misunderstanding.
This incident occurred at the point north of the Kore Pass, but not in the Mustang Area. According to the maps, exchanged between the Chinese and Nepal side in March this year, the Kore Pass lies to the north of the Sino-Nepal traditional boundary line. Therefore, the place of the incident is clearly within Chinese territory, and Chinese troops have not entered territory of the Kingdom of Nepal. Nevertheless this unexpected unfortunate incident was due to carelessness on the part of certain low ranking personnel of Chinese troops. The Chinese Government expresses deep regret at this, apologizes to His Majesty’s Government of Nepal and condoles on the unfortunate death. The Chinese Government has already instructed the troops in the locality to look at once into responsibility for the incident and to escort the 10 Nepalese personnel detained and send the dead body, together with the horses of these Nepalese personnel and all the articles taken along by them to Manipuri, 150 metres south-east of the Kore Pass at 1200 hours, Peking time on July 4. It is requested that the Nepalese side will send responsible personnel there at that time to take them back. The Chinese Government is also willing to accept compensation demand made by the Nepalese side. (Jain 331–333)
On July 4, immediately after this letter was released publicly, The Guardian newspaper carried a story titled “A Chinese apology,” which began: “An apology from the Chinese Government is almost as rare and splendid as the phoenix, and Mr. Chou En-lai, in his letter to the Prime Minister of Nepal, has turned his hand to this unaccustomed literary form with exquisite art. We are profoundly sorry, he says in effect, and it is such a pity that it is all your fault.” As will become clear, this characterization is a reasonably accurate summation of the position maintained by the Chinese in the aftermath of the shooting.
Another letter from Chou En-lai reached Kathmandu on July 4 carrying the message that there were no longer any Chinese troops within 10 kilometers of the border. B. P. Koirala replied to both letters on July 7. This is a summary of what he wrote:
“In his reply to Mr. Chou En-lai, Mr. Koirala strongly protested against Chinese violation of the Sino-Nepal Border Agreement concluded in March 1960 and demanded that Chinese troops should immediately withdraw from the demilitarized zone. The letter referred to the Nepal Government’s serious concern over the reported Chinese military build-up in the demilitarized zone in contravention of the Border Agreement, where it was clearly laid down that no armed forces would be deployed within 20 kilometres of the Nepal-Tibet frontier and that no military patrols would be undertaken. While appreciating the tone of the letters from Mr. Chou En-lai offering apologies for the Mustang incident, the letter said that there was absolutely no justification for the Chinese entry into the demilitarized zone without prior consent. It re-affirmed Nepal’s strict adherence to the Border Agreement and asked China also to scrupulously comply with its terms. It rejected once again China’s contention that the incident of June 28 resulting in the death of one Nepali and capture of ten others, took place within Chinese territory. This, it said, happened well within Nepal territory” (Jain 333).
Details of a further communication from B. P. Koirala are given in Dispatch 28 of July 13, 1960, which states:
“On the 11th of July, yet another Nepalese note complained that Chinese troops were still at Rasuwa, Riu and Larkya, all within a short distance of the frontier, and that Chinese troops had actually crossed the frontier at the Namja Pass and Mala Kharka, in which areas, the Nepalese claim there has been no Khampa activity. B.P. Koirala took time to compose a formal reply to this letter. The captured men were duly returned on July 4, and the body of Subedar Bam Prasad was cremated in Mustang on the 5th with military honours.”
In Dispatch 31 of August 4, 1960, the ambassador comments further on the context and content of this letter. He writes that the information of what was in this note had been given to him by the foreign secretary and that the exchange of these particular letters had not been published, “in the interest of keeping the temperature down and of not exacerbating the Chinese unduly.” The dispatch said that in the note B. P. Koirala had also asked “why the ten prisoners taken at Mustang had been interrogated and been forced to sign statements and what these statements contained. Mr Chou’s reply, dated 26th of July which is at present before the Nepalese cabinet, asserts that the men seen on the frontier were civilians, apologizes for ‘the mistake’ of interrogating the prisoners and gives a somewhat curious assurance that the signed statements [the contents of which were not explained] will never be used against His Majesty’s Nepalese Government.” (Presumably the information about the interrogations and statements came from the released prisoners who would have told the Nepali authorities exactly what they had been forced to sign.)
