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Opinion: Deconstructing Ngabo (In 1980)

February 3, 2010

Jamyang Norbu
Shadow Tibet
February 2, 2010

When the Kashag issued its effusive eulogy of the
late Ngabo Ngawang Jigme -- within twenty four
hours of his death (a record time for any
official response to anything to date) -- some
people expressed surprise, even dismay at
Dharamshala’s action. What such people failed to
take into account in their reasoning was the
irresistible momentum of "historical
inevitability," as a Marxist would put it. When
the Prime Minister of Tibet now informs reporters
that the issue of Tibet is the internal affair of
the PRC, and that China’s population-transfer
railway will benefit the economic welfare of the
ordinary Tibetan; and when even the Dalai Lama
himself confides to the Sunday Times (May 18,
2008) that "I am very much looking forward to
becoming a citizen of the People’s Republic of
China," then, of course, the Kashag statement
about Ngabo must be seen as only following in the natural order of things.

Under such circumstances Ngabo and his
counterpart Phuntsok Wangyal, far from being
branded traitors must be regarded  as genuine
patriots, perhaps even as saint-like figures in
the pantheon of the Middle Way belief system.
Serious consideration should even be given to the
possibility that Ngabo and Phunwang (as professor
Goldstein affectionately refers to him in the
latter’s  biography)  were in fact the true
pioneers of the Middle Way doctrine.

All that there is left to be done now to honour
the memory of the departed is for the
International Campaign for Tibet (ICT) to award
Ngabo its prestigious Light of Truth Medal (posthumous, 1st class).

Thirty years ago, I suspected that something like
this was beginning to happen in Dharamshala when
the first delegation went to Tibet. I wrote a
series of articles in the Tibetan Review on this
issue, in one of which I attempted a lengthy
evaluation of Ngabo. I was wrong then about Ngabo
"disobeying specific orders and retreating from
Chamdo without firing a shot." We now know that
he had radioed Lhasa for permission to retreat
from Chamdo. The permission came  very late, and
Ngabo’s hurried withdrawal ended in his capture
and surrender. He was not a competent general but
our military defeat in 1950 cannot in all
fairness be blamed entirely on him. Otherwise I
stand by what I wrote about Ngabo and Phuntsok
Wangyal in my Review article, which was reprinted
in a collection of my essays entitled, Illusion
and Reality, and published by TYC in 1989..

* * * * * * * *
Tibetan Review
May 1980

China-watchers have always considered official
photographs, such as the May Day line-up of party
bosses, as invaluable instruments to measure not
only fluctuations in party hierarchy but even
possible changes in policy.  Since the politics
of Dharamshala now seem to be a equally shrouded
in mystery and silence as those of the most
uncommunicative totalitarian nation, I have, of
late, been increasingly forced to adopt the
oblique methods of China-watchers to learn what
new policies, what fresh surprises, our masters
in Gangchen Kyishong might have in store for us.

Before I present the fruits my latest research, I
must beg the reader’s consideration and ask him
to hunt up last month’s Tibetan Review and take
good look at the photograph on page seven.  The
same picture is on the front cover of the last
issue of the Tibetan Bulletin,  the official
newsletter of the government-in-exile.

Well now, what do we have here?  It is a group
shot of the five man delegation from Dharamshala
posing with "three prominent Tibetans in
Beijing."  Three members of our delegation are
kneeling unctuously in the foreground, while the
two other members (ministers of the Tibetan
Cabinet) are dutifully standing on the two
opposite sides. The pre-eminent and central
position is occupied by the figures of the three
"prominent Tibetans in Beijing," and they are:
His Serenity the Panchen Lama, Ngabo Ngawang
Jigme, and Baba Phuntsog Wangyal.  Certainly, the
Panchen Lama’s religious standing and his
admirably courageous and patriotic conduct in the
face of repeated tortures and imprisonment
entitles him to whatever prominence we can accord
him, even if it be only the central position in a
group photograph. But what about the other two?

Ngabo Ngawang Jigme was the commander of the
Tibetan forces in Chamdo when the Chinese
attacked on October 7th, 1950.  Disobeying
specific orders, he retreated from Chamdo without
firing a shot, and later surrendered to Chinese
troops.  His conduct then, even by the laws of an
enlightened nation, was sufficiently disgraceful
to warrant a court martial and at least a
dishonorable discharge. Instead he was appointed
to head the delegation to Beijing to negotiate
the 17-Point Agreement which he and his
colleagues, without the authorization of the
Tibetan government, blithely proceeded to sign.

