More than 10 years ago, Ngawang Chimay was a prisoner in Lhasa’s notorious Gutsa detention center, where sadistic torture is common. In this account Ngawang describes why, as a teenage monk, he decided to directly challenge Chinese authorities in Tibet, and how he feels about it now. He arrived in the U.S. in 1998 and received political asylum in 1999. He is still a monk, but he wears his lay clothes to work every day at the kitchen at Abbot hospital in Minneapolis. Wangchuk Meston interviewed Ngawang extensively and wrote this article for ICT.
In 1988 on the 30th day of the sixth lunar month of the Tibetan calendar, Ngawang Chimay and two fellow monks climbed to the top of the main temple at Dreprung monastery in Lhasa, Tibet and put up a large Tibetan flag. In the darkness of the cold Lhasa morning, the three monks prayed in front of the flag for His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s long life and for the Tibetans to regain their independence. As they prayed, they scattered grains of rice and dry white flowers in air. Seeing his flag fluttering in the wind for the first time in his life, Ngawang was filled with conflicting emotions. He was happy to have been able to put up the flag and see it dancing in the wind but sad that Tibet was not free.
As the cold dawn turned into a bright sunny morning, pilgrims from all over Lhasa prepared to view the monumental, several hundred-year-old tangka of Lord Buddha at Dreprung monastery. This occurs once a year along with mask dances. The large Tibetan flag flying high in the wind took everyone by surprise. People talked in astonishment as they headed up the hill to participate in the festivities. Due to the constant and heavy security presence, the pilgrims kept their voices low. By nine o’clock the Lhasa Chinese authorities had broken the door to the roof of the temple and torn down the flag.
The previous night, Ngawang and his friends had been busy preparing the flag, which they planned to mount on wooden poles on the roof of the main temple. Days before the Dreprung celebrations, Ngawang and Jamphel Wangchuk went to the bazaars in Lhasa. They bought four meters of cloth and cans of oil paint. Since the Chinese invasion in the 1950s Tibetan flags have been banned; everyone knew that you could be arrested and sent to prison for displaying a flag, even at home.
Ngawang and his friends raised the flag to demonstrate Tibet’s identity as a nation. A year before, on September 27, 1987, Chinese authorities had arrested some of Ngawang’s friends for protesting at Jokhang Temple in Lhasa. They served four months in Gutsa prison for that protest. After they were released they told Ngawang the story of their demonstration, arrest, and imprisonment. Ngawang waited for the chance, as his friends had, to protest Chinese attempts to eradicate Buddhism in Tibet.
Days before the flag-raising, Ngawang spoke with one of his friends who had participated in the 1987 protests. His friend told him that they would perform all the necessary prayers for the success of this very dangerous action. Ngawang wanted to call on Tibetans to continue their work toward Tibetan freedom while the protests of 1987 were still fresh in peoples’ minds.
By the end of August 1988 authorities still had not figured out who had installed the flag, so they stationed policemen at the monastery. Ngawang and his friends felt dissatisfied with the results from their flag raising demonstration because Dreprung is isolated from the center of Lhasa and decided to commemorate the past demonstrations at Barkhor Square by organizing their own demonstration in the center of the old city.
On September 26th 1988, after several days of careful planning, Ngawang and his friends left Dreprung monastery in the cover of darkness and spent the cold night sleeping in street corners close to Barkhor Square.
Early in the morning the next day, Ngawang and four other monks went to the Barkhor Circuit to circumambulate the Jokhang Cathedral. They wore heavy clothing in preparation for arrest, for they knew that the prison cells would be cold. The monks in the main temple at Jokhang (the most sacred in Tibet) immediately recognized them and offered special blessings and prayers for a successful and strong demonstration. They prayed in front of the sacred Maitreya statue for the “sun of freedom in Tibet to shine again.”
Ngawang was carrying a yellow backpack stuffed with strips of paper with political slogans he and his friends had prepared the night before they left Dreprung.
At 10:00 am, a twenty-six year old monk began the demonstrations by holding a katha (white offering scarf) in his hand and shouting demands for Tibetan independence. The front of the police station, which was next to the Jokhang temple, was full of military trucks and jeeps. Ngawang and his friends managed to make four rounds of the Barkhor Circuit and dispersed the paper slips before a mob of anxious Tibetans forced them to stop. Older Tibetan women begged the monks to end their protest, as they were concerned about the large police presence. One compassionate Tibetan woman hid Ngawang in her house for several days. Ngawang knew that there would be more demonstrations on October 1st, Chinese National Day and he wanted to be there so he left the safety of her house and later joined in the Oct. 1st demonstrations.