It is not surprising, given the anger against China that was prevalent in Kathmandu at the time, that the details of these two exchanges, notably the interrogation of the prisoners and the fact that they were forced to sign statements, were not generally known. It is a reasonable assumption that what the Chinese would have wanted in the statements was a confession that the incident had taken place on Chinese territory, hence the ambassador’s reference to “the curious assurance.” He could well have been hinting, with some justification, that it read like a veiled threat.
Chou En-lai replied to B. P. Koirala’s letter of July 7 in a long letter dated July 12, 1960. The key paragraphs follow:
Your Excellency’s two messages dated July 7 have been received. In your message, Your Excellency made a demand for compensation to the value of Rs. 50,000 for the losses incurred by the Nepalese side in the recent incident on the Sino-Nepalese border. The Chinese Government accepts this demand, and will remit the sum to His Majesty’s Government of Nepal in the immediate future. . . .
Your Excellency has in your message once again referred to the question of the place where this unfortunate incident occurred. I would like to reiterate to Your Excellency that the Chinese Government has confirmed, through repeated investigations, including on-the-spot investigations, that the Chinese troops engaged in suppressing rebel bandits operated in Chinese territory north of the Sino-Nepalese boundary and that this unfortunate incident in fact occurred at a place about one kilometer north of the Kore Pass within Chinese territory. Now, since the matter has concluded and Chinese Government has borne its due responsibility for the incident, I believe Your Excellency will surely agree that it would be meaningless and unprofitable for the two sides to continue to argue over the place of the incident.
As regards the entry of Chinese in areas close to the Sino-Nepalese boundary to suppress Tibetan rebel bandits, it was notified to His Majesty’s Government of Nepal beforehand on June 26 by the Chinese Government. In the notification, the Chinese Government specially emphasized that the Chinese troops would by no means cross the boundary to pursue the rebel bandits and that as soon as the task of suppressing them was completed, the Chinese troops would withdraw from the areas within twenty kilometres on the Chinese side of the boundary. This fully shows that the Chinese Government respects the Agreement on the Boundary Question and attaches great importance to Sino-Nepalese friendship. His Majesty’s Government of Nepal announced on June 28 that it had received the above-mentioned notification of the Chinese Government which was given rather late, only one day remove from the day the Chinese troops began their suppressing operations. His Majesty’s Government of Nepal was faced with difficulties and could not in time issue orders to make necessary arrangements in the areas on the Nepalese side of the boundary. This should be deemed a shortcoming. . . . (Jain 333–334)
In Dispatch 31 of August 4, the British ambassador records:
The existence of this letter became generally known in Kathmandu from about 16th of July, but the Government were strangely reticent about it for a week, although indications of the rough tenor of its contents leaked out. Its ultimate publication in the press revealed no compelling reason for this reticence, but I can only assume that the Prime Minister thought that the problem of replying to it raised questions of policy sufficiently serious to require careful deliberation with his ministers unaffected by the clamour of public comment. The problem lay in striking the right balance between conciliation and firmness, between the danger of offending China, against which Nepal is materially defenceless, and that of appearing too weak in the eyes of an excited public, of a watchful India only too prone to intervene and indeed, once again, of a China only too likely to take advantage of any obvious sign of weakness.
In his reply, sent on the 24th of July and revealed to Parliament on the following day, I think that Mr. Koirala has continued wisely, as before, fortiter in re, suaviter in modo. [Firm in action, gentle in manner.] In the light of the compensation paid and the Chinese admission of carelessness among low-ranking troops he is willing to agree that further argument about the location of the incident would be fruitless, but he maintains the claim that the incident occurred in Nepal and that incursion into the 20 Km. demilitarized zone was a violation of China’s agreement with Nepal and an action that should not be repeated without prior Nepalese agreement. He reciprocates Mr. Chou’s views on Sino-Nepalese friendship, with the added barb that this is vital for the peace of Asia and for the peace of the world.
The tone is that of equal speaking to equal and this can hardly be very acceptable to the Chinese. This tone does not in my view reflect undue confidence in interpreting Chinese policy.
Below are some verbatim extracts from B. P. Koirala’s letter of July 24:
It gives me much pleasure to acknowledge receipt of Your Excellency’s letter of July 12 1960, the contents of which have had my thorough and careful perusal.
