The two sides of Ngapoi

While Beijing stated that Ngapoi ushered in major milestones in Tibet, such as the democratic reforms.

Ngapo Ngawang Jigme died short of his 100th birthday. Very few in India have heard of Ngapo, the Tibetan who collaborated with the Chinese to make Tibet a Chinese colony in October 1950. While the Chinese government has only praise for Ngapo (spelled Ngapoi by the Chinese press), the Tibetan administration in Dharamsala also strangely paid tribute to the old man. It is difficult to understand this move, but probably to show that its position is not far from Beijing’s: they do not seek separation from the ‘Motherland’ today.

Xinhua however is clear on Ngabo’s role: “He followed renowned scholars like Sherab Gyatso, who was strongly against an independent Tibet. In 1949, Ngapoi urged the Dalai Lama and the local Tibetan government to accept the central government’s invitation and send a delegation to Beijing to negotiate the peaceful liberation of Tibet. When he was designated governor of Qamdo (Chamdo), Ngapoi dismissed more than 8,000 militia soldiers who were deployed to fight the People’s Liberation Army, paving the way for the peaceful liberation of Qamdo. In 1951, the Dalai Lama sent Ngapoi and four other delegates to Beijing for negotiations. In Chongqing, Ngapoi met Deng Xiaoping for the first time. In an article, he recalled that Deng dispelled his doubts about Tibet’s future and that he regarded Deng as his first guide in the revolutionary cause. In 1951, the central government and local Tibetan authorities signed the 17-Article Agreement, heralding the region’s peaceful liberation.” That was the end of an independent Tibet. India did not react to this momentous event, being too busy trying to mediate in the Korean crisis.

Referring to the revolt, Xinhua added: “During the rebellions of the 1950s, which were instigated by some Tibetan nobles and high-ranking religious figures, Ngapoi stood firmly against the wave, and personally protected many who stood up to the rebels.” In other words, he sided with the occupiers against the Tibetans.

The ‘rebellion’ culminated with the Tibetan uprising in March 1959. One detail shows that Ngapo was already considered a collaborator: when the Dalai Lama decided to leave Tibet, he did not inform Ngabo of his plans. He knew that the latter would have reported his intentions to the Chinese authorities.

When I heard that a debate was raging in Dharamsala between those who believe that Ngapo was ‘an honest patriot’ and those who considered him as a collaborator and a traitor, an incident came to my mind. Several years ago I had interviewed a Tibetan ‘Red Guard’ who participated in the ghastly Cultural Revolution.

One of the ‘specialties’ of the Red Guard was ‘class struggle session’. Most of the leaders including Lui Shaoqi, the Chinese president (who died as a result of the exercise), were ‘struggled’. They had to publicly admit their wrongs while been beaten and tortured by the Red Guards brandishing the famous Little Red Book. Wikipedia says that it caused ‘millions of Chinese to perish by public execution’. When I asked the former guard if Ngapo went through ‘struggle sessions’ like other leaders, I was surprised to hear that the only time Ngapo was ‘struggled’, it turned out to be a masquerade, as he was under the PLA’s ‘protection’.

My informant recalled another incident: “One day we were called to the main Chinese headquarters to manage the crowd. Thousands of people were shouting: ‘Down with Ngapo Jigme, let him be killed’. When we went there, we saw Ngapo in his military uniform lead by some Chinese soldiers. He was brought on the stage and before making his confession, he took out the five stars out of his uniform and put them into his pocket and said: ‘For years and years my family had been exploiting the Tibetan people, and we will not able to get rid of this (sin) forever.’ He just said that and he was quickly taken away. He was then put in a plane and flown to China. He was accompanied by his family members. Not a member of his family was left behind (in Tibet).”

By that time, other Tibetans who had supported the Chinese takeover, such as the Panchen Lama or Bapa Phuntsok Wangyal, the first Tibetan communist, had been arrested. Both the Panchen Lama and Wangyal spent nearly two decades in Chinese jails and concentration camps. Ngapo remained one of the few leaders who managed to peacefully surf through the different purges and upheavals of modern China. It shows how pliable he was.

Later, Ngapo would be given pompous titles by the communist regime such as vice chairman of the National People’s Congress Standing Committee, vice chairman of the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference or chairman of the Tibet Autonomous Region (during the Cultural Revolution).

Ngapo will remain in history for his active participation in two events: first as the governor of Eastern Tibet at the time of the invasion and then as a negotiator when an agreement was signed between Tibet and China in May 1951.

Robert Ford, a Briton employed by the Tibetan government as radio operator recalled that on October 12, 1950, five days had already passed since the Chinese began their ‘liberation’ of Tibet, Ngapo had refused to spare a radio set for Riwoche, the border post to monitor the advance of the Chinese troops. Earlier, Ford tried several times to convince Ngapo to send a wireless set to Riwoche, but the governor was not interested. Ford told the governor: “Your Excellency, the spare portable radio is ready to go out at the shortest notice”, indirectly suggesting that a radio should be sent to the border. “Good, please keep the batteries charged,” replied Ngapo. “They are always fully charged. Either or both of the Indian operators are also in constant readiness to go out,” Ford hinted. That day Ford did not want to leave without getting a clear answer. “Would you like me to send the radio to Riwoche now, Ford?” the governor finally asked. “Yes, your Excellency,” said Ford. “You are afraid we shall be cut off in Chamdo?” asked the governor, adding: “Do not worry, Ford, the gods are on our side.”

A few days later, Ngapo was made prisoner and taken to Beijing where he became the chief negotiator to sign on behalf the Tibetan government an agreement with China. This was done on May 23, 1950. The Dalai Lama was not even informed. The Tibetan seals were forged by the Chinese and affixed on the agreement. Ngapo did not even protest. The Dalai Lama eventually denounced the agreement when he crossed the Indian border and took refuge in India in April 1959.

While the present government in Beijing stated: “Ngapo ushered in major milestones in Tibet, such as the democratic reforms”, Dharamsala mourned his death saying that he was an honest and patriotic Tibetan. Unfortunately, this policy of appeasement may not have the desired result on the hardcore leadership in Beijing.

About the author:

Claude Arpi
is a French-born author and journalist

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