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"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

Ngapo Ngawang Jigme, 1910-2009

December 31, 2009
28. Dec 2009ISSN: 1864-1407

Ngapo Ngawang Jigme (Chin: Apei Awang Jinmei) died on 23 December 2009
in Beijing, a few months before his 100st birthday, though he was
already 100 by Tibetan reckoning. Often denounced as a Chinese
collaborator, mainly for his historical role in the demise of Tibetan
independence, Ngapo, appears rather a tragic figure caught his whole
life between, on the one hand, his view that open confrontation with
China was pointless and on the other hand his loyalty towards the Dalai
Lama and his fellow Tibetans.

Ngapo Ngawang Jigme
Ngapo, who came from the Horkhang family, one of Tibet's highest
aristocratic families, was appointed one of the four Kalons (minister)
in the cabinet of the traditional Tibetan government (Kashag) under the
last regent of Tibet, Tagdra Rinpoche.

A few weeks before an expeditionary force of China's People's Liberation
army (PLA) entered the territory still under jurisdiction of the Dalai
Lama's government, Ngapo was sent as a governor of eastern Tibet and
took up the post in the city of Chamdo (Chin: Qamdo) with, as his
military support, an ill-equipped Tibetan army which for decades had
been neglected, if not intentionally held weak, by the conservative
establishment in Lhasa. Facing an overwhelming Chinese force and sensing
that Tibet, with the departure of the British from India, could not
count on effective international support, he opted for surrender in
October 1950, and advised the Tibetan government to negotiate, prompting
the departure of the Dalai Lama and his entourage to Chumbi/Dromo, on
the border of Sikkim.

He then led the Tibetan delegation who, under heavy pressure, signed the
17-point Agreement on 23 May 1951, by which Tibet lost the de facto
independence it had enjoyed during most of the first half of the 20th
century, and became part of the emerging People's Republic of China (PRC).

During the crisis of March 1959, Ngapo apparently did not consider
following the Dalai Lama into exile, but characteristically, he
discreetly did as much as he deemed he could to ensure his safety. As
masses of Tibetans surrounded the Norbu Lingka amidst rumours that
Chinese forces planned to kidnap the Tibetan leader, the Chinese general
in charge had lost his communication link to the Dalai Lama, claiming:
"Not a drop of water could have trickled through". As days passed, the
Chinese authorities decided to use force. Ngapo therefore called
Kashoepa, his friend and former fellow cabinet minister, to his home,
where he looked after his wife, and requested him to ensure delivery of
the general's correspondence to which he enclosed a confidential message
of his own, asking the Dalai Lama to locate on a map his whereabouts in
the Palace, so he could divert the Chinese army's shelling from that
particular location. He rightly reckoned that the crowd would not oppose
Kashoepa's passage as he was a popular patron of the monasteries.
Kashoepa conveyed in total two letters between the Chinese general and
the Dalai Lama, which he delivered through his root guru, Trijang
Rinpoche, the junior tutor of the Dalai Lama.

Ngapo, who had already been courted by the Chinese authorities during
the 1950s, was given a number of honorific positions in 'liberated'
Tibet and the PRC, second only to the Panchen Lama. In contrast to the
experiences of many Tibetans, even Communists like 'Baba' Phuntsog
Wangyal ('Phunwang'), he managed to escape all the purges during the
1960s-70s. Among the posts he held was membership of the Preparatory
Committee for the Tibet Autonomous Region (TARPC), vice-chairman of the
National People's Congress (NPC) Standing Committee, China's
rubber-stamping parliament, from 1964 to 1993, and vice chairman of the
National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative
Conference (CPPCC). However, like a handful of Tibetans in similar
positions, none of his posts ever entailed any real political power, and
his role was at best in a ceremonial or advisory capacity.

Ngapo's surrender in Chamdo and the signing of the 17-point Agreement
earned him a reputation of being a shrewd opportunist, if not an
outright traitor. Malicious rumours about his personal conduct - for
example the allegations that he was something of a rake with gambling
debts - already dogged him in the 1950s. The official posts he later
held, his apparently perfect alignment behind the Party line, the
official stances he time and again was made to lend his voice to, and
even his penchant for cadre dress, made him a figure of contempt among
Tibetans, particularly in exile.

It is only in the 1980s, when contacts between the Dalai Lama and
Beijing resumed, and Ngapo had carefully aligned himself with the
Panchen Lama's efforts to revive Tibetan culture, that he assumed a more
positive role. His efforts to act for the benefit of ethnic Tibetans
within the narrow parameters of being a central public figure on a stage
set and directed by the Communist Party of China (CPC)(1), found
acknowledgement in a statement by the Central Tibetan Administration
(CTA) - the Government in Exile - issued one day after his death, which
honoured him as "someone who upheld the spirit of the Tibetan people"
and mourned his demise.

For others, particularly among advocates of Tibetan independence, who
reject the Dalai Lama's calls for autonomy within the PRC, Ngapo still
remains a symbol of Tibetan collaboration and submissiveness. Exile
Tibetan writer Bhuchung D. Sonam, called him "a perfect (...)
opportunist", who "from his vantage position (...) sensed which side was
winning", and "shrewd and calculative", had "made sure to be with the

1: A comparison with the Panchen Lama who openly and successfully
supported the Tibetan renaissance after his rehabilitation is not
entirely fair, because, as a religious leader, the Panchen Lama was
graced with a fervent following, which put him in a far stronger
position than Ngapo.
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