In the first place I want to express my thanks for the promptitude of the Chinese Government in remitting a sum of Rs. 50,000 which we demanded as a token compensation for the material damages caused by the border accident [sic] in the Mustang Area. His Majesty’s Government of Nepal appreciates this readiness in paying reparation as evidence of your desire to maintain and further consolidate the friendship between our two countries.
As regards the place of incident it appears that the view of our two sides are at variance. But when I consider that the Chinese Government have stated that the incident has taken place on account of the carelessness of low ranking personnel of the Chinese Army and that Chinese Government have borne their responsibility, I agree with your view that it would not serve any gainful purpose to continue arguing over the incident. I want to place on record however that nothing has given His Majesty’s Government reason to change their stand that the incident took place on Nepalese territory.
In Your Excellency’s letter reference is made to the notification to His Majesty’s Government of June 26th concerning the entry of Chinese troops within an area of 20 kilometres from the border.
Your Excellency has admitted as a shortcoming that the notification took place only one day before the military actions started. In this connection I would recall that immediately upon the receipt of the notification of June 26 His Majesty’s Government have expressed the view that this unilateral decision on the part of the Chinese Government amounted to the violation of the Agreement on Boundary Question. While, therefore appreciating your frank admission of the shortcoming of the Chinese Government in regard to the short notice at which the action was taken, I would also emphasize that the unilateral action has in itself been a shortcoming on the part of the Chinese Government. Your Excellency will certainly agree with me that any unilateral action from either Government is definitely against not only the words but also the spirit of the Agreement. (Jain 336–337)
Dispatch 28 of July 13, 1960 also gave some interesting insights into B. P. Koirala’s thinking at the time and the relevant paragraph is worth quoting in full:
The Prime Minister has been meticulously careful to brief his small diplomatic corps about the uncertain development of events and has received all four resident ambassadors at Kathmandu successively on two separate occasions. His own view is that the incident was genuinely the result of a misunderstanding. He argues that if it were part of a deliberate policy of probing partly to find weak spots and test reactions, and partly to create and nourish a continual ferment of unease in this part of the world, the Chinese would have played a more procrastinating game. Subject to the apology which he has now received, and the compensation of which he has the promise, he was prepared to regard the incident as closed. He agrees that it might be unwise to press the Chinese to the point of their losing face more than they had already done by admitting error and tendering apology. Nevertheless, he is strongly pressing the point about the location of the incident, Chinese insistence on which has probably caused them more damage than any other aspect of the whole affair.
Where was Subedar Bam Prasad killed?
The last point made by B. P. Koirala to the ambassadors was loudly echoed by other prominent people in Kathmandu and in the local media. It is clear that China’s sustained and vehement insistence that Subedar Bam Prasad had been killed on Chinese territory is what irked the Nepalis most during this whole affair. Looking at the evidence, even over this distance of time, this was understandable. A local village headman, who was familiar with the position of the traditional frontier, had been included in the unarmed party sent to investigate the sudden arrival of the mass of Chinese troops. The small group who were able to escape capture reported within hours of the killing that they were fired on as they approached the Chinese troops on the frontier. They estimated the distance as 300 meters inside Nepali territory. On the other hand, all of Kathmandu knew that the Chinese government had first learned of the incident from the international media more than 24 hours after it happened and that for subsequent information it had to rely on local PLA commanders who in addition to being unfamiliar with the precise position of the frontier also knew their men had made a serious mistake that was very likely to lead to them being severely chastised for landing their government in a diplomatic mess. In sum, these were hardly men who could be trusted to give an independent and objective assessment.
So where was the Subedar killed? In answering this, I have been greatly helped by Galen Murton who has generously allowed me to use his photos of the area of the Kora La, and has shared his local knowledge with me. I am most grateful to him for his unstinting help though, clearly, responsibility for all judgments offered rests with me alone.
The Nepali case is clear-cut. What of the Chinese claim? A summation of it, based on what Chou En-lai wrote in his letters to B. P. Koirala, is as follows:
1. “At 16.45 hour on June 28 a unit of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army suppressing Tibetan rebel bandits within our territory near the Sino-Nepal boundary discovered, at about one kilometer north of the Kore Pass, a group of men with horses advancing towards it. Mistaki 1 ng them for Tibetan rebel bandits, the Chinese troops fired . . .”
