Exiled Tibetans on China’s Campaign of Cultural Genocide
By Briana Kerensky
From a young age, Tenzin Norbu knew that he wanted to leave his family’s struggling dairy farm behind. He became a Tibetan Buddhist monk, yet he does not live in Tibet. Instead, the place he calls home is a small house turned monastery hidden away in the suburban sprawl of Ithaca, New York.
“From a young age, I wished to become a monk,” he said. “I wanted to help a lot of people in a spiritual way. But I could not do this when I was in Tibet. To become a monk, one must take an oath and vows from a spiritual teacher, but there is no monastery where I am from.”
There used to be a monastery near Tenzin Norbu’s home in rural Tibet, but all that remains of the building is an abandoned, empty shell, falling apart as the harsh elements of the plateaus take their toll.
As part of a plan to absorb Tibet and make it part of their own country, the Chinese government began a campaign of “cultural genocide” in the late 1950s. By destroying monasteries, arresting and torturing monks, and denying citizens the freedoms of religion and speech, they hoped to reform the region in communist China’s image. Tenzin Norbu’s local monastery, as well as many of the monasteries scattered across Tibet, were among their first targets when the hostile takeover began. Today, almost 50 years since Chinese armies first invaded the country, new Tibetan targets continue to be found and destroyed.
In1959 the Dalai Lama, Tibet’s most important spiritual and political figure, was exiled during a hostile takeover by the Chinese government. Nearly 80,000 Tibetans fled Chinese control and became refugees in nations around the world, including Nepal, Bhutan, Switzerland, the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, Scandinavia, and most notably, India. According to a 1998 census conducted by government of Tibet in Exile, over 111,170 Tibetans are currently residing in other countries. Of these refugees, 85,000 are living in India.
“India has been very welcoming to the Tibetans,” Jason Freitag, an assistant professor of history at Ithaca college said. “They brought the Dalai Lama in and gave him space in Dharamsala.” Dharamsala is situated in northern India. In 1960, Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru offered the land to the Dalai Lama, who was seeking asylum. Today, Dharamsala is the capital of the Government of Tibet in Exile and the home of Ithaca’s sister monastery.
Those who have managed to flee Tibet are living in countries where they are free to practice their religion and culture. But for those who are still living in Tibet, the situation is quite different.
“While the population of Tibet is actually increasing, a cultural genocide is happening,” said Australian National University Professor John Powers. “The culture is being destroyed. There are a lot of people leaving, and about 3,000 escape every year. You hear about how good things are in Tibet, but if 3,000 people leave per year something is wrong. The Tibetans cannot practice their religion.”
Since China took control, it has been their goal to stamp out Tibet’s Buddhist culture and faith. In 1959, the International Commission of Jurists reported to the United Nations that, “the Chinese were determined to use all methods at their disposal to eliminate religious belief and to substitute Communist doctrines.”
The first major wave of religious destruction occurred during the Cultural Revolution. In 1966, young communist zealots known as Red Guards swept into Tibet promising to eradicate old ideology, culture, habits, and customs. It was their belief that Marxism was going to pour into and fill the voids the disappearance of these things left in the citizens.
The Red Guards held mass executions, engaged in torture, and rampaged through the countryside ripping monasteries apart. They forced monks to urinate on sacred texts, placed religious images in toilets, and subjected religious and political leaders to violent public interrogations, which often ended in execution.
By 1979, over 6,000 monasteries were razed to the ground. Only 13 remained.
Because they have no children or spouses who would suffer if they were imprisoned, the monks and nuns of Tibet have tried to take control of the situation by leading non-violent demonstrations. Determined to quell these activities, in 1989 the Chinese government constituted martial law in Tibet. By the late 1990s, hundreds of monks and nuns were imprisoned throughout the country.
According to a 2006 report filed by the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, the average sentence length of all Tibetan political prisoners in detention is 10 years, 11 months. For former nun Ngawang Sangdrol, the prison sentence became something else entirely.
A member of the Garu Nunnery, Ngawang Sangdrol was first arrested in 1987 for participating in an independence demonstration. She was refused a trial and detained for 15 days.
Ngawang Sangdrol was only 10 years old.
In May of 1990, Sangdrol participated in another peaceful demonstration outside the Dalai Lama’s Summer Palace.
“I shouted ‘Free Tibet’ and ‘Long live His Holiness the Dalai Lama,’” she said in an e-mail interview.
Again, she did not have the opportunity to defend herself in court; the Chinese authorities considered her too young for a trial. She was detained for nine months.
Ngawang was released in 1991, but was arrested for the third time in 1992 for staging a peaceful pro-independence demonstration in Lhasa. Despite her youth, she was sentenced to three years for “subversive and separatist activities” and incarcerated in Lhasa’s notorious Drapchi prison, where the majority of Tibet’s prisoners of conscience are kept.
Contrary to the recent Chinese official’s claim of 115 political prisoners currently in Tibet, the Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy estimates that there were 252 political prisoners as of 2001, 129 of which remain incarcerated in Drapchi prison.
