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by Sue Ann Rybak

This year marks the 54th anniversary of National Uprising Day – March 10, 1959 – the day Tibetans surrounded the summer palace of the Dalai Lama in defiance of the Chinese occupation. Kugno Shewo Lobsang Dhargye, of Glenside, is one of the last living witnesses of that event.

Dhargye was just 26 years old at the time and was working at the Dalai Lama’s summer palace as a guard.

“The memories of that gloomy day still freshly flashes into my eyes,” wrote Dhargye in a letter seeking political asylum from the United States in 2008.

Recently, the Local sat down with Dhargye, who doesn’t speak English, and his nephew Sonam Dorji, who translated, to reflect on that horrific day and the current situation in Tibet.

The circumstances that triggered the revolt began 10 years before in 1949, when the Communist Party in China claimed that Tibet was part of China and that its people were crying for liberation from the feudal regime in Lhasa, the capital of Tibet.

By October 1950, troops from China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) invaded the country. On May 23, 1951, the Tibetan delegation was forced to sign the Sino-Tibetan Agreement of 1951 or the 17-Point Agreement, which gave the then 15-year-old Dalai Lama power over Tibet’s domestic affairs.

By 1954, more than 200,000 Chinese troops were stationed in Tibet, and conflicts broke out as the region struggled to survive a famine. A revolt broke out in Eastern Tibet in February 1956, when Tibetans attacked Chinese troops. The PLA responded by later bombing and pillaging monasteries in Eastern Tibet.

Dhargye said that, during the late 1950s, people were often arrested and never heard from again. He said many people were kidnapped at that time on the pretext of giving them a free education. People would just go away and you would never hear from them again.

Dhargye, who spent 15 years in Chinese prisons and five years in a Chinese labor camp, said it was rumored at that time that Chinese representatives came to invite His Holiness the Dalai Lama to attend a performance at the Chinese Army Headquarters in Lhasa. He said this was an unusual occurrence because the party was being held at a military base and the Dalai Lama had been asked to attend alone.

Traditionally, an escort of 25 armed guards always accompanied the Dalai Lama wherever he went. The Chinese would only allow the Dalai Lama to bring two unarmed escorts and they didn’t allow him to have a traditional procession that day from the palace to the military base, as was the norm.

People were anxious

Dhargye said at that time the people were very anxious because they heard rumors that His Holiness was going to be kidnapped.

“At the time the lay people didn’t know what was going on – they just heard rumors,” Dhargye said.

Dhargye said Tibetan government officials urged the Dalai Lama not to go but that the Dali Lama simply replied that he didn’t think anything was going to happen. The Dalai Lama told them he had already agreed to go, so he couldn’t back out now.

Dhargye said that morning, when His Holiness was planning to leave there were people rushing everywhere on bikes, walking, running – a sea of people surrounded the palace.

“It was so congested a car could not get through,” Dhargye said. “His Holiness’s mother’s car could not get through. There was a mob of people protesting at the palace. There was no way for His Holiness to get out. Later that day, the loudspeaker explained that the Dalai Lama finally agreed not to go and urged everybody to go home. Cabinet representatives met with the Chinese to explain why His Holiness couldn’t go. Even after the announcement, people were panicked and suspicious. Representatives of the cabinet called for all staff – civil servants and military personnel – to stand guard at the palace gates.”

Dhargye was assigned to guard one of the palace gates, and after several days of standing watch the Chinese attacked.

He still remembers the sound of the machine guns and bombs exploding. Most Tibetans around Norbulinga were killed that day.

On March 19, around 2 a.m., he could hear Chinese troops getting closer. He could hear people screaming and crying as the Chinese bombed the palace. Many people were running and trying to hide in ruins.

“That day, the river ran red with blood,” Dhargye said. “There were many dead bodies.”

Dhargye said he was able to save his life that day by “hiding here and there.” His clothes were burned and covered in ash and blood. His leg and right arm were severely injured by debris from bombs.

“Around 5 p.m. that day, the bombing finally stopped and I started to see Chinese soldiers approaching toward us, aimlessly shooting machine guns toward us,” Dhargye wrote.

Dhargye and about 300 people were arrested and sorted into two groups – high officials and guards and civilians. Dhargye was taken with the other government officials to a Chinese Military prison at Lhasa.

