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<-Back to WTN Archives Interview with Ngapoi Ngawang Jigme (SCMP)
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World Tibet Network News

Wednesday, April 8, 1998

4. Interview with Ngapoi Ngawang Jigme (SCMP)

South China Morning Post - Hong Kong
4 April 1998

Ngapoi Ngawang Jigme is the great survivor, the only Tibetan to have
flourished equally under the Dalai Lama as under the Gang of Four. Decades
of revolution and rebellion have torn apart most Tibetan families yet
nothing has touched Jigme. Now 88 he is the patriarch of a clan with 60

Tall and thin with thick glasses, Jigme still looks the Tibetan aristocrat
even in a western suit. Yet after a lifetime of service to the Chinese
state, mostly in Beijing, Jigme prefers speaking Tibetan rather than

Jigme has rarely spoken to the press but stung by being cast as the villain
in "Seven Years in Tibet", he gave in his version of his events in a
lengthy interview.

It is a very long one. In 1950, the Dalai Lama appointed him governor of
Eastern Tibet to take command of the front line against the invading
People's Liberation Army. In May 1951, he led the delegation that went to
Beijing to sign the 17 point agreement which laid out the conditions for
China's annexation of Tibet. During the rebellion of 1959, he was in the
camp of the Chinese garrison advising them as the Dalai Lama fled to India.

"Most Tibetans in Tibet despise him as a traitor," says historian Tsering
Shakya, fellow in Tibetan studies at the School of African and Oriental
Studies in London. "The Chinese use him to legitimise their rule. He is the
man who signed the 17 point Agreement and that is very important to them."

In the early 1960s, it was also Jigme who counseled the young Panchen Lama
against writing his damning indictment of Communist policies in Tibet. In
1965, Jigme was made the first chairman of the newly-established Tibet
Autonomous Region and later figurehead to the revolutionary committee which
ruled during the Cultural Revolution. In the 1980s, he went on to be made a
Vice Chairman of the National People's Congress and is remains a vice
chairman of the lesser body, the CPPCC.

"They need him because he is the only link with the Dalai Lama's old
government. He represents continuity and shows how the old has been
integrated into the new China," Shakya said.

Jigme has not been back to Tibet since 1991 and has lived in Beijing since
1967 when Zhou Enlai had lifted out after he was beaten up by Red Guards.
Most of his 12 children live in the capital and many hold high positions.
One was formerly in charge of tourism in Tibet, another works in the State
Council while Jigme's wife was a vice chair of the All China Women's

His third son, Ngapo Jigme, defected 13 years ago and now lives in
Washington where he worked for the Free Tibet Campaign and now heads the
Tibet section of Radio Free Asia.

"In fact the Chinese government has never trusted him. My father has been a
figurehead. He never really had any power," Ngapo Jigme said and he adds
that despite their differences, his father has tried his best for Tibet.

"When things go wrong, people always look for a scapegoat but it is more
complicated than that," the son said.

In the film, Jigme is shown deliberately conspiring with the Chinese
generals and sabotaging the resistance effort in 1950. Both he and his son
agree that the events portrayed in the film are completely fictitious and
bare no resemblance the book by Heinrich Harrer.

"I don=92t think all this comes from Harrer's book. It was made up by the
producers in America," Jigme said. "Apart from trivial particulars, from
beginning to end, none of the stories in the movie tally with the facts.
Only one of the details is close to the truth - that Harrer taught the
Dalai Lama English."

His son is far blunter. "It is like a very bad Chinese propaganda movie. A
lot of things are completely inaccurate. For instance, Harrer never saw the
Chinese troops, he left Tibet long before the PLA entered."

Yet Jigme does not deny that he undermined the Tibetan army's resistance
but he insists there was no collusion.

