Ex-prisoner in Tibet to speak on human rights

Posted: Wednesday, November 16, 2005

A political prisoner for 33 years in Chinese labor camps and prisons throughout his home country, Tibetan lama Palden Gyatso says he was shocked, burnt, prodded, beaten, even roasted alive.

He escaped, only to be captured and tortured again. He watched from behind bars, as his country's heritage was systematically wiped away by communist China. Some days, he even hoped to die.

Now 75 and free for 13 years, he does not resent his captors.

"He has nothing other than compassion for even those who have tortured him," said his translator, Rigdzin Tingkhye. "If they didn't torture him, they would be tortured. He understands where they're coming from.

"When he is talking about these things, he's not accusing the Chinese people," Tingkhye said. "There are a lot of beautiful Chinese people that he's met. It is the communist officers of the government who have the ideology of saying, power comes from the barrel of a gun, the words of Chairman Mao."

Gyatso will speak at 7 p.m. today at the University of Alaska Southeast Egan Library in a lecture co-sponsored by the Juneau World Affairs Council. Admission is free.

He will visit Sitka on Thursday and Friday, then return to Juneau on Saturday for the Juneau World Affairs Council's annual meeting, noon to 2 p.m. at the Coast Guard Buoy Deck, next to the subport across from Centennial Hall. The public is welcome and admission is free.

"We have become a minority in our land, and our language has also become secondary," Gyatso said. "All of these are systematic strategies to clearcut the very foundation of Tibetan heritage."

"This is a very crucial time for Tibet," he said. "The rest of the world is busy with their own things, but we are almost at risk of losing our heritage. Tibetan culture is more alive in exile than inside Tibet."

Gyatso also will visit Lemon Creek Correctional Center today. He often travels to prisons, relating his stories to prisoners and reminding them that their situation could be worse.

"In many other places, they really would be treated horribly," Tingkhye said. "He tries to give them encouragement and tries to give them a realization of how fortunate they are.

"He was not at all a criminal, but he was a political prisoner," he said. "They might have done something wrong, but they have not been tortured physically. He wants to show them the opportunities and pristineness of the country so they can come out as better citizens of the world."

Born in Tibet in 1933, Gyatso was ordained as a monk when he was 18, a year after communist China invaded Tibet in 1950 and began its systematic reform of the country.

The Chinese began destroying monasteries in 1967 and imprisoning thousands of monks. Gyatso led an army of monks in a desperate defense of the Norbulingka, the Dalai Lama's summer palace in Lhasa, Tibet. He was captured and jailed.

Gyatso was released from the Drapchi prison in Lhasa on Aug. 25, 1992. He fled to India 13 days later and now lives in Dharamsala, where the Dalai Lama has built a Tibetan government-in-exile.

Gyatso used to travel with a suitcase full of the chains, prods and metal bars that his Chinese captors used to torture him. United Airlines lost those items while he was on a flight in the spring of 2003, a few months before his November 2003 trip to Juneau. The implements were never found.

"We just receive a letter from United Airlines saying, 'We're sorry. We apologize,' " Tingkhye said.

Gyatso spends much of the year traveling the world, raising awareness of the occupation of Tibet. His current United States tour has kept him on the road since July 22 and included a 15-day march for Tibetan independence from Boston to New York City. The annual event is sponsored by the International Tibet Independence Movement (www.rangzen.org).

The movement received a boost this June, when Spain's Committee for Support of Tibet filed a suit in the highest Spanish court charging seven Chinese officials, including former Chinese President Jiang Zemin and former Prime Minister Li Peng, with human rights violations.

Gyatso and an assortment of Tibetan dissidents were in Spain for a five-day conference on human freedoms.

"The main charges are that they have violated human rights in Tibet during their leadership," Gyatso said. "According to law, these people need to be responsible, they need to be charged. They need to take responsibility for what they have done wrong."

No punishments have been handed out, Gyatso said, but there has been some discussion that the case will go to the United Nations Center for Human Rights in Geneva, Switzerland.

Gyatso hopes this case will help expose China's ongoing atrocities in Tibet. Proponents of the Chinese Olympic bid also hope that the 2008 Summer Games will force the country to open itself up to the world. But Gyatso is pessimistic.

"A long time ago the president of the Olympics told China that they have to come up with a decent standard of human rights, and if they don't meet those demands, that it's not final," Gyatso said.

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