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Welcome to Prison Lhasa - An eye-witness account
Phayul[Thursday, September 05, 2013 12:15]
As told by the eye-witness

Today’s Skype conversation was not one I would call amusing and light. The reason being that what Sonam had to say left me wide-eyed, speechless, and nearly in despair. He had just returned from Lhasa, where he stayed from June to the first week of August 2013.

It seems a lot has changed since October 2008, the last time I visited there. Not only is there police and special army units surveillance everywhere, but the feeling that one is watched and listened to no matter where one goes is also not a figment of one’s imagination. CCTV camera surveillance, pinned at every point where one might be able to obtain gasoline, or carry it, as well as on every roof, every corner, and the countless ears that listen to hear something they can report, are the realities with which Tibetans have to make do these days.

Checkpoints spot Lhasa like flies on a rotting carcass. Things must be bad if even the Han population feels confused and repressed by this overwhelmingly heavy scrutiny and security, according to the Chinese Lhasa inhabitant, Yin Xue, who recently shared his feelings on WhatsApp. As bad as things may be for the Han, who also get checked and asked questions, they must be worse for the Tibetans as a rule of thumb.

If a Tibetan gets caught with a picture of the Dalai Lama, s/he gets sent 15-16 days to jail, just like that. It recently happened with a number of Tibetans sending images via the popular application WhatsApp, Sonam tells me.

Furthermore, if a Tibetan gets caught expressing their unhappiness or dissatisfaction about life in Tibet, s/he is immediately arrested and jailed. The Barkhor is not for Buddhist pilgrims to circumambulate, for there are no pilgrims left to do that. Amdowa and Khamba are not allowed into Lhasa point blank. If by some fortunate incident they have managed to get in, they cannot find accommodation, for no hotel wants to house them.

The Barkhor is filled with unwilling informants whose job for the ‘good of the nation’, is to spy on their compatriots and report any word, phrase, or sentence that might in any way be interpreted as ‘splittist or counter-CCP’. I suppose it would not be hard to spot these ‘dutiful citizens’ whose long faces express how they feel about their job. One such worker says: “It is unimaginable that we are asked to do such a thing. But what to do? If you refuse, they cut your salary, take away opportunities, even fire you, and blacklist you.” Moreover, government workers were explicitly warned on Sagadawa, to not visit any temples, monasteries, or do anything overtly Buddhist. In return, they could keep their jobs and salaries, and sanity.

Life goes on. Young people receive their education, graduate, and look for jobs. Those who attempt and pass the exams for public and government service get sent far away from the center, to the periphery. Lhasa jobs are reserved only for Han employees. And once again, parents must say goodbye to their children, while the Tibetan population in Lhasa is being drowned out on a daily basis by the hundreds to one.

As far as tourism goes, few foreigners are to be spotted amid the sea of Chinese tourists who keep pouring out of the trains and planes, along with the migrant workers, and officials. These days, the Tibetan teahouse (ja khang) has been replaced by the Taiwan coffee houses maybe because foreign coffee tastes better than the local butter tea, or maybe because the local butter tea is too Tibetan?

Speaking of coffee houses, they are also used for interrogation by police. Since they offer private rooms for a bit of quiet after an impression-filled Himalayan journeying, these rooms are perfect for a quiet time with the police. My brother by marriage, Sonam, who lives in India, was interrogated a number of times during his stay in Lhasa, one of which was I such an establishment. Police came to his home twice, they called him to the station, and they called him to one of those new and flashy coffee houses, to ask questions, different each time. After the last time, when they had increased the intensity and complexity of the questions, Sonam strongly felt it was time to leave Tibet. He says that he felt suffocated in Lhasa. The police even tried to offer him a 300 RMB “help,” but for what? Refusing it was not an option. He took and gave it to the needy, he said.

One of the policemen who interrogated Sonam proudly exclaimed that he often travels to India, to gather information. He appeared to have detailed knowledge of where Tibetan students studied, how they lived, how the diverse student organizations operated, who did what, how people go abroad, how the scholarships are organized and which students get them, and what they study and end up doing. He also knew about how people live, what they do, where they travel, etc. Considering the sum Sonam was offered, we both wondered what are the informants in India offered to disclose information? But perhaps they’re forced into it one never knows.

Then we started speaking about 2008. It seems, now more people are willing to discuss what they saw. One of the scenes several people witnessed was on the way to Dulung. All of the wounded by bullets people, dead or alive, were burned and buried in a mass grave between Lhasa and Dulung. People burned alive. I can’t help but think of Auschwitz, where the Nazis took the Jews and burnt or gassed them alive. This practice is in place still these days, in Tibet.

No wonder no one talks and everyone talks, in whispers, in attitude. People are possibly furthest from happy, since 1959. He says that everyone he spoke to - family, friends and strangers - shares the same feeling. Lhasawas, by and large, it may be argued, may have reached the point of clinical depression. In the words of one Lhasa citizen: “People walk as straight as arrows, with unsmiling faces, alone and silent - like ghosts.” One would think the great Tibetan pride and spirit are nearing its final point of tolerance, and after that will sink into oblivion. Here, I cannot help but to recall Evard Munch’s famous painting “The Scream” - a one man’s lonely anguish and the crowd’s cold silence in return.

And yet.

Despite the dark picture, with all of its hysteria spurred on by a sense of deep anguish and hopelessness, there is hope. One thing my brother kept reiterating is, that everyone is aware of the situation they are in, and everyone is equally frustrated, angry, depressed, and even more zealously Tibetan. But they still harbor hope. Sonam said: “But my mom looks healthier and stronger than my last visit some six years ago.” Perhaps His Holiness will head the hopes that millions still place in Him?

by Kalsang Dolma (alias)


Please note that names in this article have been changed to protect the identity of those sharing their views.

The views expressed in this piece are that of the author and the publication of the piece on this website does not necessarily reflect their endorsement by the website.
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