In India, a Tibetan Can Only Wait

photo by Derrick Chang

Palden, who like many Tibetans goes by a single name, was a teenage monk when he was arrested in 1992 along with 16 others for staging a small demonstration on the main street of Lhasa. It earned him six years imprisonment for committing a “counter-revolutionary act.”

About 18 months ago Palden settled in Dharamsala the northern India hill town that is home to the government in exile established when the Dalai Lama fled Chinese-occupied Tibet. He is 30 but looks 10 years older and is saddled with debilitating health problems that he says were brought on by beatings.

As many as 100,000 Tibetans live in Dharamsala, giving what was to be a way station an air of permanence. Scarlet-robed monks share the narrow streets with traders, tourists and the occasional wandering cow, while restaurants serve traditional Tibetan fare and hundreds of shops display Tibetan books. Although Palden says he is determined to fight for an independent Tibet, it is doubtful when, if ever, he will go home. As Dharamsala has become more Tibetan, Han Chinese now outnumber Tibetans in the remote mountain land itself, according to figures from the government in exile, which estimates that there are now 7.5 million Chinese against 6 million Tibetans.

Palden is hardly alone as a victim of harsh Chinese reaction to such offenses as possessing pictures of the Dalai Lama or audiotapes of his speeches. Some have been arrested for guiding people like Palden across the mountains to India. On November 21, for instance, Reporters Without Borders issued a statement condemning prison sentences of three to 10 years for "espionage on behalf of foreign organizations, putting state security in danger," that were handed down to three Tibetans by an intermediate court in Sichuan province on the Tibetan border. The three had sent abroad photos of demonstrations by nomadic Tibetans at the beginning of August.

In October, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch called for the release of four Tibetan 15 year olds who were arrested on suspicion of writing pro-independence slogans. Amnesty received reports that electric prods were used on the children, and said in a statement that it had “long-standing concerns about arbitrary detention without charge, trial or judicial review, as well as torture and ill-treatment of detainees in Tibet.”

Dharamsala is the headquarters of the Gu-Chu-Sum Movement of Tibet, which provides assistance for former political prisoners like Palden. It takes its name from the Tibetan words for nine, 10 and three, which stand for September and October 1987, and March 1998. In those months, pro-independence rallies in Lhasa were brutally crushed by authorities, and many protesters were arrested and imprisoned.

Since the Chinese annexation of Tibet in 1951, according to pro-Tibetan groups, around 1.2 million Tibetans are said to have died from executions, torture, hunger and oppression. Thousands of monasteries and monuments have been destroyed in periodic waves of violence, although many have been rebuilt. In a kind of eerie reversal of decapitation, hundreds of ancient statues in Buddhist lamaseries were given new heads after Red Guards and others destroyed the old ones during the Cultural Revolution. While the Potala, the spectacular one-time home of the Dalai Lama above Lhasa, has been refurbished, the environment has been ravaged and millions of Chinese have been encouraged to migrate there, leaving Tibetans a minority. Earlier this month, the Dalai Lama accused China of “demographic aggression” and spoke out against the “cultural genocide” taking place in his homeland.

“Every Tibetan mind lives with fear and a feeling of terror,” he was quoted as saying at a function in New Delhi to celebrate him being awarded the US Congressional Gold Medal in October.

Although the Dalai Lama is revered by Tibetans, his proposed “Middle Way Approach,” which calls for autonomy rather than full independence, is not backed by all. The Gu-Chu-Sum Movement, for example, wants to see a complete Chinese withdrawal.

“The political prisoners have experienced the torture, the suffering in Tibet. They were not protesting for autonomy, they were protesting for full independence,” said Sonam Dolkar, a Gu-Chu-Sum human rights worker.

The 25-year-old, who was born in Dharamsala to exile parents, dreams of visiting her homeland one day. Now she monitors human rights abuses in Tibet and assisting former and current political prisoners.

Dolkar estimates that there are 103 political prisoners in Tibet, although some put the figure at 116. It is difficult to give a precise number because the group has little information about events in the remote areas. The numbers have fallen as political prisoners like Palden who were arrested in the early 1990s have been freed after long sentences.

The Gu-Chu-Sum Movement sends money to serving political prisoners and campaigns for their release. It also documents human rights abuses, publishes biographies of former prisoners, and gives financial support to those who need it.

