The heart of Tibetan resistance

Thirty-three years of prison and torture by the Chinese could not break the spirit of Tibetan Buddhist monk, Pallden Gyatso

By Metta Spencer (interviewer)

METTA SPENCER: Was it common for monks to be imprisoned, as you were?

PALDEN GYATSO: Yes. All people - not just monks and nuns - who said that Tibet does not belong to China, were arrested and either killed or sent to prison for up to 20 or 30 years. When I was caught I thought I'd be killed right then. But you can't really know what's going to happen. For example, during the cultural revolution you had to wear Mao badges. If your badge was a little crooked, you might be killed for not liking Mao.

SPENCER: Were you a leader in the protest movement?

PALDEN GYATSO: No. I had been a monk from ages 10 to 28. I was in a monastery when there was a demonstration to protect the Dalai Lama. The Chinese had invited His Holiness to a performance at the military garrison but he was not to bring any guards. Just one servant. People in Lhasa felt there was a danger he'd be assassinated, so many went there to protest, asking him not to go to see the show. We all circled the building where he was staying. This was March 10, 1959. People stayed there for many days. Then the Chinese started bombing and shelling them. On the 17th of March, His Holiness left Tibet. I was arrested in June for having been in that demonstration.

SPENCER: What were the conditions in prison?

PALDEN GYATSO: In those days there was just a room with no bed or toilet. I was shackled by hands and feet for three or four months in a room with so many others that we couldn't even move. We were lying in rows, all shackled together, with lice everywhere. After that they moved us to another jail where they had a Tibetan carpet and a mattress from a monastery. At least we would be taken to urinate periodically. They kept arresting people off the street and there was no room in any of these houses. We existed this way until 1962, but we had no food except one small bowl of watery Tibetan barley soup per day. People would eat anything - grass, rats, leather. Countless people starved to death in the prisons and outside. In one mining region, when a prisoner died of starvation they just put a rock on him. Even today, you can see the mountain pass just covered with the remains of corpses above ground.

SPENCER: Were prisoners forced to work?

PALDEN GYATSO: Of course. They made us pull plows as beasts of burden about nine hours a day. Those who couldn't pull it were whipped with metal whips. At that time I was one of the youngest - about 28 - while most of the people were older. One would fall and the Chinese would say, "Ah, he's dead." They'd take him to be buried nearby. These people weren't dead. They would look at you while they were being carried away. We would cry. The Chinese would drop them and bury them alive, within eyesight.

SPENCER: How could they get guards to carry out such orders?

PALDEN GYATSO: Of course you cannot understand because you haven't been in that situation, but we were under Chinese government rule, and if a guard didn't obey the rule, he too would become a prisoner or would be killed, like the other prisoners.

SPENCER: Did you ever sense that the guards felt any guilt?

PALDEN GYATSO: Once or twice, when there were no other guards around, someone showed kindness, but otherwise, no.

SPENCER: How did you find spiritual resources to survive?

PALDEN GYATSO: The details of Buddhist practices would take too long to explain, but I'll be brief. Whenever I was going through hard times or being tortured, there's a prayer which I recited myself and a way of thinking vastly about the whole world instead about oneself. There are certain forms of meditation which I'd do. And I'd say, "May I receive it all, may I suffer for all other sentient beings, so they won't have to experience this." That helped me survive.

SPENCER: Did you feel hatred?

PALDEN GYATSO: They used to tie me up and hang me by my arms. When I was in such pain, I would feel angry at them. I even spat at a guard, hoping he would kill me to relieve my pain. But then later, when I was without pain, I realized that it was not in tune with my spiritual practice, so I would make offerings and prayers and resolve never to want to take revenge on them. Of course, His Holiness is trying to find a middle way in dealing with China - a way to negotiate to keep from losing our culture in Tibet. I feel the same way. I don't hold a grudge against the guards.

SPENCER: Did you have any contact with outside? For example, did you know what the Dalai Lama was saying and doing?

PALDEN GYATSO: Yes, there was a four-page daily newspaper. The first three pages were about how well China was doing, and the fourth page was world news. Sometimes there would be news of His Holiness on that page. For example, they reported when Tibet-in-Exile first set up their office in the United States. I happened to know the person who set up that office, so I knew that part was true. The publishers would somehow slip in news that would be encouraging to Tibetans.

SPENCER: Did the Dalai Lama have a plan that he was trying to coordinate inside Tibet?

PALDEN GYATSO: Not much direct influence was possible in the beginning. Tibet was quite backward - almost a feudal society. But the present Dalai Lama and the previous one planned to make the society more democratic. We were invaded before they were able to do so. But now the Tibetan government in exile is running on a democratic basis and there is an effort from outside to have the world pressure China.

SPENCER: Were there people who resorted to violence?

PALDEN GYATSO: There was violent resistance. If cannons were being fired, you had to protect yourself. You can see this in the Martin Scorsese film called Kundun - the life of His Holiness. Even in Seven Years in Tibet you'll see a bit of it.

SPENCER: After 33 years in prison, you were eventually released?

PALDEN GYATSO: Yes. I didn't know why. After I escaped to the West, I found out that it was because of Amnesty International. Since 1983 the head offices in London and Italy were pressuring the Chinese for me and another monk, Geshe Lobsang Wongchuk, to be released. In 1990 they went to China to appeal again, so in 1992 they released me from prison in Tibet. After that I was always being followed, but nevertheless I found a means of escape. Lobsang Wongchuk was 78 years old when he died in prison.

SPENCER: Was there no court trial?

PALDEN GYATSO: There was one trial but they just tell you what you did wrong. I was being tortured all the time until I was released. They used an electric cattle prod in my mouth and knocked out all my teeth and cut my tongue. With nuns the cattle prods were used in their vaginas. Many people have died of this. I brought some Chinese torture equipment with me when I escaped to the West.

