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.
ROGUE’S GALLERY (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” ?