Again, Ngawang had brought with him a bag of paper slips with slogans that he had pre-made. Despite the large police presence at Barkhor, Ngawang was able to scatter the strips of paper before he left for Dreprung monastery to escape the increasingly dangerous situation that had developed around Jokhang.
He and his friends were arrested at Drepung in the middle of the night of October 8th, 1988. Ngawang was sleeping in his teacher’s room when the authorities knocked on the door. He was unprepared, and only managed to put on a pair of trousers. He was made to sit crouched over on the floor of the police jeep and taken to the police headquarters where he was interrogated until dawn.
At the time of his arrest Ngawang was fearless because he had been prepared from the outset to sacrifice everything, including his life. As he was being driven to the police station, he visualized His Holiness and recited a special long life prayer for the Dalai Lama. He knew that the police had only two options, to kill him or imprison him.
“So, you want independence? Well here is independence! Why don’t you ask for independence now!” barked Ngawang’s interrogator. His hands were cuffed behind his back as he was kicked, stepped on, and brutally beaten with gun butts. Ngawang could see one of his friends, Ngawang Zegen, being kicked repeatedly in the head. His friend died two months later in prison at the age of twenty.
Ngawang was then put into a jeep and taken directly to Gutsa prison, a short drive from the police headquarters where he spent a full year without any trial or representation. After spending two months in solitary confinement he was moved into a cell with common criminals. The interrogations went on for six months. He was allowed to step outside his cell for five minutes twice a day.
During the interrogations at Gutsa prison, Ngawang was repeatedly questioned about the organizers behind his activities. The interrogators could not believe that Ngawang would risk so much on his own; they kept asking what outside group made him do this.
Ngawang repeatedly told his inquisitor that no one was making him do anything, that he had decided to participate in the demonstrations on his own initiative.
“I am a Tibetan and know what a Tibetan needs to do. I want to see Tibetan independence; I want rights for Tibetans. No one told me to go to Barkhor. No one told me what to do.”
This infuriated the authorities and Ngawang was unmercifully beaten again and again. Despite all the brutality, he refused to succumb. “I did not accept any of their demands. I never believed that they would treat me better if I confessed and accepted guilt for what I had done for the Tibetan cause. They were also prodding me on to tell on other people. Of course I would not do that. I was not willing to relent for two main reasons, even if it meant fewer beatings or even my freedom. For one thing, I had been prepared from the beginning for full sacrifice. I also know from my own experiences how terribly Tibetans are treated. If I accepted guilt, everything I had done for the cause would be useless. Going to prison would also be useless. I would have traveled on a crooked path.”
He was released a year later in October 1989 after a number of Chinese officials gave a speech to all the inmates warning them to behave or they would be executed.
Ngawang does not feel that it was useless to have suffered in prison. He thinks that the demonstrations are useful because the heads of the Chinese government and the outside world hear the news.
Ngawang still believes that monks should continue to resist through truth and peaceful means. However, he explains, “For more than forty years now, His Holiness the Dalai Lama has been showing the moderate way to a peaceful resolution to the Tibetan situation, but the Chinese government is still not responding or willing to engage in dialogue. His Holiness is only asking for autonomy that will benefit both sides. Chinese soldiers now overrun Tibet. Sometimes I wonder if it might be more beneficial to use violence that destroys government infrastructures like bridges and buildings. Out of desperation, I would even consider giving up my monk’s vows and use bombs. We could start in small amounts. I have noticed that when there is violence people listen.”
After escaping Tibet in 1991 and spending eight years in India, Ngawang arrived in the States in 1998 and received political asylum in 1999. His family remains in Tibet. For the last year Ngawang, who has been a monk since the age of twelve, is still a monk and works at Abbot hospital in Minneapolis as an assistant in the kitchen bringing food to patients.
He still has nightmares of the tortures he endured at the hands of the Chinese police and prison guards and is happy when he wakes up to realize that he is in the United States. The nightmares happen less frequently this year. “Although I am physically in America my heart is in Tibet. I often think about my three friends who are still at Drapchi prison serving ten-year sentences. I think about how they must be suffering. Even though Tibetans have fire in their stomachs they can not let the smoke out of their mouths.”