Prison, Torture for No Crime

Dharamsala has a "magical" feel, but Tibetan residents hold painful memories of prison in their former homeland.

palden-gyatso-305.jpg Tibetan monk and activist Palden Gyatso
Vladimir Subotic @ Imakoko Media, Inc.

By Maura Moynihan

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.


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