Tibet and the World Cup

The eyes of the world have been drawn to the World Cup games in South Africa. Every day, everyone seems to have a new favorite team to support, shout for and talk about. A football fan with whom I had a short conversation in Washington, DC jokingly asked me how the Tibetan team was doing. I said, "Oh, I heard they just lost to Ghana yesterday." I was referring to the US team.

Every time I visited the Potala Palace in Lhasa, there was a monk who would tell me how much the monks who work there cheered for US teams and wished for them to win when they watch international games on TV. He said one year they celebrated for whole day when a US team won (I don't know what kind of ball game he was talking about) against a Chinese team.

I explained to the man why the monks like US teams.

"Well, we do support Tibet, and we value the Dalai Lama," he said.

The man's question made me think further after I returned home. I wondered if a Tibetan team would be playing in South Africa if the country had its sovereignty. Then I speculated if the Khampa brothers, whose fate has been determined in the Chinese courts during this year's World Cup, could possibly be in front of international judges instead of the manipulative and predetermined Chinese courts.

On June 22 as the men from South Korea played against Nigeria, 42 year old Karma Samdrup, a successful Tibetan businessman and well-known environmentalist, was put on trial in a Chinese court in Xinjiang (or East Turkistan). After six months in prison his wife Drokar Tsomo said she could only recognize his voice.

"He used to be so big and strong, but now he became so small that at first sight I thought he was a school boy," she said. His lawyer Pu Zhiqiang told reporters that Karma Samdrup was tortured and sleep-deprived while in detention.

The next day the Tibetan monks might have celebrated, because the US team won from another country. But Drokar Tsomo, unable to continue looking at her husband's back, closed her eyes in the Chinese court so that she could hear the familiar voice of her husband pleading not guilty. His lawyer told the court that it had no reliable evidence of so-called "inciting robbing a grave," a case that Pu said had been dropped over a decade earlier.

Although the prosecutors brought up the testimony of a number of witnesses, none actually appeared in the court. The court denied a motion by Pu to bring the so-called witnesses to court.

The next day, Japan defeated Denmark by 3 to 1. Over 10,000 miles away in the Chinese court, the Tibetan environmentalist was imprisoned for 15 years.

The world watched and talked about the tears shed by some of the football players—a North Korean man even before the tournament started—many may even have sympathized with them. But Dromkar Tsomo's grief-stricken cry over her husband's imprisonment for another 15 years went in vain.

"It was all predetermined," said Dolkar Tsomo. "Now I have completely lost my faith in the judiciary system."

Failing to obtain permission from the court to let her meet with her husband for five minutes, she began her long journey back home. At home, she told her two daughters who had a school exam the same day Karma was tried that their father was on a business trip. But after six months of his absence, she said now the younger daughter starts to worry about him. "Mommy, do you think my daddy got into a car accident?"

Perhaps most people outside Tibet share the eight-year -old girl's ignorance of the real life situation - getting arrested in Tibet is as unpredictable as getting into a car accident. Everyone in Tibet lives with the fear of an unlucky day and an ill-fated hour. For as small a matter as possessing the Dalai Lama's photo or Tibetan flag, anyone can be accused of "splitting the country."

Last year, Karma Samdrup's older and younger brothers were arrested on charges of "illegally" running an environmental organization in their village. Some say the arrest happened after the award-winning environmentalists and their villagers confronted local big game-hunting officials.

The games continued in Nelson Mandela's country. The Nobel Laureate expressed "great pleasure" to see Ghana in the World Cup. The next day another Chinese court in the Tibetan Nobel Laureate Dalai Lama's country sentenced the last of the three environmentalist brothers.

A week after Karma's sentence, 44-year old Rinchen Samdrup was tried in a court in Chamdo, Tibetan Autonomous Region, for less than two hours on July 3 and sentenced to five years imprisonment for "inciting to split the country." The man has been in a Chinese prison since he was arrested on the charge of "illegally" running an environmental NGO and five months ago was praised in the Chinese Environmental News for his work. Now he faced a serious political charge. According to the Times of London, the charge for "splitting the country" was for nothing more than referring to the Dalai Lama as the Nobel Peace Prize winner on the website of the NGO. Rinchen's lawyer Xia Jun told the Taipei Times Sunday that it wasn't Rinchen who wrote the contents of the website and his family members argue that there was no actual mention of the Dalai Lama.

Tibet analyst Robert Barnett of Columbia University sees this as the Chinese government using state security laws to attack an environmentalist who sought to protect the forest and animals and remove litter from his village. After Rinchen was arrested, his family members said the local police were busy trying to find a more serious crime than running an environmental NGO to keep him locked up. One day the police raided his home and beat his 78-year-old mother and dislocated her arm. Two of her family members say she did nothing but just went inside the house to see what they were doing. She was unconscious for three hours, according to her family members. Later her in-laws in Yushu brought her there for treatment in the hospital.

According to a source from Tsiri village where the incident took place, the chief policeman who lead the troop was later transferred to Lhoka prefecture in TAR without any public acknowledgement of the reason. The source doesn't want to reveal the policeman's name.

Rinchen is a well-known environmentalist. He and his 1,700 villagers started an environmental NGO called the Kham Achung Singe Namzong Environment Association. In a long article written by Chinese environmental journalist Feng Yongfeng explains that the local government even provided seedlings of hundreds of thousands of sea-buckthorn and other plants. According to the article, an area that was once stripped of deforestation has now regained its cover because of the efforts of the villagers led by Rinchen. This attracted various wildlife that Rinchen told Yongfeng had disappeared in his grandfather's time. Some people might have seen this an exciting hunting opportunity.

The source from the village says that after Rinchen's detention the villagers were "too scared to continue their environmental -protection work," since the work was labeled as illegal. "Now the trees are being cut by people from other villages and plastic bags and bottles left by pilgrims and tourist are piling up," the source said.

The youngest brother, Cheme Namgyal, who was arrested with Rinchen Samdrup last August is already serving his sentence in labor camp prison. His family members say that this ailing man's health condition seriously deteriorated in the prison. Recently he was briefly hospitalized in Chamdo under his family's care, but brought back to the labor camp prison right before Rinchen's trial.

Karma's lawyer appealed the court decision in Xinjiang recently and Rinchen's family says it is planning to appeal within a few days. But both of their families say they have very little hope for any justice."Everything is predetermined," says both Karma's wife and the Richen's family member separately.

The imprisonment of the three environmentalist brothers took place at the time when observers say China is cracking down on intellectuals and socially influential Tibetans. This is a political game China plays against the Tibetans.

"If you lift up a stone, it will fall on your feet," is an old mantra Chinese officials recite when they interrogate the Tibetan. But it has been over half a century since the Chinese government has been playing this game, and yet it has not won what they seek, the Tibetan people's loyalty. Tibetans have a word for this game too. They call it Chigen Gedkug: (The old dog is chased to the corner). It means if a dog is chased all the way to the end where it can't run any further, it will turn around and bite you back.

Two years ago, Tibetans in all parts of Tibet stood up and protested against China's rule. Since then, the sense of "we are Tibetans and you are my enemy" for the Tibetans towards China became stronger in every region of Tibet. The game China plays may ultimately be failing for Beijing.

Tibetan history makes it improbable that Tibet might have played in 2010 World Cup game even if it hadn't lost its sovereignty in 1950. But the country where this year's World Cup is being hosted gives hope for the future. South Africa has loudly showed that what some people may see impossible can become possible.

The names of Rinchen's family members and the villager were not revealed in this article for their safety.

Yeshi Dorje is the pseudonym of a US based Tibetan-American journalist.