AUGUST 26, 2009
In the 1970s, General Wangdu was the last leader of the thirteen camps of Tibetan freedom fighters hiding out in Mustang. His murder – he was ambushed at Tinker’s Pass in 1974 – marked the end of Tibetan armed insurgency against China’s People’s Liberation Army. When I wrote Buddha’s Warriors, The Story of the CIA-Backed Tibetan Freedom Fighters, the Chinese Invasion, and the Ultimate Fall of Tibet, I sifted through thousands of old photos kept by Tibetan refugees, in search of shots of Wangdu, but I came up with only two. Several years ago, I mentioned to a friend of mine – and longtime denizen of Kathmandu – how unfortunate it was that there were so few images of Wangdu. My friend was Lisa Choegyal, co-author (along with Gautam SJB Rana) of the recently published Kathmandu Valley Style. (click here for review) Lisa looked at me and said, “You know, I photographed Wangdu a few months before his death. I wonder where it is?”
Last week, Lisa happened upon this long-lost and rare image of Wangdu and forwarded it to me. The note attached explained that Wangdu had posed for Lisa “in front of the Annapurna Hotel cacti. He looks so young to have had such a responsibility of leadership on his shoulders. He was a commanding presence, even zooming around Kathmandu on the back of a motorbike, which is what we did together, him never without an armed bodyguard. Maybe that cord you can see around his neck is related to carrying a pistol? His English was not great, but you can see his enthusiasm and the passion for life and his committed cause in the picture. It was March 1974, and my memory was he was in (what turned out to be) the last round of negotiations with the Nepal authorities to cease hostilities with the Chinese - it was a frustrating time for him, as he must have suspected the costs of his decision.”
For those of you unfamiliar with the story, the freedom fighters of Tibet, called the Chushi-Gangdruk had risen in resistance to the Chinese takeover of Tibet in the 1950s. They were estimated to be 80,000-strong at the time of the Dalai Lama’s escape from Tibet in 1959. The sheer number of PLA deployed into Tibet eventually forced the Chushi-Gangdruk to retreat to the Nepali area of Mustang, where they continued to make incursions on the PLA throughout the 1960s. The first leader of the Mustang forces was Baba Gen Yeshi, who proved to be corrupt. Not only did he pocket funds intended for the troops, but bribed Tibetan refugees attempting to escape Tibet through Mustang by having his subordinates appropriate their sacred statues, thankas and other valuables.
Wangdu was brought to Mustang to replace Baba Gen Yeshi. Baba Gen Yeshi never forgave Wangdu and would eventually betray him and the Tibetan freedom fighters.
The story continues with an excerpt from Buddha’s Warriors:
King Mahendra, who, in the past had handled the Mustang question by simply looking the other way, died in 1972. The heir apparent, Prince Birendra, was eager to improve relations with China. He had made a trip to Beijing the year before and – now that he had become king – wanted the Tibetans out of Mustang at all costs. By 1973, 20 percent of Nepal’s much-needed foreign aid was coming from Beijing. Finally, toward the insistence of the Chinese, the young King Birendra publicly demanded that the Mustang guerillas surrender or face the consequences.
One of the commanders under General Wangdu, Tinzing Jyurme, described the Chushi-Gangdruk’s reaction in Mustang:
I had been up there since 1960. What would you do if you had spent the last twelve or thirteen years freezing your ass off? We were ready to fight. We were willing to fight the whole Nepalese army, if we had to. We weren’t afraid of the Nepalese, and they knew it.
It was Wangdu who calmed us down. He reminded us that there were many thousands of Tibetan refugees living in Pokhara and Kathmandu – many were relatives of ours and all of them were guests of the Nepalese government. And there were a lot of Nepalese who weren’t very happy about our presence anyway. If we fought the Nepalese Army, we would only create additional hardships for our families. We knew Wangdu was right, but I also knew that Wangdu would never just give up.
