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"On my part, I remain committed to the process of dialogue. It is my firm belief that dialogue and a willingness to look with honesty and clarity at the reality of Tibet can lead us to a viable solution."

Interview: "We killed all Chinese soldiers along the route"

March 31, 2009

Claude Arpi
Sify (India)
March,30 2009

Ratuk NgawangRatuk Ngawang was one of the senior
leaders of the Chushi-Gangdruk (Four Rivers, Six
Ranges), a Tibetan guerrilla outfit which fought
against Chinese rule and played a key role in the
Dalai Lama’s escape to India in March 1959. After
the 1962 Sino-Indian border war, Ratuk commanded
the Tibetan secret regiment, known as the Special
Frontier Forces, based in Uttar Pradesh.

Now 82, Ratuk lives in the Tibetan colony of
Majnu Ka Tilla in Delhi, and has recently
published his memoirs (in Tibetan) in which he
recounts his early life in Kham province of
Eastern Tibet and the escape to India with the
Dalai Lama. In an exclusive interview to Claude
Arpi, he reminisces about how his team cleared
the way for the Dalai Lama’s escape, killing all
Chinese soldiers along the way, the uprising of
March 10, 1959, and his meeting with Phunwang, the first Tibetan Communist.

Tell us about your background, how you joined the
Tibetan Freedom Fighter Volunteer Force in Tibet.

I am originally born in Lithang in Kham Province.
[Around 1951], I met Baba Phuntsok Wangyal [the
first Tibetan Communist, known as Phunwang] in
Dartsedo which was the border with China. He had
come there as a Communist official. I was a
businessman at the time. We became friends.

Did you know Phunwang before meeting him in Dartsedo?
No, I first met him in Dartsedo. Phunwang had
been a Chinese communist official for quite
sometime. When he came to Dartsedo, he had
already been given a senior position [in the
Party]. He had come with a Chinese delegation. I
and three others were invited to represent
Lithang at a meeting with the Communist Chinese.
They wanted our collaboration. Phunwang attended
the meeting and spoke. I also had to speak. I was
22 years old at the time. This happened in 1950,
long before His Holiness [the Dalai Lama] visited
Beijing [in 1954-55]. From Lithang, Phunwang went
to Bathang and Chamdo[to continue his mission].

As Dalai Lama gains, Tibetans lose

What was discussed in the meeting?
At the time, the Chinese were telling only good
things such as religious freedom, freedom of
expression, assistance and development for ethnic
minorities. They were also assuring us that they
would not wage war against the Tibetans. This was
in 1950. The Chinese had first come to Darstedo in 1949.

Tell us about Phunwang, this Tibetan Communist.

Phunwang is originally from Bathang [in Kham
Province]. Lithang and Bathang are very close.
Phunwang was a staunch believer in Communism. He
had travelled widely to Lhasa, India and other foreign countries.

In 1951, were there many Tibetan Communists in these areas?
There was only a group of Tibetan youths from
Bathang who had formed [a branch of] the
Communist Party. Phunwang and his friends had
studied Communism in China. [Personally] I did
not believe in Communist ideology.

The 1959 Tibetan Uprising: Rebels with a Cause

How was the situation in Kham in 1954/1955?
The situation became bad and dangerous at that
time. For the initial two/three years, the
Chinese were good and accepted whatever we asked
of them. Our demands were approved, even sometime
with a signature from Mao Zedong. They had
promised religious freedom and also agreed not to break any laws of the land.

In 1954, the Chinese decided to establish a
school for the poor. They began to assemble all
poor and needy people and spend a lot of money on
teaching them farming, nomadic works and other
skills. They would also give them and their
family money. But soon, these poor Tibetans were
told that lamas were yellow robbers and monks
were red thieves. The situation began to turn from bad to worse.

Why did you have to go to Lhasa in 1955?
I was a staff member in Lithang Monastery and
there were good possibilities of business [in Lhasa].

Tibet: The lost frontier

How was Chushi Gangdruk [the guerilla movement] started?
 From 1955, the Chinese began to brainwash the
poor Tibetans. They told them that it was
meaningless to offer money to ‘yellow robbers and
the red thieves’. The Chinese told them that
their poverty was the result of their offerings
to the religious community. This was the
beginning of the [so-called] ‘Democratic
Reforms’. The well-off families, who had guns and
knives, were ordered to hand-over their weapons to the Chinese authorities.

[About Chushi Gangdruk] a meeting of businessmen
and monks from Kham and Amdo in Lhasa was held in
the residence of Andruk Gonpo Tashi (who was also
from Lithang). In 1956, the war had already broke
out in Kham and Amdo region. Everyday, Chinese
would kill thousands of Tibetans and Tibetans also did kill Chinese.

[It was decided] to fight the Chinese [in Central
Tibet]. We had to purchase guns and horses in
Lhasa and these purchases were made under the
pretext that it would be sent to Kham. But there
was no use going to Kham region as there were
hundreds of thousands of Chinese soldiers
fighting there. The idea to start this movement
came from Andruk Gonpo Tashi. Chushi Gang-Druk
was established in 1956 and the fight against the
Chinese army began in 1958. Later, the Chinese
authorities in Lhasa ordered that all the
businessmen from Kham and Amdo region should
leave Lhasa; the guesthouses were required to
report any people from Kham and Amdo. Many
Tibetans had come to Lhasa after having fought in Kham and Amdo.

