Skip to content Skip to navigation

In search of unfettered identity

April 23, 2001

Interviews with exiles from Tibet

In June 2000, Human Rights Watch and Aperture published Tibet Since 1950: Silence, Prison, or Exile, a concise history of events on the Tibetan plateau since the establishment of the People’s Republic of China on October 1, 1949. Through more than 100 photographs, essays, interviews with Tibetan exiles and texts of Chinese edicts, the book illustrates the extent of human rights violations in Tibet, especially in “eastern Tibet,” Kham and Amdo to Tibetans, which lies outside the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR).

Silence, Prison, or Exile includes the essays by Elliot Sperling, chair of the Department of Central Eurasian Studies at Indiana University and associate professor of Tibetan Studies there; Steven Marshall, author of Rukhag 3: The Nuns of Drapchi Prison and Hostile Elements A Study of Political Imprisonment in Tibet 1987-1998; and Orville Schell, journalist, author of fourteen books, and dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California. Tibetans themselves speak through interviews conducted by Human Rights Watch researcher Mickey Spiegel in 1998 with Tibetan exiles in Dharamsala, India. In addition to the interviews that appeared in Silence, Prison, or Exile , Human Rights Watch published others in Profiles of Tibetan Exiles.

Mickey Spiegel spoke to young Tibetans from a variety of backgrounds — students, monks, farmers, nomads and teachers, most of them former political prisoners — about the experiences that had caused them to flee their homeland. The following is a selection from portions of a few of these interviews, focusing on the men’s struggle to learn about their own culture and history.







Although many of these men, in their twenties and thirties when interviewed, came from farming and nomad families and had spent their early years in small villages, they had had more access to education than usual. To some extent, their activism was inspired by political discussions at their various schools and academies, but in many cases their attitudes were shaped by hearing stories about their own families’ experiences either during the Cultural Revolution (1996-76) or during the revolt against Chinese policies that began in the eastern areas in the 1950s and from there spilled over to the area historically under the Dalai Lama’s jurisdiction.

A reference to Tibet is usually to this latter area, which is now referred to as the Tibet Autonomous Region, (TAR) but more than one-half of all Tibetans under Chinese rule live in so-called autonomous areas of Qinghai, Gansu, Sichuan and Yunnan provinces. Although the TAR and the eastern areas have different political histories, activists in the eastern areas have suffered the same abuses, including arbitrary arrest, unfair trials, torture, educational and occupational discrimination, and interference with their rights to free expression, association, assembly and religious practice. Government authorities in “eastern Tibet,” as in the TAR, control what Tibetans may teach other Tibetans about their own history and culture. And monks and nuns, under pain of expulsion from their monasteries and nunneries, are under the same pressure to denounce the Dalai Lama and to admit that Tibet has always been a part of China.

Almost every one of our interviews began with the question, “What made you leave Tibet?” As the men interviewed told their stories of remarkable courage in promoting Tibetan independence, or simply Tibetan cultural and religious values, they spoke also about their fears and frustrations. One former political prisoner was certain that if he didn’t leave Tibet, he would be returned to prison and probably would die there. Another spoke of how he feared that if he remained at home, local authorities would make it unbearable for his parents, siblings and other family members. Many expressed their frustration at being denied a decent education,especially one that schooled them in their own language and culture. Others knew that despite their abilities, their career paths were permanently blocked. Many spoke of their isolation as friends deserted them. Others spoke of the constant pressure to accept official viewpoints and the lack of private space for independent thinking, whether shared with others or even written in private diaries.

Some of the men spoke about their children. The lucky ones had been able to arrange their families’ escapes and were grateful that their children would be schooled in Tibetan history and would come to understand what being Tibetan has meant.

Each of the men’s stories is unique at the same time as there are striking similarities. At the expense of neglecting patterns of political arrests, prison conditions, torture and pre-judged trials, we have chosen these excerpts to illustrate the government’s policy of sinicizing what secular and religious education is available to Tibetans. The stories we heard illustrate problems at all educational levels.







Rinchen Dorje’s story vividly depicts the perils of giving voice to the reality of discrimination. In 1992, he wrote an essay for a school magazine comparing the status of Tibetans and Han Chinese in autonomous areas of “eastern” Tibet. School authorities saw to it that the essay was never published and let Rinchen know that he had little choice but to submit his writings to official censors.