“I was the first member of my family who was arrested, and I didn’t get a chance to see my home or family afterward,” he wrote.

20 prisoners in one cell

Dhargye and about 20 other prisoners were placed in one cell. He said each cell had a small metal window and door. The prisoners were fed twice a day – once in the morning and once in the evening.

He said meals consisted of a Chinese bun (about the size of a ping pong ball) and a cup of warm water.

“Our limbs were chained up, and with each movement, the rim of the chain got tighter on our wrist, and this was extremely painful,” Dhargye wrote.

In the beginning prisoners were only allowed to go the bathroom once a day. After about two weeks, the Chinese began interrogating them and torturing them.

Dhargye described patriotic education simply, saying that Tibetans were being brainwashed to believe that “Tibet was part of China and that the policies and actions of the Communist government were all righteous and truthful … and that all the actions, beliefs and values of Tibetans were wrong and worthless.”

Dhargye explained in the letter that the Chinese utilized the following Communist statement as a basis to torture Tibetans: “If you disclose all information, you will be forgiven, and if you withhold, you will be punished harshly.”

Dhargye said prisoners were forced to accuse each other and confess to crimes they didn’t commit. As a result of these physical and emotional tortures, he witnessed many suicides among his fellow prisoners.

After six months in the military prison in Lhasa, Dhargye and 600 other prisoners, including monks, government servicemen and lay people, were loaded into Chinese military trucks and taken out of Tibet.

He was eventually sent to a prison just outside of Chuchen city, a farming province known as Tang Chung Lung Dang. Dhargye said it was one of the poorest provinces in China at the time and known for its harsh climate.

“People say in the summer one could boil egg in the scorching heat,” wrote Dhargye. “I didn’t get the luxury of seeing an egg at the time.”

The primary work of the prisoners was farming. They worked 12 hours a day. He said their workload was “extremely heavy and atrocious.”

“In the winter, our task was to deliver manure to fields from the prison facility,” Dhargye wrote. “Two people had to shoulder one big basket of manure weighing about 75 kilograms (about 165 pounds) about two kilometers (1.24 miles) 60 times a day.

Prisoners received a small amount of poor quality corn and Chinese grains such as gotse and metse. Often, he said, they got noodle soup as a meal.

“Noodle was just for the sake of name,” wrote Dhargye. “We didn’t see any noodles in our so-called noodle soup. It was just green leaves in warm water – not even salt. Our standard vegetable that they gave us with a tiny Chinese bun was the same as what they gave their pigs.”

He described his time in prison after 1960 as a death camp.

“Literally, our food supply was stopped,” Dhargye wrote.

He said everyone became extremely weak.

“When we woke up in the morning, we had to lift our heads by our arms to stand,” Dhargye wrote. “Otherwise, we couldn’t stand up from the weight of our head. Even going to the bathroom, we had to cruise like small babies. As a result, the entire prison had to shut the work process.

Prison was a death camp

“Basically, our prison became a death camp – those who can survive without food can live. Every one of us was simply waiting for our death turns. Every morning when I woke, I would find at least three of my friends had stopped breathing.”

He recalled one morning waking up to discover that nine of his friends had passed away in one night.

“As for myself, I had neither hoped to live nor I wanted to live,” wrote Dhargye. “My country was taken away and my family was wiped out.”

He said during his term in prison he often protested against the prison administrators for illegitimate occupation of his country, which often caused him to become the “prey of prison supervisors.”

“For example, one day I was assigned with one of my inmates to chop branches of a tree,” Dhargye wrote. “While doing so, one small piece of branch accidentally fell on shoulder of the prison supervisor who was sitting underneath the tree.”

He said the supervisor became angry and accused him of intentionally hitting him. The supervisor ordered all the Chinese prisoners to beat me. Dhargye recalled how he was kicked and beaten with tree branches with thorns on them.

“The thorns poked all my body,” he wrote. “It was extremely painful. My body was soaked with my own blood.”

The supervisor took away his clothes and gave them to other prisoners.

“Later that night, my dinner was forfeited,” Dhargye wrote. “A good friend of mine called Phela (who died in prison), came that night to my rescue. He bought me something to eat. It was his secretly hidden Tibetan leather rope (like a leather belt) boiled in hot water. He thought we could eat this leather piece. However, with the lack of proper heat, it was as hard as leather. We were not able to enjoy the feast.”