An excuse was later made for this scandalous
behavior on the grounds that the delegates had
signed under "duress." Yet it is certain that the
Chinese had not tortured these people or even
threatened them with death.  After all, those
were the days when the Communists were keen as
mustard to make a good impression. Most probably
a little judicious bluster was sufficient to make
Ngabo and his fellow delegates sign. Have I
exaggerated the lowness of their behavior? I
really don’t think so.  Even now this sort of
miserable cowardice is more the rule than the
exception among Tibetan officials.  Let me
digress a little and provide an example.

In 1978, after the mysterious murder of Gunthang
Tsultrim,  some leaders of the "13 Group"
settlements and their followers roared into
Dharamshala where they proceeded to literally
bully the Kashag and the People’s
Assembly.  These people certainly had genuine
grievances but many of their charges were not
only ridiculous but patently untrue; and their
way of presenting it, by bluster and physical
intimidation, was not only an insult to the
dignity of the Tibetan government but a direct
challenge to it’s authority.  Yet the frightened
ministers and officials, instead of handling this
problem in a firm and understanding manner, fell
over themselves trying to please these people;
and also made a disgraceful concession, which for
decency’s sake, is better left unmentioned.

Getting back to our friend Ngabo, after the
occupation he made himself notorious by his
constant association with the Chinese
authorities. In 1959, when the people of Lhasa
rose up and surrounded the Jewel Park to protect
the Dalai Lama, and when all the cabinet
ministers hurried there to consult with His
Holiness, Ngabo (who was also a cabinet minister)
instead rushed to the Chinese army camp to seek
protection. The Chinese also set up barricades to
protect Ngabo’s residence.  From the Chinese camp
Ngabo wrote to His Holiness telling him to
"destroy the hostile designs of the
reactionaries," and warned him that any escape
attempt would be futile.  After the revolt Ngabo
was rewarded by the Chinese with prominent
administrative posts, and through the years he
has continued to make a number of speeches and
broadcasts condemning the Tibetans who had
revolted and repeating that Tibet was an inalienable part of China.

Now, Baba Phuntsog Wangyal is another kind of
specimen altogether, and a rather unique one at
that.  He was a Communist much before the
invasion, and I have heard, whether true or not,
that he was in the Red Army even during the time
of the Long March.  He came to Lhasa before ’59,
spying for the Communists, and although the
Tibetan government seemed to have known his
background, nothing effective was done to stop
him.  He flew his true colours after the
invasion, and diligently continued to serve his
Chinese masters for many years, until some
internal party wrangle consigned him to a temporary oblivion.

There are some mitigating circumstances in his
case.  He was born in an area of Kham long under
Chinese administration and his Communist beliefs
seem to be genuine and sincere.  But even then I
don’t think we can afford to forgive or overlook
his crimes.  After all, when he betrayed his
people he was a grown man, sound in mind and
knowing well what he was doing.  And treason is
treason, whatever the motives: money, revenge,
ambition, or ideology.  It is also very likely
that a betrayal undertaken for some faith or
ideology is the most dangerous of its
kind.  Since the traitor is then not being driven
by vulgar considerations such as money or
ambition, he will feel his motives to be pure,
and subsequently pursue his objective with much
more fanatical zeal than a mercenary sort of
traitor would. I think Orwell made such an observation in one of his essays.

Personally, I have nothing against Ngabo or
Phuntsog Wangyal, and it could well be true that
Ngabo is "intelligent and congenial" and Phuntsog
Wangyal "progressive," as their apologists
maintain. In fact someone who knew Ngabo
intimately told me he was a most charming and
unassuming person, and I have no reason to doubt
this.  But what of it?  The matter hinges on
whether we think of ourselves as a nation or not.
If we do, there must be certain rules of conduct
binding on everyone, and we must certainly draw the line at treason.

