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Just when we thought the gods had won...
Before the arrival of the Chinese in Tibet, Chamda’s lama had claimed, much to people’s delight, that the gods were on their side. British reporter Robert Ford knew that something more ‘Churchilian’ was needed!
One of the last witnesses of the Chinese invasion of Tibet has departed. Sir Robert Webster Ford passed away on September 20 in London at the age of 90. He had served several years as a radio operator in Tibet in the late 1940s. When the People’s Liberation Army led by General Liu Bocheng and his Political Commissar, a certain Deng Xiaoping, entered Chamdo, the capital of Kham Province in October 1950, Ford was the only white man around.
In Eastern Tibet, the Tibetans had difficulty in pronouncing ‘F’, so ‘Ford’ became ‘Phodo’; Sir Robert was then simply called Phodo Kusho or Ford Sir. During World War II, ‘Phodo’ served as a radio technician in the Royal Air Force. At the end of the war, he joined the British Mission in Lhasa as a radio officer. An audience with the 13-year-old Dalai Lama convinced him to continue to work for Tibet. He was soon transferred to Sikkim, where he worked under the supervision of the Political Officer-in-charge of Tibet Affairs.
When India became independent, Ford decided to return to Lhasa where he was offered a job by the Government of Tibet. He became the first foreigner to be given a Tibetan official administrative rank. In 1949, he was sent to Chamdo to establish a radio station. Lhalu Tsewang Dorje, the Governor General of Kham requested the Tibetan-speaking ‘Phodo’ and three young Kinnauri wireless trainees to quickly establish a first direct link with Lhasa. Lhalu, who could sense the forthcoming danger, was keen to strengthen the defences of Tibet’s borders. Unfortunately, he was soon replaced as Governor General of Kham by Ngabo Ngawang Jigme who did not believe in the Chinese threat.
In his memoirs, Captured in Tibet, Ford mentioned several anecdotes from another epoch. For example, he recalled that just before the arrival of the Chinese troops in the Fall of 1950, the most often repeated mantra in Chamdo was ‘The gods are on our side’. One day, everybody got excited as Shiwala Rinpoche, the head lama of the local monastery, had just performed a divination: The Chinese will not come. The great news spread like wildfire. There was a sigh of relief. The gods had finally won!
The Britisher in Ford commented that Rinpoche’s statement was perhaps good for morale “but it seemed to me that something more Churchilian was needed”. Indeed! In January 1950, Ford had heard an ominous communiqué broadcast by Communist China: “The task for the People’s Liberation Army for 1950 is to liberate Taiwan, Hainan and Tibet.”
On October 11, 1950, at 11pm, Ford had just finished speaking on the radio to his mother in England; he was preparing to go to bed, when he heard a faint tinkle of bells coming from the east. “As bells grew louder I heard another sound, the clip-clop of horse’s hoofs.” Ford immediately recognised an Army messenger riding towards the Residency where the Governor General was staying. He understood that the rider was bringing an ominous message: The PLA had crossed the Yangtze four days earlier.
The main border post at Gamto Druga had been overrun by the Chinese; wave after wave of soldiers had overpowered the Tibetan defenders, who fought bravely, but were ultimately massacred. In the south, the 157th PLA Regiment attacked the Tibetan troops near Markhan, cutting off the retreat route of poor ‘Phodo’! The net was fast closing on the Britisher and on Tibet.
Lhasa was finally informed on October 12 that the Yangtze had been crossed. At that time, the opera season was in full swing in the Tibetan capital; the aristocracy and the Government were busy. For the Tibetan officials, opera and picnic were sacred! In Chamdo, everybody expected Lhasa to respond swiftly before it was too late. But nothing! What was going on? “Radio Lhasa had nothing to say the next day, or the day after that”, remembered Ford. The Tibetan aristocracy was simply living in another world, one which was fast disappearing, though they did not realise it.
On October 19, Ford was ‘captured’. Probably because he was the lone foreign witness to the Chinese invasion, he had to undergo suffering and humiliation as a prisoner of Mao. The Chinese accused him of espionage, spreading anti-communist propaganda and causing the death of a monk, known as the Geda Lama. ‘Phodo’ spent nearly five years in jail, constantly fearing execution; he was subjected to interrogation and ‘thought reform’.
In 1954, he was finally allowed to send a letter to his family. A few months later, his trial was held and he was sentenced to 10 years imprisonment. He was eventually released and expelled from China in 1955. It is in 1957 that he published his harrowing experience, in Captured in Tibet. On his return to England, Ford entered the British Foreign Service. He ended his career as British Consul General in Bordeaux, France.
I remember hosting Ford for a few days some 25 years ago. He was a charming person. He used to say that his ordeal in the Chinese jails (and specially the PLA’s interrogation methods) were very similar to ones the Indian officers captured by the Chinese in October 1962 had to go through; it was also comparable to the experience of the mountaineer Sidney Wignall, who was captured in western Tibet in 1955. Wignall had discovered that the Chinese were building a road to the Aksai China.
It was only on October 25, 1950, that the Chinese themselves announced to the world that Tibet had been ‘liberated’. A brief Xinhua communiqué said: “People’s Army units have been ordered to advance into Tibet to free three million Tibetans.” On October 27, The Hindu in Madras published the following piece: “New Delhi is generally inclined to believe the reported movement of troops may be related to some border incidents, but not to any general invasion by Chinese troops.”
The previous day the Indian Prime Minister had given one of the speeches he loved to deliver; he electrified the masses: “The only way to bring peace… was for the people of the world and the different countries to cast away fear from their hearts and minds and think and do the right thing.” India had just lost a gentle neighbour, the Tibetans their country!
Ford later wrote: “I could only think it was a matter of habit. The Lhasa Government was so used to the policy of saying nothing that might offend or provoke the Chinese that it kept it on after provocation had become irrelevant. It was still trying to avert a war that had already broken out. Does it remind you of something familiar in India? Sir Robert ‘Phodo’, we will miss you!
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