New Internationalist

Thought Reform

Issue 327

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Torture / INTIMIDATION & RESISTANCE
Thought reform
Repression, intimidation and control are the favoured
weapons of the Chinese authorities in Tibet. But, as Jane Caple
reports, they haven't been able to stub out resistance.

Jane Caple On the morning of 1 May 1998 guards assembled hundreds of prisoners in the courtyard of Drapchi - the main prison in Tibet's capital, Lhasa - for a political ceremony. As the red flag of China was raised two voices cut through the air. 'Tibet is free and independent.' 'Long live His Holiness the Dalai Lama.' The voices, quickly joined by others, sparked off the first of two demonstrations which undermined Chinese authority in Tibet in a way not witnessed since a decade ago when a series of protests rocked the streets of Lhasa. The consequences of the 1998 protests? The deaths of at least nine prisoners, including five nuns.

Forty years after establishing control the main political imperative of the Chinese Government in Tibet is to maintain 'stability'. This means quashing any desire for self-rule and seeking to eradicate loyalty to the Dalai Lama. A tourist in Tibet no longer sees tanks and machine guns on the streets of Lhasa; the authorities have become more subtle. Surveillance activities have intensified and 'thought reform' campaigns have been introduced, producing a climate of fear comparable to that during the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s.

Chinese police and security officers, both uniformed and plainclothes, are active and Tibetans are often coerced into providing information about colleagues and neighbours. Networks of informers operate in offices, work groups, schools, monasteries, apartment buildings and neighbourhoods. Hidden or visible surveillance cameras are widely used and communications are monitored. Compared with the size and sophistication of the Chinese security forces, there are really not that many Tibetans to watch, nor are they well-connected with each other or the outside world.

Tibetans are constantly reminded of the futility of opposing the Chinese authorities and the certainty of punishment if they do so. One monk recounted that when officials visited his monastery to conduct political education, they likened acts of defiance to 'the pathetic situation of an ant trying to fell a tree, which of course is totally impossible'.

The prisoners who shouted slogans inside Drapchi prison knew just what they were up against - they knew they would be severely beaten, perhaps worse, for their peaceful protest. Many of them had originally been imprisoned for just such actions.

Among the prisoners singled out after the protests was a monk called Thubten Kalsang. 'Twelve police stamped on his crumpled body and beat him repeatedly with their batons for nearly half an hour,' says an ex-prisoner. Interrogated again the next day, Thubten Kalsang was beaten unconscious with electric batons and iron rods. 'He is now a decrepit wreck, staying at home awaiting his impending death.' Another ex-prisoner, a young nun, described how she was kept in her cell until her release, nearly 15 months after the demonstration. 'Because we did not see the sun for so long we almost fell when we saw it again on our release,' she said.

The 1998 protests showed that attempts to reform the thoughts of Tibet's political prisoners are failing, and that they are willing to risk torture, isolation and even death to prove that point.

One young Tibetan nun, Ngawang Sangdrol, embodies this spirit of resistance. In 1990, when she was only 13, Ngawang Sangdrol took to the streets of Lhasa to join a demonstration. Detained by the police and held for a year without charge, she was severely beaten during interrogations.

Fellow prisoners recalled how she was so thirsty she would try to catch rainwater in a mug by holding it outside her cell window - but she was too small to reach beyond the bars. When she was finally released she returned home to the news that her mother had died and that the police had arrested her father, Namgyal Tashi, a staunch advocate of Tibetan freedom who has been in and out of prison most of his life. She had clearly inherited her father's defiance as it was not long before she was back on the streets of Lhasa, involved in another protest - and was arrested.

Despite many attempts to break her, Ngawang Sangdrol has steadfastly refused to 'reform' her thoughts and beliefs. A year after her arrest, she and 13 other nuns sang songs in their cells about their religious devotion and the suffering of their homeland. A tape recording was smuggled out and published by the Free Tibet Campaign. The nuns were now singing to the world - but they remained behind bars in Tibet, beaten and isolated. Two years on, in the bitter Lhasa winter, Ngawang Sangdrol was shouting 'Free Tibet', as she and other women were forced to stand in the rain for refusing to keep their cells clean.

