Another “occupation”

From the Economist, an obituary of note:

Among the other officials of the Tibetan government, he stood out somewhat. No silk robes; no long plait; no five-inch earrings. Instead, short back’n’sides, and a business suit in which it was difficult to bow, sit cross-legged, or mount a horse. In the street people stared at his fair hair, and Tibetan friends refused to use his shampoo in case they, too, came to look like that.

Robert Ford was hired by the Tibetans in 1948 to create a modern communications network: more modern, that is, than treks by mule over the highest mountains in the world. His brief, bestowed with the Dalai Lama’s blessing, was to put the eastern stronghold of Chamdo in touch with the capital, Lhasa—and Tibet in touch with the outside world. Incidentally, he would help Tibet survive as a free country in the face of Chinese incursions. To Tibetans he was “Phodo Kusho” (Ford Esquire). The Chinese, when they caught him, called him an imperialist spy.

Truly a bygone age, and a clash of cultures that was well worth recording. For example:

His life in Chamdo was fascinating, but hard. He learned to tolerate countless cups of butter-tea, as well as the lethal chang beer. A letter home would take five weeks to arrive, and even a message to Lhasa 15 days. But ham radio gave him friends round the world—including, by happy chance, a tailor in his home town of Burton-on-Trent. Conditions permitting, he could talk to his parents every Wednesday.

Training Tibetans to understand radio was harder. Ordinary folk would search for the man in the box; high officials would bow to the microphone and present it with white scarves. There were very few clocks in Chamdo with which to fix two-way conversations. Instead, he had to time his broadcasts by the position of the sun.

As the Chinese army advanced in 1950, he was asked to put prayer flags on his aerial masts. Against Chinese machineguns and artillery, the Tibetans relied almost entirely on the gods. Aeroplanes were feared, because they might disturb the spirits of the upper air.

It’s a fascinating snapshot of Tibet, Tibetan history, and an unpunished imperialist military aggression and occupation that the world largely ignores. And that history is also a stark example of double standards so sharp you could cut yourself on them.

Read the whole thing, here.