Ngawang Choephel was born in western Tibet in 1966. He and his mother fled the brutality of the Chinese occupation when he was two years old. Ngawang grew up in a refugee camp in southern India and in grade school discovered his talent for traditional Tibetan arts. After finishing 10th grade, the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts (TIPA) in Dharamsala, northern India, accepted him into their three-year program. He received his diploma in 1988 and then returned to southern India where he rejoined his mother and taught music and dance to Tibetan children.
Throughout his years at TIPA and as a teacher, Ngawang lamented about the lack of inclusion of modern technology in his education. In his Fulbright Scholarship application Ngawang states his motivation for applying for the grant.
“I could see that we lack contemporary awareness. TIPA has no studio or recording engineer. In spite of preserving our culture, we must also be able to present a show in the contemporary level.”
Ngawang has dedicated his adult life to traditional Tibetan performing arts. In 1992, Ngawang’s passion for song and dance earned him a Fulbright Scholarship to Middlebury College in Vermont, where he studied western musical notation and filmmaking to document the musical traditions of his occupied homeland.
Ngawang thrived at Middlebury College. At one point he had three separate piano teachers, one of who described him as her fastest learning student. He transcribed Tibetan songs into western notation and explored filmmaking. Combining his new skills, Ngawang developed a project he named “Melody in Exile.” In an extensive project proposal, Ngawang states:
“I feel that I am responsible for preserving the history and diversity of Tibetan oral tradition in music… it is imperative that this rich culture be preserved now through the transcription of poems and music into visual forms.”
In the summer of 1995, Ngawang and an American photographer traveled together for two months to Tibet. During this time, Ngawang gathered 16 hours of video footage of Tibetans performing folk songs and dances. After Ngawang and his companion separated in mid-September, Chinese authorities arrested him in Shigatse. Before his arrest, however, Ngawang gave his videotapes to a western traveler, fearing they would be confiscated if they were found in his possession. Thirteen months later, China responded to inquiries from the U.S. Senate confirming Ngawang’s detention. They informed Senator Jim Jeffords that Ngawang used the cover of so-called collecting Tibetan folk songs to gather sensitive intelligence and engaged in illegal separatist activities. On December 26, 1996, China sentenced Ngawang to 18 years in prison for unnamed “espionage” activities.
John Ackerly, President of the International Campaign for Tibet (ICT) states that “In 16 hours of Mr. Choephel’s video footage, not a single scene exists indicating that he was involved in any political activity whatsoever. His extensive photographic record shows he was solely engaged in cultural documentation.”
The footage is available for viewing at ICT’s office. To help illustrate details of Ngawang’s case and build public awareness, ICT produced Missing in Tibet, a documentary film containing excerpts of the actual footage taken by Ngawang during his abbreviated Tibetan excursion. The documentary is currently available from ICT.
Aside from the singular official response from China about Ngawang’s case, only two other reports from inside Tibet exist about his post-arrest situation. The first came from Dorji Rinchen who was in prison when Ngawang was brought to Nyari detention center. Mr. Rinchen was released and subsequently escaped from Tibet to India where he reported having seen Ngawang “in good health.”
The second report was picked up by the British Broadcasting Corporation’s (BBC) monitoring of Chinese radio. On December 26, the People’s Broadcasting Station, Lhasa, reported Ngawang’s 18 year prison term. The broadcast stated that Ngawang traveled to Tibet “to carry out his espionage activities, in an attempt to provide the information he gathered to the Dalai clique’s government in exile and to an organization of a certain foreign country.”
In the West, news of Ngawang’s detention and sentence sparked outrage. The American press responded with a flurry of editorials and articles.
Congress, led by Senators Leahy and Jeffords and Representative Sanders, all representing Vermont, called for the release of Ngawang in legislation and correspondence with the Chinese authorities. Students for a Free Tibet, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch Asia, and ICT continue to mobilize public support for Ngawang’s immediate medical parole.
1965: Ngawang’s family flees to India, carrying him on their backs.
1993: Ngawang Choephel went to the United States on a Fulbright Scholarship to study and teach ethnomusicology at Middlebury College in Vermont.
1994: Ngawang returns to India after his scholarship to continue his ethnomusicology research in Tibet.
