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Then Came the Silence -- In memory of Daja Wangchuk Meston

August 4, 2010

By Bhuchung D. Sonam
August 1, 2010

Daja Wangchuk Meston

Daja Wangchuk Meston was born in Switzerland to
an American couple. When he was three years old,
his mother brought him to Nepal and left him with
a Tibetan family. At the age of six, Wangchuk
became a novice monk in Kopan Monastery
overlooking at the city of Kathmandu, and studied
Buddhism. At 17, he left the monastery and moved
to Boston, where later in 1996, he graduated from Brandies University.

"I stood on the third-story windowsill of a hotel
in a remote part of Tibet, said, ‘Here I go,’ and jumped."

It was August 1999. The Tibetan Plateau was still
green from the last of the fleeting summer days.
The turquoise blue sky stared from above as
Gabriel Lafitte, a research associate at
Melbourne University’s Institute of Asian
Languages, Deja Wangchuk Meston, who was working
for an educational charity affiliated to the
Department of International Development at
Harvard University, and Tsering Dorjee, their
Tibetan translator, travelled in Amdo in eastern Tibet.

The trio rode a jeep while Meston took pictures
of places along the road. The two foreigners were
on a journey to find out the fate of Tibetan
nomads, and to see the location of a proposed
farming settlement. They did not know that the
Chinese authorities were watching them closely.

It was a sensitive time. A few years earlier as a
part of its Western China Development Programme,
the authorities had announced an ambitious
agriculture project in Dulan area in Amdo
province. The planned project said that 45,000
square kilometre of fertile Tibetan land in that
region would be turned into an agricultural
community by transferring 61775 Chinese settlers.
The World Bank, after studying the project,
promised to loan $100 million. There were
worldwide protests by Tibetans, their supporters
and other organizations against the project.

In mid-August the Chinese security forces
arrested Lafitte, Meston and Dorjee. After
thirty-hour drive to Xining, a city on the
northeastern tip of Tibet, the guards led them
into a dimly lit vacant hotel. It was 2 a.m.
Meston was 29-years-old and he was put in room
number 301. The curtains were drawn. His world began to turn visibly dark.

They were subjected to interrogations, sometimes
lasting up to six hours at a stretch.

It was a time of "calculated and systematic
cruelty," said Lafitte upon his return to
Australia on 22 August 1999, after a strong
protest to Beijing by the Australian Government.

The Chinese security personnel, however,
confiscated Meston’s Minolta camera, seven rolls
of film and his notes. After a series of
interrogations, he was ordered to confess his crimes.

"Your offense," the Chinese interrogators said,
"was taking photos of an abandoned prison labour
camp in an area that was off-limits to foreigners without a permit.”,i

"I was in the custody of Chinese authorities,
unable to leave my room or make phone," Meston
later wrote in his memoir Comes the Peace.
Constricted from his incarceration and desperate
for freedom, he jumped from the third floor
window of his hotel room, sustaining
life-threatening injuries including a broken back
and internal organ damage; his spleen was removed
in emergency surgery in a provincial Chinese hospital.

The grassroots movement, including Meston’s
dramatic jump, helped highlight the denial of
rights and marginalization of Tibetans in Dulan
area. In 2000, World Bank pulled out of the project. This was a victory.

Author, Tibet activist, the co-founder of Karma,
fair-trade crafts shop in Newton, Massachusetts,
and the Boston Tibet Network, Wangchuk-la, as the
Tibetans fondly called him, was courageous man
who helped and fought for those who were less
fortunate than him. His life-long association
with Tibetans and Tibetan culture made him one of
the most passionate supporters of Tibet.

"There is no difference between him and a real
full blooded Tibetan. He never thought of himself
of anything but Tibetan. He was a real hero for
the Tibetan cause,” says Tenley Palsang from
Boston, who knew Wangchuk-la most of her life.

Wangchuk-la died on 11 July 2010 in Weston,
Massachusetts. His sudden death shook the Tibetan
society in Boston and his great many friends and
admirers. Many are still in shock.

Yet, nothing is permanent, as Wangchuk-la knew so
well from his time as a novice monk in the
monastery and later from the detention by the
Chinese authorities that led to his near-fatal
injuries. In death, after a long battle with
depression, he will surely find calm and solace.
In the silence of a higher realm, where good
souls gather, Wangchuk-la will have his peace and
tranquility. And as we try to pick our lives
again from his unexpected demise, he will smile
at us from his abode if we fight for, and stand
up to tyranny and the injustice done to those living under occupation.

Wangchuk-la is survived by his wife Phuntsok
Dolma, their seven-month-old adopted daughter,
Jasmine, and niece Tenzin Norzin and nephew Tenzin Sangpo.

(A memorial service in honour of Wangchuk-la‘s
life will be held this Sunday, 1 August, in
Boston organized by Robbie Barnett, Tenley
Palsang and other friends. In attendance to speak
and to perform, among members of his family and
friends, will be John Ackerly of ICT and Techung.)

Writer can be reached at
CTC National Office 1425 René-Lévesque Blvd West, 3rd Floor, Montréal, Québec, Canada, H3G 1T7
T: (514) 487-0665
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