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The Truth about Surkhang Wangchen Gelek

posted Jul 20, 2015, 5:32 PM by The Tibetan Political Review   [ updated Jul 29, 2015, 4:35 PM ]

By Chunden Dolkar and J. T. Surkhang

The Tibet Album. "Wangchen Geleg Surkhang, Phuntsog Rabgye Ragashar"

The Pitt Rivers Museum.


It is so ironic that a person deemed by the Chinese as their worst enemy in the Kashag in Tibet stands now accused of having been a Chinese informer by Kasur Gyalo Thondup.  We are referring to Surkhang Wangchen Gelek about whom Mr Thondup asserted in his book  The Noodle  Maker of Kalimpong: "Surkhang early on had become something of an informer, allowing himself to be exploited, currying Chinese favor” (pg 135). As will be shown below Mr Thondup is totally incorrect. Let alone being a Chinese informant,  Surkhang Wangchen Gelek was a  Tibetan patriot who was and still is considered by the Chinese as one of their greatest enemies in the Tibetan Government throughout the l950’s.


A clear source of evidence for this comes from Chinese government documents cited in Professor Goldstein’s (A History of Modern Tibet, Vol. 2, 2007).  For example, on 1 April 1952, the Chinese Central Government sent instructions to the Tibetan Work Committee (the Party’s main office in Lhasa)  that said, “However, the imperialists have not yet given up [plans of] invasion and the conspiracy to stir up a war in Tibet.  The conspiracy may have new developments recently with Gyalo Thondup, Surkhang and the Dalai Lama’s mother returning to Tibet. You need to pay very close attention and be alert all the time” (page 344).  More specifically, on 11 April 1952, the Central Government sent the Tibet Work Committee in Lhasa a telegram stating, “Hence, the policy in the telegram you sent [to us] at 9 p.m. on 10 April, in which you mentioned the plan to dismiss the two sitsabs, dismiss the ‘People’s Association,” and punish the chief instigators (those instigators are the so-called imperialist invasion elements, namely Lukhangwa, Lobsang Tashi, and Surkhang, etc) is absolutely correct. …  Lukhangwa, Lobsang Tashi, and Surkhang are the chief figures in the reactionary faction …” (page 331) . Similarly in a telegram sent by the Central Committee with Mao himself directing Chinese tactics from Beijing to Lhasa on 16 April 1952, said “In this political struggle we will firmly attack the two reactionary sitsabs and drive them from the political stage.   Regarding the other chief separatists such as Surkhang, etc., we will temporarily paralyze/blunt them.” (p. 357).

Conversely, when Mao was deciding whether or not he should demand the sitsabs be dismissed or should offer the Dalai Lama a concession and just allow them to resign, he told the Tibet Work Committee in a telegram dated 16 April that they should  have detailed discussions regarding these options with Che Jigme [the leading official of the Panchen Lama], Phüntso Wangye [the senior Tibetan communist cadre from Batang] and one of the Kashag ministers, Ngabö. In other words, at this critical time in 1952, when the Chinese turned for private advice from a leading Tibetan official, they turned to Ngabö NOT Surkhang. (Goldstein 2007, page 360).  Thus, in 1952 at the same time that Mr Thondup was in Lhasa for his first visit to Tibet since 1945 for a few months the Chinese clearly considered Surkhang as their enemy, not their informant!  Mr.Thondrup’s accusation, therefore, is completely false.  The Chinese also accused Surkhang of formenting rebellion against China when he returned with the His Holiness from Beijing in 1955. The entry for May 1955 in the official Chinese Communist Party Chronicle of events in Tibet says:

As the Dalai Lama passed through Chikang and Sokhang in Sichuan, these Tibetan areas instigated an uprising.  Yongzin Trijang [Rinpoche], … The Dalai Lama’s tutor, and Surkhang Wangchen Gelek, under the pretext of taking both the southern and northern roads, were instigating local headsmen and upper class lamas and telling them to oppose democratic reform and the Communist Party and even instigated an armed uprising.  These were done when they carried out religious meetings or when they held meetings in Ganzi [Kham] concerning self rule for Tibetans at the Litang Monastery, … etc., They even told them that if they "organize the uprising the Kashag will provide them with weapons and can provide assistance."

And “China’s Tibet” a Chinese Government history of Tibet similarly accused Surkhang of fomenting

rebellion, saying,

They directed the rebellion this way.  The Dalai Lama was accompanied by Surkhang Wangchen Gelek a Kalon of the local govt. of Tibet and  Trijang [Rinpoche] the assistant religious teacher of the Dalai Lama.  Surkhang went by the northern route by way of Ganzi and Derge and Trijang Rinpoche went by the southern route, by way of … Litang and other places.  These two people planned rebellion activities on the way and they said to some local chiefs that they should do everything possible to delay democratic reforms and to try and prevent such reforms.  They told these people to organize an armed uprising, and they must try to make contact with foreign countries. (Dangdai Zhongguo de Xizang [Contemporary China’ Tibet]) Beijing 1991.