What makes Drapchi so notorious are the two “reforms” every prisoner is exposed to — “re-education through labor” and “reform through labor.”
“Even before I went to prison I knew this sort of torture was taking place…[but] I was even angrier that an invader would come to our country and persecute our people,” Sangdrol said.
“Re-education through labor” is designed to oppose any view that contradicts the ideologies of the Chinese Communist government. Prisons in Tibet require that the prisoners read and memorize Chinese propaganda, including literature that is anti-Dalai Lama and advocates for the rightful rule of Tibet by the Chinese government. The prisoners are quizzed on this material, and failure to answer questions correctly brings punishment.
“Of course I didn’t [renounce the Dalai Lama], and most people don’t want to renounce His Holiness forever, because he is a leader of peace and also His Holiness is a god in my mind forever,” Ngawang said.
When one refuses to obey orders at Drapchi, the penalties are severe. For refusing to take the Dalai Lama’s name in vain, Sangdrol was forced to suffer beatings with iron rods and rubber pipes, electric cattle prods on her tongue, knitting and spinning until her fingers blistered, and six months of solitary confinement in complete darkness. She was fed starvation rations, and was rarely allowed to speak with the other prisoners.
“Reform through labor” is a Chinese policy of bringing about prisoner’s “improvement” through excessive labor.
“For instance, we had to use night soil on the garden… You have to take turns to go down to the latrine and pass up the waste. When the bucket is pulled, inevitably it splashes and spills everywhere and will go into your mouth,” she said.
But somehow, Ngawang Sangdrol managed to stay strong through everything the Chinese did to her. With an initial sentence of three years, the length of her incarceration kept becoming longer because of her dissent.
“The Chinese increased my sentences three times when I was in prison,” she said. “So they made my sentences for 23 years.”
Known as a troublemaker amongst the guards and almost always the first to take the lead during a prison disturbance, Sangdrol constantly put herself at a greater risk for beatings. And with a death rate of one in 27 for female political prisoners in Drapchi, Sangdrol was putting her entire life at risk to fight for her beliefs.
One former prisoner, Norzin Wangmo, recalled a beating Ngawang Sangdrol received for a 1998 protest within the prison.
“They didn’t have any proof against Ani-la [Sangdrol], they beat her out of grudge. They had trampled upon her body. There were so many people beating [her] that we couldn’t see her when she had fallen down. She wasn’t even able to lift her head up afterwards.”
Mysteriously released on “good behavior” in 2002, Ngawang Sangdrol only had to complete 11 years out of the 23 she was supposed to fulfill because of “His Holiness’, many governments’, and many nuns’ help.”
But those 11 years of prison took a permanent toll on her body. As a result of her treatment in Drapchi prison, she continues to suffer headaches, kidney problems, and stomach problems.
“Still,” she said, “the mental torture was worse.”
Ngawang Sangdol no longer lives in Tibet. For the first five months after she was released from prison, she stayed in the home of her family. But the Chinese government made it impossible for her to maintain any semblance of a normal life.
“I had no freedom,” she said. “Actually, in Tibet no one has freedom, but I had even less than other Tibetans. For 24 hours there were policemen watching me. I had no chance to study and even have contact with people.”
Today, Ngawang Sandrol lives in New Jersey, dividing her time between going to school and giving speeches about her experiences. She hardly looks like the prisoner she was just a few years ago. Her hair, once sheared close to the head, has grown back thick and black, and is often seen in photographs tied into a glossy ponytail. Her face, while still thin, is no longer gaunt and sickly. Rather, with her high cheekbones and tiny smile it resembles the type of thin runway models often work hard to achieve. Despite all the atrocities committed upon her body, Ngawang Sangrol is still beautiful.
But her eyes belong in the body of a wrinkled old woman. Language becomes inadequate when trying to describe the sadness and pain that will forever linger in Ngawang Sangdrol’s eyes.
Yet for all the violence and hatred the Tibetans had to suffer in their country, many men and women continue to hope for the day that the Chinese government releases their land, and they can begin to put the broken pieces of their religion and culture back together.
In the future, Tenzin Norbu hopes to leave Ithaca’s Namgyal Monastery and travel back to Tibet for a short while. But, being a Tibetan monk with a parent monastery in India, it will be a difficult undertaking.
“There were too many issues to go to Tibet. Before coming here, I tried to get a visa from China, but couldn’t get one. And just a few days back, I had a phone call with my brothers. They want me to visit Tibet. When I go back to India, I will try to get a Chinese visa again.”
Despite the difficulties and hardships Tenzin Norbu faced trying to express his religion in Tibet, despite everything the Chinese government has done to his people, his faith, and his land, he still considers Tibet to be his home.
“Personally, I am very interested in going back to Tibet. I want to visit sacred Buddhist places, holy places, and go on a pilgrimage. I want to visit the village where I came from. I’ve heard that many people I know of that approached the Chinese embassy and got a visa. Someday, I will get one and go back too.”