A year earlier, as a 20-year-old student at Qinghai Institute for Nationalities, Rinchen had begun to actively advocate for his right to speak out freely. But his involvement with Tibetan political struggles dates back to his maternal grandfather’s arrest during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). Before Rinchen was born, his grandfather was sent off to prison. He had been a local government secretary in an autonomous county in Gansu Province and a high lama in one of the major sects of Tibetan Buddhism, the Nyingma. (Nyingma monks are permitted to marry.) The combination was enough for Chinese authorities to humiliate him by subjecting him to public ridicule and physical indignities before he was sentenced. According to Rinchen, “The Chinese said lamas sucked blood from the public.”

His grandfather was eventually rehabilitated and returned to his religious activities at Kapuk, the family’s small ancestral monastery in Huangnan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Qinghai. From the time he was five until he was 12 and began his secular education, Rinchen lived in the monastery. He owes his ability to read and write Tibetan to the tutoring of his grandfather and his grandfather’s students.

In 1990, Rinchen was admitted to a five-year program at Qinghai Institute for Nationalities, Department of Minority Nationalities Languages and Literature, Tibetan section. There were 280 students all told in his department. Forty Tibetans were admitted each year; 40 Mongolians were admitted every two years.

Rinchen reported that when he entered the Institute, not long after the 1989 crackdown on the pro-democracy movement, "All the rules and regulations had been changed. We had to go for seven weeks of military training and for one year we all had once a day two-hour Party Thought Education meetings. It was a kind of reeducation. The Tibetan section had a lot of other changes, big ones. Before, Tibetan history, religious history, classical grammar, and logic were taught in Tibetan. That stopped, The student magazine called Lagya (Self-respect), stopped publishing. There was so much reeducation going on it was difficult to study well. After about one year, in March or April 1991, I was finally able to start learning in that institute. But the Tibetan courses still had not been reinstated." Instead, Rinchen said,

We had to study politics, a philosophy based on Marxism, aesthetics, modern Chinese language, history of the Chinese Communist Party and modern Chinese history. There were two courses about Tibet, Tibetan literature, taught in Chinese, and Tibetan language. For the latter, the only one taught in Tibetan by Tibetan teachers, we used a three-book set that had some grammar, some poetics and some general Tibetan history.

Early in 1991, Rinchen and many of his friends petitioned school authorities for reinstatement of the discontinued courses. Once it was clear that was not to be, they decided on another tactic. They would petition only for the reinstatement of the student publication. In June 1992, the school authorities granted the request but with a string of conditions attached. First, anything that remotely resembled a political discussion could not be published. Secondly, school authorities would appoint three advisors, one a Tibetan and the other two Han Chinese; at least one was a Communist Party member. And third, all articles had to be vetted by the advisors before publication.

Interested students chose 12 of their number as an editorial board, which they called the Youth Literature Committee. Six of the 12 worked together as editors and in rotation as chief editor. Rinchen was one of the six.

The plan, to publish two editions a year, began smoothly enough, but by the time Rinchen became chief editor at the beginning of 1994 student complaints had multiplied. “Many good articles were submitted but they never got published,” Rinchen noted, “so I made some changes. I removed the names of the advisors from the magazine and planned the next edition without consulting them.” Rinchen also contributed an article which ostensibly had to do with the relationship between Tibetan clan names and clan spirits. “What the article was really about,” Rinchen said, “is that a Tibetan can’t be more than a deputy head; he can’t have a full position. I said in the article that when a Chinese person sees a Tibetan name, he immediately thinks ‘fu,’ that’s the Chinese for deputy or second.”

Rinchen continued,

Two or three days after I took the proofs to the printer, the Party Committee called me and scolded me and asked questions about whether I’d written the clan name article.... I was interrogated. They wanted to know what my motives were, and they wanted to know what I was thinking when I wrote the article. They wanted to know why I didn’t consult the advisors, and they reminded me that not consulting them violated school regulations. Then they told me to write a detailed letter of apology to the school president. I had to give a clear explanation of my personal background. I had to tell them what made me write the article. And I had to tell them why I didn’t consult the advisors. They warned me not to go to class and not to leave the school compound.

I was very upset. For four or five days, I didn’t do anything but think. I didn’t think I made any mistakes, so how could I apologize. I came to realize that the government wanted literature as a means of political propaganda.

In his unhappiness, Rinchen went home without asking school authorities for permission. During the two weeks he was there, he made his decision to flee, completed his preparations, and one June night left for India. When we met Rinchen he had been in Dharamsala for four years and was working for the Tibetan freedom movement. He is now in California.