2. “This incident occurred at the point north of the Kore Pass, but not in the Mustang Area. According to the maps, exchanged between the Chinese and Nepal side in March this year, the Kore Pass lies to the north of the Sino-Nepal traditional boundary line. Therefore, the place of the incident is clearly within Chinese territory . . .”
3. “I would like to reiterate to Your Excellency that the Chinese Government has confirmed, through repeated investigations, including on-the-spot investigations, that the Chinese troops engaged in suppressing rebel bandits operated in Chinese territory north of the Sino-Nepalese boundary and that this unfortunate incident in fact occurred at a place about one kilometer north of the Kore Pass within Chinese territory.”
The Nepalis also agreed that the maps exchanged in March 1960 showed that the Kora Pass lay to the north of the Sino-Nepal traditional boundary line. There was no dispute on this point. That said, Chou En-lai’s references to the maps do not appear to help the Chinese case in any way. Article III of the Nepal-China Border Treaty, signed on March 21,1960, begins: “Having studied the delineation of the boundary line between the two countries as shown on the maps mutually exchanged [for the maps submitted by the Chinese side, see attached Map 1; for the map submitted by the Nepalese side, see attached Map 2] and the information furnished by each side about the actual jurisdiction over the area bordering on the other country, the Contracting Parties deem that, except for discrepancies in certain sections, their understanding of the traditional customary line is basically the same.”
I doubt if the precision claimed by Chou En-lai was possible with either of these two single maps. If “one map” covered the entire frontier, it must have been on a very large scale. The 1961 maps, associated with the China-Nepal Treaty of October 5, 1961, but not referred to in the text of the treaty, had a scale of 1:500,000. Seven such maps were needed to cover the frontier. The detail on them is still hard to define with straight lines drawn between many features, rather than, for example, following ridges. This was understandable as, at this stage, the border had not been demarcated. It is only with the 1:50,000 scale maps that were integral to the China-Nepal Boundary Protocol of January 20, 1963 that more precise definition becomes possible. This protocol fixed the exact location of all 79 concrete border markers, including Number 24, at a distance of 2.7 kilometers north of the Kora La.
In sum, the Chinese, like the Nepalis, probably had to rely on a local man, perhaps a trader or herder, to show them the traditional border which fell south of the Kora La. But precisely where? This Google Earth screenshot is a helpful introduction to the local terrain.
The “Kora la large chorten” is on the pass itself, at a distance of 2.77 kilometers south of where the 1963 Protocol placed Border Pillar Number 24. According to Galen Murton, the Kora La is not a pass in the typical sense of there being a steep approach from either side, but rather a general space at which the climb from the Mustang Valley (which runs from Lo Manthang up through Choser and Nyechung) reaches the Tibetan Plateau and levels off. What is labeled as “Historical Frontier Small Chorten” is most likely, according to the maps exchanged between China and Nepal in March 1960, to have been the point that marked the traditional frontier. The distance between the two chortens is 1.5 kilometers. (The screenshot aspect is deceptive.) The “Nepal Gate” was built nine years ago by the Nepal government, in a meaningless position historically, against the wishes of the local people, but no doubt at some great cost. It is located 600 meters south of the small chorten. It is a very steep climb from the gate to the chorten. (A Mustang source indicates that locals may have recently “dismantled” the monument with a view to building another one in a more significant position.)
The following photographs help support my estimate of where Bam Prasad was killed. They also show how weak and inconsistent the Chinese claim was.
The above photo, looking northwest to north, shows the main chorten on the Kora La. North therefore is to the right. From this point it is a distance of 2.7 kilometers to the present border marker. To the south it is a distance of 1.5 kilometers to the small chorten that marked the traditional boundary.
