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"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

We're Only Human: Cell Phone Conversations Give Dramatic Accounts of the Reality on the Ground in Tibet

March 21, 2008

Huntington Post
March 19, 2008


“Non-violence is ingrained in Tibetans, it’s part of our way of life.
But we are also human.”

Lately, Dharamsala—a North Indian town that houses thousands of exiled
Tibetans—has been a hot bed of activity, with daily sympathy protests
for the Tibetans back in their homeland. I had been filming and
recording a number of these events for various news media. On the
evening of March 16th, I was approached by a small group of young
Tibetan monks in the main courtyard just outside the Dalai Lama’s
residence. Their faces were tense and earnest. They clearly wanted to talk.

My translator told me that they were from Kirti monastery in Amdo in
North Eastern Tibet. A press release had been circulated that morning
saying that 2,500 monks of Kirti monastery and 8, 000 lay people in Amdo
Ngaba, Ngaba county in Sichuan province, had engaged in a spontaneous
demonstration. The Chinese military had used tear gas to break up the
crowd and truckloads of troops had been sent into the area.

The monks in Dharamsala, all in their twenties, were receiving cell
phone calls from people in Amdo, giving eyewitness accounts of these and
other dramatic events, and saving the calls on their phones. We sat
together on some concrete steps while one monk, whose name was Lobsang*,
played me a conversation he’d had with a man from Amdo only one hour
before. The man on the other end of the phone spoke in a desperate tone,
and even though I couldn’t understand the words, the emotion was clearly
communicated. Afterwards, my translator, Kyizom, told me what had been said.

“How many people were killed today?” Lobsang asked. The man replied,
“Eight people…two monks, one girl and five lay people. They just shot
two more, right now. Three of them were students from Amdo Ngapa middle
school.”

The recoding ended abruptly and Lobsang slipped the cell phone back
inside his maroon robes. “I’m really worried about what is going on in
Tibet,” he said, “Now that monks and laypeople are all rising together,
the Chinese might kill even more.” He had family in Amdo and I asked if
he was concerned for their safety. “I’m not just concerned about my
family. All Tibetans are like my family,” he said.

Another monk, Tashi, was concerned that the Amdo demonstrations might
turn violent. “The Chinese are shooting people who are protesting
peacefully, and the Tibetans might feel they have no choice but to
resort to violence to defend themselves. Non-violence is ingrained in
Tibetans—it’s part of our way of life. But we are also human.”

Tenzing, who spoke some English, explained to me that like in Lhasa the
people of Amdo Ngapa have a high degree of political awareness and
because of this the Chinese are constantly monitoring Tibetans there.
“Since childhood I was raised in an atmosphere of tension and suspicion,
and with constant surveillance. All the Tibetans in Amdo hope and pray
that His Holiness the Dalai Lama will return one day. This is always in
our minds, eating away at us. These days this feeling has burst out of
our hearts. We just can’t contain it any longer.”

Lobsang was eager to explain that the protests in Tibet are not being
organized by the Dalai Lama but were occurring on the initiative of
Tibetans in Tibet. What we’re seeing in Tibet, he told me, is nothing
compared to what we would see if the Dalai Lama had actually called for
Tibetans to rise up against the Chinese. “If the Dalai Lama asked
Tibetans to protest, believe me, all Tibetans would rise spontaneously,”
he said. “There is no doubt about this”.

As we were talking, Lobsang’s cell phone rang again. The call was from
Tibet. He bent his head down low to hear the voice through the crackling
static. Kyizom told me that the man on the phone had just heard that
twenty people had been shot on a bridge. The line went dead. Lobsang
tried to call back, but couldn’t. “It’s very difficult to contact people
in Tibet, he said. “Many of the calls don’t go through, but we do our best.”

The phone rang again and Kyizom translated while the man on the other
end spoke fast, obviously aware that the connection could be lost any
moment. “Around 10,000 people joined in the protest today at Kirti
monastery. Some of them were arrested and taken to prison. The people
demanded that the police release them. They refused, and some Tibetans
burnt a police car and a jailhouse. I saw fifteen bodies lying in Kirti
monastery. A lot of students from Purkyi Laptan School joined in the
demonstration. One girl and one boy were shot dead.”

“Isn’t he scared of talking on the phone like this? I asked, knowing
that many Tibetans had reported that their phone conversations were
monitored. Lobsang translated my question. “No. I’m not scared,” the man
replied.

Lobsang said something in Tibetan that Kyizom didn’t translate. Tears
were welling up in her eyes. She then continued in a halting voice.
“Don’t worry about me, the man is saying. Please keep calling me and I
will tell you whatever I can.”

“I will pray that you stay safe,” said Lobsang and hung up the phone.

Everyone was quiet for a moment and then Tashi began to speak again. He
wanted to put the destruction of property in perspective.

