Ngawang Sangdrol, of Garu Nunnery, was detained in 1992 and imprisoned for peacefully demonstrating against the Chinese occupation of Tibet. Her prison term spiked from an initial 3-years to a combined sentence of 23 years—a result of several sentence extensions within prison.
She remains an irrepressible champion of human rights and non-violence in spite of the daunting obstacles she faces. In Drapchi prison she continues to peacefully advocate for her beliefs while her sentence extensions mount. (See timeline below.)
Ngawang Sangdrol was born into a family of active patriots, which may partially explain her extraordinary commitment to the freedom movement. Both Ngawang Sangdrol and her late father, Namgyal Tashi, served overlapping terms in Drapchi prison from 1992 to 1999 for their individual demonstrations.
Conditions in Drapchi prison remain severe, with a death rate of 1 in 27 for female political prisoners, and Sangdrol is often identified as a troublemaker, putting her at greater risk for beatings. She suffers from chronic headaches and stomach problems. In the year 2000, the cells in her unit were put under audio-video surveillance, further limiting the prisoners’ freedoms. However, former prisoners who have since escaped into exile report that her spirit is far from broken.
Prisons in Tibet require that the political prisoners read and memorize Chinese propaganda as part of their re-education program. Prisoners are quizzed on this material and failure to answer questions correctly often brings punishment. Sangdrol’s fellow inmates regard her as a highly intelligent woman and they often comment that, in spite of severe head trauma, her mind is sharp. She never fails to provide the prison guards with exemplary answers to their political questions, sometimes answering so well that they are at a loss to respond.
Sangdrol is often the first to take the lead if there is a prison disturbance. Consistent testimony from former prisoners in Drapchi who have fled into exile confirms Sangdrol’s significant abuse at the hands of prison officials. One former prisoner, Norzin Wangmo, recalled a beating Sangdrol received for a 1998 protest, “They didn’t have any proof against Ani-la [Sangdrol], they beat her out of grudge. They had trampled upon her body. There were so many people beating [her] that we couldn’t see her when she had fallen down. She wasn’t even able to lift up her head afterwards.” -Tibet Information Network’s Rukhag 3: the Nuns of Drapchi Prison
The Tibetan Center for Human Rights and Democracy, located in Dharamsala, India, nominated Ngawang Sangdrol for the 2001 Reebok Human Rights Award. ICT supported the nomination with a letter of reference.
Seeing Nothing but the Sky
In 1994, Phuntsog Nyidron, Ngawang Sangdrol and 12 other nuns clandestinely recorded songs and poems in tribute to their homeland and His Holiness the Dalai Lama from inside Drapchi prison. The recording made it out of Tibet and the international community heard the haunting songs tell of the hardships of prison life and the women’s undying cry for freedom. The CD, “Seeing Nothing but the Sky” is available through the Free Tibet Campaign in London.
Here are the lyrics to the song “May No Others Suffer Like This“:
Song of sadness in our hearts
We sing this to our brothers
What we Tibetans feel in this darkness will pass
The food does
not sustain body or soul
Beatings impossible to forget
inflicted upon us
May no others suffer like this
In the heavenly realm,
the land of snows
Land of unending peace and blessings
Reign supreme throughout all eternity
A Lifetime of Struggle
1977: Ngawang Sangdrol is born in Lhasa. Her father, Namgyal Tashi, and mother, Jampa Choezom, later admit her as a young girl into Garu Nunnery.
1987: Age 10. Sangdrol participates in the independence demonstration and is detained for 15 days.
1990: Age 13. In May, martial law is lifted in Lhasa, after 14 months. In August, Sangdrol participates in a peaceful demonstration with other nuns. She is detained 9 months without charges, as she is considered by the Chinese authorities to be too young for trial.
1991: Age 14. In June, her father is detained together with her brother, Tenzin Sherab, following an incident at Samye monastery in which a Tibetan flag was raised. Tenzin Sherab is detained for two years and Namgyal Tashi is sentenced to eight years in Drapchi prison. Shortly after Namgyal Tashi’s arrest, his wife Jampa Choezom dies at the age of 52, reportedly from heart problems. Afterwards, Sangdrol is released from detainment, but is barred from rejoining her nunnery.
1992: Age 15. On June 17, Sangdrol is arrested for staging a peaceful pro-independence demonstration in Lhasa, along with other Garu nuns, and some monks from Gaden monastery. Despite her adolescence, she is sentenced to three years and incarcerated in Lhasa’s notorious Drapchi prison.
1993: In June, Ngawang Sangdrol and 13 other women record songs and poems of independence on an audiocassette, which is smuggled out of the prison. In October, her sentence is extended by 6 years for the incident.
1996: Prisoners refuse to stand when Party members visit a workroom in the prison. Several nuns, including Sangdrol, are soon after severely beaten under the false accusation of improperly folded blankets.
Sangdrol and two other nuns are placed in solitary confinement, where she remains for 6 months. Close to 90 women go on hunger strike in protest of the beatings and in solidarity for the nuns.
1997: During the Tibetan New Year, Losar, three inmates perform pro-Chinese songs. When two nuns drown them out with Tibetan songs, they are beaten and put into solitary confinement. 70 women go on hunger strike for 5 days. The two nuns remain in solitary for two years.
1998: On May 1 & 4, Sangdrol participates in prison protests at Chinese flag raising ceremonies. The inmates are severely reprimanded for their involvement and 9 inmates reportedly die following the incidents. In October, her sentence is extended by 6 years.
2000: Age 23. Prison visits, which had previously been denied following the 1998 demonstrations are gradually resumed. The cells in Sangdrol’s unit of Drapchi prison are put under 24-hour audio/visual surveillance.
2001: Age 24. Ngawang Sangdrol’s sentence is extended by 8 years. The Gu Chu Sum Movement of Tibet, Association for Prisoners of Conscience, dates this extension on July 31, of this year. On
August 20, her father, Namgyal Tashi, visits her for the last time and dies exactly one month later, on September 20.
Her total sentence term is 23 years, a result of 3 sentence extensions within prison on top of her original sentence. She is currently the longest serving Tibetan female political prisoner.
2004: Ngawang Sangdrol begins working for the International Campaign for Tibet as their Human Rights Analyst.