The above photo, looking north to northwest, more than any other, demolishes the repeated Chinese claims that Subedar Bam Prasad was shot 1 kilometer north of the Kora La. A number of questions highlight this. The unarmed Nepali party knew the line of the traditional boundary. They would have known that the PLA soldiers were first seen at this point, and they would have expected to meet them in the same area. The reports of thousands of PLA soldiers being present had already engendered considerable fear among the local residents. Why would this small unarmed group have ridden past the small chorten that they knew marked the traditional frontier and then past the large chorten on the Kora La into totally featureless terrain? Common sense dictates that they would not have done so. On the PLA side, why would they have been in a defensive position in such terrain from where they could see nothing at all of the frontier which they were supposed to be guarding? There is surely only one place where they would have been: on the frontier by the small chorten where they could at least see the approaches to the border from the Nepali side. This photograph shows Chou En-lai’s impressive sounding words that the Chinese government has confirmed through “repeated investigations, including on-the-spot investigations” that the Subedar was killed 1 kilometer north of where this photo was taken, are, in terms of both good military practice and common sense, to be no more than bombast.
The above photo, looking south, shows the view from Kora La toward the small chorten that marked the traditional frontier, 1.5 kilometers away. Its location is round to the left beyond the bend of the gentle descent seen in the photo.
The above photo, looking south toward the Annapurna and Dhaulagiri ranges, shows the small chorten that marked the traditional frontier. It is located at the point where the climb from the Mustang Valley (from the right) begins to level out. The steep descent toward Lo Manthang starts from the end of the short stretch of level snow-covered road on the right, which is better seen in this photo.
Any PLA force deployed to the border for observation or guarding would have had to position a proportion of the force on the steep slopes forward of this point to see the trail from Nepali territory and to offer an effective defense. It is likely, therefore, that it was on these forward slopes that the PLA soldiers were first seen by the raja of Mustang’s men and, two days later, by the small party led by Subedar Bam Prasad. From this chorten it is a very gentle climb to the large chorten marking what is generally accepted to be the historical Kora La.
The above photo, looking north, shows the “Nepal Gate.” The small chorten lies about 600 meters to the north. It is along this trail that the unarmed party sent to investigate the arrival of PLA soldiers on the frontier would have traveled. After they rode round the bend to the right, they would have hit the steep ascent toward the traditional frontier marked by the chorten. It is most likely, at a point 300 meters from the top, probably just as they saw the PLA soldiers massed on the forward slopes in front of the point that marked the frontier, that they were fired on. Subedar Bam Prasad was killed instantly and another member of the party was wounded. The party would have dismounted rapidly, but the PLA soldiers must have moved quickly down the slope to capture ten of them. Fortunately for Nepal, six members of the party reacted even more speedily and made their escape on their horses down this track to give the news of what had happened to Kathmandu, and ultimately to the outside world, before anyone in Beijing was alerted to the incident. That detail raises yet another question. Why was the information relayed back to Beijing so slowly? Why did it require a prompt from the Chinese authorities to elicit the detail required? This reluctance to report is not, to say the least, what you would expect from military commanders who were confident that they had acted properly and had nothing to fear.
Is it possible that this incident influenced China to be more generous to Nepal when it came to settling the 1963 border demarcation? As the above image from one of the 1963 maps shows, Border Pillar Number 24 is 4.2 kilometers north of where the maps exchanged by Nepal and China as part of March 1960 Boundary Agreement showed the border to be, and 2 kilometers north of where China falsely, in my view, said that that Subedar Bam Prasad was shot. As can be seen, seven of the 79 border markers, Number 21 to 27, demarcate this short stretch of the border, which, at the very least, suggests a determination that there should be no more “carelessness on the part of certain low ranking personnel of Chinese troops” on this part of the frontier.
The impact of the killing within Nepal
Any account of this incident would be deficient unless it included details of its impact on the people of Mustang and on the political debate in Kathmandu. Great anger was expressed about the killing on the streets of Kathmandu, exacerbated by the repeated Chinese claims that the killing had taken place on Chinese territory. The local media gave full vent to this. The tone was set by a statement in the Nepalese Senate on July 1 by Home Minister S. P. Upadhyaya, extracts of which are given here:
The Government had received a report that the Chief of Mustang had fled the territory after the Chinese attack on June 28 and that the people, in panic, were fleeing to the south.
He said that the Government had decided to strengthen the border defences as it felt that no friendship was greater than “our independence and for the sake of friendship we cannot sacrifice our independence”. The firing on and killing of Nepalese and violation of Nepalese territory had been the Chinese reply to “our Friendship and Peace Treaty”.
