Golog Jigme, a respected Tibetan monk, teacher and former political prisoner, arrived safely in India in May after a perilous journey into exile from Tibet following 20 months in hiding.

Golog Jigme (Jigme Gyatso)[1] worked with film-maker Dhondup Wangchen in interviewing 108 Tibetans about their views and feelings before the Beijing Olympics in 2008. The interviews became a powerful documentary, ‘Leaving Fear Behind’, that enabled the voices of Tibetan nomads, elders, monks and others in remote areas across the plateau to be heard in international capitals, by Parliamentarians, government officials, exile Tibetans and even journalists in Beijing.[2]

As a result of the film, Dhondup Wangchen was imprisoned for six years; he was released on June 5 (2014) and remains in Tibet.[3] Jigme Gyatso was arrested, severely tortured, and held for seven months before he was released in October 2008. In 2012, he was detained again, and managed to escape from custody and to go into hiding, where he remained under constant fear of re-arrest prior to his escape.

Jigme Gyatso, who was named as one of Reporters Without Borders ‘Information Heroes,’[4] is deeply admired and respected by Tibetans, who appreciate both his and Dhondup Wangchen’s work on the film as a new and powerful means of breaking the silence on Tibet. Jigme Gyatso has earned widespread respect too for his tireless work in remote nomad areas of eastern Tibet teaching Tibetan language in order to ensure the preservation of the bedrock of Tibet’s cultural heritage. In order to help this unassuming monk of quiet moral integrity, many Tibetans whose names will never be known publicly risked their own safety to help him escape from Tibet.

ICT took the opportunity to interview Golog Jigme upon his arrival in Dharamsala, to learn from him about his experiences in Tibet, his remarkable work and perilous escape. We talked to him through our India-based Tibetan field team member and another Tibetan colleague based in London, who translated the interview into English. The questions and answers are below, following a summary of his story.

ICT questions and answers to Golog Jigme

QUESTION: You and Dhondup Wangchen risked your lives to present interviews with Tibetans about what they felt about the Olympics, His Holiness, their lives in Tibet. Why did you do this and who was your intended audience?

ANSWER: Our primary target audience was the world outside Tibet. The documentary, we believed, would make a case for the support of human rights inside Tibet, by revealing the violations. We not only wanted the Tibetans’ views to reach the international community, but also Tibetans both inside Tibet and in exile, including the Tibetan exile authorities in Dharamsala. We wanted the CTA (Central Tibetan Administration) to see these words in order to understand the views of Tibetans inside. We had a point to make about the Olympics, that the host country should meet certain criterion and respect human rights. We thought that this timing was a good opportunity to convey that message.

QUESTION: Thinking back to 2008, when a wave of overwhelmingly peaceful protests swept across Tibet, and before it. Your interviews in ‘Leaving Fear Behind’ reveal that, based on a relationship of trust, ordinary people were prepared to reveal their true feelings about their suffering, fears for the future, and loyalty to His Holiness, on camera. What was the atmosphere like when you were travelling to those areas to speak to people, before the protests broke out in 2008? Was there a sense of what was to come?

‘Leaving Fear Behind’ was ‘an expression of people’s feelings and experiences’

ANSWER: We started ‘Leaving Fear Behind’ in 2007. At that time, to give an example, I didn’t know very much about politics myself. But I had pain in my heart, which emerged from the fact of Communist rule; particularly about the way the Communist Chinese leadership are handling Tibet. In Leaving Fear Behind, we stepped forward in an attempt to come close to Tibetan people, to collect different views. Most of the interviewees come from different backgrounds – they are nomads, farmers, monks, and officials. At that time, in 2007, their views were very clear. They expressed very clearly what they felt about the political climate, the reality inside Tibet and upcoming Olympics. This film was not made as a ‘political’ film. It was intended to be an expression of people’s feelings and experiences.

“2008 was a turning point in the history of Tibet’s freedom struggle”

The protests that swept across Tibet provoked an unprecedented political consciousness among people inside Tibet. The younger generation became more aware of the human rights and political situation in Tibet. 2008 was a turning point in the history of Tibetan’s freedom struggle, a time in which people were motivated to participate in an attempt to change things. It provided a clear framework for their involvement in their future path.

QUESTION: Was there a particular moment that led to your decision to be involved in this way?

ANSWER: I have been working and concerned about the political and educational situation for many years, and before 2007, I began to work as much as possible with the younger generation on protecting the Tibetan language [by teaching, reading, promoting the importance of using it.] Around 80% of Tibetans lack basic education, and many cannot read or write so it is often very difficult to communicate about politics because they didn’t know how to understand or respond. So I started working in education about the language, instead. Later, I felt it would be really fascinating and important to make a video in which people can see with their own eyes what is happening in Tibet. It was the second month in the Tibetan calendar in 2007 when I decided, and started to discuss this with Dhondup Wangchen.

