Ngabo Ngawang Jigme died a few days ago, just two months short of his 100th birthday. For good or ill, Ngabo had been one of the major figures in Tibetan politics since the 1940s. The scion of an aristocratic family, he rose through the ranks of the old Tibetan government to become one of the four members of the Kashag, which was generally the highest rank below the ruler. In 1950, at a crucial moment in Tibet’s history, the Kashag appointed Ngabo the governor of Kham (which in practice meant the area around Chamdo) and the commander-in-chief of the Tibetan forces on the frontier with Chinese-controlled territory; this was just as the new People’s Republic of China was consolidating its rule over the eastern Tibetan areas and moving its armies into place to attack the Tibetan government’s territory. Ngabo felt that it was futile to meet the Chinese with arms and that the only hope lay in a negotiated surrender; thus, when the People’s Liberation Army advanced on Chamdo, Ngabo surrendered. Ngabo became the Tibetan government’s lead negotiator in the talks that produced the 17 Point Agreement by which Tibet acquiesced to joining the PRC. He ignored the instructions given by the Kashag as utterly unrealistic and argued that if Lhasa disapproved of the agreement he signed they could simply refuse to ratify it.
While the PRC followed its policy of collaboration with the old Tibetan establishment, Ngabo was the most prominent representative of that policy. He quickly became the First Deputy Commander of the PLA’s Tibetan Military District, which was the de facto local Chinese government in Tibet, and his Chinese military uniform would become a symbol in the minds of many of his true loyalties. When the Lhasa uprising occurred in 1959, Ngabo initially tried to mediate between the Tibetan government and the Chinese, but in the end he continued to support the PRC: after retaking Lhasa, it was his voice that the PLA played over their loudspeakers urging the people to lay down their arms to avoid the destruction of the city. Although he might never have been powerful enough to formulate policy himself, Ngabo was never purged and continued to hold official positions, including two terms as chairman of the Tibet Autonomous Region in the 1960s and the 1980s. It’s worth noting, however, that in the PRC many such titles are symbolic or honorific and do not necessarily involve any real power (the Dalai Lama himself was a deputy chairman of the PRC’s Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, but that of course does not mean that he was an influential Chinese legislator); in particular, the office of chairman of the TAR has always been a figurehead for the real provincial governor, the Committee Secretary of the TAR Communist Party (note that the former has always been a Tibetan while the latter has always been Chinese). Still, Ngabo was nothing if not a political survivor: according to Tsering Shakya, he was the only TAR official from an aristocratic background who was not subjected to thamzing (struggle sessions) and sent to a labor camp during the Cultural Revolution.
Having spent most of his life protecting himself by serving an oppressive government, I think it’s fair to say that Ngabo was no hero. However, perhaps he is also not the simplistic villain of the story, even though he can readily be made to play that part in the retelling. In any war that has a winner, someone has to be the one to surrender on behalf of the losing side. Maybe he capitulated too soon, but maybe he saved civilians and conscript soldiers from dying in a useless war. During the 1950s, when he had a unique kind of influence due to his holding both Tibetan and Chinese offices, he did attempt to advocate for Tibetan interests: for instance, at a meeting in 1956, “it was Ngabo who made the most vocal criticism of the Chinese. He stressed the need to reduce the number of Chinese troops and cadres and declared that the Chinese had failed to appreciate the ‘feelings of the Tibetan people'” (Tsering Shakya, Dragon in the Land of Snows, pg. 155). Ngabo did attempt to mediate during the 1959 uprising in an effort to avoid violence.
Ngabo is outlived both by Lhalu Tsewang Dorje (now 94), another member of the Tibetan ancien regime who has also ended up as a Communist Party loyalist, albeit by a much more circuitous path; and by Phüntso Wangye (now 87), the lifelong Tibetan communist whose life also took a dramatically different course. Lhalu and Ngabo had served in the Kashag together, and Lhalu was Ngabo’s predecessor as governor and commander-in-chief on the Chinese border. Unlike Ngabo, Lhalu wanted to fight, even though he recognised how grim the odds would be, so the change in commanders resulted in a major policy change at the time. In 1959, when the revolt reached Central Tibet and Ngabo supported the Chinese, Lhalu joined the rebels — he would later describe himself as having been commander-in-chief of the rebel forces. He was eventually captured, subjected to thamzing, and imprisoned in the notorious Drapchi prison. After his release, he came to accept Communist Party rule and was politically rehabilitated, serving in various ceremonial position in the TAR and vociferously criticising the Dalai Lama and the exiles.
Phüntso Wangye came from a humbler background in Kham. As a young man, he received a Chinese education and became a committed communist (this was before CCP takeover in China, but various intellectual trends were current among the educated). This did not necessarily mean he was committed to annexation by China. During the 1940s, Phüntso Wangye attempted to warn the Lhasa government that the Chinese communists would be coming and to agitate for reforms as a means of strengthening the country. Meeting with no success at either goal, he joined up with the Chinese instead; in 1951, he assisted the PLA in entering Central Tibet. However, his principled commitment to Marxism as he saw it and to the wellbeing of the Tibetan people as he saw it drew the anger of the Chinese leadership before long, and in 1958 he was purged. He would eventually spent eighteen years in solitary confinement. He now lives in Beijing and occasionally makes public statements urging more liberal policies in Tibet.
It is striking that all three of these men were so much older than the 10th Panchen Lama, who would only be 71 if he were alive, and yet each outlived him by more than twenty years.
The Tibetan government in exile has a released a statement lauding Ngabo as honest and patriotic. Phayul.com has published a piece by Bhuchung D. Sonam criticising that statement, arguing that Ngabo was no patriot but merely an opportunist.