Tibetan Soldiers in The PLA

Training in Tibet: how many Tibetan soldiers?
By Claude Arpi
April 29, 2014

I post below an article published in China Daily about the participation of Tibetan soldiers in the People's Liberation Army (PLA).

Without going into the details of the article, it appears that the PLA is using more and more 'local' Tibetans in border areas (with India), not just in Yunnan.

For China, it makes sense as these recruits are able to speak the local language (one can seriously doubt the assertion of the reporter that someone from Chamdo can't understand someone from Shigatse and therefore both have to communicate in Mandarin).

The induction of Tibetans into the PLA however raises a larger question: does the PLA 'trust' Tibetans to defend China's borders?

It is clear that the Tibetans mentioned in the China Daily's article serve at a lower level. 
How many senior officers belonging to the so-called minorities serve in the PLA?
Still very few.

Let us not forget that ALL the 67 senior PLA officers who are member of the CCP's Central Committee are Han Chinese.

Another issue, what will happen if a solution is one day found between Dharamsala and Beijing?
Presume that Beijing agrees to something like the Middle Path advocated by the Dalai Lama.
In 2003, I questioned the Dalai Lama on this issue.

I asked  "What do you mean by 'genuine autonomy' for Tibetans within the People’s Republic of China?"

The Dalai Lama answered:

          Foreign Affairs and defense will be carried by the Central government [Beijing]. In other words, Tibetans should have the final authority in all the matters that they can handle better. For example, for large scale factories, we might not be able to manage, so we will take Chinese expertise and help. Of course, for Foreign and Defense, which are themselves large subjects, we need the help of the Chinese.

I further asked: "Suppose tomorrow, the Chinese accept your formula and you leave with them defense matters. The next day, they plan a war against India. What will you do in such a case?"

After seriously thinking, the Tibetan leader answered:

As a Tibetan, it is impossible to think of shooting an Indian. In fact, once a few Indian journalists came here, they were seating where you are today and I explained to them the concept of
'genuine autonomy'. I told them jokingly “it is unthinkable for a Tibetan to open fire towards India, so let the Chinese do that”.
It was a joke (laughing).

But in case such a serious situation develops, of course, I will try my best to cool down the conflict, first as a person devoted to peace and against violence, I will express myself and try [to solve the conflict].

Then the best part of my life has been spent in India. India is also the home of our spirituality, the home of Buddhadharma. For me, the Sino-Indian relations are so important; conflict should be avoided at any cost. It is what I think.

It is one of the issues that Tibetans in exile should think about.

Today, many of the refugees in India serve in outfits associated with the Indian Army. If one day, the Dalai Lama's 'Middle Path' is acceptable to China, will these jawans return to Tibet and serve under the PLA?

It is of course a hypothetical question.

An Uyghur Officer in Ngari

Another interesting development: the South Xinjiang Military District (opposite India in Ladakh) has a new Deputy Commander.

The name of this Senior Colonel (corresponding to a Brigade Commander) is 哈里木拉提 · 阿不都 (Habimulati Abdul Rehman?).

Habimulati Abdul Rehman is an ethnic Uighur, born in Urumqi, Xinjiang in 1961.
According to his bio, he got a bachelor degree in military high-tech applications and management from the prestigious Shijiazhuang Army Command College.

He also served as head of the South Xinjiang Military District’s Political Department.
No Tibetans seems to have reach this level so far.

Here is the China Daily's article: 

Tibetan soldiers strengthen top regiment

April 26, 2014
China Daily

Seven years of operating cannons and hauling self-carried missiles in the People's Liberation Army have left calluses on Tashi Phuntsog's palms and fingers.

His arms show scars from numerous military exercises.

Born and raised in a farmer's family in Shigatze, the second-largest city in the Tibet autonomous region, Tashi Phuntsog, 25, a member of the Tibetan ethnic group, never had a chance to attend high school because of financial difficulties at home.

At 15, after graduating from a rural middle school, he began studying traditional Tibetan painting to decorate houses. He managed to excel in the technique after three years and became known for his craft in nearby neighbourhoods.

"I could earn about 200 yuan ($32) a day painting exterior walls," he said. "It was a relatively decent income for local Tibetans. But I knew my body would not be able to sustain the labor when I hit 35."
Curious about the thousands of businessmen from the Han ethnic group in Tibet, he also wanted to know what was happening in the outside world.

