In addition to Ngawang Sangdrol, other witnesses included: Lorne W. Craner, Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor; Irina Krasovskaya, Belarusian Human Rights Activist; Gabriel Shumba, Zimbabwean Human Rights Activist and Torture Victim; Tom Malinowski, Washington Advocacy Director for Human Rights Watch; and Jennifer Windsor, Executive Director of Freedom House.
Ngawang Sangdrol’s full testimony appears below:
Statement of Ngawang Sangdrol, Tibetan nun and former political prisoner
Hearing on Human Rights Practices Around the World: A Review of the State Department’s 2003 Annual Report
March 10, 2004
House Committee on International Relations
My name is Ngawang Sangdrol. I am 27 years old. From age 8, I was a nun in Garu Nunnery in Tibet. From age 11, I began to speak out with my fellow nuns against the Chinese rule of our country. Most of my life, from age 15, I have only known what it means to live as a political prisoner inside the walls of Lhasa’s Drapchi prison. During my 11 years in prison and even during my interrogation I was subjected to torture and prolonged ill-treatment. I was released from prison on good behavior parole in October 2002 — 9 years before my sentence was due to expire but only days before the Chinese President was to meet with President Bush at his ranch in Texas. Five months later, I was put on a plane to the United States for medical treatment. Peosple who saw me board the plane said that I did not look back. Last week, almost exactly a year after I arrived at Reagan National Airport, I received news that my political asylum application has been approved.
I would like to begin by expressing my gratitude to you and, through you, to the American people for all your efforts on behalf of the Tibetan people. Thank you. It is an unimaginable honor to be invited to speak to the United States Congress. This is also a very meaningful day for the Tibetan people as March 10, 1959 was the date the Tibetan people rose up against Chinese rule in our homeland. Since that time His Holiness the Dalai Lama has addressed the Tibetan people from exile annually on this date. This is the first year that I have been able to hear broadcast His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s March 10 address. I thank you for this gift.
Since I have been in the United States, I have been often overwhelmed by kindness and by the solidarity that so many Americans freely express for His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan cause. It is taking me time to adjust to this new atmosphere of freedom. This is because I was brought up under an authoritarian system where freedom is found only in one’s heart.
I sit before you today, proof that when the United States insists on human rights, even powerful countries can be moved. From my own small experience I can say that the guards in Drapchi prison knew of the international attention given my case and that their attitude towards me changed. At least they were more careful in their dealings with me. I was obviously released many years before my scheduled date because of pressure from the international community.
I have learned that Phuntsog Nyidron, a fellow nun with whom I served in prison, was just released on February 26, 2004, also as a result of consistent pressure on the Chinese government by the United States and other free countries. I hope to be able to see her soon, both of us meeting as free human beings for the first time.
My colleagues at the International Campaign for Tibet have read to me the State Department’s country report on human rights in Tibet. When I hear read the descriptions of the injustices suffered by my fellow Tibetans, I am filled with a strong desire to try to do something to help. I hope that by sharing my experiences with you, their presence may also be felt here today. This is my story and, in many ways, it is their story, too.
I was first detained in 1990 for participating in a small demonstration at a cultural festival in front of the Norbu Lingka palace in Lhasa. At the time, I was a 12 year old nun. We prayed for the long life of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and called for freedom in Tibet. For this measure of free expression, I was detained for nine months in Gutsa detention center without charges. Upon my release I was forbidden from going back to my nunnery.
In 1992, I was again arrested for participating in a pro-independence demonstration in Lhasa, along with other Garu nuns, and some monks from Gaden monastery. I was sentenced to three years imprisonment “for incitement to subversive and separatist activities” at Drapchi prison.
I received a six-year sentence extension in 1993, for tape recording songs in praise of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and freedom in Tibet. We were 14 nuns who sang together. This tape was smuggled out of Drapchi to give courage to our fellow Tibetans. In fact, it was eventually distributed not just in Tibet but around the world. In 1995, the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detentions ruled that my continued detention was arbitrary because I had been punished for exercising my right to freedom of opinion. The Working Group asked China to remedy the situation and abide by the provisions enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Instead, they extended my sentence.
In 1996, my prison term was extended for another eight years after I was accused of demonstrating inside prison. In 1998 my sentence was extended a third time, by another six years, after some of us were accused of being involved in a protest demonstrations. This brought my total sentence to 21 years.
Right from the first time I was detained, Chinese officials used different torture instruments on me to break my spirit. I was subjected to both physical and mental torture to make me denounce His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the aspirations of my people. My fellow political prisoners and I were subjected to electric shocks from different types of electric batons and prods on sensitive body parts such as my mouth, underarms and palms of hands. We were beaten with pipes, canes and sticks of different sizes, thick leather belts with heavy metal buckles, and by the hands and feet of prison guards who were trained in martial arts. Other nuns and I were hung in the air with our arms tied behind our back for extended periods of time, and we were frequently made to stand in the direct sun or freezing cold for extended periods of time, and if we collapsed from the heat or exhaustion, we were beaten. We were made to race each other in competitions for the entertainment of the guards, during which they threw rocks at us and hit us if we ran too slow or got the words wrong to the Chinese songs we were forced to sing. I spent weeks in solitary confinement for refusing to accept the lies and punishments of my captors. This torture and mistreatment started while I was just a child of 13 and continued through most of my life in prison.