QUESTION: Did some people refuse to be filmed? What was the attitude of people to the film?

ANSWER: People made their own decisions about whether to speak on camera or not. I never pushed those individuals to show their faces on video. Before turning on the camera I would explain everything, telling them they can cover their face if they prefer, that they don’t have to say anything. But some of them were so strong in speaking out. I did not ask them for details of their birthplace or where they lived, but some of them were speaking about exactly who they were, on video, giving their home addresses. This documentary was created to directly challenge Chinese Communist propaganda on Tibet. The Chinese Communist government says that 90% of people don’t want His Holiness to return to Tibet. We wanted to show Tibetan people’s expectations, always obscured by Chinese Communist propaganda. We wanted to fully express what was in their hearts.

QUESTION: Do you feel it is an important moment now for Tibetans to confront their fear and for people to make the decision to express themselves whatever the consequences?

ANSWER: I highly respect those people’s courage to speak the truth, despite the risks to their lives, and to those of their family and friends. I believe that the reason why ‘Leaving Fear Behind’ became well known internationally is because it is a result of those people’s pure motivation to benefit Tibetan people inside Tibet. Their courage inspired me to continue to work on this issue because I am not the only individual engaged in this struggle, there are so many of us. So, I decided to escape to India in order to publicize the suffering of Tibetans under Communist rule in Tibet; I hope to honor those Tibetans in the film by doing so. I am only one individual, but so many are suffering.

QUESTION: How did you feel when you heard about the release of your friend Dhondup Wangchen from prison, after serving six years? What do you expect how his situation will be in Tibet and how will the Chinese authorities will treat him after his release?

ANSWER: Of course, I was very happy about his release. I don’t know if they will allow him to leave but I am praying that there will be a good opportunity for reunion with his children and wife one day soon [Dhondup Wangchen’s wife Lhamo Tso and their three children now live in America].

“Sometimes I felt it was hopeless and that I would never make it”

QUESTION: You were in hiding and on the run from the Chinese for 20? Months. Did you sometimes feel you would never make it?

ANSWER: Yes, sometimes I felt it was hopeless, because the stakes were high for the Chinese authorities as well as for me personally. They had tried to torture me into death, and then they were saying I was guilty of homicide. They accused me of influencing people [through raising awareness about Tibetan cultural identity among the young generation.] But I never forgot Tibetan people’s sacrifices, how many Tibetans have struggled so hard in last 60 years, and because of this respect for the Tibetan people I could maintain some hope in the future.

“In prison, they were literally trying to kill me”

QUESTION: What gave you the strength, firstly to carry out work you knew to be so dangerous, interviewing Tibetans about their true feelings, and secondly, to sustain so many months in hiding and to risk the escape?

ANSWER: What I have been through over the past 20 months is because I needed to speak out about the experiences of the Tibetan people and their quest for freedom. In 2012, I could have escaped before they arrested me; I knew that it was coming. But I was prepared and I have never tried to avoid the consequences of my actions. When I was in custody I had a period of time in which I reflected more about the sacrifices offered by the Tibetan people for their freedom. Since the 1950s more than a million people have died in a bid to achieve this freedom, and it has not been achieved. The treatment we received in prison was underpinned by a determination to defeat our spirits. In prison, they were literally trying to kill me. They want to kill prisoners like me. So this time, I changed my mind, I thought it would be better not to die in prison but to escape Tibet. I decided that it was necessary to find another way to speak about what is happening inside Tibet. That is one of my motivations, and provides me with strength, and I know it does for other Tibetans who are suffering, too.

“Over time, I understand that oppression becomes very hard to bear, and this is the outcome.”

QUESTION: Did you ever consider self-immolating yourself?

ANSWER: Many religious figures inside Tibet were condemning the self-immolations. And there were also rumors circulating that the Communist Party government was somehow encouraging people in Tibet to self-immolate. The repressive policies in Tibetans’ daily lives push people to the line between life and death. So there seemed to be encouragement and condemnations. But from my side, I didn’t ever consider it myself as an option, and I don’t want to encourage people to [set fire to themselves]. But over time, I understand that oppression becomes very hard to bear, and this is the outcome.

QUESTION: What effects do you think the self-immolations are having on the Tibetans? Do you think there is a developing pattern over the last five years?

ANSWER: The impact of the self-immolations in Tibet since 2009 has been that ordinary Tibetans have been motivated to try to do even more in their struggle. That is the biggest impact. We cannot say much about the inner motivations of those who self-immolate, we can only attempt to understand through reading the statements they left behind, or listening to what they say as they are burning. The final word should be with the self-immolators themselves.

