Former Tibetan political prisoner Lobsang Dhondup. Photo: TPI/Namgyal Dolma

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Dharamshala — An exclusive conversation with Lobsang Dhondup, a former Tibetan political prisoner. He shares his experiences in a Chinese prison as one of the youngest Tibetan political prisoners and his escape to India. He also talks about his hopes for the future. His love for our country and his faith in Tibetan youngsters in the quest for a free Tibet.

TPI: Can you introduce yourself?

Interviewee: My name is Lobsang Dhondup. I was born in Kham, Tsawa Sheypa County, in eastern Tibet. There were not many schools around during my childhood but I picked up Tibetan from there and here in my town. I became a monk when I was around 9 or 10 years. There was a monastery in my town but the Chinese authorities banned its renovation and admission of monks. Hence, I used to read Buddhist scripts for other people sometimes and on other days I herded sheep on mountains. I escaped to India in 2002. I had the opportunity to study Buddhist philosophies for almost 17 years in Sera Monastery in Bylakuppe, Karnataka South India. Currently, I am staying in Dharamshala, Himachal Pradesh.

TPI: What inspired you to do something for your country initially?

Dhondup la: When I was little, my mother used to tell me tales about how the Chinese militaries oppressed our town people since the occupation in 1959. She told me constantly how all the males had to hide in the mountains for months because of their revolt against the Chinese when they initially entered our town while females are barricaded at homes against their will. Elders in my town used to listen to news through radios so I loved tagging along. These factors left a deep impression on my mind about how the Chinese have been killing, torturing, and looting our country and made me realise that I need to do something for my country. I was young and very ignorant about politics but I knew that we don’t have rights and the Chinese had murdered many Tibetans and destroyed monasteries. There is a monastery in another village of my hometown called Serpo Gonpa where five monks had shouted ‘Free Tibet’ and arrested around that time. I heard about this and thought of doing something like that. The seeds of my inspirations and courage were born from these events.

TPI: Could you tell us about the tortures you faced in the Chinese prison?

Dhondup la: When I was 14 years of age in 1996, I don’t remember the month clearly. I and one of my friends who was sixteen years old wrote ‘Free Tibet’ on papers and plastered them on doors and walls of the local Chinese officials. Tsering Dhondup who was one of the staff working at the Chinese office saw and told us that it was illegal to put these papers on the walls and doors. He warned that he would arrest us if we don’t take them down immediately. We refused to listen and around 15 days later, four policemen, one military personnel, and staff reached our town. I was at home that time and they called all the monks to come for a meeting. I was arrested when I went there. They handcuffed me. I was put in a room at the local Chinese authority’s staff room. They got my friend later and they had to release some other monks who were arrested along due to lack of evidence.

They tortured us day and night for three consecutive days without any food. They didn’t bring many torturing tools with them at the time when they reach our town but there were sticks, ropes, and our hands were tied up. They punched my face numerous times and tormented us until around 1 or 2 am in the night. When I wake up the next morning, my face was all swollen and my close ones won’t even recognise me if they were to see me. After a while, some influential figures from our town requested the police to release us by stating that we were still children and under-aged. They also added that we don’t know what we were doing. But the Chinese officials refuse to listen. All the town people gathered later on to request our release and cried when they saw us handcuffed. People were sad seeing two kids taking away to Parshod district jail in this manner. There were two political prisoners from our hometown and other prisoners at the jail. Since we were political prisoners, we were confined in solitary cells.

For a whole month apart from Sundays we were beaten and tortured mercilessly every day once in the morning and once in the night. The cell and interrogation rooms are different. They chained our feet and hands while taking us to and from the interrogation room with two policemen accompanying us with their riffles on. The process of persecution was extreme. Electric tools were used on us until we lost our consciousness. They would put sharpened calamus of feathers between our nails and throw cold water on our bodies while the fans were on full swing and beat us with rough ropes naked. For me this was the worst, lashing twice would make me lose consciousness. They would pour water until we gain our consciousness again. They would burn newspapers under our chests while making us balance between our toes and hands facing downward.

Sometimes, they would impose hen punishment on us; putting their hat overheads and beat us when it fell off or we lose balance. They would bring fire on our bare chest. There was not a single part on our body that they didn’t pick to afflict on. Sometimes there would be other Chinese military personnel who would punch and kick us like balls. They would never consider us to be humans but less than a ball. All the while making sure that no scares or at least minimum evidence of abuses are left on us. They mainly asked us who instructed us to do and write these statements. They would always ask us these questions including our name, age, and hometown at every interrogating session repeatedly. Sometimes they would bring human waste near our mouth and would say Dalai Lama send this! Other times they would bring vegetables and say that the communist party sends them. They would verbally abuse us and say that His Holiness is a separatist. These abuses made me think that it would have been much better if they beat us till we lost our consciousness rather than hearing these insult to His Holiness.

After one month, they found nothing and there was a policeman in the district called Tashi Dorji who went to Chamdo, one of the largest cities in Kham, eastern Tibet, and said that we were still children since we were fourteen and sixteen respectively at the time. And Chinese laws seemed to work differently for people below 17 years of age. The Chinese authorities at Chamdo ordered the Parshod Chinese authorities to release us after four months. Then the tortures we faced everyday ceased and we were given Chinese bun, vegetables, and rice for our remaining months in the prison.