- July: Arrives in Tibet
- Aug. 20: Last seen by American friend and photographer Kathryn Culley
- Sept. 16: Sighted by Dorji Rinchen in Nyari prison
- Oct. 14: Dorji Rinchen released from prison and leaves Tibet
- January: Reported missing by his mother
- Feb. 10: Report of Dorji Rinchen sighting Ngawang in Nyari prison distributed by Tibetan government in exile
- February: Tibetan advocacy groups, including ICT and SFT, begin campaigning for Ngawang’s release.
- March: Case transmitted to Chinese authorities from the United Nations Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances
- March 28: Appeal by Amnesty International
- July: Portrait of a Political Prisoner,. 6 minute video released by Garthwait & Griffin
- August: Letters of concern from US Congress begin to be sent
- Sept. 13: “Missing in Tibet,” 26 minute documentary released by Garthwait & Griffin/ICT
- Sept. 15-16: Events marking first anniversary of Ngawang’s detention observed in several U.S. cities.
- October: The Chinese government admitted to detaining him in a letter to Senator Jeffords (D-VT). The letter said that Choephel was suspected of violating Article 4, Section 2(5) of the National Security Law by gathering sensitive intelligence” and engaging “in separatist activities.”
- Dec. 26: Ngawang is sentenced to 18 years in prison by the Intermediate People’s Court of Xigaze for “committing espionage crime”.
- The United States Senate passes Senate Resolution # 19, January 21, 1997 in favor of Ngawang’s freedom.
- Australia’s Parliament also passes a resolution in favor of Ngawang’s freedom.
- Sept. 24: Tibet Autonomous Region Higher People’s Court found that the facts in the original judgments were clear, the evidence was ample, the trial procedure had been lawful and the law had been correctly applied and it issued a final judgment rejecting the appeal and upholding the lower court’s decision.
- May: Chinese government confirms that Ngawang is still detained in Shigatse
- June: Intense campaigning at Tibetan Freedom Concert
- Oct. 6: 12 senators wrote to the Chinese ambassador to the United States urging him to help ensure that Ms. Dekyi’s travel visa to Tibet would be processed and approved without delay.
- April: The Sonam Dekyi Fund of Vermont is established in conjunction with the Middlebury Students for a Free Tibet.
- May 19: The Working Group on Arbitrary Detention of the UN Commission on Human Rights has declared Ngawang Choephel’s detention by the Chinese authorities as being arbitrary in contravention of article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights
- September: Vermont Delegation to APEC Seeks Ngawang Choephel’s release
- October: Ambassador of China Li Zhaoxing writes to Senator Jeffords and the Vermont delegation confirming that Ngawang has been seriously ill. In a meeting, Ambassador Li promises to personally look into the request of Ngawang’s mother, Sonam Dekyi, to obtain a visa to travel to Tibet to visit her son in prison.
- Feb. 14: Amnesty Int’l Medical letter-writing Action on Ngawang
- July 21: Chinese Embassy in New Delhi grants travel permission to Sonam Dekyi and Tserig Wangdu, Ngawang’s uncle, to visit Ngawang in Lhasa.
- July: Ngawang is moved from Powo Tramo, the Tibet Autonomous Regional No. 2 Labour Reform Detachment in Tibet, to a prison in Chengdu, Sichuan province.
- July 27: Ngawang Choephel is taken to a hospital in Chengdu for medical treatment in preparation for his mother’s visit.
- Aug. 3: Sonam Deyki is granted a one-hour visit with Ngawang under strict surveillance and separated by wire mesh. She is shocked by his frail condition. A Chinese doctor briefed her on his poor medical condition. She was allowed a second hour-long visit before departing back to India on Aug. 7. (She had expected to see Ngawang in Tibet but was informed on her arrival that he had been moved to China.)
- Aug. 24-27: U.S. Ambassador to China Prueher visited Tibet, the first by a US Ambassador since former Ambassador Sasser visited there in 1997. While he was in Tibet, the Ambassador met with autonomous region and Lhasa city government officials with the Ambassador raised the issue of Ngawang Choephel.
- Sept 29: Reporters Sans Frontieres (RSF), a French based international group. Demands the release of Ngawang Choephel, in a letter to China’s minister of justice Gao Changli.
- February: Amnesty International renews appeals on behalf of prisoner of conscience Ngawang Choephel, China (Tibet). Ngawang Choephel, “remains in poor health and is in need of medical treatment.”
- September – October: Ngawang’s case is highlighted surrounding the Bush – Jiang October summit in Beijing. Ngawang’s case is discussed in the context of bilateral dialogue on the governmental level and highlighted separately on the grassroots level.