“What I heard was that around 7,000 Chinese soldiers surrounded the
protestors at Kirti monastery and began military maneuvers. It really
intimidated the people who were just standing there with a photo of the
Dalai Lama and a Tibetan flag pinned to their chests. The soldiers
swooped in and began brutally beating people indiscriminately and
shooting into the crowd with live ammunition. So it was simply out of
feelings of hopelessness and desperation that the Tibetans then
destroyed the property. It wasn’t pre-meditated.”

The monks rolled out an impressive three-foot long glossy photo of 3,000
monks outside Kirti monastery in Tibet. “Can you get this story to the
media?” they asked.

I have to admit I experienced a moment of wanting this story for myself.
Here was a unique, engaging, and intimate side to the events in Tibet,
beyond the statistics and images that couldn’t begin to capture the
intensity of what was really going on. Happily, it was only a moment.
And then I and my cameraman husband began brainstorming how to share the
monks’ story with the world.

Dharamsala was filled with journalists who had arrived to cover the
Dalai Lama’s press conference. I had met a number of them from CNN, ABC,
BBC, Reuters, as well as representatives of the Indian press. I began a
cell phone campaign of my own and called them all to tell them what I’d
heard. I told the monks that they should prepare a press conference for
the following afternoon at the Dharamsala branch of Kirti monastery.

The next afternoon, every one of the one hundred chairs in the hall at
Kirti was filled with reporters from the world’s biggest news agencies
and representatives of various NGO’s. The monks had turned into media
pros overnight and had set up a sound system with speakers and
microphones. But this was a different kind of press conference from the
ones you usually see around here. Instead of high government officials,
here were ordinary monks with a story to tell.

In front of the reporters, Lobsang called the same man in Amdo who had
been told about the press conference and was well aware of the risks he
was taking in speaking this way. He described huge movements of Chinese
troops into his hometown. He also filled in more details of the previous
day’s events. He had watched through a window while Chinese police shot
all the people who had been arrested. The Tibetans outside had tried to
claim the bodies of the dead and there had been a struggle between
Tibetans and soldiers. Eventually, the Tibetans managed to take five
bodies out of the jailhouse, and had burned it to the ground. “Thirty
people are missing,” he said. “The hospitals were refusing treatment for
the protestors. Three people died while they were waiting to be seen.”
The hospital workers had been told that they would lose their jobs if
they treated the protesters, he explained.

It was Monday, March 17th, the date that Chinese authorities had given
as the deadline for protesters to turn themselves in, claiming that they
would be lenient with those who did and harsh with those who didn’t. It
was clear that the Tibetans in Amdo were not paying much attention to
the deadline. “There are leaflets everywhere saying there will be a huge
protest at midnight tonight,” the man on the cell phone told Lobsang.
“I’m ready to join any demonstration. I am ready to die if need be.”

After the call, all the reporters wanted to see the last dialed number
as proof that the call had really been made to Tibet so Kyizom put her
finger over all the digits other than the country code to protect the
caller and showed it to everyone in the room. It's cell phones, more
than any other technology that is keeping Tibetans in Tibet connected to
the outside world. The calls are more difficult for the Chinese
authorities to monitor than land line calls and they can also carry
photos and video. People have been finding it difficult to send photos,
especially video, out of Tibet but some images are now getting through.
The monks had received graphic photos of some of the bodies that had
been taken into Kirti monastery —now a temporary morgue. They had put
the photos on CD’s and handed them out to all the reporters and also put
them up on a wall for all to see. There were people with bullet holes,
covered in blood, many with shocked expressions of a violent death on
their faces, and some body parts that were almost unrecognizable in
their mangled condition.

Later in the evening, the Kirti monks from Dharamsala received even more
photos of those who had been killed by Chinese police. And that night,
while they led 5,000 monks and laypeople in a candle light prayer
service at the Dalai Lama’s temple for those who had died in the recent
unrest in Tibet, images of the victims were displayed behind them on a
big screen television. One young monk who was joining in the prayers was
shocked to see the body of his cousin on the screen. He hadn’t known he
was dead.

Even though they were in India, the monks knew that speaking to
journalists could endanger their families and friends. Weren’t they
afraid? “The Chinese are shooting our friends, our neighbors and our
families,” they said. “What do we have to lose that we haven’t lost
already?”

It seems that the people of Amdo feel the same way. Days after the
deadline the Chinese authorities imposed, thousands of Tibetans have
joined fresh demonstrations in Amdo—still waving the banned Tibetan
flags and displaying photos of the Dalai Lama.

*Names have been changed to protect identities

Rebecca Novick co-produced the award-winning Tibet human rights
documentary 'Strange Spirit: One Country's Occupation'. Over the years
she has conducted hundreds of interviews with exiled Tibetans,
particularly with elders, recording their stories and experiences for
posterity. She has written and edited a number of books on Tibetan
Buddhism and culture, and has produced and edited numerous radio
documentaries. Before founding The Tibet Connection, Rebecca co-hosted
and produced the weekly radio program 'Experience Talks'. She is
currently based in the Tibetan community of Dharamsala, India, as The
Tibet Connection's South Asia Correspondent.
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