During my imprisonment in 1992, I witnessed all my fellow Tibetan political prisoners being tortured as well. In 1996 when Phuntsok Pema and I were placed in a small cell, we learnt that prisoners in Unit Five, including Ngawang Phulchung, were tortured solely because they appealed to higher officials after the death of one prisoner who died as a result of torture.
Although the Chinese claim that Tibetans have religious freedom, the State Department report documents that this is not true. This is not true. At any time, you are liable to be persecuted for practicing religion and for having faith in your spiritual teacher, and we are unable to honor our leader, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, with prayers for his long life or by making certain religious practices that he encourages. I was very sad to see in the State Department report that in Kham, in eastern Tibet, the authorities have cracked down on centers of Tibetan culture and religion that had been able somehow to escape the strict measures in place in most of Tibet. As the authorities continue to use all the means at their disposal to attack Tibetan Buddhism, our precious and unique culture is at growing risk every day.
You would not be surprised to learn that the situation is worse in the prisons, where there are no rights at all. There have been cases of people who have been persecuted solely for reciting prayers, as it is not permitted for prisoners to practice religion. At one time, while in Drapchi prison, five nuns of Shugseb Nunnery — Palden Choedak, Jigme Yangchen, Woeser Choekyi, Yangzom, and Chime Dekyi — were reciting the Mani prayer on home-made prayer beads made of flour dough. Upon seeing this, prison officials immediately beat these nuns, made them run in the courtyard, threw stones at them to make them run faster and, to complete the humiliation, they made the nuns eat the prayer beads.
Even though they tried to deny us the ability to practice our religion, Drapchi Prison became our nunnery and the prison guards were our gurus. The Buddha taught that an enemy is the best teacher, because only when someone is cruel to you can you truly be tested on your practice of compassion toward all sentient beings. My fellow nuns and I would sing about our joy in having such an opportunity to develop compassion as we were being tortured and mistreated in prison. No matter our sufferings, our spirits were far from broken. We never lost faith in the leadership of His Holiness the Dalai Lama or the strength of our religious commitment.
I am deeply moved by the interest that the international community has shown in my case, as I am an ordinary person. I am simply a Tsampa-eating Tibetan but my small actions were inspired by the terrible actions of the Chinese. I did what anyone whose community is deprived of its dignity and respect would do. In our hearts, no Tibetan can stand the denunciation of our peerless leader, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, or accept the denial of our fundamental rights. However, the political situation in Tibet and the suppressive rule there are not permitting the Tibetan people to come out with their true feelings. There is fire inside our bodies, but we dare not let the smoke out.
As I said before, it is very clear to me that I was released and given freedom because of international concern. Even as I learn to enjoy this freedom, I am concerned about the many more Tibetan political prisoners in Chinese jails. I appeal to you good people to help give them freedom. I want to especially call attention to two women with whom I was jailed in Drapchi prison, Pekyi and Namdol; I am gravely concerned about their health and urge you to assist in gaining their early release from prison.
I also am gravely concerned about the fate of former prisoners, including Phuntsog Nyidron, who face a difficult life after their release from prison. After my release, even though I was free from prison, I was cut off from Tibetan society. As a former political prisoner, I was not allowed by law to return to my nunnery; I could not find any other job. A former political prisoner cannot even get a job as a street sweeper. Without the support of my family, I would have had no place to live, no food and no medical treatment. Almost all released prisoners face these same problems and many are living in the shadows, with no support. Many must go begging. Many risk their lives fleeing Tibet for hope of any future. These people who have sacrificed so much for freedom are paying the dearest price. I appeal to you for some attention to their cases.
When I came into exile in the United States, my foremost desire was to set my eyes on His Holiness the Dalai Lama. I cannot describe the joy I felt to see His Holiness in good health and to receive his blessing. I pray every day that His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s efforts towards the resolution of the Tibetan problem will bear results. I will abide by any advice His Holiness may have so that I can best contribute towards the fulfillment of his wishes for a solution to the just cause of Tibet. The Tibetan people in Tibet are eagerly waiting for the day when they can see the return of their beloved leader to their homeland, with dignity, freedom and respect.
As a Tibetan, I am most grateful to the United States for supporting His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s efforts to find a negotiated solution to the Tibetan issue. I would like to urge you to continue to do so It is only His Holiness the Dalai Lama who has the trust and loyalty of the Tibetan people, and he is our only hope for freedom in Tibet.
I thank you for this opportunity of submitting this testimony to the United States Congress. I hope my words have made a difference.