QUESTION: It seems as though one message comes through very strongly from both those who have self-immolated, and those who protested in 2008, and that is for His Holiness to be allowed to go home. Do you think that is the overriding concern of Tibetans inside Tibet and how possible do you think this is?

ANSWER: Definitely this is one of the main messages of the self-immolators so far in Tibet, and also the main expectation of 90% of Tibetans is that His Holiness should return to Tibet. Still, so much effort is required for this to happen, from inside Tibet, China, and also from the international community in terms of globalizing the issue and emphasizing its importance. I am disappointed that the Tibet issue has not received more meaningful support from governments. There is a sense of urgency, the situation inside Tibet has existed for so many years and has been at a particular crisis point since 2009. More than 130 people have self-immolated now. It is not that they are incapable of violence, it is that they have chosen to act in this way instead. Governments must surely appreciate this. The Tibetan people provide a good model for freedom struggles the world over. China is going to be one of the most important countries economically and has to consider the future. Allowing the Dalai Lama to go to Tibet, safely, would be good for the Chinese global image.

QUESTION: What about the Chinese people, is there any willingness to look at this in a more sympathetic way?

ANSWER: The majority of Chinese people would be willing, I think, for the Dalai Lama to return to Tibet. 100% of Chinese Buddhists are hoping for him to return. Chinese people are aware of many things beyond Communism. Many of them understand exactly what His Holiness is saying and what he’s doing. There’s no doubt that they are willing to accept it. Even despite censorship in China, people are aware, they hear about His Holiness from an international perspective, through social media and other means.

QUESTION: Do you think the Chinese leadership is taking the issue of Tibet more seriously now since the self-immolations began?

ANSWER: Of course they have been taking the Tibet issue very seriously. There are two aspects, one positive, and one negative. So far since 2009, there have been no more positive developments since 2009 from the Chinese leadership’s side, except for the fact that they take the issue more seriously. There is now a huge military presence inside Tibet and systematic grass roots level controls everywhere. They are establishing grass roots level Party and government offices in Tibetan Buddhist monasteries as well as local community, and always speaking about the Party’s representations on Tibet to ordinary people in their homes, and then there is also the ambitious social and economic policies and developments in Tibet, so from that perspective we have to say they take the issue very seriously.

QUESTION: What is the purpose for the Chinese Communist Party in imposing these controls in such a systematic way?

ANSWER: It is really interesting to think about that. They want to approach even villagers in rural areas, families, and they do so much monitoring and surveillance work even in small remote villages, checking contacts and tracking those random conversations between Tibetans. The purpose is to track all the contact with local people. Because the government has different departments, they each have different functions in the community. For instance there are some operating in monasteries, attacking the Tibetan Buddhist religion and its traditions. And then there are the education departments, focused on eliminating and undermining the Tibetan language. At the grass roots level is organizational monitoring ‘stability’. There are numerous civilians who are Party officials and representatives in those areas.

QUESTION: Would you describe this as a long-term strategy or a new shift in response to the self-immolations and protests?

ANSWER: We cannot say whether it is temporary or permanent, but of course that will depend on how much they gain through those policies. So far, government officials seem satisfied that they benefit through those policies.

QUESTION: What is your experience in teaching the younger generation? Did you travel a lot and what were your motivations?

ANSWER: We established an educational organization. There was no proper electricity, no facilities, in some of the areas I worked. I stayed in township level primary schools. So far my hard work has resulted in one boy finishing his university and now teaching, another five Tibetan kids still in university. We also approached religious figures, lamas, for some funds to help children’s travel, food and other expenses. Some of them were supportive, some not. We ran language preservation groups to help protect the Tibetan language and raise the awareness of language preservation among Tibetan community.

QUESTION: If Tibetans do not get involved in advocacy or in trying to let the world know about the situation in Tibet or asking for religious freedom, how do they manage? Do they find decent jobs? Do they have to abandon Tibetan language to work?

ANSWER: If you are a Tibetan who has graduated from a Tibetan university, then you have to know Chinese language if you want to apply for government work. Even so there are Tibetans who qualify and run businesses, become teachers. You can still have a living inside; and you are not going to be hungry if you are primarily educated in Tibetan.[5]

QUESTION: We understand that you cannot reveal details of exactly how you managed to escape, as that would be too dangerous for those who supported you. But can you tell us a little about your story?

ANSWER: Of course it was a collective effort. I was truly inspired and grateful for those people who contacted me, arranged things, and spent thousands of dollars that they did not have in order to get me out when I was running for my life. That was so encouraging to me; I cannot express how much. But, I am grateful for their sincere efforts and solidarity. It also inspires me for my future work. Still we have to refund the money for my escape, and that will happen step by step.