SPENCER: Why did they torture people? To get information out of them?

PALDEN GYATSO: They said that Tibet has always been a part of China and you have to admit that. The reason we were arrested was because we had yelled out that Tibet is independent and that China should quit Tibet. So they "re-educated" us and gave us the "true history" of Tibet. Then they asked us whether we accepted that. But we would say that Tibet is an independent country. We would not lie, so we were tortured.

SPENCER: Suppose you said, "Okay, Tibet is part of China." Would they stop torturing you?

PALDEN GYATSO: Yes. If you find people who spent time in prison without being beaten, then they weren't political prisoners. They might have been thieves or murderers. Those people aren't tortured at all. But people who say that Tibet is independent, they are "splittists" - the worst of all the crimes under China - and they are beaten or tortured.

SPENCER: And in the midst of being tortured, did you ever break down and say, "Okay, leave me alone! I'll agree!"

PALDEN GYATSO: Of course, I would never say that Tibet is not independent. That would be foolish of me. If I said that, another prisoner would say it, and their newspaper would say, "Even the prisoners claim that Tibet is part of China! Then what are the people outside China complaining about?"

SPENCER: I think eventually most people would break under such pain.

PALDEN GYATSO: I don't think so. Many people didn't break. There was an old monk from the Sera Monastery who would not even grunt in pain. He would always say, "Tibet is independent." The other prisoners would say, "You are old. You should just say it and they will leave you alone." But he wouldn't. He was an inspiration for me because I begged and cried, where these other people never even groaned.

SPENCER: You have mentioned the Dalai Lama's middle way. What is he asking now?

PALDEN GYATSO: His middle path is to give something to them and to us as well. Any other route would mean war, causing pain and suffering. With the middle way, Tibetans would negotiate. Let the Chinese control Tibet's borders, but give us the right, within Tibet's boundaries, to our own spirituality, our own cultural practices, our own language. He is proposing that if they will just negotiate we are willing to give up our independence.

But the Chinese say, "We'll negotiate, but you have to admit that Tibet has always been a full part of China." To this His Holiness says, "I am a monk. I cannot lie. As far as the future status of Tibet is concerned, I'm willing to negotiate. But Tibet has always historically been an independent country and now, under international law, whether other countries recognize it or not, Tibet is illegally occupied by China. In World War II they added the legal section that says one country may not take over another country by force."

SPENCER: Many Chinese have been brought into your country. What would the Dalai Lama do about the immigrants?

PALDEN GYATSO: It will be up to them. Whether they want to return to China or stay in Tibet, that's fine.

SPENCER: They are so numerous now, perhaps they even outnumber Tibetans.

PALDEN GYATSO: Of course there is a big population. In Lhasa alone the population is 70 percent Chinese. But it's not a problem if the Tibetans have control internally.

SPENCER: In a real democracy there is a possibility that the Chinese voters in Tibet would choose something other than a Tibetan government.

PALDEN GYATSO: We don't see that as a problem because in a democratic society there are human rights. And some Chinese have come to admire His Holiness. The demonstrations against Jiang Zemin are not just Tibetans. There are lots of Chinese out there protesting. Those who stay in Tibet probably will be those who really love Tibet.

SPENCER: You went to the APEC meeting. Why?

PALDEN GYATSO: I came to Canada mainly for the APEC summit, hoping that human rights would be addressed. There were 18 world leaders there, but I was very disappointed because the Canadian leader Jean Chretien said that this APEC summit was only for business. Human rights would not be on the table. Nevertheless, we had our own little summit. Many other protesters for human rights were there from Burma, Indonesia, Taiwan, and Tibet. Each group had a speaker tell his or her experiences.

Because Canada is a democratic country, I thought human rights would be addressed but right now Jean Chretien is only interested in money and business. That is dangerous. Whatever a government does should be for the benefit of the people. If the people aren't allowed to benefit from what is being done, then you get a situation like China. If the Canadian government is looking too much at the money, that's how it was when China first invaded Tibet. They gave us money and were kind, and the people got fooled. Once they had control, they took over Tibet. Our expression is, "giving money on the tip of a knife." Human rights should always be the top reason for doing any kind of business. I was so disappointed with Jean Chretien!

SPENCER: I agree. What would you like the readers of Peace Magazine to do in order to promote peace and human rights?

PALDEN GYATSO: My book is the story of Tibet and its people, as well as the suffering of all people. Before I went to prison I had never thought about independence or human rights. But after 33 years in prison, I realize that one always has to stand up for human rights and protest. Speak to your politicians about your concerns. If you stop caring about this in other countries, then officials can start abusing people in your own country. When Canada doesn't protest against China, that means people here don't think it's so bad. In this democratic country, when the student union of UBC put up a Tibetan flag, the Chinese government told them to take it down. So Canada just had it taken down! What is this? No freedom of speech here? Because of business would they take down the Canadian flag? Are they going to comply with that just to do business? You have to watch out for that. For us, taking the Tibetan flag down is nothing. We've been stepped on and beaten; it's normal. But I was really surprised when Canada let itself be stepped on. It showed gutlessness.

SPENCER: Yes, it's shameful. But our readers will support your cause.

PALDEN GYATSO: The Chinese say I am a liar. But I challenge any of them to come and face me. They say I haven't spent 33 years in prison but I have the dates and the scars to show for it. Tibet has always been independent. I want everyone who reports my story to put this out. At any time I will come to the UN and they can bring as many scholars as they want. I will stand alone and answer them. They are re-writing history. The Chinese government, which is less than 50 years old, is trying to destroy a 2000-year-old written history. n

Peace Magazine Mar-Apr 1998

Peace Magazine Mar-Apr 1998, page 8. Some rights reserved.

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