Nevertheless, King Birendra’s ultimatum was temporarily – quite literally – put on ice. A brutal Mustang winter arrived, and the accompanying snowfall closed off passage into and out of Mustang. Nothing could be done until the spring of 1974. But even after the March and April thaws had cleared the mountain passes, Wangdu refused to initiate surrender.
It is possible that he was waiting for some cue from the Dalai Lama’s Government-in-Exile in Dharamsala, India. It is equally possible – during that last, desolate winter – that he made the decision to go out in glory rather than admit defeat. Over the last fifteen years, Wangdu had experienced Tibet’s organized resistance being squeezed and shoved around by every conceivable outside force: First they had been pushed out of their own country by the PLA; then they had been refused sanction while on Indian soil; then they were abandoned by the Americans because, apparently, Nixon wanted to make friends with Wangdu’s mortal enemies, the communists; then they had been betrayed by the vampiric Baba Gen Yeshi – a Tibetan and, even worse, a fellow Khampa; and now, finally Wangdu’s army was being evicted by the Nepalis. One thing was certain: Wangdu was a warrior. To imagine Wangdu simply giving up and settling down in the pacific squalor of a refugee camp was unthinkable.
On April 19, 1974, Lhamo Tsering, a Tibetan who had acted as the go-between the Government-in-Exile and the Mustang troops, was arrested by the police in Pokhara and jailed – to be used as ransom – his life in exchange for Wangdu’s. After Lhamo’s arrest the word went out: Anyone helping the Mustang rebels would now be treated as an enemy of the Nepali government.
In May, Baba Gen Yeshi had a meeting in Kathmandu with the brass of the Royal Army. He announced that he was prepared to identify all the Mustang commanders and provide the army with exact locations of the commanders’ respective magars. (Although the amount is debated, Baba Gen Yeshi was rewarded substantially by the monarchy.) A week later, forty-eight of Baba Gen Yeshi’s followers, acting as guides, led army officiers to Mustang and instructed them where the magars were located. [Note: the RNA officer in charge of the Tinker Pass operation was Brig. Gen. Aditya SJB Rana.]
Wangdu’s spies kept him apprised of movement to the south, but, in the meantime, Wangdu’s scouts also reported that a small contingent of Chinese troops had crossed into Mustang from the north – dangerously close to where Tinzing Jyurme’s group had its headquarters. Wangdu’s worst fear had become a reality: The Royal Army was now working in concert with the PLA. To make matters worse, at Jomsom, the southernmost town in Mustang, the Royal Army built a heliport, while ten thousand troops marched up the Kali Gandaki Valley. It was a Sino-Nepali trap.
General Wangdu held an emergency meeting. He told his commanders that they had no choice but to strike a deal with the Nepalis before the PLA made their next move from the north. They would surrender half of their weapons and ammunition on the condition that the Nepalis released Lhamo Tsering, who was still in the Pokhara jail. Upon his release, they would surrender the rest of their weapons. Two days later, half the rebels surrendered their weapons in Jomsom. Wangdu waited for the news that Lhamo Tsering had been freed. The news never came. The Nepalis reneged on their half of the bargain.
In the meantime, the Dalai Lama’s Government-in-Exile was being pressured by the Indians to intervene. The Dalai Lama recorded a message on a tape recorder, which was then hand-delivered to the Mustang resistance. From magar to magar, the rebels heard the voice of the Dalai Lama asking them to put down their arms.
Tinzing Jyurme described the rebel’s reaction:
Many of us cried when we heard His Holiness’ words. In our hearts we couldn’t go against the Dalai Lama’s wishes, but neither could we surrender after already losing so much. Besides, if we surrendered, what would the Nepalese do to us? They had already betrayed us over the release of Lhamo Tsering.
Rather than go against the Dalai Lama, some of the guys committed suicide. Pachin, one of the five commanders, cut his own throat. He did it with so much power that his head fell off. Tsewang Gyapo, my personal secretary, also killed himself. He climbed up to the top of an old rock building that was high above the river and just jumped without saying anything to anyone. They wandered around crying, like they didn’t even know where they were.
