The death of Ngabo Ngawang Jigme has stirred emotions on both sides of the Himalayas. While the official Chinese media carried flowery obituaries and praised him for his contributions to the Motherland, the Kashag of the Tibetan Government-in-Exile is equally effusive in its praise — calling him “honest and patriotic”.
Ngabo was born in 1910. At the age of 26, in 1936, he started working for the independent Tibetan Government. The regent Takdrag Rinpoche appointed him as a cabinet minister.
In July 1950, Ngabo replaced Lhalu Tsewang Dorjee as the Governor-General of Eastern Tibet. This was an extremely crucial period in Communist China’s military moves to annex Tibet. Lhalu had made elaborate military plans and fortifications to fight, “however slim the likelihood of victory”. To this effect, Lhalu asked for more soldiers and weapons from the Tibetan Government. “Lhasa responded in March 1950 by sending a shipment of Bren and Sten guns and a non-commissioned officer,” writes Melvin Goldstein in his book.
Ngabo, however, had different plans — to surrender without a fight. He made this clear to Kundeling even before reaching Chamdo, stating that “it was better to negotiate.” As he had officially taken over as the governor-general, Lhalu had little to say when Ngabo ordered the removal of fortifications constructed in the mountains.
After Lhalu left, Ngabo issued orders not to recruit more fighters from amongst Khampa warriors. He also refused to install the two portable wireless sets that he brought along from Lhasa at Lhalu’s request. These key strategic decisions made the capture of Chamdo easy for the battle-hardened PLA troops.
Commander Muja with his four hundred soldiers, along with their wives and children, was ready to stop the advancing Chinese. However, Ngabo had definite plans to capitulate. He sent two of his people “to find out some Chinese to accept his surrender.” On 19 October 1950, exactly three months and eight days after he became the governor-general of Eastern Tibet, he gave in to the Chinese. His surrender was almost voluntary.
A Tibetan street song of the time thus went:
From among one hundred men
Commander Muja is the most able,
The witless gang of foxes are
The governor-general and his band.
It is hence no surprise that Sonam Topgyal, the former prime minister of the exile Tibetan Government, wrote in his foreword for Baba Phuntsok Wangyal: A Witness to Tibetan History that “… was it necessary to treat Ngapo Ngawang Jigme and Phunwang in the same manner as the Panchen Rinpoche since the former was a traitor and the latter the man who led the communist forces into Tibet.”
Once Chamdo was captured, China found Ngabo pliable and the person they wished for their Tibet mission. “We were trying hard to develop good relations with Ngabo and to win him over to our side,” writes Phuntsok Wangyal in his book A Tibetan Revolutionary. Wangyal, a Tibetan communist, was an ally of the PLA troops and their guide to Tibet.
On 23 May 1951, Ngabo, along with Kheme Sonam Wangdue, Thupten Tendar, Thupten Lekmon, and Sampho Tenzin Dhondup, were coerced into signing the so-called “17-point Agreement”. The Tibetan Government sent Ngabo to negotiate on its behalf with the newly-established Communist Government. He neither had “the authority to sign the agreement on behalf of Tibet” nor did he have the official seal.
However, when an agreement was produced by China, it gave Beijing — in international eyes — a little semblance of legitimacy to force their way into Tibet and to rule over it however tyrannical and ruthlessly. It “transformed Tibet’s international legal status from independent state to a region of China”, writes Tsering Shakya in The Dragon in the Land of Snows.
In this short period of time — from 11 July 1950, the day he was appointed as the Governor-General of Eastern Tibet, to 23 May 1951, the day on which the “17-Point Agreement was signed” — Ngabo had undergone a transformation, both mentally and physically. His loyalty now firmly shifted to Mao Zedong and the Party. He had also discarded his traditional Tibetan official dress and cut his hair in China, thus doing away with the two ceremonial hair knots signifying him as a kalon.
When he was returning to Lhasa in 1951 with a copy of the “Agreement”, Tibetan authorities stopped him from entering the city shorn of his hair knots. He had to arrange a false hairpiece.
In July 1959, about four months after the Dalai Lama and over 60,000 Tibetans escaped into exile, Ngabo, Vice-Chairman of the Preparatory Committee; and General Zhang Guo-hua, commander of the PLA in Tibet, unanimously maintained in a Resolution on Carrying Out Democratic Reforms in Tibet that “the existing social system in Tibet is a reactionary, dark, cruel and barbarous feudal serf system.”
“The central government and I thought that Ngabo was completely on our side,” writes Phuntsok Wangyal, the sole Tibetan cadre leading PLA troops into Tibet. Yet, the Communist Party did not even trust Wangyal. He was imprisoned for nearly two decades, mainly because he firmly believed in socialism and honestly made efforts to bring about a change in Tibet. Anyone with a firm stand is a threat to the Party.
However, the opposite is true for Ngabo, who was a perfect kabtsolwa or opportunist. From his vantage position as a kalon and the governor-general, he sensed which side was winning. Shrewd and calculative, he made sure to be with the winner.
This reminds me of something that my friend Tenzin Dorjee, Executive Director of Students for a Free Tibet, once said. “If you haven’t received any emails with attachments containing a virus, it means you aren’t doing any activism.” In other words, you are not worth sending a virus to.
The Kashag’s condolence message further mentions that Ngabo made “life-long contributions” and “always spoke out the truth, even under the most trying and difficult circumstances.”
Of course, more than 30 years after Tibet lost its independence, the old man in the 1980s and 90s urged China to acknowledge Tibet’s special status based on the “17-Point Agreement”. He also made efforts, along with the 10th Panchen Lama, to “to preserve and promote Tibetan language.”
A patriot is someone who is willing to and acts bravely, sometimes even if the cost is life, to defend his country’s freedom and rights. In this sense the Great Thirteenth Dalai Lama was unquestionably a true patriot and the 10th Panchen Lama was one too. Panchen Rinpoche stood up against the Chinese misrule by writing the 70-Thousand Characters Petition. Because of this Mao called him “a poisoned arrow”, because of this he suffered struggle sessions and was sent to jail. He was most likely murdered in 1989 for his vocal opposition to Chinese rule in Tibet.
To call Ngabo a patriot and to put him on the same pedestal as the Great Thirteenth is a historical error. His bosses in Beijing must be beaming with smiles as their handyman, in death, has won full praise from Dharamsala.