In 2007, Tashi Phuntsog got an opportunity to change his life, and he took it. He enlisted in the army.
In the seven years since, he has cultivated his literacy and become an outstanding soldier. He was deployed to an artillery regiment of the Chengdu Military Command and stationed in eastern Yunnan province.

Among the 1,500 soldiers in his unit are members of at least six ethnic groups - including Tibetan, as well as Yi and Miao from Yunnan, Sichuan and Guizhou provinces, said Zhu Jiang, the regiment's political instructor.

The regiment was named a role model for the army, with soldiers from several ethnic groups excelling as they fulfill their duty of safeguarding the 4,000-kilometer stretch of China's national border in Yunnan.

Learning Mandarin

In 1998, the regiment was singled out by Jiang Zemin, then chairman of the Central Military Commission and Chinese president, as an example of how to improve military training and combat effectiveness.

But many ethnic minority soldiers must first learn Mandarin, an infrequently used language in some minority areas. Overcoming language barriers allows them to spend more time in military training.
When Tashi Phuntsog first arrived at the regiment's camp, he was usually quiet. His commander, Xu Guiping, noticed and presented him with a Tibetan-Mandarin dictionary. He had to start from the basic pinyin system based on faint memories from his middle school days.

Xu would inquire every time they met whether Tashi Phuntsog had completed his homework of copying pinyin and Chinese characters.

Chime Drolgar [Dolkar], a 22-year-old female Tibetan in the regiment, said she studied Mandarin on her own at night after fellow soldiers fell asleep. "You have to go faster when left behind," she said.

As they spoke different dialects, Chime Drolgar could not understand another Tibetan woman, Gondro Drolma, who is from Qamdo [Chamdo] in eastern Tibet. They turned to Mandarin to communicate.

Sometimes, Chime Drolgar would invite other Tibetan soldiers, including Gondro Drolma and Galsang Lhamo, to learn their new language at the library, staying up until the lights were switched off at 11 pm.

Tashi Phuntsog and others had mastered the basics of their new language after a year, and even started to joke with other soldiers.

Lhagpa Dondrub, a 25-year-old from Tibet, was promoted to company commander based on his excellent year-end performance and sent to a military school to further his studies.

Dreams and reality

Last year, 15 women were enlisted from Xigaze, along with another 55 men, said Chime Drolgar. She is now in her second year and training to launch anti-tank missiles.

She said many of her friends dream of joining the army to broaden their horizons and change their destiny. Many might otherwise become herdswomen. A popular drama about young Chinese female soldiers inspired her to try for the army, she said.

Believing that her family would not support her decision, Chime Drolgar filled out a military application form in secret and took the test. But she miswrote her name on the answer sheet and worried about being disqualified.

The local soldier recruitment office suggested that her family drive to catch up with the examiners on their way to Lhasa, capital of the autonomous region, to make the correction.

With little choice, Chime Drolgar called her oldest brother for help, and her sheet was intercepted and revised at the last minute. That night, Chime Drolgar talked to her parents to convince them.
Life in the regiment was nothing like home for Chime Drolgar, the youngest of eight siblings who was frequently excused from housework. She now has to do everything on her own, including making her bed in strict accordance with regimental requirements.

Useful attributes

Ethnic minority soldiers seem to naturally possess physical advantages that an artillery regiment requires, Zhu said.

"For example, Tibetan soldiers have wonderful endurance for tough running and carrying missiles. Kids in Yi ethnic villages throw rocks to direct sheep, and as soldiers are particularly good at throwing hand grenades, pretty far and accurately. Those are desirable capabilities because an artilleryman needs to take aim at flying targets," Zhu said.

In his first year, Tashi Phuntsog was tasked with loading cartridges into cannons because of his muscular arms. He also attracted his commanders' attention when he won first prize in a 5,000-meter foot race the next year.

He was transferred to a self-carried missile company and trained to use a more complicated weapon that can hit a flying object at 5,000 meters.

The once-shy soldier started to ask questions of commanders and fellow soldiers to figure out solutions to technical problems. While other soldiers were playing basketball, he could be seen studying a book.

Based on his excellent performance in tests last year, Tashi Phuntsog was given a top noncommissioned-officer award by the Central Military Commission. He is confident of further promotions.

"My goal is to serve in national defense. I must impress the regimental leadership," Tashi Phuntsog said. "Two of my fellow soldiers have been promoted. I cannot be left behind."

NOTE-- Claude Arpi is a Tibet expert, writer and he regularly writes about Tibet and China. Click here to stay tuned to his daily blog updates.

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