"I had never set eyes on a Communist Party member before the PLA arrived,
let alone had any contacts. I didn=92t know anything about Communism," he
This is challenged by Tsering Shakya who is bringing out a new and thorough
history of modern Tibet; "Lhasa was full of refugees from Mongolia and
Buryiatia who had witnessed what happened when Communists came to power.
People knew."

Jigme insists that knew history and that it proves that Tibet has been a
part of China since the Mongols invaded and conquered China 700 years ago.
When the Manchu empire collapsed in 19911 Beijing's control only loosened

"The 1911 revolution toppled the Qing and the Nationalists came to power.
During this process the KMT's administration was not so tight and there
appeared certain phenomena which looked like separation from China," Jigme
said. Others disagree with this interpretation.

"Tibet declared independence in1911 and after that the Chinese never
exercised any control," Shakya said, also pointing out that the Qing empire
also claimed control over other states like Korea, Mongolia and Vietnam
which are now independent.

Jigme's main defence is that in 1950 resistance to the Chinese Communists
was futile.

"Before I was sent to Kamdo (Eastern Tibet), I told that I would only go
there for peaceful negotiations since fighting the Communist Party is in
vain. It is impossible to fight. The Nationalists had an eight million
strong army with the full backing of America. It was still defeated," Jigme
said. The Tibetan population only numbered one million and he insists that
he even had the backing of Lhasa to open negotiations.

"We had neither weapons nor training. How could we fight against the PLA ?
It was impossible !" he said. Many agree.

"It was totally hopeless," said Ngapo Jigme.

"This is true. The British radio operator Robert Ford mocked the Tibetan
army as Drury Lane," Shakya said.

Jigme described how when he arrived at the front he found chaos. There were
six regiments of troops, each with 300 soldiers, more than 10,000 militia
and no food supplies.

"Local people lived in unbearable bitterness and many had run out of food,"
Jigme recalled and said that is why he decided to commanded the militia
troops to disband.

In his autobiography, "Freedom in Exile" the Dalai Lama is particularly
critical of Jigme's actions during the rebellion. After a failed uprising
in eastern Tibet, Lhasa was full of rebels who surrounded the Dalai Lama.
At this critical moment, Jigme remained in the Chinese garrison's camp,
dressed in a Chinese uniform and sending letters to persuade the Dalai Lama
to come over and give himself up. As Chinese troops prepared to shell the
rebel camp, he wrote to the Dalai Lama asking him to identify his

Later when the Dalai Lama had fled, the Tibetans were represented only by
the young Panchen Lama and Jigme. It is the contrast between their two
attitudes which for many Tibetans now distinguishes the two men.

"The Panchen Lama often spoke out in defence of Tibet. People respected him
for that," Shakya notes. As China crushed the 1959 rebellion imprisoning
tens of thousands, elsewhere the Great Leap Forward was in full swing,
temples were smashed, monasteries dissolved, peasants and nomads were
herded into communes. In many places up to 30 percent of the population
starved to death.

The 10th Panchen Lama wrote a 70,000 word report after going to see the
misery for himself in Qinghai and Sichuan provinces, parts of Tibet, now
incorporated into Chinese provinces.

Jigme also wanted to defend his role at this time, perhaps the darkest in
entire history of the Tibetan people.

Jigme recalled what he said when the Panchen Lama, then just 24, consulted h=

"I said if he had any complaints on the work in Tibet, he should go
straight to central government leaders and make an oral report. I warned
him not to write the report as it could provide grounds for them to attack
you but he turned a death ear."

Some claim Jigme enlarged the report adding a long prologue praising the
Communist Party's reforms in Tibet. Yet his fears were justified. In 1962,
Mao swept back into power, and was infuriated by the report calling it a
"poisoned arrow" and the Panchen Lama was arrested and struggled against.
He was not freed for 16 years and was not fully rehabilitated until 1988,
just before his death.

Jigme now denies taking part in the violent struggle sessions against the
Panchen and says the charges in the 70,000 word report are not true. The
Panchen Lama found that up to 15 percent of the population had been thrown
into camps where half the inmates had died from hunger.

