Ngawang Sangdrol

Ngawang Sangdrol, who served 11 years in the infamous Drapchi Prison, related the story of her detention and torture at the age of 13.

US Under Secretary of State for Democracy and Global Affairs and Special Coordinator for Tibetan Issues Maria Otero participated in a roundtable discussion Wednesday July 13 , entitled “The Dalai Lama: What He Means for Tibetans Today”, featuring testimony from witnesses who have also been attending the Dalai Lama’s ongoing 10-day Kalachakra initiation at the nearby Verizon Center in Washington, DC.

The roundtable was convened by the Congressional Executive Commission on China (CECC) and chaired by CECC Cochairman Senator Sherrod Brown. In his opening remarks to the roundtable, Senator Brown added his voice to the chorus of those calling on President Barack Obama to meet with the Dalai Lama while he’s in Washington, DC, before describing the Dalai Lama as the “symbol” and “guardian” of the Tibetan people, and outlining what he described as the “abysmal” human rights situation in Tibet.

The four witnesses giving testimony were Bhuchung K. Tsering, Vice President of the International Campaign for Tibet; Arjia Rinpoche, Director of the Tibetan Mongolian Buddhist Cultural Center in Bloomington, Indiana; Professor David Germano from the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia; and Ngawang Sangdrol, a former nun and political prisoner. The roundtable was also attended by Congressman Tim Walz of Minnesota, a CECC Commissioner in the previous Congress (House Commissioners have not yet been appointed for the current Congress). (A video of the entire proceedings is available on the CECC’s website and copies of the witness testimonies will also be made available on the same web page.)

In her comments to the roundtable (, Under Secretary Otero described the U.S. Government’s continuing support for a “substantive, results oriented dialogue” between the Chinese Government and representatives of the Dalai Lama, and for sustaining Tibet’s “unique religious, linguistic, and cultural heritages.” She also reiterated the US State Department’s concern over the “deteriorating human rights situation in China and in particular in the Tibet Autonomous Region and other ethnic Tibetan areas in neighboring areas,” making specific reference to the ongoing paramilitary crackdown at Kirti Monastery in eastern Tibet.

Bhuchung K. Tsering, ICT’s Vice President was the first witness to testify before the roundtable, offering his analysis of the various likely impacts of the Dalai Lama’s recent decision to devolve political power upon Tibetans both inside Tibet and in exile, as well as upon China’s political leaders. Mr. Tsering said the Dalai Lama’s reasons for divesting himself of political authority are primarily his profound faith in the principle of democracy, which led to a desire to empower the Tibetan struggle to sustain itself “even if there is no resolution to the Tibetan issue in the foreseeable future.”

Mr. Tsering added that the bond between successive Dalai Lamas over the centuries has been so strong that the Dalai Lama will inevitably continue to be revered. Quoting a common Tibetan saying, he added that for Tibetans the Dalai Lama will always be a “source of all refuge for this life and the next.”

However, change in the Dalai Lama’s political status is likely to challenge the Chinese authorities’ position on the dialogue process, said Mr. Tsering. While the Chinese interlocutors in the dialogue process have insisted all along that any dialogue is solely about the Dalai Lama’s future personal and political status under the authority of the Chinese Communist Party, the Tibetan interlocutors have instead attempted to engage in dialogue about the status and rights of all six million Tibetans in the PRC. Democratic developments in the Tibetan movement will bring yet further pressure for a more flexible and rational response from the Chinese side, said Mr. Tsering in response to later questions, but it remained to be seen if there was the political confidence to accept and consider these changes in Beijing.

Mr. Tsering also pointed out that the Dalai Lama’s decision to hand over his political authority to a democratically elected leader has severely dented the Chinese authorities’ attempts to control the process of selecting the next Dalai Lama, and this too was a profound challenge to Beijing’s policies in Tibet.

In response to questions from Congressman Walz, Mr. Tsering said the Chinese authorities may not “dare” to engage with representatives of the Tibetan government in exile, but that their continuing failure to do so was a betrayal of their duty to address the rights of the Tibetan people, who continue to make it clear through their protests and other actions that elected officials in Dharamsala are their representatives, and the Dalai Lama is their spokesperson.