QUESTION: How is the relationship between Tibetans working in the local administrations and ordinary Tibetan people? Do the Tibetans in the administration try to help Tibetans or not? Is the relationship tense?

ANSWER: The relationship between them is quite poor. Some Tibetan officials are not aware of the real suffering of the people, but some have that awareness, and they want to get promotions on their official rank, so that when they have power they want to make some changes. But that is an uphill struggle because the Party authorities are strictly monitoring and controlling the situation, and people individually, so no outstanding Tibetan officials really get promoted. Also, officials who reach a higher status have to publicly denounce His Holiness – what Pema Thinley is doing [a senior official in the Tibet Autonomous Region government known for his hostile statements against the Dalai Lama]. Ordinary officials cannot have any power to change things in a positive way. Some of them are really smart, while they cannot change the bigger picture; but on the one point, they are very supportive towards language preservation and initiatives protecting Tibetan culture somehow.

QUESTION: Are there Tibetans and if so how many in the police force in Tibet?

ANSWER: Since 2008 the Party has treated Tibetans and Chinese in the police force in a different way; if you are Tibetan, there is much more discrimination against you. There is one story that in Kanlho area,[6] there was one Chinese Muslim (Hui) guy and one Tibetan who were senior officials in the Public Security Bureau. They travelled to Beijing on an official trip to give the annual report about the authorities’ work in the prefecture that year. But because they were both ‘ethnic minorities’ they were not able to meet their counterparts and present the report. Most ‘minority’ officials in this area, and others too, are aware of the difference between the way they are treated, compared to Han Chinese. In terms of qualifications to be in the police, you don’t require any specialist education or training; the qualification is that you have to act as a heartless person, which is deeply damaging for a society.

QUESTION: Are there any instances in your own life of Chinese police or officials being sympathetic and supportive towards you?

ANSWER: No. I have experience of speaking to people on many different levels, from central government, prefectural and county level officials. While I respect some central Party officials for their openness to discussion, I have never experienced Chinese Communists officials who are willing to speak about justice and fairness. During my first arrest, so many Chinese police were involved with my interrogation and torture. Usually the first thing they said was that they were going to kill me. I have never known any compassionate, liberal-minded Chinese Communist officials in Tibet.

QUESTION: During that period of imprisonment, for instance during interrogation, did you ever develop any sort of human relationship with an official or policeman who seemed to be reasonable, moderate?

ANSWER: No, never.

QUESTION: Jigme la, thank you so much for your thoughtful answers. On behalf of ICT, we would like to express our deep gratitude to you for participating in this interview, and for your inspiring work, which we hope will continue in exile. We know that our members and supporters also fully appreciate the sacrifices you have made, your determination and work to keep the Tibetan culture and language alive, and share our joy at your safe escape into exile.

ANSWER: I am really pleased to receive all of these questions from the International Campaign for Tibet. ICT has been supportive, both in practical terms and in other ways too for the Tibet issue over many years. Still there are many political prisoners in Tibet who were not as fortunate as me to be able to leave, and I fully intend to speak about them, and about the suffering of Tibetan people. I hope ICT will continue to support us, and once again, we thank you for your efforts.

[1] His name is Jigme Gyatso, but Tibetans often adopt a name based on where they are from. Jigme Gyatso is from Golog.

[2] The 25-minute film, which had a secret screening in Beijing on the opening day of the Olympic Games in 2008, can be viewed in full on Youtube at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ANZZa5IabJ4

[3] See Filming for Tibet press release, http://www.filmingfortibet.org/2014/06/05/tibetan-filmmaker-dhondup-wangchen-released-from-prison/. Gyaljong Tsetrin, his cousin and co-producer of “Leaving Fear Behind”, said after talking him to: “Though Dhondup is still under the control of the Chinese authorities I am very relieved that he finally could leave prison and has now the possibility to consult a doctor.” Lhamo Tso, Dhondup Wangchen’s wife, who was granted US asylum in 2012 and now lives in San Francisco, is overjoyed: “Six years of injustice and painful counting the days ended today. It is a day of unbelievable joy for his parents in Dharamsala, our children and myself. We look forward to be reunited as a family.”

[4] http://heroes.rsf.org/en/jigme-gyatso/

[5] Our translator’s comment: “Golog Jigme means that despite the crisis facing the survival of the Tibetan language and culture, there is still a small space for Tibetans educated primarily in Tibetan with little Chinese language.”

[6] Chinese: Gannan, Gansu, the Tibetan area of Amdo.