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Ngawang Sangdrol is a young Tibetan nun serving a prison term of 21 years for a series of peaceful protests against the occupation of her homeland and the suppression of her religion. Her original sentence of three years has already been extended several times, making her the longest serving female political prisoner in Tibet, a land full of political prisoners, and one of the longest serving prisoners of conscience in the world.
In October 2000, at the age of 24, Ngawang Sangdrol was nominated for the prestigious Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, which is awarded annually by the European Parliament...
... to honour individuals or organisations who have devoted themselves to human rights and fundamental freedoms and the struggle against oppression and injustice.
Ultimately, the prize was awarded to the Basque group, Basta Ya!, a citizen's group struggling against political violence in Spain's Basque country. The government of the People's Republic of China had protested the nomination of Ngawang Sangdrol, whom they consider to be a 'criminal'.
As a ten year old, Ngawang and a small group of her sister nuns from Garu nunnery staged a protest march to demonstrate against the Chinese occupation of Tibet and the harsh restrictions placed on religious freedom, and was arrested for the first time. Under Chinese law she was too young to be tried. Nevertheless, she was detained for 15 days.
Buddhist practice lies at the very heart of the Tibetan identity; as a result, monks and nuns have been the victims of particularly brutal treatment. More than 6000 monasteries and temples were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution (1966 - 1976); police and political cadres closely monitor the few that remain and religious activities are severely curtailed. In the Tibetan capital of Lhasa and the surrounding region, great temples like the treasured Jokhang are now little more than stage dressing, the ancient rituals reduced to a sham for the entertainment of tourists.
A traditional way to express religious devotion is to circumambulate the Jokhang temple. For many years pilgrims have travelled to Lhasa to inch their way around the great temple, often measuring the distance a body length at a time with their prostrations. To walk in a clockwise direction around the Jokhang is a time-honoured daily prayer ritual for many, a way of anchoring their lives. Walking against the flow, in a counter clockwise direction, is a popular way for Chinese police to show their disdain for things Tibetan. It's also a good way for tourists to show their ignorance and insensitivity. More recently, monks and nuns have used this ancient practice to signal their resistance to the systematic attack on the Tibetan way of life and their resentment of the alien culture being imposed in its place.
In August 1990, at the age of 13, Ngawang Sangdrol was arrested again under circumstances similar to her first arrest. Still too young to be tried, this time she was held for nine months. In many parts of the world, children face particularly brutal treatment in prisons; and there have been serious allegations of such abuse by Chinese authorities in Tibet - see Tibet Justice Center.
At the age of 15, Ngawang was arrested again. This time she was charged with 'subversive and separatist' activities. Despite the fact that she was still a minor under Chinese law, she was sentenced to three years in the notorious Drapchi prison. This sentence was soon extended to six years by prison authorities, who accused her of 'spreading counter-revolutionary propaganda'.
Prisoners of Drapchi have been beaten with belts and bamboo sticks in response to more or less imaginary provocation, such as not making their beds properly. When Ngawang and several other nuns were forced to stand in the rain, a defiant shout of 'Free Tibet!' resulted in her sentence being extended a further eight years. After a protest in 1996, she was severely tortured and placed in solitary confinement on near starvation rations for two months.
The brutality of the treatment of nuns in Drapchi prison can scarcely be imagined. A former prisoner, who escaped into exile after her release, described what took place in response to a protest by prisoners in 1998:
They beat us so savagely that there was blood everywhere, on the walls and on the floor. It looked like an abattoir. They beat us with their belts, until their belts broke. Then they used electric batons. Some [of us] had torn ears, others had wounds in their heads.
- London Daily Telegraph - Friday 6 October, 2000
The refusal of the nuns to sing Chinese patriotic songs and chant communist slogans led to such a frenzy of violence that five of them, aged from 22 to 28, committed suicide rather than endure any more.
In 1993, a tape recorder was smuggled into Drapchi prison and 14 young nuns, including Ngawang Sangdrol, risked their lives by singing traditional songs and reciting poems into it. The songs are simple allegorical descriptions of a life of brutal oppression. They speak of the Chinese occupation of their homeland as a dark cloud passing before the sun. There are many symbolic references to His Holiness the Dalai Lama, which express the hope that he will one day return.
Naturally, the songs are sung in Tibetan, but their real meaning is obvious. The ambient sounds of the prison can be heard in the recording; and the cold dampness of the concrete cell can almost be felt. It is a very powerful recording that takes some courage to listen to. The courage that it took to record the songs is almost beyond the scope of most of us to imagine.
These songs of hope and defiance are available on a CD entitled Seeing Nothing but the Sky... from the Free Tibet Campaign and Snow Lion Publications in the USA. A book and CD-ROM package, which includes 14 songs recorded in Drapchi prison, is available from Tibet Information Network in the UK.
Whose land is it
On the roof of the world?
It is our homeland;
It is a land of religion;
The ruler of this land is the compassionate Avalokiteshvara1;
Under his compassionate and benevolent leadership,
The people of His land love peace;
The people of His land love freedom;
The people of His land love freedom;
May they gain peace and happiness.
Helping Ngawang and Tibet to Gain Peace and Happiness
Human rights groups, including Amnesty International, suggest that sending letters to the governments of countries holding prisoners of conscience is an effective way to protect them from mistreatment by local and prison authorities. Writing to our own elected officials is an important way to make sure that the welfare of political prisoners is not overlooked in international relations. Whoever they are addressed to, letters should always be polite and business-like.
Supporting the work of humanitarian agencies by becoming a member, or by making a modest donation, is also a good way to help. It is largely due to the vigilance of such organizations as Tibet Information Network and International Campaign for Tibet that the stories of people like Ngawang Sangdrol are heard around the world.