Around 70 former political prisoners currently live at its premises in Dharamsala, where they receive subsidised medical care and have access to education and employment opportunities. Several work in a popular Japanese restaurant on the premises, and there is an internet café and a tailoring workshop where ex-prisoners make traditional Tibetan clothing. They can also study computer skills, English and Tibetan at the group’s learning centre.

Palden studied for more than a year but was unable to continue because of kidney problems, which he attributes to the torture he received in prison. In addition to the beatings, he says, prisoners were made to stand on broken ice for long periods of time as punishment for breaking rules. Now he is supported by the Gu-Chu-Sum Movement, and stays at its premises.

Speaking through Dolkar, who translates into English, he says he feels helpless but consoles himself by saying it’s no use hating the prison guards. “He feels that if he gets angry towards them, he is hurting himself,” says Dolkar.

The story of Palden’s arrest and imprisonment is fairly typical of former political prisoners. After police broke up the rally, he says, the protesters were taken to a military camp and severely beaten for half an hour. They were then taken to a detention centre and continuously beaten on the way, and again during interrogation.

Chinese prison guards used electric prods and rubber batons, and the prisoners were made to stand naked in the sun for many hours. He says they were also made to give blood two or three times each, for use in transfusions. After five months in the detention center, Palden was sentenced and served the rest of his term in Lhasa’s Drapchi Prison. Here, political prisoners were kept away from the rest of the inmates, in the innermost building, to prevent their escape.

There were 12 political prisoners to a cell, he says. The food they received was poor – one dumpling and black tea for breakfast, boiled vegetables and rice for lunch, porridge for dinner. Once, after refusing to denounce the Dalai Lama, Palden was put in solitary confinement for 15 days and beaten. When he had first protested he expected to be killed, and when he wasn’t, he says, it felt like a blessing of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. After a while, the torture and beatings didn’t scare him any more, as he considered it his fate.

Dolkar says many former political prisoners believe this, and it helps them to accept what has happened to them. “I think it is the power of Tibetan Buddhism, that it has subdued their minds,” she added.

A week before Palden’s release in May 1998, there was an uprising in Drapchi Prison. At a May Day ceremony in the prison grounds, officials raised a Chinese flag and the political prisoners protested in response. In the violence that followed, says Palden, four monks and five nuns were killed. He was severely beaten. Upon his release a week later, Palden was taken to various police stations, and finally to one in his village, near Lhasa, where relatives came to collect him. At first, he was not allowed to leave the village as authorities were afraid he might spread the news of the prison uprising.

Palden had worked as a carpenter before his imprisonment, but as a former political prisoner he found it hard to hold down a job. As part of his sentence, his political rights were suspended for two years after his release. During Chinese festivals, he wasn’t allowed to stay in Lhasa and had to return to his village. Employers would realise he was a former political prisoner, and he would have to find another job. He says this happened often, and he changed jobs many times. In addition, the authorities constantly monitored his movements. Although he hadn’t at first intended to go into exile, it became increasingly difficult to survive so eventually he left for India.

Palden believes that “non-violence and truth are the main weapons” in the fight for a free Tibet. When he and his colleagues first protested, he says, they thought about killing Chinese people but decided not to because this was against the wishes of the Dalai Lama.

The Gu-Chu-Sum Movement works hard to highlight the struggle for independence. It is one of several groups backing the “Team Tibet” initiative in the run-up to next year’s Beijing Olympics. Organisers hope to recruit a team of Tibetan athletes, as well as celebrity supporters and members of the public, to publicise their cause.

Dolkar says the Olympics have put China in the spotlight, and she considers this a great opportunity for campaigning. In October, monk and independence activist Ngawang Pulchung was released from jail six months before the end of his 19-year sentence. The Gu-Chu-Sum Movement says he was released early “as a gesture by the Chinese government to the world to maintain [its] phony image” before the Olympics. Dolkar says the Chinese authorities are also being more lenient with political prisoners who have families.

“I’m positive because I think if big changes happen in China, then automatically there will be an effect on Tibet as well,” she said. But given the way China has swallowed Tibet, it is difficult to say when either she or Palden will see the streets of Lhasa.