But let us drop this talk of traitors and
treason. I don’t want to give the impression that
I am witch-hunting or needlessly venting my
patriotic spleen on two rather old and shabby
creatures, who will, anyway, eventually come to a
bad end if the wheel of karma  is still doing its
stuff.  My main reason for dredging up these
unsavoury cases was to enlighten the reader on
the contemporary turn of events in which these two characters play a part.

Let us ask ourselves, as the Americans would say,
the 64,000 dollar question:  What does it mean
when Dharamshala proudly releases a photograph of
our cabinet ministers and officials, not only
posing happily with these two turncoats, but
actually acknowledging their superiority by
according to them the central position in the
group? And let’s not also forget to ask why the
Dalai Lama’s own brother, Lobsang Samten, is
cheerfully kneeling before these wretches.

I think one can reasonably assume tha Dharamshala
now tacitly acknowledges that Ngabo and Phuntsog
Wangyal were not only right in their behaviour,
but that they are now to be recognized and
respected as some kind of national leaders
(superior to cabinet ministers).  It is a long
shot, but a fairly safe one to further assume
that Dharamshala is now prepared to travel on the
same road that these traitors took many years ago.

The policies of Dharamshala have for the past
many years puzzled even its most ardent
supporters. But now a distinct and sinister
pattern is beginning to emerge which can no
longer be ignored.  Why did Dharamshala insist on
the surrender of the Tibetan resistance forces in
Mustang, even when a number of the officers
committed suicide in protest?  Why did the
minister, Phuntsog Tashi Takla, in charge of the
surrender proceedings, suddenly leave Nepal
before any written treaty had been concluded,
giving the Nepalese the perfect excuse to murder
a number of the leaders including the commander,
Wangdu, and imprison some of the others?  Why, in
more recent years, has Dharamshala not only
discouraged but actively opposed any kind of meaningful patriotic activity?

In March, 1977, thousands of Tibetans converged
on Delhi, and after a violent demonstration
before the Chinese Embassy, commenced a hunger
strike before the office of the U.N.
representative.  The hunger strike was
unexpectedly and dramatically successful.  Not
only did the Janata Party (then the new ruling
party) pledge, in writing, to help in the
struggle for Tibetan independence, but many
ministers of the Indian government and national
leaders like Jaya Prakash Narayan and Acharya
Kripalani personally reiterated this pledge.

The American Embassy also took a very sympathetic
attitude and promised to do all it could to
convey to President Carter the legitimacy of the
Tibetan issue and the need for American support
on the question of human rights for Tibetans.  No
other Tibetan activity in India had received so
much publicity since 1959. The strike was given
extensive coverage, not only in Indian and
international papers, but also by various Indian
and foreign television networks.  Nearly every
Tibetan refugee was galvanized by this movement
and sympathy strikes took place, not only in India, but also abroad.

However, Dharamshala condemned this movement,
branded its leaders as "spies and traitors,"
denigrated the pledges of the Janata Party as
"useless," and in the name of the Dalai Lama
forbade any kind of patriotic movement of this
sort.  But what hurt everyone the most was the
totally unfounded and scurrilous accusation that
the eight hunger-strikers had secretly taken
vitamin pills and other nutrition during their
vigil.  They were all poor, mostly old soldiers
and a middle-aged lady, and to stoop so low, to
cast such a vile slur on the selfless courage and
sacrifice of these humble people, was an act of
unspeakable meanness and petty-mindedness.  Even
now I cannot think of it and not feel deep
despair at the depths of moral degeneracy to which our ruling class has sunk.

So here are the facts. Even if we were to give
Dharamshala every possible benefit of the doubt
and not interpret the data in the light of a
conspiracy, the facts would still force
themselves very uncomfortably into our
suspicions.  No doubt our cabinet ministers will
wail their protests and repeat for the umpteenth
time that they have no intention of surrendering
to the Chinese; but a man who steadily drinks a
bottle of whiskey a day does not also,
necessarily, have intentions of getting cirrhosis of the liver.

Let the reader decide for himself. All I want,
before concluding, is to advise him or her to
once again study the photograph closely. It may
make him or her feel like throwing up, but even
then, this disgusting portrait of our leaders
smirking ingratiatingly and sucking-up to
traitors and base scoundrels will at least convey
an immediate physical impact, which my inadequate
description and analysis may not.  Didn’t a
Chinese sage once say that "a picture was worth a thousand words"?
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