PLA steps up drive to recruit Tibetans
China’s military has stepped up efforts to recruit more Tibetans amid the dragging border standoff with India on the Line of Actual Control (LAC), holding special recruitment drives across the Tibet Autonomous Region since the beginning of the year, people familiar with the developments said.
People’s Liberation Army (PLA) officials have criss-crossed the Tibet Autonomous Region to hold recruitment drives and to pick up Tibetan recruits who were already at PLA camps, the people cited above said on condition of anonymity.
There are also reports the People’s Liberation Army intends to create a Special Tibetan Army Unit, the people said, citing intelligence reports and communications intercepts from three separate intelligence agencies.
If this were to go ahead, this would be the first PLA formation comprising soldiers from aspecific ethnicity, the people added.
People’s Liberation Army officials from Lhasa visited Rudok town in Ngari Prefecture in the far west of Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) in the third week of February to recruit Tibetans as soldiers, according to an intelligence report.
These officials later travelled to Zanda or Tsamda County, one of the border counties of TAR to select Tibetan recruits from several PLA camps for possible induction into the special unit, the report said.
The PLA also reportedly carried out a recruitment drive in Lhasa to induct a sizeable number of Tibetans. This drive was conducted against the backdrop of the standoff in Ladakh and the PLA is expected to raise more border defence regiments comprising Tibetans, the people said.
Security officials in New Delhi have been keeping a close watch on these developments, which come at a time when the disengagement process along the LAC has stalled after a limited drawdown of troops, armoured formations and artillery on the north and south banks of Pangong Lake in February.
The latest meeting of senior Indian and Chinese military commanders held on April 9 ended without any forward movement on disengagement at other friction points such as Depsang, Hot Springs and Gogra, though the two sides agreed to maintain stability on the ground and avoid any new incidents.
“These new recruitment drives are being held at a time when there are reports that mainstream Chinese troops from lower altitudes faced problems during their deployment in Tibet. We have intercepts showing their troops suffered from health problems such as severe mountain sickness and high altitude pulmonary oedema,” said an official.
“It is also meant to send a message to India and to Tibetans in India,” the official added.
According to reports in the PLA Daily, China’s military has been introducing guidelines to prevent troops serving on the Tibetan plateau from getting altitude sickness. “Altitude sickness is a common problem that has been affecting troops stationed on the plateau for a long time,” an unnamed army officer was quoted as saying by PLA Daily.
Last August, India deployed the Special Frontier Force (SFF), a secret paramilitary force comprising ethnic Tibetans, for an operation to take over strategic heights on the south bank of Pangong Lake. A Tibetan soldier was killed in a landmine blast during the operation and senior Indian officials attended his funeral – the first acknowledgement of the SFF being used along the LAC and a move seen as a signal to China.
The people said the special recruitment drives are meant to induct Tibetans into the PLA and not the Tibetan militia units, which play a role in patrolling, logistics and transporting supplies using mules and horses. These militia units specialise in operating at high altitudes and their training too has been intensified since last year, according to reports in China’s state media.
According to China’s official statistics from 2010, there were 2.1 million Han servicemen, compared to 4,300 Tibetans. More recent figures aren’t readily available.
India-based Tibet specialist Claude Arpi said altitude sickness or lack of oxygen has been an issue with the PLA. Unlike Indian soldiers, most PLA soldiers aren’t trained enough to acclimatise to high altitude.