Ford served several years in Tibet as a radio operator in the late 1940s; till he was arrested by the advancing People Liberation Army in October 1950.
The Tibetans had a problem in pronouncing 'F', 'Ford' became 'Phodo'; in Kham, he became known as 'Phodo Kusho', 'Ford Sir'.
After being released by the Chinese in 1955, he entered the British foreign service. He ended his career as British Consul General in Bordeaux.
Ford was the lone foreign witness of the Chinese invasion of Kham in 1950. That is probably why he was 'captured' and underwent much suffering and humiliation during his five-year as a prisoner of Mao.
'Phodo' was a radio technician of the Royal Air Force during World War II; he served in England and later in India. In 1945, he joined the British Mission in Lhasa as a radio officer. An audience with the 14-year-old Dalai Lama in Lhasa convinced him to continue to work in Tibet.
He was soon transferred to Gangtok, Sikkim, where he worked under the Political Officer, in-charge of the Tibet Affairs.
|Ford in Sikkim|
with first Tibetan allopathic doctor
The following year, he was transferred to Chamdo, capital of eastern Tibet (Kham), to establish a radio station.
In 1949, the Tibetan-speaking Ford and three Kinnauri wireless operators left for Chamdo to help the Governor General Lhalu Tsewang Dorje, who wanted to improve the defence of Kham.
'Phodo' soon managed to establish a first direct link with Lhasa.
In the first months of 1950, Lhalu requested Ford to shorten the training of the Kinnauri wireless operators; the governor wanted the station to be fully operational, he could sense the forthcoming danger.
Unfortunately for Tibet, Lhalu was replaced as Governor General of Kham by Ngabo Ngawang Jigme who took lightly the Chinese threat.
'Phodo' was arrested (along with Ngabo) in October 1950 by the invading Chinese army.
The Chinese accused him of espionage, spreading anti-communist propaganda and causing the death of a monk, known as the Geda Lama. 'Phodo' spent nearly 5 years in jail, in constant fear of being executed; he was subjected to interrogation and 'thought reform'. Only in 1954 was he allowed to send a letter to his family. His trial was held at the end of 1954; he was sentenced to ten years jail. He was eventually released and expelled from China in 1955.
In 1957, he published a book Captured in Tibet about his harrowing experience.
|With the Dalai Lama in England|
I remember hosting him for a few days some 25 years ago. He was a lovely human being. He used to say that his ordeal in the Chinese jails (and specially the interrogation methods) were very similar to ones the Indian officers captured by the Chinese in October 1962 had to go through; it was also comparable to experience of Sidney Wignall, captured in Western Tibet in 1955.
See my posting on Wignall, 'So it was all for nothing': The Aksai Chin road.
In his book, Ford mentioned that 'The gods are on our side' was the most often repeated mantra in the Chamdo in the Fall of 1950.
A few days before the arrival of the Chinese, the greatest excitement in town was the 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 finally 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.”
China Invades Kham
The rumours of an impending attack on Tibet had started trickling in from August.
Panikkar [the Indian Ambassador to China] knew it, he knew that the Chinese had already entered in the Chinese-controlled areas of Kham (Sikang). In a communication to the Chinese Foreign Office on 2 October he informed the Chinese that the Tibetan Delegation would be leaving India shortly to Peking and had expressed the hope that further military action would, therefore, not be necessary. "It will help the peaceful settlement of the Tibetan question if the Chinese troops which might have entered territory under the jurisdiction of the Lhasa authorities could restrict themselves to western Sikang."
In Chamdo, Robert Ford, the British radio operator employed by Lhasa had arrived in December 1949. Ford, ‘Phodo Kusho’ as the Tibetans called him, had brought with him brand new radio sets that he found nicely packed in crates when he first arrived in Lhasa. From Chamdo, Ford soon established a daily link with Lhasa. He was also able to monitor the world news from Beijing and Delhi.
On new year’s day of 1950, Ford heard an ominous communiqué broadcast by the People’s Republic of China: “The task for the People’s Liberation Army for 1950 is to liberate Taiwan, Hainan and Tibet.”
One of Ford’s first tasks was the training of some young Indians of Tibetan stock (Lahauli, Kinnauri) who would be able to operate the radio sets. The idea was to send them to the Sino-Tibetan border to monitor the movements of the Chinese troops. This border which had been ‘shifting’ during the past decades and even centuries, was now situated some one hundred miles east of Chamdo and followed the course of the Upper Yangtse.
It is difficult to ascertain the true number of Tibetan troops stationed on the 200 mile long border along the banks of the Yangtse, Goldstein speaks of about 3,500 soldiers, but Ford estimated their strength to be much less. On the other side of the great river more than 40,000 much better equipped troops waited to ‘liberate’ Tibet.
