Claude Arpi |
Ratuk Ngawang was one of the senior leaders of the Chushi-Gangdruk (Four Rivers, Six Ranges), a Tibetan guerrilla outfit which fought against Chinese rule and played a key role in the Dalai Lama’s escape to India in March 1959. After the 1962 Sino-Indian border war, Ratuk commanded the Tibetan secret regiment, known as the Special Frontier Forces, based in Uttar Pradesh.
Ratuk at his home in Majnu Ka Tilla, the Tibetan Colony in New Delhi. Photograph copyright Claude Arpi, unauthorized reproduction prohibited.
Now 82, Ratuk lives in the Tibetan colony of Majnu Ka Tilla in Delhi, and has recently published his memoirs (in Tibetan) in which he recounts his early life in Kham province of Eastern Tibet and the escape to India with the Dalai Lama. In an exclusive interview to Claude Arpi, he reminisces about how his team cleared the way for the Dalai Lama’s escape, killing all Chinese soldiers along the way, the uprising of March 10, 1959, and his meeting with Phunwang, the first Tibetan Communist.Tell us about your background, how you joined the Tibetan Freedom Fighter Volunteer Force in Tibet.
I am originally born in Lithang in Kham Province. [Around 1951], I met Baba Phuntsok Wangyal [the first Tibetan Communist, known as Phunwang] in Dartsedo which was the border with China. He had come there as a Communist official. I was a businessman at the time. We became friends.Did you know Phunwang before meeting him in Dartsedo?
No, I first met him in Dartsedo. Phunwang had been a Chinese communist official for quite sometime. When he came to Dartsedo, he had already been given a senior position [in the Party]. He had come with a Chinese delegation. I and three others were invited to represent Lithang at a meeting with the Communist Chinese. They wanted our collaboration. Phunwang attended the meeting and spoke. I also had to speak. I was 22 years old at the time. This happened in 1950, long before His Holiness [the Dalai Lama] visited Beijing [in 1954-55]. From Lithang, Phunwang went to Bathang and Chamdo[to continue his mission].What was discussed in the meeting?
At the time, the Chinese were telling only good things such as religious freedom, freedom of expression, assistance and development for ethnic minorities. They were also assuring us that they would not wage war against the Tibetans. This was in 1950. The Chinese had first come to Darstedo in 1949.Tell us about Phunwang, this Tibetan Communist.
Phunwang is originally from Bathang [in Kham Province]. Lithang and Bathang are very close. Phunwang was a staunch believer in Communism. He had travelled widely to Lhasa, India and other foreign countries.In 1951, were there many Tibetan Communists in these areas?
There was only a group of Tibetan youths from Bathang who had formed [a branch of] the Communist Party. Phunwang and his friends had studied Communism in China. [Personally] I did not believe in Communist ideology.How was the situation in Kham in 1954/1955?
The situation became bad and dangerous at that time. For the initial two/three years, the Chinese were good and accepted whatever we asked of them. Our demands were approved, even sometime with a signature from Mao Zedong. They had promised religious freedom and also agreed not to break any laws of the land.
In 1954, the Chinese decided to establish a school for the poor. They began to assemble all poor and needy people and spend a lot of money on teaching them farming, nomadic works and other skills. They would also give them and their family money. But soon, these poor Tibetans were told that lamas were yellow robbers and monks were red thieves. The situation began to turn from bad to worse.Why did you have to go to Lhasa in 1955?
I was a staff member in Lithang Monastery and there were good possibilities of business [in Lhasa].How was Chushi Gangdruk [the guerilla movement] started?
From 1955, the Chinese began to brainwash the poor Tibetans. They told them that it was meaningless to offer money to ‘yellow robbers and the red thieves’. The Chinese told them that their poverty was the result of their offerings to the religious community. This was the beginning of the [so-called] ‘Democratic Reforms’. The well-off families, who had guns and knives, were ordered to hand-over their weapons to the Chinese authorities.
[About Chushi Gangdruk] a meeting of businessmen and monks from Kham and Amdo in Lhasa was held in the residence of Andruk Gonpo Tashi (who was also from Lithang). In 1956, the war had already broke out in Kham and Amdo region. Everyday, Chinese would kill thousands of Tibetans and Tibetans also did kill Chinese.
[It was decided] to fight the Chinese [in Central Tibet]. We had to purchase guns and horses in Lhasa and these purchases were made under the pretext that it would be sent to Kham. But there was no use going to Kham region as there were hundreds of thousands of Chinese soldiers fighting there. The idea to start this movement came from Andruk Gonpo Tashi. Chushi Gang-Druk was established in 1956 and the fight against the Chinese army began in 1958. Later, the Chinese authorities in Lhasa ordered that all the businessmen from Kham and Amdo region should leave Lhasa; the guesthouses were required to report any people from Kham and Amdo. Many Tibetans had come to Lhasa after having fought in Kham and Amdo.Did the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan Government know about the formation of the Chushi-Gangdruk?
