Join our Mailing List

"As long as human rights are violated, there can be no foundation for peace. How can peace grow where speaking the truth is itself a crime?"

Dispatch from Dharamsala -- No. 5

November 28, 2008

Dharamsala has a "magical" feel, but Tibetan residents hold painful
memories of prison in their former homeland.
By Maura Moynihan
Radio Free Asia
November 27, 2008

DHARAMSALA -- It is a singular pleasure to spend an afternoon in a
rooftop café in Dharamsala. Golden light falls on the snow peaks of
the southern Himalaya and on the winding lanes of McLeod Ganj, a
magical alloy of Tibet and India where cows, monkeys, and rickshaws
collide with Buddhist monks and pilgrims who have come from as far
away as Tokyo and New York City to see the Dalai Lama's enchanted kingdom.

But there is also a horror story woven into this peaceful realm where
Tibetan refugees planted the seeds of their civilization in the soil
of India, the birthplace of the Buddhist faith. That story began in
the 1950s when Chinese troops set Tibetan temples and scriptures
ablaze and put monks to death because of their "bad class status."
Today, many of the young refugees who fill the local cafes are former
political prisoners and torture survivors -- living witnesses to the
continuing persecution of Tibetan culture and religion by the
People's Republic of China.

'I committed no crime'

Phuntsok Wangyal is the general secretary of the Gu Chu Sum Society,
an organization "made up of former political prisoners dedicated not
only to helping political prisoners, but also to carrying on the
nonviolent struggle for Tibetan Independence." Gu Chu Sum, founded in
1991, now has 400 active members. It provides medical care,
education, and training for new refugees, and earns revenue from a
Japanese restaurant, tailoring workshop, and Internet café in McLeod Ganj.

Wangyal was a student at Lhasa university in 1994 when he wrote a
pamphlet on the history of Tibet and its right to independence. For
this he was sentenced to five years in Lhasa's Drapchi prison.

"I had committed no crime," he says. "But this is what happens to
Tibetans who simply speak about Tibet as a nation. After my release,
I was not allowed to work or travel. This happens to all political
prisoners, so they try to escape to India. It's dangerous, but it's
the only option."

Wangyal is a serious young man who rarely smiles. He is composed and
articulate when describing the Chinese penal system, and he has
published a memoir and a collection of prison poetry. The
testimonials in the Gu Chu Sum database document the extreme
punishments used on Tibetan political prisoners: beatings and rape
with metal rods and electric shock batons, suspensions, and
deprivation of food and sleep.

The society also keeps a record of the men and women who have died in
state custody. "I saw many people tortured to death in prison," Wangyal says.

Global impact

During the past two decades, an estimated 25,000 "new arrivals" have
joined the Tibetan exiles in India and Nepal. One has had a global
impact:  Palden Gyatso, a monk from Drepung monastery who escaped to
India in 1992 after 33 years in a Chinese prison. Palden Gyatso was
arrested in 1959 when he refused to denounce his Buddhist teacher or
to say that Tibet belonged to China.

For two years, his hands and legs were shackled, and in the years
that followed, he was tortured with electric shock batons. When he
finally escaped, he took with him a collection of the torture
instruments used on Tibetan prisoners.

"When I first came to Dharamsala, I felt very lost and sick," he
says. "But I met His Holiness the Dalai Lama and told him what I had
seen in Tibet, and then more people wanted to hear my story. So many
people in Tibet died so unjustly; their stories are lost."

Palden Gyatso has testified before the U.S. Congress and the United
Nations. His autobiography Fire Under the Snow has been translated
into 15 languages. A film about his life, with the same title,
debuted at the TriBeca Film Festival in April 2008.

The arrival of the Internet, which barely functioned in Dharamsala a
decade ago, has expanded global awareness of the dark side of
"China's Tibet." In the early years of exile, testimonies were
written down on rice paper with manual typewriters. "In the digital
age, there are a lot more tools available to document and expose
human rights abuses," says one European Web designer who lives in
lower Dharamsala.

"The Chinese government is doing everything it can to suppress
information about conditions in Tibet from reaching the international
media. Chinese propaganda and cyber-espionage is going into attack
mode. So we have to keep gathering and updating testimony and getting
it out there."

Maura Moynihan, a writer and musician, has been a consultant to the
Rubin Museum of Art in New York City, America's largest Himalayan and
Tibetan cultural institution. She worked for many years as a refugee
consultant in India and Nepal and recently completed a master's
degree in political science at the New School.
CTC National Office 1425 René-Lévesque Blvd West, 3rd Floor, Montréal, Québec, Canada, H3G 1T7
T: (514) 487-0665
Developed by plank