He added that Nepal had known about the Chinese military build-up on her border and near it. The Government had received reports about it from time to time and was all the time taking the necessary steps and had drawn China’s attention to these reports. “Every time we did that, the Chinese assured us that the Chinese troops would never cross into Nepal and always stressed their friendship for Nepal. When the Prime Minister, Mr. B.P. Koirala, visited earlier this year, he had also talked about this build-up with Mr Chou En-lai and the latter had given the same assurance. Then, Mr. Chou En-lai came to Kathmandu in April, 1960, and again this issue was discussed with him, and again the same assurance was given. And so, foreign bullets were fired upon unarmed Nepalese and killed one of them.”
He warned “certain elements in the country” against acts “that might be treason”. There might be some elements in the country who would under-rate the incident but he would warn them that his Government would not tolerate such “treason”.
He declared that Nepal demanded every satisfaction and reserved the right to claim compensation, the return of the body of the Nepalese official killed and those captured by Chinese.
He said that his report was that the 17 captured Nepalese and their horses had been taken to the Brahmaputra Headquarters of the Chinese Army. The body of the Subedar (officer) killed had been dragged to the Tibetan side of the border.” (Jain 330–331)
Media reaction to the incident and the political turmoil it generated are well covered in the two long personal dispatches from the ambassador, as illustrated by these verbatim extracts from Dispatch 28 of July 13:
The local Nepalese newspapers have been uninhibited in their nationalistic sentiments. The change that has come over the tone of the press is remarkable and might indeed have gone further but for the obvious tendency of Indian journalists to egg their Nepalese colleagues on even further by an annoying post-facto assumption of greater knowledge of the true nature of Chinese aggressiveness. In Parliament too, where the opposition forced a debate, feeling against the Chinese ran high. The leader of the Opposition, Bharat Shamsher, claimed that the violation of the border was deliberate and demanded stronger military precautions and the cancellation of the frontier agreement with China. Some leading members of the ruling Nepali Congress have been much more outspoken than their leader and this has given rise once again to the suggestion that there is a difference of opinion in the party. It may be, however, that Mr. Koirala is quite happy to have his men cry halloo while he himself assumes an Olympian air of comparative detachment and calm consideration.
The Communists have naturally been calling for a more measured approach to the incident and have been making what excuses they could for the Chinese but, for once, they appear to have been silenced by a fairly general flood of execration. Some Communists, including even one Senator, were in fact arrested by the police after public speeches on the subject and, except for the Senator, remain in jail.
Meanwhile, the border area remains disturbed. The population of Mustang apparently showed a tendency to move south, the Raja himself having reportedly set the example. This might give rise to a difficult situation in view of the doctrine of effective administration rashly included in the border agreement. Troops from Pokhara have, however, been moved into the Mustang salient to reassure the people and a three day air-lift (of some 18 Dakota sorties) has taken place thus depleting the Pokhara garrison. The delicate economic balance of the frontier area, already seriously disturbed by Chinese measures in Tibet, must have suffered further deterioration and it is significant that the government are already seeking new sources of supply of salt. Refugees too, about whose existence the Nepalese Government has hitherto been very reticent, have been coming into Nepal from the north in increasing numbers. Official reticence has been largely ascribable to the lack of suitable land, not already occupied by Nepalese, for the settlement of refugees and to the obvious difficulties of caring actively for the refugees when the Government can do so little for its own citizens.
At the moment of going to press, the latest atmosphere regarding the Mustang incident is given in a report of yesterday’s debate in the senate in which Mr. Subba Shamsher of the Gorkha Parishad, the main opposition party, deplored the incident, described it as an aggression and an offence to the sovereignty of Nepal, stated that apology alone was not enough, demanded the surrender to Nepal of the guilty person and tabled a motion on military security provisions for the northern frontier. Mr. Lakshman Jang Bahadur, a nominated senator, asked the government to say whether or not the Chinese action constituted an act of aggression. If so, he went on to say ‘We must fight it to the last drop of our blood’. This view was widely supported. Mr. Shambu Ram Shrestha, the Communist Senator who was arrested for a few hours after the incident, deplored the happenings in Mustang but pointed out that the Chinese had already apologized. If the Khampas had been carrying out military activity from Nepalese soil action should be taken against them. Replying, the Prime Minister said that there was no reason why the Mustang incident should embitter relations with China. The Chinese Government had apologized. Their assertion that the events took place in Chinese territory seemed to have been based on an incorrect report. There would be no rupture of relations between China and Nepal. He was satisfied with his correspondence with Mr. Chou. The motion was defeated.