Yes. Probably even the Chinese knew about the meeting. Kham and Amdo businessmen in Lhasa were united because there was no way they could conduct business in Kham with the ongoing fighting. Everybody was willing to fight against the Chinese even those with wives and children. They were totally determined. After the meeting, we started purchasing horses and ammunitions.From whom did you purchase the horses and ammunitions?
We bought the horses and weaponry in Lhasa. In Kham region, we had lots of weapons. Every family in Kham would possess guns even though all might not have a machine gun. Some families in Kham and Amdo could even have 100 guns. Some of these guns were bought a long time ago from the Chinese, while others were bought from India and British.What happened in March 1959?
On 10 March 1959, Tibetans from all walks of life – monks from Sera, Drepung and Gaden monasteries, general public and the Tibetan army – all participated in the uprising. Tibetans raised slogans such as “Tibet belongs to Tibetans”, “China return to China” and “His Holiness is the supreme leader of Tibet”, “Chinese should return to China”. We knew that His Holiness did not want to meet the Chinese officials [and attend a theatre performance in the Chinese Camp]. Amongst the aristocratic circle in the Tibetan government, one group [led by Minister] Ngabo sided with the Chinese authorities while the other group consisting of officials such as Surkhang were devoted to His Holiness. The pro-Dalai Lama group was able to provide security to His Holiness. If they had not been able, His Holiness would have been handed over to the Chinese authorities. [Our work was to] clear the escape route for His Holiness in Lhoka region [south of Lhasa] by making sure that not even a single Chinese soldier remained on that route. This, we did, by either killing or catching Chinese soldiers along the way. That was in March 1959. Before reaching Lhoka region, all the Chushi-Gangdruk volunteers were scattered in all the four directions. We sent many volunteers along the route from Lhoka to areas near Lhasa to clear the way for His Holiness and to make sure that the Chinese authorities could not capture His Holiness. [We already knew that] His Holiness might not be able to stay in Lhasa, but it was the responsibility of the Tibetan government to ensure that he was safe from the [actions] of the Chinese authorities. We were waiting and fighting in the meantime. On 17 March 1959, His Holiness left Lhasa by foot.
When were you informed that you would have to accompany the Dalai Lama to India?
Ratuk Ngawang leading the Dalai Lama to exile (courtesy Ratuk Ngawang)
In November 1958, I returned to Lhasa from Lhoka where I was fighting. We had contacts with several senior government officials such as the Lord Chamberlain, Phala who was close to Chushi Gangdruk. The prevalent situation was that the Chinese authorities were not heeding whatever His Holiness was saying. The situation had become difficult. We were told that there was a risk of His Holiness being captured and I was asked what we could do about it. If there was such a risk, we proposed that the Tibetan government handle the preparations, while we would escort him. [At that time] there was no clear response. But I knew it was impossible for His Holiness to stay.Do you remember when you left Lhasa?
I was not with His Holiness when he escaped from Norbulingka. I am only reporting what I have heard. When he came out of Norbulingka, he was not in monk’s robe. He was disguised in a civilian dress and accompanied by two-three people for security purpose. All these preparations were made days ahead. His Holiness walked by foot to a place called Ramatrica where there was a boat. After crossing the river, horses were kept ready. Chushi Gangdruk volunteers were waiting. I sent a message through my servant and a monk that the way was totally clear from Lhoka and that there was absolutely no need to worry. This message was received by His Holiness. I was able to meet His Holiness in a place known as Drachima. Then with 10-12 horse-riders, we escorted him secretly. The photo that you see was clicked there on a hillock. His Holiness stayed for one night there.At that time, you had CIA-trained radio operators?
There were two men who were handling radio transmissions.They were Tibetans?
Yes, they were Tibetans [showing their pictures].Was it a smooth journey between Norbulingka and Tawang?
We had snowfalls due to which we faced many difficulties; horses were unable to walk on the snow and even for humans it was difficult to walk on the snow.All the Dalai Lama’s family was with him?
Yes, his family, his tutors and many high ranking officials.Your first impression when you reached the Indian border?
Everybody felt happy that His Holiness could get asylum in India. When we first reached India, there was fighting everywhere in Tibet. The only thought at that time was to seek more training and to get ammunition support and then to fight against the Chinese in Tibet. We had no other aim. Either through war or through dialogue, we had to seek independence. Our thoughts were very short-sighted that time. It is why, we started the [guerilla] Mustang Operation [in Nepal] and 22 Regiment [the Special Frontier Forces under the Government of India]. Almost 100 Tibetans were trained by CIA and parachuted into Tibet where the Tibetans were fighting. But because hundreds of thousands of Chinese had entered Tibet, the operation could not be sustained.What feeling did you have when you reached Tawang?
When we reached Tawang, the Indians had prepared a great deal for providing food and shelter for thousands of Tibetans. We had to surrender all our weapons to the Indian government. We requested India to allow us to fight the Chinese. We were told that we would fight together since our forces had already a good training. In many ways, we were duped.
-----Born in Angouleme, France, Claude Arpi`s real quest began 36 years ago with a journey to the Himalayas. Since then he has been an enthusiastic student of the history of Tibet, China and the subcontinent. He is the author of numerous English and French books including. His book, Tibet: the lost Frontier (Lancers Publishers) was released recently.