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"As long as human rights are violated, there can be no foundation for peace. How can peace grow where speaking the truth is itself a crime?"

The story of Dhondup Wangchen, filmmaker jailed by China

December 11, 2009

Committee to Protect Journalists
Friday, December 11, 2009 12:20]
by Dechen Pemba

On the same day that historic protests started by monks in Lhasa began
and were to sweep all over Tibet in the subsequent months, Dhondup
Wangchen was nearly 3,000 kilometers away in Xian, in China’s Shaanxi
province. It was the last day of filming for his documentary film
project that sought to give voice to Tibetans in the run-up to the
Olympic Games. As was the case throughout China, Xian was caught up in
an Olympic fervor. Big red banners were hung all over the city, the
Olympic mascots peered from shop windows in unspeakably bright colors.
None of this however, seemed to have the slightest connection to Tibet
or the discontent of the Tibetan people.

For many around the world, the protests that began March 10, 2008, were
a surprise. International media were suddenly giving unprecedented
coverage to a struggle that had been going on for more than 50 years.
Journalists, NGOs, governments and even exiled Tibetans were given a
stark reminder that a conflict was unresolved and that, in the run-up to
the Olympics, Tibetans were still risking everything to be heard. It
hadn’t take months of protests and a military crackdown in Tibet,
however, for Dhondup Wangchen to be aware of the suffering of his
people. It was something he had lived, and it was this that he was
seeking to convey through film and simple testimony.

I had travelled 1,200 kilometers from Beijing to Xian to meet Dhondup
Wangchen and learn about his film project. It was to be the first and
only time that I would meet him. On arrival at the train station, I
bought a local Chinese paper; I wanted to remember this day. Later on in
the day, we even filmed Dhondup Wangchen with this newspaper as a
record. Within minutes of our meeting, I was struck by his determination
and drive to accomplish something that he felt was important—to depict
the injustice of life as a Tibetan under Chinese rule. As one of his
interviewees so eloquently said, “We Tibetans living in the PRC are like
stars on a sunny day, we can’t be seen.” Just hearing the sheer scale of
Dhondup Wangchen’s project was impressive, traveling through remote
areas of eastern Tibet in the Tibetan winter of 2007-08 and recording
under the harshest imaginable conditions the views of more than 100
ordinary Tibetan men and women, amassing more than 40 hours of video
footage. All this with just a cheap video camera, no professional
training in journalism or film-making, and constantly in fear of being
detained for his citizen journalism activities.

Despite painful toothache that day in Xian, Dhondup Wangchen told me
that he, together with his friend Jigme Gyatso, a monk, had come up with
the idea to make a documentary as early as 2006. The year and a half
before beginning filming, Dhondup Wangchen planned how he would make the
film, even taking his parents, wife, and four children to India to
safety so they would not be at risk when he returned to Tibet to make
the film. Having a cousin in Switzerland meant that once the footage was
safely out of the country, the documentary could be edited and prepared
for an international release in time for the Olympic Games.

On August 6 2008, his documentary film, now edited into 25 minutes and
titled “Leaving Fear Behind”, was screened to a select group of foreign
journalists in Beijing. But Dhondup Wangchen, along with Jigme Gyatso,
had already been in secret detention since the end of March. On
completion of filming, they had gone back to their respective hometowns
only to find the places in turmoil with almost daily Tibetan protests
occurring and a huge military deployment under way. On Jigme Gyatso’s
release in October 2008, it was learned that they had both undergone
severe interrogations and torture in detention that included
electrocution. It wasn’t until a well-known Beijing human rights lawyer
took up his case early this year that Dhondup Wangchen’s sister in
Xining even learned of her brother’s incarceration, another outright
violation of China’s own detention laws.

Dhondup Wangchen’s trial reportedly started behind closed doors in
September this year. According to Amnesty International he is being
charged for “subversion and incitement to separatism” and has contracted
Hepatitis B in prison for which he has received no treatment. After his
Beijing lawyer was forced by the Chinese government to stop representing
Dhondup Wangchen, local lawyers were appointed, leaving little hope of a
fair trial.

I spent less than a day meeting Dhondup Wangchen. When we parted back at
the train station, he told me to take care of myself and gave me a
little bag containing some drinks and snacks for my journey. A few
months ago on YouTube, I saw a video clip of pictures of Dhondup
Wangchen in his teens, a casual-looking young man eager to leave behind
the constrictions of his village on a quest for adventure greater than
he could have known. The Dhondup Wangchen that I had met was older and
thoughtful. The many months of constant traveling had clearly been
physically exhausting. I had always thought of him as a kind of Tibetan
hero, a citizen journalist and human rights activist but last month I
was walking down the street in Dharamsala, northern India, with a friend
who stopped to talk to the woman who sells bread there early every
morning. The bread-seller was Dhondup Wangchen’s wife, Lhamo Tso. After
spending time talking with her I suddenly thought about their separated
family and of Dhondup Wangchen as a husband, a father, and also a
son—and their own personal sacrifices.

Since August 2008, “Leaving Fear Behind” has been screened in more than
30 countries worldwide and translated into five languages, including
Chinese. The worldwide campaign for his release continues. Looking back,
it’s hard to believe that Dhondup Wangchen, with just a small camera, a
motorbike, his blue backpack and the help of trusted friends, found a
way of expressing himself truthfully.

The simple truth is that just spending 25 minutes watching “Leaving Fear
Behind” gives all the background necessary to see that some kind of
uprising was surely inevitable in Tibet. But truthfulness in a state
like China is always an act of defiance and can‘t survive without a
struggle.

Dechen Pemba has been the spokesperson for “Leaving Fear Behind” since
she left Beijing in July 2008. She is based in London.

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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