Mr. Koirala appears to me to be handling this matter with much skill and a nicely calculated balance of conciliation and firmness, both applied in exactly the right places.
Further insight on media comments is given in Dispatch 31 of August 4:
The press, unconstrained by the responsibility which weighs upon the Prime Minister continues to be heavily critical of China. The compensation paid has been described as ‘smacking of the arrogance of an unrepentant big brother’. Faith in Chinese assurances, in spite of honeyed Chinese words, remains generally shaken. The right-wing newspaper Rastrabandi, taking its cue from Bharat Shamsher the leader of the opposition, demands that Nepal should revoke the broken frontier agreement, defend her borders and join other countries in South East Asia to face Chinese expansion. The opposition are making the most of reports of further Chinese incursions, removal of boundary stones and tales by refugee Tibetans, to all of which the Prime Minister presents a stolid defence of lack of confirmation. I have not, however, seen any attempt to deny reports of increasing Chinese military concentrations at such places as Tingri, Rongbuk, Kyirang and Khojarnath.
The many instances of high praise for B. P. Koirala stand out in all the ambassador’s dispatches. King Mahendra is never mentioned, so what of him during the period? He had left Kathmandu for a visit to Japan and the United States on April 10, 1960. He returned to Kathmandu on July 28. There is no record of him expressing any views on how B. P. Koirala handled this affair, but on all previous form he was unlikely to have enjoyed the praise lavished on him. Before departing for a state visit to the United Kingdom on October 6, 1960, he had already decided to seize absolute power by means of a coup using the instrument of the army. The political brief for his visit from the British Foreign Office stated that the B. P. Koirala–led government “has shown a welcome determination to tackle the difficult problems with which they are faced in trying to create a modern system of administration and to bring about social and economic reforms in an extremely backward country. There is little doubt that this Government represents Nepal’s best hope for the future.” Thirty-six days after his return on December 15, 1960, Mahendra launched his coup, which ultimately gave him absolute authority over the entire machinery of government. B. P. Koirala and most of his ministers were arrested and jailed; in the deposed prime minister’s case, indefinitely. Reading through the annual British embassy reports written during the 1960s, concern about Gurkha recruiting appeared to be all that mattered: there is barely a word for the incarcerated B. P. Koirala, and of sympathy, none. So much for the man whom British diplomats lavished so much praise on for his handling of the Mustang incident and whose government they judged to represent Nepal’s best hope for the future. So much for fortiter in re, suaviter in modo! (See my article here for details of Mahendra’s U.K. visit and coup.)
The assessment of Leo Rose?
In the light of all of the above, how do we assess the views of Leo Rose? (Given earlier but repeated here for ease of reference):
“The behaviour of both the Nepali and Chinese governments in the Mt Everest and Mustang incidents is curious indeed, and it is difficult to avoid the impression that much more lay behind these events than was apparent on the surface. Is it really possible that the Chinese expedition to Everest and the assault on an unarmed Nepali police party were unintentional infringements of Nepal’s rights and sensitivities? It seems most unlikely. It is far more reasonable to presume that these were deliberate provocations carried out in such a way as to constitute a subdued but pointed reprimand to the BP Koirala government, and a reminder of the ease with which China could create difficulties all along the border.”
In his meeting with the Kathmandu ambassadors, reported in Dispatch 28 of July 13, 1960, B. P. Koirala entertained no such thoughts or doubts about Chinese motivations. His view was that “the incident was genuinely the result of a misunderstanding. He argues that if it were part of a deliberate policy of probing partly to find weak spots and test reactions, and partly to create and nourish a continual ferment of unease in this part of the world, the Chinese would have played a more procrastinating game.”
Perhaps he was correct but, having looked at all the evidence, it is hard to dismiss Rose’s view as being entirely without foundation. As outlined in the introduction to this essay, B. P. Koirala had given the Chinese plenty of cause to believe that their interests in Nepal would be better served by a prime minister or head of state who was more responsive to their needs rather than, as they saw it, to India’s. We can assume that the killing of the Subedar was a mistake and not part of any plan. As Chou En-lai wrote in his letter of July 2, “this unexpected unfortunate incident was due to carelessness on the part of certain low ranking personnel of Chinese troops.”
