Ngapo and Mao in 1951
As Dharamsala mourns the death of Ngapo Ngawang Jigme, one could ask, what is the need?
He has always been on the wrong side of History. We mentioned the signature of the 17-Point Agreement (without referring to the Dalai Lama or the Lhasa government) in an earlier posting, here is an extracts of my book Tibet: the Lost Frontier showing his attitude during the Chinese 'liberation' campaign of October 1950 which was ambiguous, to say the least.
China Invades Tibet: ‘The Gods are on Our Side!’
...On October 11 at 11 p.m., [Robert] Ford [radio operator working for the Tibetan government] had just finished speaking to his mother in England on the radio and was preparing to go to bed, when he heard a faint tinkle of bells coming from the east. “As bells grew louder I heard another sound, the clip-clop of horse’s hoofs.” Ford added, “…it passed my house on the way into the town. I saw the rider’s fur hat and the silhouette of the barrel of his riffle sticking up above his shoulder.” Ford immediately recognized an Army messenger riding towards the Residency where Ngapo Ngawang Jigme, the new Governor of Kham was staying.
The next morning Ford was awakened by his servant who announced: “Phodo Kusho, the Chinese are coming! They’ve crossed the river at Gangto Druga and killed all the troops.”
Gangto Druga was on the main trade route between Kangting and Chamdo. A Tibetan garrison was posted there.
Five days had already passed since the Chinese began the ‘liberation’, but for reasons known only to himself, Ngapo Shape [Ngapo as Governor of Kham had a Cabinet Minister rank and was referred as Ngapo Shape] had refused to spare a radio set for the border post to monitor the advance of the Chinese troops.
Ford tried many times to convince Ngapo to send a wireless set to Riwoche in August-September, but the Governor was not interested in listening to Ford, a very junior official in the Tibetan Government. From Ford’s side, he had to keep the etiquette in addressing the Governor and present his suggestions as politely as possible:
“Your Excellency, the spare portable radio is ready to go out at the shortest notice”, Ford told Ngapo, indirectly suggesting that a radio should be sent to the border.
”Good, Please keep the batteries charged,” replied Ngapo.
“They are always fully charged. Either or both of the Indian operators are also in constant readiness to go out,” hinted again Ford.
“Very good, we may need to send the station at any time,” answered Ngapo.
That day Ford did not want to leave the Residency without getting a clear answer about Riwoche: “Would you like me to send the radio to Riwoche now, Phodo?“ the Governor finally asked. “Yes, Your Excellency,” said Ford.
“You are afraid we shall be cut off in Chamdo?” asked the Governor. But Ngapo thought the army reinforcements had made the defence of Riwoche very strong. “Do not worry, Phodo, the gods are on our side.”
This discussion summarized the Tibetan world view. Unfortunately for them, the world had changed and the consequences would soon be tragic for old Tibet. Ngapo was not a military strategist and he could not have known about the conversation between Stalin and Mao. But at the time of this conversation, the Chinese Liberation Army had already attacked on many fronts.
The main border post at Gamto Druga had been overrun by the Chinese who used the same strategy as in Korea. Wave after wave of soldiers soon overpowered the Tibetan defenders, who fought well but were finally massacred.
In the meantime another Chinese regiment crossed the Yangtse above Dengo and advanced rapidly towards Dartsedo (Jyekundo), marching day and night.
In the South, the 157th PLA Regiment crossed the Yangtse and attacked the Tibetan troops near Markhan. When they reached Markhan, the local Tibetan Commander, Derge Se, surrounded by the Chinese troops, surrendered his force of 400 men.
Poor Ford! He had planned to use the southern route to escape. Now this route was also cut off. The net was slowly closing on Ford and on Tibet.
The northern front lost ground day by day and the headquarters of the central zone was soon lost to the waves of young Chinese soldiers. They caught the fleeing Tibetans at night in a place called Kyuhung where the Tibetans were decimated. The road to Chamdo was open.
Lhasa was finally informed on October 12 that the Yangtse had been crossed and that the Chinese had began to ‘fulfil’ their promise to ‘liberate’ the Roof of the World.