According to Dhargye, by the end of 1962, only 20 prisoners out of the 100 who came to Kansur with Dhargye were still alive – barely. Dhargye and the 20 remaining prisoners were taken to Drapchi prison near Lhasa in Tibet.

He said the quality of food was better in Drapchi, but the prison had stricter regulations and rules.

During Dhargye’s imprisonment between 1959 and 1965, he was never formally charged. But in 1966 while at Drapchi prison, he was formally sentenced to 15 years in prison.

Dhargye never charged

At Drapchi, prisoners were forced to work eight hours a day and study the Communist government’s policies. He said the purpose of studying was to abolish what the Chinese called “the four old.”

“What the Communist government included in the four old were: old mind, old action, old literature, and old customs or values or beliefs of the Tibetans,” wrote Dhargye.

He said the Chinese government wanted “to wipe out our Tibetan identity and convert Tibetans into Chinese.”

Dhargye said they were not allowed to wear Tibetan traditional dress or perform any kind of religious activity – not even mumbling a prayer. Despite these rules, Dhargye and other prisoners secretly organized and often prayed for the Dali Lama.

After serving 15 years in Drapchi prison, Dhargye was forced to serve five more years in a labor camp.

Dhargye described the labor camp as a secondary prison with a few privileges. For example, in labor camp prisoners were allowed to see members of their family on holidays.

“I remember clearly the first meeting with my son,” Dhargye said. “I couldn’t stop crying because I hadn’t seen him in so many years.”

The last time Dhargye saw his son the boy was four years old.

“He has grown so much since I had last seen him, and it was hard for me to recognize him,” Dhargye wrote.

He was not able to finish his school because he was charged as the son of separatists.

After the Chinese leader Mao Zedong died in 1979, Dhargye said there were changes in the policy of the Communist government toward Tibetans. The government allowed Tibetan language and literature to be taught in high schools and colleges.

“However, as a result of 20 years of banning Tibetan language and literature in Tibetan schools, there were no qualified young Tibetan teachers to be recruited,” Dhargye wrote. “Older generation Tibetans fled to exile in India. Because of the shortage of Tibetan teachers, six prisoners from the labor camp were recruited to be Tibetan teachers. I was one of them.”

Dhargye taught Tibetan language and literature to Tibetan and Chinese students at Tibet University at Shayang City from 1979 to 1983. When Tibet University merged with the University of Lhasa (Tibet), all the students and teachers had to return to Lhasa.

He said in 1983 the government introduced policies to tighten security throughout China.

“This policy led to massive random arrests and abductions of Tibetans in Tibet,” wrote Dhargye. “At that moment, former prisoners like me were always attracting attention. But my teaching job helped me from further arrest temporarily.”

He lived in constant fear of being arrested or worse. But in 1984, China’s then premier Hu Yao Pang released what was called the “Sixth Document.” One article in the document stated that Tibetans wishing to visit their family members and relatives in India could travel. And in 1985, Dhargye escaped to India. While in India Dhargye served in different positions at the Central Tibetan Administration, also known as the Tibetan Government in Exile, whose mission was to help Tibetan refugees and restore freedom and happiness in Tibet.

Granted political asylum

In 2008 he was granted political asylum in the United States and moved to Glenside to be with his relatives. He is an active member of the Philadelphia Friends of Tibet.

After more than 50 years of Chinese authoritarian policies, self-immolations have become a common way of protesting China’s rule. Since 2008, there have been 120 confirmed self-immolations. The most recent was on June 11, when a 21-year-old Tibetan nun set herself on fire in Eastern Tibet.

When asked about the recent epidemic of self-immolations in Tibet, Dhargye replied that he wanted to tell Tibetans in India and Tibet that Tibet has been struggling for more than 50 years, but that he believed Tibetans have never gotten weaker. Dhargye’s message to Tibetans was: “Don’t lose hope.”

“I believe that somehow in the future soon there will be a change in China,” he said.

While Dhargye said he doesn’t believe he will see it in his lifetime, he believes it will be a free country one day – again.

That belief has always given him strength, he said, because “the truth will prevail.”