We also needed to clean the toilet, plant vegetables and a new interrogation room is being constructed so prisoners must work on that. We have to carry sand and stones to the construction site. Upon my release, they called my father and forced him to sign a paper that stated that I will not be part of any political activities in the future and fined around 2000 or 3000 Chinese yuans. For three years after my release I was not allowed to go anywhere if I were to go somewhere, I needed to report to the local Chinese authority for permission. My rights of movement, religious, political, and social activities were all banned for three years. As a monk, I wasn’t permitted to study or do anything else. Therefore, I thought that if I were to go to India, I might be able to pursue my further studies. In 2002, I escaped India when I come to Lhasa, the capital city of Tibet.

TPI: How were you able to escape to India under the watchful eyes of China?

Dhondup: Around 2000, many Tibetans continue to start going exile into India. My relatives in Lhasa helped me to find a man to send and guide me to India. I paid around 1500 or 2000 Chinese yuans to him. I joined other seven people and we headed to Shigatse which is the second-largest city in Tibet after Lhasa, on a bus. After reaching Shegatse we took the road on foot. It took us one month and seven days to reach the Tibetan Reception Centre in Nepal. One of the most challenging troubles we faced during our journey is the fear of the Chinese patrolling armies discovering us.

One other problem for us was that the food we had is finishing up soon and since most of the members were young children, we couldn’t carry huge luggage. I used to carry more since I was older than them. There was a nun who helped in carrying things and the guide shared our burden too. After walking for more than one month, our food run-out. We would buy Tsampa and potato from towns when we arrive at one. Hunger was another trouble we had to overcome. I was extremely worried mentally and afraid as if we were to arrest by the Chinese, I will have to be in Chinese prison forever since I had a prior history. I was worried about my family. It was difficult for the younger children to walk and we had to stay in one place for days due to exhaustion from both walking and hunger. But we all made it to India finally.

TPI: Have you always known that Tibet never been a part of China?

Dhondup la: Not really, I just know we were different from Chinese when I was little but I don’t know much as I was too small to rationalise things. After coming into exile I come to know better by reading the works of scholars. One of the some evidences of us being totally different from Chinese people are that we speak different languages and have different traditions. We are culturally and socially different. This speaks a volume. Particularly, old Chinese history had clearly stated how different Tibet and China were in their own language. I may not know much but the works of many scholars had enlightened me.

TPI: Do you see a hope of freedom for our country soon and why?

Dhondup la: It is just what His Holiness Dalai Lama always used to say ‘Hope for the best and prepare for the worst’. I think every Tibetan has a hope in their hearts that they will definitely be able to return to home, Tibet one day like me. But I personally don’t expect and not sure about it being soon. Resurrecting a country’s independence is not an easy task. It is not something that could be achieved in a few years. But I have full faith that eventually we will get our country and freedom back from China’s occupation. It is something I am sure of 100%.

I think, to fulfill this hope, we must individually do our part properly be it political campaign or human rights activism. Tibetan youngsters could do so much in an educated way. There are many Tibetan NGOs that organise many activities to call out to China and I think it is important to be part of them. It is every Tibetan’s individual responsibility and it is not the responsibilities of some organisations, the Tibetan government, or few people alone to undertake. We are fighting for our freedom for our nation so it is important to do it as a whole community. Tibet’s freedom is the world’s security of peace. The Nalanda tradition that Tibetans safekept eventually will benefit the world if Tibet is freed. Therefore, each Tibetan should work hard.

TPI: What are your aspirations?

Dhondup la: My biggest hope or aspiration is that the sun of Tibet, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama will live over a hundred years and more. Also, to get our freedom from the clutches of the Communist China. Just like every Tibetan, I wish to return to Tibet very soon. Whether these hopes and aspirations would come true or not will greatly depend on each and every Tibetan’s active engagement in the Tibetan struggle for a free Tibet. Especially our young and educated Tibetans, I think they could do great. It is also my request for them to continue this quest for a free nation.

Otherwise getting our freedom back by fighting or going into war with China is not a viable solution for us. But we can verge war intellectually and through education. Now is a time where education speaks more than weapons like His Holiness always mentions. Unlike Mao’s time where intellectuals are shunned and considered bad. At times like this education is precious. I believe young and intellectual Tibetans could make huge differences. The importance of our real cause would lose if we focus too much on regionality. It will only cause more conflicts. Young Tibetans are our future seeds and future itself too.

TPI: Any message for the general public?

Dhondup la: We Tibetans are able to stand shoulder to shoulder in the world as refugees under the graces of His Holiness. It is solely the kindness of His Holiness and elders who had worked extra diligently for our nation and because of that we are here standing tall today. Every Tibetan could walk in another country proudly without much difficulty therefore there is a need for us to stand together in unity. An influential country like the US talked about our Tibetan issue on international platforms. There are people in our community who slander His Holiness and disregard his whole dedications so far which is absolutely unthinkable. He has worked hard and made sacrifices for Tibet like no one else and still continues to do. We have to keep it all in our minds. Without a spiritual leader like him, we will never be able to stand where we are today. Lastly long live His Holiness and hope to get our country back from China very soon. Thank You!