At the same time, the opera season was in full swing in Lhasa. The aristocracy and the Government were busy. For the Tibetan officials opera and picnic were sacred!
In Chamdo no one panicked, though the number of prayers was increased. More and more lay people joined the monks and began circumambulating around the monastery, the incense smoke went higher and higher in the sky, the gods had to be propitiated. Ford said that the monks believed that “only the gods could give Tibet victory - which was unanswerable - and they were doing their bit by praying. They would pray twice as hard, or rather twice as often, and that would be of more use than taking up arms.”
“The gods are on our side,” was the most often repeated mantra in the town.
The greatest excitement in Chamdo was the latest divination that Shiwala Rinpoche, the head lama of the local monastery, had just performed. It was on all tongues, the great news had spread like wildfire: “Shiwala Rinpoche says that the Chinese will not come.” Everywhere there was a sigh of relief. The Gods had won!
The Britisher in Ford commented that Shiwala Rinpoche’s statement was perhaps good for morale “but it seemed to me that something more Churchilian was needed.”
The Dalai Lama recalled: “The omen, if that is what it was, began to fulfil itself. Towards evening, during one of the performances, I caught sight of a messenger running in my direction. On reaching my enclosure, he was immediately shown in to Tathag Rinpoche, the Regent…I realized at once that something was wrong. Under normal circumstances government matters would have to wait until the following week. Naturally, I was almost besides myself with curiosity. What could this mean? Something dreadful must have happened.”
The young Dalai Lama said that he managed to peep into the Regent’s lodge and spy on him. “I could see his face quite clearly as he read the letter. He became very grave. After a few minutes, he went out and I heard him give orders for the Kashag to be summoned.”
The Dalai Lama discovered later that the letter was Ngapo’s telegram informing the Regent that the first outposts near the Yangtse had fallen.
“So, the axe has fallen,” the Dalai Lama later wrote. “And soon, Lhasa must fall.”
One of the problems as seen by the political leader of Tibet was that Tibetans were peace-loving people, non-violent by choice and to join the army was “considered the lowest form of life: soldiers were being held like butchers.”
In the circumstances and keeping in mind the deep division between the Tibetans from Lhasa and the Khampas, what could have been done?
Perhaps as the Tibetans themselves explain, the Karma of Tibet had ‘ripened’ and nothing or nobody could stop it.
Nevertheless, the Chinese lost thousands of men in fierce battles; the Dalai Lama remembers that “they suffered greatly from difficulties of supply on the one hand and the harsh climate on the other. Many died of starvation; others must have certainly have succumbed of altitude sickness.”
But Deng Xiaoping, Liu Bocheng and their men were used to hardship and bitterness. They had gone through worse when the Nationalists were trying to catch up with them during the Long March. It was without doubt easier for the People’s Liberation Army to fight ill-equipped Tibetans than the sophisticated weapons of McArthur’s troops in Korea on the eastern front.
In the meantime, Ford was trying to catch the latest world news on his wireless, but there was nothing about Tibet. One of the greatest dramas of the twentieth century was unfolding without anyone knowing it. When the world heard of it, it was already too late.
The Englishman was not happy with Ngapo who “seemed too cool and confident.”
Lhalu, the previous Governor of Kham had already left and though still in radio contact with Chamdo, was now out of reach for the Chinese.
Over, the next few days, many Tibetan officials came to Ford’s radio station to try to hear the reaction of Lhasa, thinking that the Kashag would immediately appeal to the world community for help. They expected Lhasa to respond quickly before it was too late. But nothing!
Nobody could understand what was going on!
One day Ford went to Ngapo to show him the news summary and he was reassured by the Governor not to worry. The Tsongdu and the Kashag were deliberating and once a decision was taken, it would be announced.
“Radio Lhasa had no more to say the next day, or the day after that.”
Finally about 10 days after the Chinese had crossed the Upper Yangtse, Ford heard an announcement from Delhi: Shakabpa and the Tibetan delegation were denying any attack on Tibet.