Did the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan Government
know about the formation of the Chushi-Gangdruk?
Yes. Probably even the Chinese knew about the
meeting. Kham and Amdo businessmen in Lhasa were
united because there was no way they could
conduct business in Kham with the ongoing
fighting. Everybody was willing to fight against
the Chinese even those with wives and children.
They were totally determined. After the meeting,
we started purchasing horses and ammunitions.

‘Ignoring Tibet is dangerous for India’

 From whom did you purchase the horses and ammunitions?
We bought the horses and weaponry in Lhasa. In
Kham region, we had lots of weapons. Every family
in Kham would possess guns even though all might
not have a machine gun. Some families in Kham and
Amdo could even have 100 guns. Some of these guns
were bought a long time ago from the Chinese,
while others were bought from India and British.

What happened in March 1959?
On 10 March 1959, Tibetans from all walks of life
-- monks from Sera, Drepung and Gaden
monasteries, general public and the Tibetan army
– all participated in the uprising. Tibetans
raised slogans such as “Tibet belongs to
Tibetans”, “China return to China” and “His
Holiness is the supreme leader of Tibet”,
“Chinese should return to China”. We knew that
His Holiness did not want to meet the Chinese
officials [and attend a theatre performance in
the Chinese Camp]. Amongst the aristocratic
circle in the Tibetan government, one group [led
by Minister] Ngabo sided with the Chinese
authorities while the other group consisting of
officials such as Surkhang were devoted to His
Holiness. The pro-Dalai Lama group was able to
provide security to His Holiness. If they had not
been able, His Holiness would have been handed
over to the Chinese authorities. [Our work was
to] clear the escape route for His Holiness in
Lhoka region [south of Lhasa] by making sure that
not even a single Chinese soldier remained on
that route. This, we did, by either killing or
catching Chinese soldiers along the way. That was
in March 1959. Before reaching Lhoka region, all
the Chushi-Gangdruk volunteers were scattered in
all the four directions. We sent many volunteers
along the route from Lhoka to areas near Lhasa to
clear the way for His Holiness and to make sure
that the Chinese authorities could not capture
His Holiness. [We already knew that] His Holiness
might not be able to stay in Lhasa, but it was
the responsibility of the Tibetan government to
ensure that he was safe from the [actions] of the
Chinese authorities. We were waiting and fighting
in the meantime. On 17 March 1959, His Holiness left Lhasa by foot.

Tibet is not China's 'internal affair'

When were you informed that you would have to
accompany the Dalai Lama to India?
In November 1958, I returned to Lhasa from Lhoka
where I was fighting. We had contacts with
several senior government officials such as the
Lord Chamberlain, Phala who was close to Chushi
Gangdruk. The prevalent situation was that the
Chinese authorities were not heeding whatever His
Holiness was saying. The situation had become
difficult. We were told that there was a risk of
His Holiness being captured and I was asked what
we could do about it. If there was such a risk,
we proposed that the Tibetan government handle
the preparations, while we would escort him. [At
that time] there was no clear response. But I
knew it was impossible for His Holiness to stay.

Do you remember when you left Lhasa?
I was not with His Holiness when he escaped from
Norbulingka. I am only reporting what I have
heard. When he came out of Norbulingka, he was
not in monk’s robe. He was disguised in a
civilian dress and accompanied by two-three
people for security purpose. All these
preparations were made days ahead. His Holiness
walked by foot to a place called Ramatrica where
there was a boat. After crossing the river,
horses were kept ready. Chushi Gangdruk
volunteers were waiting. I sent a message through
my servant and a monk that the way was totally
clear from Lhoka and that there was absolutely no
need to worry. This message was received by His
Holiness. I was able to meet His Holiness in a
place known as Drachima. Then with 10-12
horse-riders, we escorted him secretly. The photo
that you see was clicked there on a hillock. His
Holiness stayed for one night there.

At that time, you had CIA-trained radio operators?
There were two men who were handling radio transmissions.

They were Tibetans?
Yes, they were Tibetans [showing their pictures].

Was it a smooth journey between Norbulingka and Tawang?
We had snowfalls due to which we faced many
difficulties; horses were unable to walk on the
snow and even for humans it was difficult to walk on the snow.

All the Dalai Lama’s family was with him?
Yes, his family, his tutors and many high ranking officials.

Your first impression when you reached the Indian border?
Everybody felt happy that His Holiness could get
asylum in India. When we first reached India,
there was fighting everywhere in Tibet. The only
thought at that time was to seek more training
and to get ammunition support and then to fight
against the Chinese in Tibet. We had no other
aim. Either through war or through dialogue, we
had to seek independence. Our thoughts were very
short-sighted that time. It is why, we started
the [guerilla] Mustang Operation [in Nepal] and
22 Regiment [the Special Frontier Forces under
the Government of India]. Almost 100 Tibetans
were trained by CIA and parachuted into Tibet
where the Tibetans were fighting. But because
hundreds of thousands of Chinese had entered
Tibet, the operation could not be sustained.

What feeling did you have when you reached Tawang?
When we reached Tawang, the Indians had prepared
a great deal for providing food and shelter for
thousands of Tibetans. We had to surrender all
our weapons to the Indian government. We
requested India to allow us to fight the Chinese.
We were told that we would fight together since
our forces had already a good training. In many ways, we were duped.

* Claude Arpi -- Born in Angouleme, France,
Claude Arpi`s real quest began 36 years ago with
a journey to the Himalayas. Since then he has
been an enthusiastic student of the history of
Tibet, China and the subcontinent. He is the
author of numerous English and French books
including. His book, Tibet: the lost Frontier
(Lancers Publishers) was released recently.
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