Doubt stems from two questions. First, what was the real reason for the Chinese deploying large numbers of troops across such a wide stretch of the Nepali frontier in June 1960? Second, where is the evidence for all these “Tibetan rebel bandits” that Chou En-lai makes so much of in his letters, who allegedly were operating just north of Mustang and in adjacent areas?
Resistance to the Chinese invasion of Tibet was at its strongest in Kham in eastern Tibet, and gradually spread west toward Lhasa. CIA support to the resistance started in the mid 1950s with the recruitment of some Tibetan refugees in India for training in Colorado prior to inserting them back into Tibet by parachute to make contact with local resistance groups and assess their armament needs. This was followed by numerous airdrops of weapons and other military supplies, mostly well to the east of Lhasa. However, by mid 1960, in the face of a fierce and highly effective Chinese military reaction, based on the deployment of large numbers of highly trained combat troops and a rapid road building program, resistance within Tibet had mostly come to an end, and the CIA-inserted agents were either killed or had withdrawn to India. Other guerrillas also made their way back into India. It was a very long way to reach west Nepal from the main centers of the resistance. Escape through India offered a much shorter route. Refugees had started to come from Tibet into places like Mustang and Dolpo after the flight of the Dalai Lama to India on March 31, 1959, and armed bands of brigands had been a problem in the areas north of both districts for many years and may well have been among them. Some isolated groups of the Chushi Gangdrug, like the Nam Tso group, may have escaped this way but very few, and by mid 1960 they would have been in no state, either in terms of morale or firepower, to take offensive action against PLA soldiers, nor make any raids from Nepali territory. As stated earlier, there is no record of any such raids before 1961.
How did the situation portrayed justify the deployment of thousands of troops to the Mustang border in June 1960, and to other adjacent areas as highlighted in B. P. Koirala’s letters? And how do we explain the great fuss that Chou En-lai made about it in his letters to the Nepali prime minister? By this stage, the Chinese knew that the center of Tibetan resistance outside Tibet was in the Darjeeling-Kalimpong area of India. Nepal was not involved in any way. What is most striking is the stark contrast on the one hand between this loud public protestation when the threat from Nepali territory was minimal, and on the other the prolonged public silence during King Mahendra’s period as an absolute ruler when the Chinese knew that from 1961 Mustang was being used as a base for raids against PLA targets in Tibet, and that from April 1964 Tibetan agents trained by the CIA were being infiltrated into Tibet from northeast Nepal.
It is possible that the primary aim of this large deployment of troops was to secure and close the border areas as a means of signaling and establishing Chinese control. From the earliest stages of its military occupation of Tibet, China’s cutting off of Tibet’s traditional commercial links with Nepali traders in the areas of the northern border was a high priority. By doing this, China achieved another of its main objectives: establishing total control over Tibet’s nomadic population. However, Article IV of the China-Nepal Boundary Agreement specifically banned armed personnel from operating within 20 kilometers of the border. This would have left the main passes clear for cross-border trade to continue on the same basis as before, something that China was determined to stop. Even though there was an assurance that Chinese troops would withdraw after “the suppression of the rebel bandits,” this would again leave the passes open. Perhaps, therefore, the repeated stress in Chou En-lai’s letters on the threat posed by these “Tibetan rebel bandits making harassment within our territory” was intended to provide a cover to circumvent the 20 kilometer border restriction zone. It also had the additional advantages of distracting attention from the killing of the unarmed Subedar and of weakening and embarrassing B. P. Koirala. From what is published, no definitive judgment can be made on any of these issues, but, in the circumstances described, Leo Rose’s word “curious” does seem to be particularly apt.
I am most grateful to Galen Murton for allowing me to use his excellent photos of the area of the Kora La, and for so generously sharing his local knowledge with me.
Cover photo: Boundary Marker Pillar Number 24 of 79 on the Sino-Nepal border in northern Mustang, looking south into Nepal. The location of this post, as with the 78 others, was formally established by the China-Nepal Boundary Protocol, January 20, 1963. It is a distance of 2.7 kilometers to the Kora La and 4.2 kilometers to the point that was previously recognized as the traditional border.