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My Tibet: Secret report from the roof of the world

March 31, 2008

Eleven years ago, Tash, above, risked his life to flee Tibet. Now he has
risked it again, by returning with a hidden camera to film the stories
of torture, murder and forced sterilisation that China does not want the
world to hear.

By Clare Dwyer Hogg
Independent - London, England
Sunday, 30 March 2008

Tash does not look like a man who has just put his life in danger. But
as he sits in a cosy editing suite in London, the images on the screens
around him – a Tibetan political prisoner showing his scars, a still of
Tash interviewing a Buddhist monk – prove the contrary. He has risked
his life at least twice: the first time, 11 years ago, to escape his
native Tibet; and then, as the screens document, when he went back with
a hidden camera to expose what he felt were injustices perpetrated by
the Chinese government. "I can now never go back to Tibet," he says.
"But it is worth it."

What makes his actions particularly dangerous is the Chinese
government's blanket ban on journalists entering Tibet. His report for
Channel 4's Dispatches reveals detail not seen before: reports last
month of the recent uprisings could only be given by major news sources
from vantage points outside the country – usually Nepal – conveying what
snatches of second-hand experiences they could garner from the other
side of the Himalayas. Tibet has an estimated one Chinese soldier for
every 20 Tibetans – as opposed to one soldier per 1,400 Chinese
citizens. This country, about the size of western Europe, has been
firmly in the grip of the Chinese government since the Dalai Lama fled
in 1959.

Tash fled Tibet, too, when he was 18, without telling his family. Yet as
a boy he had been protected from knowing too much of the political
repression. "I knew there were some people who had the Dalai Lama's book
My Land and My People," he says, "but when I saw them talking they
wouldn't let me join in – I was too young."

He says everybody practised in secret. "Boys would secretly watch the
films of the Dalai Lama teachings, but no one knew anything of the
outside world." Eager to escape to that unknown, Tash travelled the
treacherous journey across the mountains to India, past frozen bodies
half buried in the snow, to freedom.

Not everyone is so fortunate. Footage captured by Western climbers in
September 2006 (and shown in the Dispatches programme) has a line of
refugees plodding through the snow, with some of their number suddenly
picked off by bullets fired by the Chinese soldiers behind them. "They
shot a girl dead right in front of me and dumped her corpse in a hole
nearby," one of the group remembers.

These people were deliberately escaping from what they considered
Chinese tyrannies. As a young refugee looking for an education in India,
though, Tash didn't realise the insulated nature of his old life until
the political relevance of his new-found freedom began to hit home. "On
Tibetan television almost every night, there would be stories about the
Japanese invading China, committing genocide, beheading the Chinese and
raping girls. I used to hate Japanese people, until I came into India
and realised that it was propaganda," he recalls. The memory of a life
in Tibet without fear seemed even more preposterous during his
three-month undercover operation there last summer.

"When we were in Tibet I was greatly shocked," he says, clenching his
hand into a gentle fist. "We're going to lose all Tibetan identity soon.
In Lhasa, if you don't speak Chinese, it doesn't matter how good your
Tibetan or English is, you don't get a job." And the fading of the
ethnic way of life, he was distraught to find, is down to more than this
systematic wearing away of cultural and religious ties. Through tip-offs
and a web of contacts, he discovered that Tibetan women are being
forcibly sterilised.

One woman agreed to speak to Tash, despite the cultural propriety that
would rarely see a woman speak about such intimacies with a man, and the
obvious dangers of criticising the government. "I was taken away against
my will," she explains. She has two children – more than the "one child"
policy allows – and could not afford to buy a certificate that stated
she had been sterilised. "Apparently they cut the fallopian tubes and
stitch them up," she says ruefully. "When they opened me up they pulled
them out by the roots. It was agonisingly painful." They didn't use
anaesthetic, or provide any drugs aside from aspirin. "I was sick and
giddy," she says. "From the day after the operation I had to look after
myself. If I needed a drip I had to pay for it myself."

Anyone who speaks out against the policies of the Chinese government
like this, or calls for the freedom of Tibet, is in danger of being
condemned a "splittist" – someone who is splitting from the Communist
Party – and sent to prison. This, Tash discovered, can be for as little
as raising a Tibetan flag in a meeting. A farmer, found guilty of this
crime, explains: "I spent the prime of my life in prison ... from the
age of 24 to 37." And so, the culture of fear is continually reinforced
by harsh sentences for apparently minor crimes. An 18-year-old Buddhist
monk, Tash says, was recently sent to prison for three years for
inscribing "Free Tibet" in a book.

And time spent in a Chinese prison invariably means torture. One
ex-political prisoner on Tash's film explains the use of handcuffs:
"There are types that bind the two thumbs together," he says,
demonstrating. "And others are serrated so they cut into the flesh of
the wrists. They handcuff you and hang you from the ceiling then beat
you. They strike your body with iron bars."

A Human Rights Watch report in 2007 claimed that tens of thousands of
Tibetans have been moved into permanent camps. Tash visited a cluster of
little concrete homes, miles away from any town: the people he spoke to
expressed unhappiness, but with their livestock confiscated and roaming
on the grasslands forbidden, they have no hope of changing things. Apart
from protest, of course, but openly protesting against the police is
widely acknowledged as a way to bring your life to a swift and bloody end.

Only after spending time in his homeland with the perspective of freedom
does Tash understand an incident in his youth that he, blissfully
ignorant, could not comprehend at the time. "When I was about 16 I sang
an old song about the Dalai Lama at my village's New Year festival," he
says. A friend had given him the words, and he didn't know it was
banned. "When I sung, the old men and women were crying, I didn't know
why. The head of the village thanked me and put a red scarf round my
neck." Now he sees the situation all too clearly. "Tibetans," he says,
"are trapped. They are like birds in a net."

'Dispatches: Undercover in Tibet' is on Channel 4 tomorrow at 8pm
CTC National Office 1425 René-Lévesque Blvd West, 3rd Floor, Montréal, Québec, Canada, H3G 1T7
T: (514) 487-0665   ctcoffice@tibet.ca
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