Mcleod Ganj, India
Icy wind whipped off fresh snow on the Himalayas and I shivered beneath layers of wool and fleece, hurrying towards the main temple by the Dalai Lama’s residence. Beneath an overhang by the Tibetan Martyrs’ pillar was a bundle of blankets. A very weak man was being tended to by friends.
To mark Tibetan New Year (Losar), Tenpa Dhargyal began a 72-hour hunger strike and still refuses to take even a drop of water.
When I spoke to him, he had had no food or liquid for almost three days and was very weak. He is protesting Chinese occupation of Tibet and demonstrating his solidarity with self immolators and their families.
Tenpa has pledged, beginning with this hunger strike, to never again celebrate Tibetan New Year until “Tibetans inside Tibet and the exiles, are reunited.” He also vows he will not remove his “Save Tibet” headband until the day of freedom.
Against the wishes of his concerned friends, Tenpa agreed to an interview. He was pale and weak. With assistance he sat up for a photo and then was helped to lie down. His voice was low and he paused periodically to catch his breath. Speaking was an effort but he wants his message to reach across the world.
He wants people to know the truth about Tibet and feels international pressure is essential for Tibetans to gain freedom.
Tenpa was born into a nomadic family in the Golog region of Amdo, Tibet. He spent his childhood in the high mountains grazing yaks and hearing the terrifying stories of Tibetan torture and death.
At the age of 14, Tenpa enrolled in a monastery, and at the age of 20 went into meditative retreat for three years. Emerging from retreat, he set off to meet the Dalai Lama.
Crossing the Himalayas is treacherous. The military must be avoided and the frigid cold endured. Many do not survive the trek. Tenpa was fortunate and reached India in the spring of 2000.
At this time very little information was available to Tibetans about their own religion, about the Dalai Lama or about the Tibetan government in exile. Once in India, Tenpa came into contact with Tibetans devoted to the cause of bringing information to Tibet.
So in 2001, Tenpa once again made the dangerous journey over the Himalayas, but this time with a sack full of religious and political information. He managed to cross the infamous Nangpa La Pass and descended to just below the snowline before hiding until night.
When darkness fell, he left his hiding place and was pounced on by the military, interrogated, and hauled off to face torture and brutality.
Five years later he was released. In 2008, he was again imprisoned and tortured for a month. Upon release he fled to India.
The depth of Tibetan distress is perhaps unimaginable for us with the many freedoms we take for granted. Tibetans continue to lay down their lives, hoping that their sacrifice will bring world attention and help free Tibet from the oppressive rule of China.
Tibetans continue to be imprisoned and tortured. Since 1998, there have been 127 confirmed self-immolations by Tibetans willing to give the ultimate sacrifice with the hope that this will draw enough political attention to their cause to effect a change.
The first self-immolations of 2014 have already taken place. China’s response to this desperation has been a crackdown on communities and families of self immolators. Some individuals have even been given suspended death sentences for “inciting” others to protest.
In 1959, the Dalai Lama and 100,000 Tibetans fled to India. Since then, Tibetans have continued to pour over India’s border seeking refuge and freedom.
I asked Tenpa what his wish for the world was. His reply was simple. He wished for truth and for people to follow truth.
Tenpa wished for people to “come to know the reason of truth and support truth” in any situation.
He explained that people generally choose to chase money and ignore truth. And that really is the heart of the matter, isn’t it? The world ignores the truth that over 1.5 million Tibetans have died as a result of Chinese invasion and occupation. It’s inconvenient and unpleasant to be reminded.
If we consider this truth, we may have to take a stand. We might have to support peace, freedom and non-violence. What would such a world look like?
As I write this, I think of Tenpa. He is now huddled under blankets with concerned friends keeping vigil. Tenpa is trying to follow truth, trying to peacefully stop injustice, but he cannot do this alone. The world needs to help.
Rosemarie Briggs is currently in McLeod Ganj, Dharamsala India. She is assisting some Tibetan refugees who have resettled in India, after fleeing Tibet. To read more go to www.hands-of-hope.ca