One of the major problems faced by the Tibetans was the lack of unity between the local chieftains and the Lhasa government. It was not a new problem but a heavy toll would be paid for the antagonism between Lhasa and the Khampas at this crucial point in the history of Tibet.
On October 11 at 11 p.m., Ford 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 immediately recognized an Army messenger riding towards the Residency where Ngabo Ngawang Jigme, the new Governor of Kham was staying. He was bringing the ominous message: the PLA had crossed the Yangtse.
The main border post at Gamto Druga had been overrun by the Chinese who used the same strategy as in Korea (and later in NEFA). Wave after wave of soldiers 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, marching day and night.
In the South, the 157th PLA Regiment 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.
Lhasa was finally informed on October 12 that the Yangtse had been crossed. 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 Dalai Lama recalled:
The omen [The Earthquake of August 15, 1950.], 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 beside 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.”
|Captured in Chamdo|
But Deng Xiaoping, Liu Bocheng and their men were used to hardship and bitterness. 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.
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!
“Radio Lhasa had no more to say the next day, or the day after that,” said Ford.
Finally about 10 days after the Chinese had crossed the Upper Yangtse, Ford heard an announcement from Delhi: Thubten Gyalpo, Shakabpa and the Tibetan delegation were denying any attack on Tibet.
They were simply not living in this world. But their world was disappearing, without them or the world of the world realizing it.
On 26 October, a news report from Calcutta stated:
The leaders of seven-man delegation to Peking told PTI today that this delegation was proceeding to Peking irrespective of the reported Chinese Communists invasion of Tibet. He had received final instructions from Lhasa to conduct negotiations in Peking on future Sino-Tibetans relations only last Sunday, he said.The Delegation had not discussed the future of Tibet with the Chinese Ambassador in New Delhi during their stay there. They had only informal talks. A member of the delegation said that they were more interested in religion than in foreign affairs. He thought Tibet was of no significant strategic importance for military point of view.
To send a delegation more interested in religion than in foreign affairs to discuss with Mao the future of their nation!
On 27 October, The Hindu in Madras published the following piece:
The Tibetan Delegation which left New Delhi this morning en route to Peking remained unperturbed over the reported entry of the Chinese troops into Eastern Tibet and the leader of the delegation pointed out that the area in question was always disputed territory, both China and Tibet claiming it as part of their territory. New Delhi is generally inclined to believe the reported movement of troops may be related to some border incidents but not to any general invasion by Chinese troops. “Nineteen days after the Chinese invaded Tibet, its negotiating delegation was not informed (or pretended to be not informed) of the development and they were innocently proceeding to Beijing. The previous day the Indian Prime Minister had given one of the speeches he loved to deliver that could electrify the masses: it was reported by The Hindu:
Pandit Nehru said that while vast millions of people all over the world were ‘hankering and hindering after peace’ feverish preparations for war were also going on in many parts of the world and this is a serious contradiction which had to be solved. ‘the only way to bring peace’, the Prime Minister thought was ‘for the people of the world and the different countries to cast away fear from their hearts and minds and think and do the right thing’.Poor Tibetans, they thought they were doing the right thing in calling upon the gods for help and in completing the Opera Festival. One thing is for sure — there was no fear in Lhasa and Chamdo.
Strangely enough Lhasa was keeping quiet. In the words of Robert Ford:
I decided to take my news summary personally to Ngabo.
"Radio Lhasa has not mentioned the invasion," I said pointedly.
"The Government only heard of it this morning," said Ngabo.
"It cannot be announced until it has been decided what we shall say. I will tell you confidentially, Phodo [Ford]," he added, "that the National Assembly is meeting in Lhasa now."
“The National Assembly was evidently having a long session”, added Ford.
The analysis of Ford may be correct when he said:
I could only think it was a matter of habit. The Lhasa Government was so used to the policy of saying nothing that might offend or provoke the Chinese that it kept it on after provocation had become irrelevant. It was still trying to avert a war that had already broken out.On October 19, Robert Ford was arrested and charged with having killed the Gethak Lama and spying for the imperialists. He spent five years in Chinese jails.
It was only on October 25 that the Chinese themselves announced to the world that Tibet was ‘liberated.’ A brief communiqué of the New China News Agency (Xinhua) said: “People’s army units have been ordered to advance into Tibet to free three million Tibetans.”
On November 10, Xinhua News Agency said that Mao and Zhu De were “deeply concerned about the prolonged oppression of the Tibetan people by the British and American imperialism.” Accordingly, they had decided to “move into Tibet to help the Tibetan people to shake off the oppression forever.”