And in an interview with Professor Goldstein in 1994, His Holiness, speaking of the Kashag in the 1950s said, “And in the Kashag, Ngabo and Sambo, the two, had relations with the Chinese.  But we didn’t think [that] they didn’t like the Tibetan Government and weren’t loyal and would tell the Chinese, but [we thought] that since they were close to the Chinese, if the Chinese pressed them hard they would tell the information.”  Here again, there was no mention of Surkhang as among the Kalön’s who might tell things to the Chinese. Surkhang moreover, unlike others like Kalön Ngabö, had no illusions about the future under China  and believed  that in the end the communists would destroy the old system as they had done in China. Though he was openly cordial in his role as the senior Kashag Minister (kalon) because the policy agreed on by the His Holiness and the Kashag in 1951-52 was to maintain smooth relations with the Chinese so that the benefits that accrued to Tibet under the 17-Point Agreement would continue, and conversely, the implementation of the socialist land reforms that the Chinese wanted would be prevented.

Based on this, Mr. Thondup’s comment that an encounter between Zhang Jingwu and Surkhang led to the Chinese target of attack shifting  from the “people’s” demonstrators to the sitsabs, is clearly false. As the above quotes from Chinese documents reveal, they lump Surkhang side by side with the 2 sitsabs as the chief reactionaries in the Tibetan government.

His Holiness came to Yadong (Dromo) on the Sikkim border in 1951 having appointed  two sitsabs,  Lukhangwa and Lobsang Tashi and a “staying” Kashag consisting of Shasur and Tashi Lingpa to run the government in Lhasa and a “traveling” Kashag with  Surkhang and Ramba who accompanied him. Recent Chinese information indicates further that it was Surkhang and his fellow Kalön Rampa who actually told the sitsabs and the Kalons in a telegram from Dromo  to use “the people” to pressure the Chinese to accept changes in the 17-Point Agreement. (Goldstein . A history of Modern Tibet, Volume 3, 2013, p 43) This led to the start of the People’s Association (Mimang  Tsongdu).  

As Dr. Tsering Shakya says: “The Mimang Tsongdu (Peoples’ Association) was created prior to His Holiness’ visit to China. One of the main concerns of the association was the well being and safety of His Holiness.  They were also diametrically opposed to the Chinese policy in Tibet at the time.  The Mimang Tsongdu was able to secure support from influential people such as Phala and Surkhang.  These two believed that the protest movement would enable the Tibetan Government to put pressure on the Chinese.  They therefore, quietly encouraged the Mimang Tsongdu to intensify its activities.  In fact Kalon Surkhang arranged for financial assistance to be given to the group”.  P 145 Dragon in the Land of Snow.

  And in any case, in April 1952, when Mr Thondup was in Lhasa, the Chinese were well aware of the sitsabs’ attitudes toward them since they were openly defiant in expressing  their feelings and thoughts..  Every time they met with the Chinese leaders face-to-face, the meetings literally ended in yelling and screaming matches.  

Surkhang’s attitude toward the Chinese can also be seen clearly from the decisions he made about his own family.  Rather than see a long term future with the Chinese, Surkhang was one of the very few aristocratic families who did not send their children to study in China and had no social interactions with the Chinese officials outside of his role as Kashag Minister. Once Zhang Jingwu actually commented to him about this saying, “I have been to many Tibetan homes but have never seen the inside of Surkhang house”  Surkhang did not respond. (Personal communication of Surkhang  to his family 1957). Thus, in  1956, when His Holiness came to India to attend  the Buddha Jayanti Celebrations, Surkhang took that opportunity to bring his younger brother and son to India where he left them when His Holiness and he returned to Lhasa in 1957.  Ad then in the following year, 1958, Surkhang secretly sent his daughter and niece to join his brother and son in India disguising them as servants of the Queen mother of Sikkim and  Ragasha family who were returning to India. Surkhang clearly was preparing to leave when the situation got out of control in Lhasa.  

Surkhang, moreover, was the first Kalön to disagree in public with the Chinese leaders. This famous incident occurred at a large public meeting in Shigatse in September 1958 and involved Surkhang and Tan Guansan (the leading Chinese official in Lhasa) regarding the Chinese view that Surkhang and the other top government officials were behind the Chushigandru revolt.
A Tibetan government official, Chape, was at that meeting and recalled the event:

  1. Yes.  I was there.  …  At the meeting, Tan Guansan said that China has no plans other than to peacefully liberate Tibet, but the Tibetan government has been respectful in front, but opposing secretly.[4]  He criticized the government for its behavior, and he said some very pointed criticisms about Surkhang.[5] He said that the government's main representatives act very clever (tib. kheebo) when they come [in person], but after they return, they do bad things.  There are people who are like that.  If they continue to act like this, later it will not be good. If they do disgusting acts that draw blood from their brother nationality [the Han Chinese], that will be bad.  The Central Government has been very tolerant until now, but there is a limit to its patience.  If you continue to act like this it will not be good. So in this manner he gave a powerful criticism of the Tibetan government’s high officials.