According to Tinzing Jyurme, Wangdu was more afraid of Baba Gen Yeshi’s men than he was of the Royal Army or the PLA: Wangdu knew that if he surrendered, the Nepalese would let Baba Gen Yeshi’s men have their way with him. But I don’t want to give you the wrong impression. At that point, I don’t think Wangdu cared if he lived or died. What was really bothering him was that he had certain things he didn’t want the Nepalese to get their hands on: an American wireless and important documents, including ones that involved the CIA.
Roger E. McCarthy, the man who created the CIA Tibetan Task Force later agreed with Tinzing Jyurme’s explanation. McCarthy told me: “Wangdu did have key documents, including not only records of the Mustang force, but names of those who had helped the resistance efforts in various ways, plus financial records…Wangdu was intent upon reaching India with this valuable cargo. That was his main motivation for making a run for it. He was not the kind of man to concern himself with personal safety. He sure as hell was not afraid to fight the Chinese nor, for that matter, anyone.”
Wangdu sent most of the remaining troops to Jomsom, which he hoped would stall the army long enough so that he could escape to India. He and a small contingent of his closet followers headed west on horseback. It was mountainous and hard riding. On the thirteenth day of his escape, some Nepalis spied him on the move in Dolpo. The news was radioed to Jomsom. Thus, the Royal Army knew he was headed west.
By late August, Wangdu and his men had reached Jumla. In the interim, flight had been hellish. His route darted back and forth over the Tibetan border, including several skirmishes with small units of PLA. At one point, Wangdu pulled up short at a spot overlooking a large Chinese encampment: He was forced to backtrack deep into the Nepali mountains, which cost him time he could ill afford to lose. He and his men had ridden hard the whole way, and his men were near exhaustion.
But in late August, the end was in sight. Wangdu had one last mountain pass to cross: Tinker-La. On the other side was India.
What Wangdu didn’t know was that he was riding into a trap. The Royal Army had correctly intuited that Tinker’s Pass would be Wangdu’s choice for escape. They had set up a large ambush group toward the summit of Tinker-La.
About a mile from the pass, Wangdu’s men requested to stretch their legs before making the final ascent. Wangdu allowed most of them to dismount, but he took six men with him in search of forage and water for the horses. The men who were left behind watched their leader disappear over a small rise. A few seconds later, they heard gunfire. Without saying a word, they remounted and galloped toward the shooting. They got to the crest of hill just in time to see that all of Wangdu’s men were down and that Wangdu – the only one still on horseback – was charging straight into enemy fire.
Wangdu was shot off his horse. His horse continued to gallop without him. Firefights between the Royal Army and the remaining rebels continued throughout the day. Sixteen Tibetans circled around the army and managed to scale Tinker-La from a different direction, where a recess in the mountain hid them from view.
A helicopter was dropped in. Wangdu’s body was identified and flown back to Kathmandu.
Tinzing Jyurme recounts the rest:
King Birendra made a big show of his army’s victory. Right in the center of Kathmandu, he set up a large tent so that the public could see what the Royal Army had done. He had all of Wangdu’s personal effects spread out on tables: his rings, his wristwatch, his gua, his sword, his rifle, the wireless, some personal photographs he had carried with him – everything.
But the big prize was Wangdu himself. The king had his corpse put on display. Thousands of Nepalese came and filed by his mutilated body – this went on for several days before the stench got so bad that they had to close down the show.
Tinzing Jyurme, Lhamo Tsering and five other captured leaders were jailed for the next seven years.
Across town, Baba Gen Yeshi settled into a life of urban comfort, surrounded by a score of ex-rebels who catered to his every need. His business ventures thrived. He even created a little museum open to the public, which housed first-rate Tibetan artifacts. Tibetan refugees could go in and revisited possessions that had once been theirs.
The Tibetan resistance was over.
From Mikel Dunham’s Buddha’s Warriors