LHASA - At the foot of the stunning red-and-white Potala Palace, under the five-star flag, pilgrims prostrate themselves on the ground, falling to their knees and then lying flat on their stomachs.
It is a usual, quiet Sunday morning in Lhasa. Devout Buddhists are constantly seen, walking clockwise around the holy Potala and the Porgor Street near the Jokhang Temple. But Monday will be somewhat unique.
The signing of the agreement on the peaceful liberation of Tibet on May 23, 1951 was the beginning of an endless debate among politicians and academia throughout the world over Tibet's status and the 14th Dalai Lama who went into exile in India eight years later.
The document, known as the 17-point agreement, was signed between the Chinese central government and representatives sent by the 14th Dalai Lama to decide the plateau region's future. According to the document, the Tibetan people should "unite and drive out imperialist aggressive forces from Tibet and return to the big family of the People's Republic of China." The document further said the Tibetan local government should assist the People's Liberation Army (PLA) to enter Tibet and consolidate the national defense. It also pledged to keep the status of the Dalai Lama and ensure religious freedom in Tibet.
In matters relating to various reforms in Tibet, it said Tibet's local government should carry out reforms of its own accord, and, when the people raised demands for reform they should be settled by means of consultation with the leading personnel of Tibet. The agreement was followed, five months later, by the arrival of PLA troops in Lhasa on October 26.
Trinley Dondrup, 80, said he was "secretly delighted" at the PLA's coming. A serf sold to a local aristocratic family near the Potala, he was constantly whipped for minor offences and in dire need of a full meal and his freedom.
The number of serfs and slaves accounted for 95 percent of the Tibetan population in 1951. The lords, including the Dalai Lama's relatives, owned all the land, forests, rivers and slaves. The lords could torture and even kill the serfs and slaves freely, though all were devout Buddhists.
When the PLA troops arrived in Lhasa, Trinley Dondrup said he saw "men and women in uniforms way different from the Tibetan robes...It was the first time I ever saw anyone without a cloak on. At first sight I thought they were naked."
Tseten Dorje's first impression of the soldiers, however, was frightening. "Rumors had it that the PLA were cannibals -- some of them wore face masks that kept them from eating humans alive," said Tseten Dorje, 76. Those frightening cannibals, he said, turned out to be friendly and even offered candies and biscuits to the children.
Unlike other troops, -- such as the British, these soldiers never plundered local Tibetan's food. Instead, they planted wheat themselves, according to Tseten Dorje. Today, the face masks that young Tseten Dorje took as "bridles" are popular among the Tibetans as effective protection from ultraviolet radiation.
In 1951, Tseten Dorje was an actor at a Tibetan drama troupe. He is the same age as the 14th Dalai Lama. The Dalai Lama, 16 years old at the time, did not witness the PLA's arrival. He was staying in Dromo, today's Yadong County on the China-India border, perplexed over whether he should go into exile to India or the United States. But it was the Dalai Lama himself who decided to send negotiators to Beijing after he obtained more information about what was going on.
Several months later, he was further assured after the central government sent a representative to Yadong to explain to him the signing process of the 17-point agreement. Then the Dalai Lama decided to return to Lhasa.
On October 24, the Dalai Lama said in a telegram to Mao Zedong that he supported the leadership of the central government led by the Chinese Communist Party. "Tibet's local government, monks and people supported stationing of the PLA in Tibet."
This, he said, was to consolidate national defense, drive out imperialist powers and protect the sovereignty of China's territory. But after his exile to India in 1959, the Dalai Lama insisted the agreement had been signed under duress. In his autobiography, "My Land and My People," he said it was a "terrible shock" when he heard the 17-point agreement over the radio. Kyizom Gyaltsen Phuntsog, however, said otherwise.
"When our five-member delegation arrived in Beijing, Zhou Enlai personally welcomed us at the railway station," he said. "We had pleasant and candid talks and exchanged ideas freely. No one forced us to say or do anything."
Kyizom Gyaltsen Phuntsog was an aide to Ngapoi Ngawang Jigme, Tibet's chief negotiator to Beijing in 1951. Ngapoi Ngawang Jigme himself wrote in an article entitled "Return to the warm embrace of the Motherland" published in 1981: "We held earnest and friendly negotiations on the basis of equality and consultation...and correctly resolved all complicated issues according to the policy of the Chinese Communist Party on resolving issues related to domestic ethnic groups and in line with the special conditions in Tibet."
The Dalai Lama was later to become director of the Preparatory Committee for the Tibet Autonomous Region, and vice-chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress, China's top legislative body. He was the first Dalai Lama in history to take the post of a state leader of China.
Canadian scholar Tom Grunfeld, in his book "The Making of Modern Tibet," questioned the Dalai Lama's denunciation of the 17-point agreement. Had the document been signed under duress and had the Dalai Lama's denunciation been true," the Dalai Lama would have to disavow the agreement with Beijing and appeal for aid from the United Nations and the United States," Grunfeld wrote. In any event, a new chapter was opened.