5 June 08 – Tibet’s longest serving political prisoner and a symbol of resistance to Chinese rule addressed the 8th session of the Human Rights Council Wednesday (June 4). Despite spending 32 years in various prison camps, 82-year old Takna Jigme Sangpo is far from being chastized by this experiences.
Interview by Pamela Taylor/Human Rights Tribune – Takna Jigme Sangpo was first arrested in 1964 when, as a primary school teacher, he was accused by Chinese authorities of ‘corrupting the minds of children with reactionary ideas’. Accused of supporting Tibetan independence he was repeatedly arrested, beaten and and tortured. He was released on medical parole in 2002 and received asylum in Switzerland.
Tell us about the first time you were arrested in 1964?
I was a teacher and they discovered I was teaching the history, language and culture of Tibet which was of course forbidden. I was sent to a work camp in Lhasa. While I was in this camp I was asked to write a letter to the Communist Party condemning a long letter written by the Panchen Lama (number two after the Dalai Lama) with a detailed list of crimes against the Tibetan people and asking for Tibetan independence. I told them they hadn’t given me sufficient reason to condemn the Panchen Lama and so they called me a ‘running dog of the Panachen Lama” and condemned me to hard labor for three years.
Were you released after that?
Yes, but this was the time of the non-violent underground movement called Tiger-Dragon and a group of young people were arrested with a photo of me on them so they came and arrested me as a member of this ‘criminal’ movement, which I was not. I was sentenced to 10 years in prison. When I told the authorities that I didn’t know anything about the Tiger-Dragon movement, they didn’t believe me and put me in a type of iron brace that went behind my head and forced my arms back and I couldn’t move. I still have the scars (raises shirtsleeves). I shall never forget that first night. I screamed and screamed. But I wore that brace for 9 months – it was nearly impossible to eat. In any case all I had to eat was one bowl of ‘tsamba’ (roasted barley wheat flour) and some tea once a day.
How long did this treatment go on?
For 7 years. I worked in a stone quarry, making bricks. For the last three years of my ten year sentence I couldn’t work because I had gone blind. I was later diagnosed with glaucoma. But for them even a blind man is supposed to work! In 1981 I was again released and my sisters and family took me home and I was operated on for glaucoma. But afterwards I suffered a kind of banishment, not quite arrest but I had no communication with outsiders, even my family. But in 1983, they put me in a real prison again for writing a poster that was put up on walls and the gates of the city which said ‘Chinese invaders must go back to China’ and ‘Tibet belongs to Tibetans’. Since I was already in police custody, it was easy for them to put me in prison again.
But you must have known those posters would get you into trouble?
The Chinese have a tactic to make people think everything is normal so they will relax but all the time they are watching and waiting for the opportunity to make arrests. This time I was taken to a detention center that wasn’t a proper prison, just a large space with many men in one room, sharing a tin can for a common toilet, and with barely enough room to sleep. They constantly interrogated me, asking who had put me up to writing the posters and who was behind my activities. I said I am alone; I have no one and nothing behind me. They insisted that I couldn’t have the idea of Tibetan independence all on my own, that there must be a huge movement behind me, driving me to do these things. But I said no, that every Tibetan on this earth has that dream. So they stripped me and beat me and I still have those scars too. Then one day a Swiss delegation (ICRC) came to the detention center so I kept a vigil until I saw the delegation coming and then I began to shout: ‘Free Tibet!’, ‘Chinese go back to China!’ Afterwards I was put in solitary confinement in a completely black hole for one whole year. Because of what I did, they added another 8 years to my sentence.
How did you manage not to go mad after so many years in prison?
I said my prayers and the Buddhist mantra Om Mani Peme Hm (Homage to Bhudda). I wasn’t a criminal and wasn’t a threat to anyone and I knew that the truth was on my side. And the biggest truth of all was that Tibet would one day be independent because the Chinese themselves have enough problems to constantly worry about us. That kept me sane.
Why have you come to Geneva? What do you expect from the Council?
I want people to know that on paper the Chinese government may treat Tibetan people alright but I am the reality. If I am given the chance, I want to say that there’s no way the Tibetan people can survive without a distinct culture and that there is not a single Tibetan who doesn’t want independence.