Palden Choedron

Palden Choedron, one of the “singing nuns” of Drapchi prison, arrived safely in exile in India on September 1, 2010. (ICT)

Palden Choedron, one of a group of 14 courageous Tibetan women who became known as the “singing nuns” after they smuggled out a recording of patriotic and religious songs from their prison cells, has arrived in exile in Dharamsala, India. After her release from an eight-year sentence in Drapchi prison, Palden Choedron attempted to escape from Tibet but was caught and served three years in a “reform through labour” camp before her second, successful escape from Tibet and arrival in India on September 1.

She is the eighth of the Tibetan “singing nuns” to arrive in exile. The Drapchi nuns were known for their comradeship and solidarity, and sometimes put their own lives in danger to protect their cell mates.

Palden Choedron (lay name Palden Yangkyi), who was born in 1973 in Nyemo county in Lhasa prefecture to a farming family, became a nun at Shungsib nunnery at the age of 14. In 1990, she joined a peaceful protest in the Barkhor and was sentenced to three years imprisonment, which she served in Drapchi (Tibet Autonomous Region Prison).

The arrests of Palden Choedron and the other nuns occurred during a time of intense security in the Lhasa following a series of demonstrations in the Tibetan capital beginning in 1987. Martial law was imposed in Lhasa in March, 1989 and peaceful demonstrations were dealt with harshly by the authorities.

Palden Choedron’s sentence was due to come to an end when she joined the 13 other nuns in making the tape-recording of songs in their prison cells in 1993. The songs, in praise of the Dalai Lama and of their country, were intended to show their families and friends outside the prison that their spirits had not been broken despite the harsh conditions in Drapchi. All of the nuns suffered severe torture, and one of the 14, Ngawang Lochoe, died as a result. Palden Choedron’s sentence was extended; she remained in prison for a further five years, and was released in October, 1998.

In an interview in Dharamsala, India, she told ICT that – like other released nuns and monks released from prison – she was not able to rejoin her nunnery after being in prison. “The authorities came to the nunnery to make sure I was not there, and so I didn’t go there otherwise other nuns would face trouble,” she said. A few months later, in February 1999, Palden Choedron was caught trying to escape from Tibet and was sentenced to three years at the Trisam Re-education Through Labor Center in the Tibet Autonomous Region.

The release of 34-year old Tibetan nun Phuntsog Nyidron to the United States and the care of ICT on March 15, 2006, marked the end of the imprisonment in Tibet for the “singing nuns.” Unusually, Phuntsog Nyidron was sent directly into exile in the West, following years of behind the scenes diplomacy. Most former political prisoners, like her comrade Palden Choedron, make the dangerous journey across the Himalayas into Nepal, usually then transiting to India.

Phuntsog Nyidron, who served 15 years for peaceful protest and participating in the tape-recording of the songs, is now studying in Switzerland. Ngawang Sangdrol, who served 11 years of a total 21-year sentence, now lives in New York after she was also released to the United States. (ICT report, Phuntsog Nyidron, last of the ‘Drapchi singing nuns’, arrives in US). Two other “singing nuns,” Rigzin Choekyi, who served 12 years in prison, and Lhundrub Zangmo, who served nine years, arrived in Dharamsala in May, 2006 after escaping from Tibet into India through Nepal (ICT report, Two ‘singing nuns’ arrive in exile after escape from Tibet).

One of the 14, 28-year-old Ngawang Lochoe, died in Drapchi prison on 5 February 2001, just one year prior to completion of her 10-year prison sentence.

According to a copy of the 1993 sentencing document obtained by ICT, the judges presiding over the subsequent court hearing found that the nuns had “recorded reactionary ‘Tibetan independence’ songs in an attitude of counter-revolutionary arrogance” with “the aim of countering the revolution.” The court deemed the nuns’ behavior as “criminal” and their “attitude to confession was abominable,” in reference to the nuns’ defense that they recorded the song in order “to commemorate their lives [together] in prison.” A full translation into English of the sentencing document and lyrics of the songs are at: ‘Song of Sadness’ from Drapchi prison: the official Chinese verdict on the Drapchi ‘singing nuns’.

Ngawang Sangdrol, another of the “singing nuns” who was released from Drapchi in 2002, said of Palden Choedron: “She was not outspoken. She was shy, but if you knew her well she would make jokes and make you laugh.” Sangdrol added that she has a very strong will: “She wouldn’t obey the guards if they wanted her to do something she was against, such as accepting that Tibetan independence is wrong.”

All 14 of the nuns had their prison sentences extended. According to the sentencing document, Tenzin Thubten, Ngawang Choekyi, Gyaltsen Drolkar and Phuntsog Nyidron were considered the “main criminals,” and received an eight or nine year sentence extension. The remaining 10 nuns, Ngawang Sangdrol, Namdrol Lhamo, Ngawang Choezom, Jigme Yangchen, Palden Choedron, Lhundrub Zangmo, Rigzin Choekyi, the late Ngawang Lochoe, Ngawang Tsamdrol, and Gyaltsen Choezom, were considered to have played “secondary roles” and received five to six years sentence extensions.

In February 1994, a year after the sentences were handed down for the tape recording, one of the nuns at Drapchi, Garu nun Gyaltsen Kelsang, collapsed after being forced to perform military drills, a common punishment at the time by officials in Drapchi prison. She was hospitalized with paralysis in her legs and released on medical parole in December 2004. She died at home two months later, at the age of 26.

In June 1998, five nuns died in Drapchi after five weeks of severe maltreatment following peaceful protests at the prison a month earlier. All of the nuns were close comrades, ranging in age from 19 to 25 at detention, and all of them had been imprisoned for peaceful resistance to Chinese rule in Tibet. Their names were Drugkyi Pema (lay name Dekyi Yangzom); Tsultrim Zangmo (layname: Choekyi); Lobsang Wangmo (layname: Tsamchoe Drolkar); Tashi Lhamo (lay name Yudron) and Khedron Yonten (lay name: Tsering Drolkar).

The remaining 13 “singing nuns” have since been released from prison. Five of the nuns, Tenzin Thubten, Ngawang Choekyi, Jigme Yangchen, Ngawang Choezom, and Ngawang Tsamdrol remain in Tibet, while eight are now in exile.

The lyrics to one of the songs sung by Palden Choedron and the 13 other nuns are as follows:

I looked out from Drapchi Prison

I looked out from Drapchi prison
There was nothing to see but sky
The clouds that gather in sky,
We thought, if only these were our parents.
We fellow prisoners
[Like] flowers in Norbulingka,
Even if we’re beaten by frost and hail,
Our joined hands will not be separated.
The white cloud from the east
Is not a patch that is sewn
A time will come when the sun will emerge
From the cloud
And shine clearly
Our hearts are not sad;
Why should we be sad?
Even if the sun doesn’t shine during the day
There will be the moon at night
Even if the sun doesn’t shine during the day
There will be the moon at night.

Further details in the report: “Rukhag 3: The Nuns of Drapchi Prison,” by Steven D. Marshall, Tibet Information Network, September 2000