From the print edition of Tibetan Review.
By Pema Thinley
Truth is, in the end, what one wants to believe it to be when it is not restricted to the domain of unbiased intellectual enquiry but extended to real life pursuit of one’s opportune interests. Hence, there is nothing absolute about it in the vagaries of human conduct of their affairs through the vicissitude of times and circumstances. This has especially been so in the case of the mainstream exile Tibetans’ perception, or, rather, stand, on three of the leading figures who had, to put it in a rather charitable term, associated themselves with the Chinese invasion and occupation of Tibet. The exile Tibetan administration at Dharamsala, India, leading the exile Tibetans’ collective voice, expressed sadness at the passing away of each of them and eulogised them for what it said were their sense of patriotism and acts of heroism.
Normally, anyone who aligns oneself with the enemy forces in the annexation of one’s country will indubitably be a traitor, the worst possible crime in any country. After all, such a course of conduct strikes at the very foundation of our individual as well as collective being. The late 10th Panchen Lama, who died in Jan 1989, aged not yet 51; Ngapo Ngawang Jigme, who died in Dec 2009 at 100, and Bapa Phuntsok Wangyal, who died at 92 just recently, on Mar 30, 2014, were certainly firmly within the enemy camp when the Chinese invasion came after the founding of the People’s Republic of China on Oct 1, 1949. But now, the less one speaks about the unspeakable atrocities, ranking among the very worst in human history, which accompanied the invasion and the first four decades of the occupation rule, the better it appears to be, if brought into issue in this context.
The Panchen Lama was already with the Communist Chinese when the latter issued a call for the “liberation” of Tibet in late 1949 itself, whether or not he had much of a choice in the matter. Ngapo signed away Tibet’s independence on May 23, 1951, admittedly under duress, even though, as we have been told, this was not the mandate with which the Tibetan government at Lhasa sent him to Beijing, which was only to hold talks with the new government of China. Bapa Phuntsok Wangyal accompanied and guided the invading Chinese People’s Liberation Army all the way to Tibet’s capital Lhasa within the same year.
What makes all the difference between then and now is that the exile Tibetan administration no longer seeks Tibet’s independence, with the result that those who speak up for the preservation and protection of Tibet’s culture and historical identity and for respecting the basic human dignity of fellow-Tibetans while upholding the sanctity of China’s sovereign overlordship become heroes. And why not? We too have, from the perspective of the original scheme of things and those who still swear by it, made traitors of ourselves by giving up the struggle for independence.
All our efforts and expenditure are now focused on seeking a corner of local identity within a People’s Republic of China, a nation in the unwieldy proportions of an empire and which includes, besides China, the other annexed territories of East Turkestan (Xinjiang) and Mongolia (Inner) as well. This means we have now made common cause with the Tibetan dissidents who espouse their ethnic cause without questioning the Chinese rule as such. Previously, we might have called it a well deserved comeuppance that the Panchen Lama and Bapa Phuntsok Wangyal suffered persecutions worse than death for having had the naiveté to believe and act on China’s assurances that its intentions over Tibet were nothing but altruistic – to help develop and modernize a country fossilized in medieval socio-economic and political morass and let matters be in every other respect save as per the wishes of the Tibetan people themselves in the further march of their history.
But now they are heroes who risked it all by speaking up for their people even while knowing, as they should, that it was all rather futile. With our supposed liberators having bared their fangs and brandished their claws and leaving no one in any doubt that their so-called liberation was nothing but a historic ruse designed to play on the gullibility, or to take advantage of the utter haplessness, of those it sought to win over even if only for the initial stages of the invasion and occupation rule, theirs have been tales of personal and national tragedy marked by hopes and aspirations totally misplaced and therefore horribly gone wrong. Of heroism or patriotism, they certainly would not seem to be, except by stretch of one’s imagination.
The title of hero or patriot would, in our view, seem to belong only to those who had no illusions about what the Chinese were up to, faced them for what they were, stood their ground, and used every breath of their living existence to let the enemy know it in no uncertain terms across the barriers of horrendous physical pains and heart-renting emotional anguish they were put through. Some may call them foolhardy and unrealistic. But there is surely such a thing as standing up for truth and for one’s principle when faced not just with imperatives to make concessions but prospects of imminent annihilation by an enemy that is bereft of any conscience no matter how much climb-down one makes in attempts to satiate its black hole-like territorial hunger and nationalist ego.
Besides, one wonders whether all three deserved equal, unqualified praise while the question still remains what judgement to be brought on those who still remain unrelenting in their now, alas, sidelined pursuit of independence and continue to endure all manners of unspeakable atrocities. Of course, countless numbers like them have died without any inkling that some decades down the line, the cause they had ardently believed in and fought and died for would be discarded as unviable for an alternative that appears to be headed nowhere and seems to have only public relations value.
Of the trio, the Panchen Lama was the most outspoken and also the only one who pointedly petitioned the top Chinese leadership to order a halt to the gross and systematic violations of human rights of the Tibetan people that included particularly cruel and sadistic forms of mass killings, religious annihilation and cultural decimation. He had no qualm in saying what Tibet had lost to Chinese rule outweighed the developmental gains, even though he still swore by the communist Chinese sovereignty over Tibet. Bapa Phuntsok Wangyal also remained unshaken in his belief in the Communist party leadership although he was disappointed by the top leaders’ stony ignorance of his repeated appeals for compromise with the Dalai Lama and his accusations that those actively carrying out the repression in Tibet were motivated only to preserve and promote their personal interests and privileges rather than being inspired by any higher Chinese national goal in recommending ever more expenditure and power for themselves on cracking down on the Tibetan people. Both perhaps deserved praise within those spheres of their concerns and activism.
For their bold stand, Bapa Phuntsok Wangyal faced solitary confinement for 18 years, from 1958 to 1976. The Panchen Lama was publicly humiliated at politburo meetings in 1964, declared ‘an enemy of the Tibetan people’, and imprisoned in inhuman conditions. He was released in 1977 but put under house arrest until 1982. Both continued their advocacy until their dying days. Unlike them, Ngapo never suffered any imprisonment or torture. His only claim to our praise as patriot rests on his having sought to correct during some inconspicuous academic meetings certain official distortions of some historical narratives and incidents which were designed to strengthen Chinese claim over Tibet and for his comments about the plunder of the Potala Palace of its invaluable treasures accumulated over many, many centuries through successive rulers of Tibet under the chaos of the communist Chinese rule.