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Mourning Ngapo: Why?

December 28, 2009

(By Claude Arpi)

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

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

?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

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.
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