While Tan Guansan was standing and speaking in this very animated and forceful manner, Surkhang was seated on the same platform as Tan.  However, he was pretending to be falling asleep.  I myself was then a government official so I was looking at Surkhang to see how he was reacting to this; he was acting like he was asleep and was acting like he was not paying any attention to Tan.

However, after Tan Guansan spoke, Surkhang stood up and said, "Regarding the Khambas, the Dalai Lama and the Kashag have done all kinds of things like giving them advice and sending people to tell them to stop.  But some people are stirring up trouble through lies.  In the future, we will try to ‘alleviate the anger of China and quell the Khamba disturbance’ and we will see this [problem] through to the end.[6]   As to whether the [Tibetan] government is doing anything or not, in the future you should look carefully."  He spoke calmly and wasn't agitated (tib. ngarpo), and he didn’t say bad things about China.  Surkhang gave a clever [tib. khepo] response to Tan Guansan's accusations, correcting his mistakes  He spoke for a long time.  He said that with regard to the Khambas, if we were to send soldiers to fight them, we only have a small number of troops. Moreover, when we sent people [delegations] to talk with them, they didn’t listen.  So we have had no means to do anything about this.  Nevertheless, we will [try to] “calm the anger of China and quell the Khamba disturbance.”  He said this very in a very clever way. [i.e. putting the onus on the Chinese themselves for the problems].. 

Q. Were people astonished by the overt criticism?

A.  This was the first time that Tan had openly criticized them [the leading officials in Tibetan Government] in this real forceful way, so people were startled and frightened.  Everyone thought that now things will not go well. It made a bad impression.  In his speech, Tan said that if you continue to do as you are doing now, there will be blood spilled between the two brother nationalities.[7] Then, he went on to say, "You have to pull you horse back from the edge of the abyss."[8]  This made those of us who were listening afraid, and gave us the bad impression that all will not go well.  Surkhang talked for a long time explaining everything [that the Tibetan Government had done]. .[9]  

(Melvyn C. Goldstein, A History of Modern Tibet, Volume IV: In the Eye of the Storm)

His Holiness also commented on Surkhang’s response in Shigatse in an interview in 1995 with Professor Goldstein,

A. …I sent Surkhang Shape to receive Nehru [in Domo when Nehru was going to Bhutan] and there Surkhang really made an effective [tib. nus pa thon pa] speech at the front of Chinese officers.   … Many Tibetans expressed that he did marvelous.  … He didn’t directly criticize the Chinese but most probably, I think, he [showed] the spirit of the Tibetan people and not that he came as the representative of the Chinese government. (Goldstein, A History of Modern Tibet, Volume IV, [English unchanged])

Mr. Thondup, in his account of His Holiness’ escape from Norbulinga in 1959 writes that a very few people were involved in the decision, namely Gadrang Lobsang Rizen, Surkhang, Shasur, Liushar, Phala, bodyguard Phuntsog Tashi Takla and of course His Holiness  and his three closest attendants. Just ten people were privy to this critical decision.  Would someone thought to be a Chinese informer be included in this exclusive group who were entrusted with a matter of such importance involving the very safety of His Holiness?  Surely not.

Finally, in Mr. Thondup’s account of the early years in exile in India, he says that the Kashag recommended asking the Indian Government for a loan of 200 million  rupees and when he suggested a reduced sum Surkhang and Yuthok objected and that HH the Dalai Lama went along with them.  He contends that Nehru refused the loan because of the enormity of the sum and that Surkhang and Yuthok fled Mussoorie  in embarrassment and never returned.  How ridiculous is that?  The Tibetan government's English interpreter (Jigmie Yuthok) recalls that the loan amount requested was not 200 million but 6.5 million.


In closing, Mr Thondup is well known in the Tibetan community as someone who makes wild statements of dubious veracity, so it is not surprising to learn that even Prime Minister Nehru felt compelled to explicitly comment on this to His Holiness when they met January 1, 1957. In a note Nehru sent to N.R. Pillai, Secretary General of the Ministry of External Affairs  he  wrote, “I  told the Dalai Lama that his brother at Kalimpong (Gyalo Thondup) often spoke very foolishly and it seemed to me that he was rather unbalanced…” (Indian Government document cited in Melvyn Goldstein: A History of Modern Tibet, Vol 3 page 480).

It is not surprising, therefore, that Tibetans who came to India in the 1980’s after China opened its doors to travel expressed confusion and amazement in finding Surkhang being labeled a traitor, when all they had been hearing in Tibet in speeches, broadcasts and movies in the intervening 20 or more years was that he was one of the main enemies of China and instrumental in the Khamba uprising and His Holiness’s escape to India.  To this day China continues to publish articles and make movies portraying him in the worst possible light.  Of course Kasur Gyalo Thondup seems intent on aiding the Chinese in this effort with his wild and unfounded accusations.

The people Mr Thondup maligns so irresponsibly are long deceased but their memory needs to be protected.  It would be a great injustice if their patriotism, integrity, long years of service, loyalty and devotion to His Holiness remains sullied by the wild, baseless, false, unsubstantiated allegations of one person.

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