Arjia Rinpoche, who testified next, fled Tibet in 1998 after the Chinese authorities attempted to coerce him into tutoring their selection of the 11th Panchen Lama – the boy recognized by the Dalai Lama was ‘disappeared’ in 1995 and hasn’t been seen since. Arjia Rinpoche also spent 16 years in prisons and labor camps largely due to his status as a reincarnated lama. He told the roundtable that in Tibet, the Dalai Lama is as important as the sun and the Panchen Lama is as important as the moon.” He said that two and a half thousand years ago when the Buddhist faith was founded, “the Chinese Communists were not there”; and when the first reincarnations of Tibet’s high lamas appeared several hundred years ago, “the Chinese Communists were not there”, he repeated. Therefore, Buddhism in Tibet is “our own tradition, our own religious discussion.” The Chinese Communist Party now uses the same traditions it routinely criticizes as “feudal” — in particular, the “Golden Urn” selection process to find the reincarnation of the 10th Panchen Lama, also using imperial Chinese references — to assert the Party’s authority over selecting the 11th Panchen Lama. “However, that doesn’t work for Tibetans. All Tibetans don’t recognize that,” he said.

Professor David Germano from the Religious Studies Department at the University of Virginia testified that while the Dalai Lama is revered by the Tibetan people as the reincarnation of Avalokitesvara – the bodhisattva of compassion – over the past 50 years of his exile, he has come to embody the Tibetan people’s desire to be in control of their own affairs. He said that the Tibetan people now find themselves at a crossroads where on the one hand they find themselves powerless against a variety of social, economic and political forces while seeking an “uncharted course forward”, a path, he explained, where Tibetans seek access to all the amenities of the Chinese state in which they find themselves, but also the ability to adhere to their own distinct cultural values. The alternative to this path is the death of Tibetans’ distinct cultural values, said Professor Germano.

Professor Germano also related a visit to Thomas Jefferson’s home Monticello by the Dalai Lama, where the Dalai Lama said he shared Jefferson’s understanding of the value of knowledge. For the Tibetan people, the Dalai Lama has become the embodiment of Tibetan knowledge and its intrinsically empowering value, said Professor Germano. The Tibetan people turning their back on the Dalai Lama would therefore not only be tantamount to “turning their back on a Buddhist deity who has been watching them since the dawn of Tibetan time,” it was also be an abandonment of the aspiration to exist in accordance with their own distinct values.

Under Secretary Otero later asked Professor Germano to detail the threats currently facing Tibetan culture. He responded by describing the threats to the Tibetan language, and in particular the threat to the availability of an education with Tibetan as the language of medium. While there may only be around six million speakers of the language, Professor Germano said the quality and importance of Tibetan-language literature raised it into “one of the top tiers of languages in the world”. He added that the extraordinary diversity of dialects within the Tibetan language – as diverse as French, Portuguese and Spanish – is being weakened for the sake of efficiency, where the variety was once so rich that it was possible to tell from a person’s speech patterns which block within a city they lived.

Ngawang Sangdrol related the story of her detention and torture at the age of 13 for joining a demonstration in Lhasa and shouting slogans for Tibetan freedom and the Dalai Lama’s long life. Senator Brown, in his introductory comments, described how Ngawang Sangdrol was sentenced to a total of 23 years following several sentence extensions for behavior such as singing protest songs in her prison cell and refusing to stand up when Chinese Communist Party officials entered the room. She was released after serving 11 years in prison after a vigorous international campaign joined by many governments , and now lives in Boston.

Ngawang Sangdrol said that the Dalai Lama is very important for all Tibetans, but that for the hundreds of Tibetan political prisoners — those who have died in prison and those who are still there — “their greatest wish is to see His Holiness the Dalai Lama”; she repeated the Tibetan phrase used earlier by Bhuchung Tsering in his testimony: “His Holiness the Dalai Lama is our refuge not only in this life, but also in our future lives.”

She added that during her imprionment when she was put in solitary confinement for six months in freezing conditions with little to eat, “but every day I imagined His Holiness the Dalai Lama at the top of my head, and it gave me peace of mind although the conditions were terrible — it was the only thing that gave me the strength to live.”

Allowing the Dalai Lama to go home, said Ngawang Sangdrol, would not solve the entire issue of Tibet, but “it would be so powerful and important for the Tibetan people.” She concluded her testimony by saying to members of Commission, including Under Secretary of State Otero, “Please do everything you can to bring peace and freedom in Tibet.” She also thanked CECC for maintaining the political prisoner database, saying “It is so important that we do not forget those people.”