Due to starvation, the report warns that "there is an evident and severe
reduction in the present-day population of Tibet" and it complains that 97
percent of the temples and monasteries and shrines had been destroyed.

Jigme denies all this. "Some cadres may have violated policies but this was
not common in the whole of Tibet. Panchen only noticed individual cases he
failed to see the good overall situation. There were mistakes in his
report. Of course, some of his complaints were right but there were largely
mistakes," he said.

"I can tell you for sure that not a single man died of hunger in Tibet...
But I heard some people died in Qinghai but don=92t know how many," Jigme
said who recalled that he never went to investigate himself. Instead Jigme
and others were taken to the other end of the country, on a tour of
Manchuria and Guangdong.

"This is just a lie. A lot of people died of starvation inside the Tibet
Autonomous Region," Shakya says. Jigme's son agrees.

"Even Chinese population statistics clearly show a lot of people died in
the famine," Ngapo Jigme said.

His father even denied that the Panchen was ever imprisoned, saying he was
merely criticised and demoted.

"I appealed resolutely that he should not be dismissed and I clearly said I
could not replace him," Jigme recalled.

"In early 1967, Red Guards from the Central Nationalities College climbed
over the wall and took him away. They put him in custody and struggled him.
Premier Zhou heard about this and despatched his secretary to save him. To
ensure his protection, the Panchen Lama was placed under house arrest as
were many other senior leaders."

In fact, the Panchen Lama would spent nine years in prison, sometimes in
solitary confinement and was regularly taken out and beaten.

"From time to time, he was regularly taken out for massive struggle
sessions in sports stadia in Beijing where he would be publicly humiliated
before thousands of people. On one infamous occasion in 1996, his sister in
law was persuaded to accuse him from the podium of having raped her, and
his younger brother beat on the stage," said a recent report from the Tibet
Information Network.

=46ollowing his release, the Panchen Lama became increasingly outspoken of
Chinese policies in Tibet. Jigme said they had strong but amicable
differences of opinion. "We always talked frankly instead of being polite,"
he said.

Yet some claim that behind the scenes Jigme has continued trying to modify
Chinese policies. The Tibet Information Network has an internal speech made
in 1988 in which called on Beijing leaders to honour the terms of the 17
point agreement by which China promised to give Tibet complete autonomy.

"We must give Tibet more autonomous power than other minority regions. In
my view, at present, the Tibet Autonomous Region has less autonomy than
other autonomous regions, let alone compared with any provinces. Tibet must
have some special treatment and have more autonomy like those special
economic zones," Jigme said.

In another speech made in 1991, he reminded Chinese leaders that clauses 4
and 5 of the agreement bind Beijing "not to change the existing political
system in Tibet."

Inside accounts, also claim that Jigme tried to stop Beijing from holding
the golden urn divination ceremony to discover the 11th Panchen Lama
reincarnation. He reportedly went to government archives to show that the
central government had not used the urn before nor had it been involved in
the selection of the 10th Panchen.

Yet, much to the anger of his family, Hollywood is likely to ensure that
Jigme could go down in history as a self-serving turncoat.

"This film cannot define a person's role in history. We ought to wait many
years to see what emerges," his son said.

Jigme himself alleges that the film is just another plot by the "Dalai Lama
clique" and professes to be indifferent to its contents.

"Although the film mounts vicious attacks against me, I do not care.
Instead I am happy. As the late Chairman Mao once said: "We support those
who are opposed by our enemies.""

Articles in this Issue:
  1. TYC hunger strikers receive mounting international support (TYC)
  2. UNPO Calls for Action on Tibetan Hunger-strikers Demands to UN
  3. Fasting Tibetans expect positive UN response (Reuters)
  4. Interview with Ngapoi Ngawang Jigme (SCMP)

Other articles this month - WTN Index - Mail the WTN-Editors

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