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' 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.
Image: Ratuk Ngawang leading the Dalai Lama to exile (courtesy Ratuk Ngawang)