The tragic circumstances surrounding the death of Sangey Gyatso, a monk from Labrang monastery, shows the fear and intimidation Tibetans face when they seek to exercise their rights of assembly and expression within the People’s Republic of China.
The forty-two year old Labrang monk, one of the main organizers of a protest in front of foreign journalists at the monastery on April 9, 2008 and earlier demonstrations at his monastery, has died after living for more than a year in hiding. One of his closest friends paid tribute to him this week as “a quiet monk who didn’t like to speak so much in public and good listener – one of many brave Tibetan people taking the chance to express the pain of Chinese rule in Tibet since 1959.”
Images of Sangey Gyatso and 14 other Labrang monks who protested in front of a group of foreign press on an official tour were broadcast around the world. Sangey Gyatso, a slight figure with a moustache, can be seen on video (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v= sNRuQ2-kPoI, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_j3dm7phbZs) calling for human rights and brandishing the Tibetan flag, banned in Tibet, made of paper. Sangey Gyatso also participated in a major demonstration against Chinese policies several weeks earlier on March 15 and 16, 2008, at Labrang, an important Tibetan monastery in Sangchu (Chinese: Xiahe) county, Kanlho (Chinese: Gannan) Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Gansu province.
After the protests, armed troops arrived at Labrang, and Sangey Gyatso fled into hiding in the mountains. Living in a remote high altitude area away from any proper facilities, his already fragile health deteriorated dramatically and he died on February 26. A Tibetan from the area in touch with his friends told ICT: “Relatives visited him while he was in the mountains [after the protests] to give him some Tibetan medicine as his illness became worse. During the winter last year they took him to the local hospital despite the risk that he would be detected and arrested. When he deteriorated further, they tried taking him to a better hospital in Xining, but that hospital refused to treat him because of his involvement in the protests.”
In desperation, the family took him to another hospital in Gansu province, where the doctors told them there was nothing they could do. Sangey Gyatso returned to Labrang monastery, where he passed away.
Following the protests at Labrang monastery in March and April 2008, armed police were deployed “in every corner of the monastery” and searched all of the monks’ quarters. Numerous Labrang monks were detained and many severely tortured. One monk who had participated in the March, 2008 protest, Tsultrim Gyatso, was sentenced to life and another, Thabkhe Gyatso, to 15 years in prison. The authorities did not inform family members of the trial and denied them access to the monks during the year-long pre-trial period.
Three of the 15 Labrang monks who participated in the protest in front of the journalists in April, 2008 and who went into hiding afterwards like Sangey Gyatso managed to escape to India, where they were given a heroes welcome by Tibetans in exile in Dharamsala. One of them, Lobsang, told the New York Times in an interview that they decided to protest in front of the reporters in order to express their feelings to the outside world. “The protests were caused by human rights issues and Chinese policies towards Tibet. We couldn’t tolerate it anymore. I joined the protests with the idea of saving Buddhism, which is endangered by Chinese policy. I want His Holiness the Dalai Lama to return to Tibet, but the Chinese don’t even allow us to display his picture.” (New York Times report and video, June 20, 2009).
The Labrang monks in exile paid tribute to Sangey Gyatso, saying that they had worked together with him in planning the protest in front of the journalists at Labrang. They told ICT: “He was a very brave and patriotic Tibetan monk who dared to express the reality of the human rights situation in Tibet and our wish for freedom.”
Sangey Gyatso, who was born in 1969 in Sangkak township, Sangchu county, became a Labrang monk at the age of 16 and was highly regarded among colleagues at Labrang as a sincere and highly educated monk. He traveled to India in 1991, and studied at the exile Drepung monastery in south India for a short time before returning home to Tibet. According to a close friend, although he had left Tibet simply to study in India, he was questioned on several occasions by Public Security Bureau personnel about his visit. The Tibetan friend, a former Labrang monk now living in exile and who grew up with Sangey Gyatso, told ICT: “He was quite disappointed not to make the most of his study in India because he got sick when he was there, due to the weather and poor water. He studied hard at Labrang when he returned. Even though he was a quiet monk who didn’t like to speak so much in public and a good listener, he became one of the organizers of the protests in front of foreign journalists at Labrang. He was one of many brave Tibetan people taking the chance to express the pain of Chinese rule in Tibet since 1959.”
Sangey Gyatso was also the first person at Labrang to speak openly to the Washington, DC-based radio station, Radio Free Asia, about the protests in 2008.
On April 9, 2008, Sangey Gyatso was one of 15 monks who burst into the courtyard at Labrang where about 20 Chinese and foreign journalists on a state-organised media tour were assembled. They spoke for several minutes to the journalists, first attempting to communicate in Tibetan, but then switching to Chinese. Several of the Labrang monks were weeping as they spoke to the journalists, and some (including Sangey Gyatso) carried the Tibetan flag made out of paper. In the video of the protest, the monks can be seen offering a khatag (a Tibetan white blessing scarf) to a journalist and one of them says: “We sincerely thank you for coming here.” The monk also places the blessing scarf on the journalist’s camera, indicating perhaps the hope that the images would be shared with the rest of the world. (www.youtube.com/watch?v=sNRuQ2-kPoI and ICT report, Raid on Labrang monastery: monks taken away as climate of fear prevails).
Reporters on the trip told ICT that Chinese security photographed the entire protest in addition to the press cameras. Labrang monastery was already full of security police and the monks experiencing severe repression following protests on March 14 and 15 that were dispersed by armed police with tear gas. The monks spoke quickly, often at the same time, in their rush to communicate their concerns face to face with an outside delegation.
According to a translation of their comments from footage of the protests broadcast internationally, one of the monks said that they were not against the Chinese hosting the Olympic Games. A young monk holding the large Tibetan flag says: “We support the Olympic Games and you must understand this…” Another monk interjects by saying, “Yes, you must understand this.” The young monk repeats what he’s just mentioned saying: “The Olympic Games will start in August and we’re not protesting against it.” Referring to plainclothes police or soldiers, another monk says: “In recent days we haven’t had many tourists like this but they are Chinese soldiers in ordinary clothes just for show.”
Sangey Gyatso told the journalists: “We want human rights”, and speaking to the other monks said: “Do we want human rights?” The response was in the affirmative in Tibetan, and one monk repeated this in Chinese. One of the young monks holding the large Tibetan flag shouts: “We want human rights, we want freedom for Tibetans (free Tibet). We can no longer bear to live under this repressive Chinese rule. They exercise repression in every part of Tibet and because of that we can no longer develop the Buddha dharma and without that the idea of world peace (cannot flourish).”
During the protest, monks shouted repeatedly: “We want human rights, we want human rights!” Off the camera a journalist asks, “What’s your message?” A monk responds holding a small white banner with another monk: “We don’t have human rights. We want the Dalai Lama to return. We want the Dalai Lama to return to Tibet soon…” The banner demands “Human Rights!”
One of the monks told the journalists: “Tibetans, especially the elderly, are like the setting sun over the peak of a mountain.” According to the translator, this means that Tibetans are leading a precarious existence on the brink of extinction.