By May 1998 Ngawang Sangdrol was already in poor health from frequent beatings and lengthy periods in isolation. Following the protests on 1 and 4 May she and a few other prisoners were singled out by a female Tibetan guard, Pema Bhutri. 'She beat them badly and the soldiers beat them, kicked them,' a nun who was in Drapchi says. 'Some had torn ears, some head wounds, there was a lot of blood.' Has Ngawang Sangdrol finally been silenced? Apparently not. She made at least two more protests in 1998. Her original prison sentence of three years has been extended to 21 years and many former prisoners fear for her safety.

In Tibet torture is a routine part of interrogation, used to secure confessions and information. It is also a method of control and punishment. Punching, kicking, use of electric batons, forced standing, death threats, exposure to extreme temperatures, protracted isolation and deprivation of food, water and sleep - all these are commonly reported. Data collected by Tibet Information Network (TIN) over the past 12 years show that at least 1 in every 32 Drapchi political prisoners has died as a direct consequence of maltreatment during detention.

Yet a Drapchi administrator recently said that 'there has been no case of violating prisoners' rights in recent years'.

Looking at China's human-rights record, a sense of accountability to international standards is not apparent. Shortly after formally acceding to the United Nations Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in October 1998, China drew attention to its 'national conditions' and said that it would work out 'how to adapt' the Covenant 'to China's existing laws and regulations'. According to China: 'Only the government and the people of a nation are qualified to comment on human-rights conditions in their own countries.'

It is far more difficult to obtain information on human-rights abuses in Tibet today than it was a decade ago. More than two years after the Drapchi protests the full story is still not known due to the effectiveness of measures taken by China to prevent information reaching the outside world. Global trade priorities mean that direct and open criticism of China over human-rights issues is avoided and the policy of 'bilateral dialogue' is favoured. The West appears willing to credit the Chinese Government for any official movement on human rights, such as legislative changes or becoming party to international agreements. Yet bilateral dialogue has so far failed to produce significant information on human-rights issues.

More than 50 international delegations have visited Tibet in the last decade. Are they a positive sign of the 'liberalization' of China, or just propaganda opportunities for the Chinese Government?

Gary Nehl, Deputy Speaker of the Australian House of Representatives, after visiting Tibet in 1999, reported that Tibet appeared 'more liberal and relaxed' than during his previous visit in 1992. He visited a 'Tibetan jail' (probably Drapchi), commenting that 'the wards are so clean and neat that they are just like those found in Australia' and that 'some inmates were weaving carpets while singing and whistling.' He has since made a third visit to Lhasa to present a Aus$2m (US$1.18m) aid package to Tibet. Another recent visitor to Drapchi, Canadian cabinet minister Raymond Chan, was more discerning about the 'model conditions' he was shown - he acknowledged that he was not allowed to talk to the prisoners and that what he saw may not adequately reflect everything that goes on in Tibetan prisons.

Delegations are shown what the authorities want them to see and are taken where the authorities want them to go. When Tibetans have attempted to talk or hand letters to visiting delegations they have been severely punished. Nothing illustrates the illusory nature of such visits more than the fact that a European Union delegation visited Drapchi on the same day (4 May 1998) that prisoners were beaten with iron bars for shouting slogans. The delegation saw nothing unusual at the prison.

China continues to deny that torture and other human-rights abuses exist in Tibet. Yet Tibetans like Ngawang Sangdrol continue to risk their freedom and even their lives by asserting their right to
speak out.

Click here to email Jane Caple works for Tibet Information Network (tin@tibetinfo.net),
an independent news and research service that provides information
and analysis on contemporary Tibet. www.tibetinfo.net


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