Rinchen Dorje was lucky in that he had access to an early educational experience well above the norm for village-bound Tibetans and was able to experience some tertiary-level learning, albeit at a segregated facility.


Jamyang Dargye also managed more education than many of his fellow villagers, certainly more than any of his six brothers and three sisters, but his experiences within the system were much less benign and his attempts to learn more about his heritage left permanent scars.

When Jamyang left for India for the first time in 1993, he was just shy of his seventeenth birthday. He had completed a high school education, skipping some grades along the way, something none of his older siblings had been able to do, by 1998 when we first met him. (In fact, he is the only one of his nine siblings who managed to complete elementary school in Qinghai.) The next step, one Jamyang decided against, would have been to take the competitive examinations that determine acceptance to Chinese universities. He left home, he said, because the area he is from had no facilities for furthering a Tibetan education. The lack of any meaningful opportunity for schooling in Tibetan language and culture is often cited by parents as a reason for temporarily leaving their children in India where the Tibetan government-in-exile maintains extensive educational facilities.

Jamyang’s early story is typical. He grew up in a Tibetan village in an autonomous county in Qinghai where his family still lives, growing wheat, barley and mustard, and grazing sheep and horses and some 60 or 70 yak. There are few opportunities for Tibetans other than farming in this predominately poor agricultural county; much of what Jamyang’s family raised was for their own use. Only some primary education was available locally and the Chinese government school, although a nationalities school, was not only distant and expensive but it was not welcoming to Tibetans. As Jamyang explained, “We live in a village; the school is in the city. There are lots of Muslims and very few Tibetans at the school and the Han and the Muslims sometimes beat up on the Tibetans. But ever since I was small I was not afraid to fight. Besides, school is very expensive.”

Although educational opportunities — ones he so avidly sought — were available to Jamyang in India, intermittent hospitalizations, apparently for tuberculosis, prevented him from taking full advantage of them. His decision to return home — a journey that took over a year — landed him in police lockups and detention centers, where guards and other inmates repeatedly brutalized him. Once home, he quickly came to realize that his family was already “broken and suffering.” The authorities often came unannounced to ask about his activities, and he knew that, if he stayed, the whole situation would become “crueler.”

Back in Dharamsala, too old to be a student, Jamyang was still struggling in 1998 to find a way to continue his formal education. He, too, is one of the luckier exiles; some opportunities — not all he had hoped for — have come his way.


Still another perspective on the quality and availability of education for Tibetans came from Lama Kyap, in 1987 a teacher in the Repkong County Nationalities Middle School, a boarding school in an autonomous region in Qinghai Province. His problems started when he began to speak out against the discrimination Tibetans suffered.

In October 1997, Lama Kyap and two friends organized a protest march by students and staff. At the rally point, officials asked Lama Kyap and his friends to explain why they had demonstrated. As spokesperson, Lama Kyap explained that it was because of the great differences between the experiences of Chinese and Tibetans. When asked how they were different, he replied,

We have a boarding school; you don’t. You have five to six buildings. We have one very old building. You have a cement floor. We have a dirt floor and it muddies up in the rain. We have a hearth only in the kitchen. In the winter, our hands and feet freeze. You have wood stoves in the classroom. We have one kitchen for 1,000 students. Why are there such differences? And, why, since this is a Tibetan area, is everything in Chinese, in the offices, hospitals, markets?

That protest was the beginning of Lama Kyap’s troubles, a period of house arrest, followed by ongoing surveillance, The students who had taken part earned demerits and faced expulsion if they protested again. Finally, in August 1989, after still another incident, Lama Kyap and a friend were effectively demoted, sent off to teach at a 200-pupil day school in a poor district some 30 kilometers distant. Conditions there were even worse than at Repkong County Nationalities Middle School. A year later Lama Kyap was moved again, this time to Repkong Elementary School No.2. “I felt they were pressuring me,” he said.

In December 1990, Lama Kyap took an exam which, despite his history of political activity, earned him a substantial promotion. He had prepared for it for several years by using school breaks to take courses in Chinese, Tibetan, Buddhism and pedagogy at the Qinghai Province Education College. Of the seven who took the exam, he was the only one who passed. In January 1991, Lama Kyap was assigned to the Qinghai Province Judiciary Institute which trained people who were already procuratorate, court and police cadres. It was located in Xining, the capital of Qinghai Province and its largest city. According to Lama Kyap, “The authorities could not prevent the promotion because I hadn’t broken any laws. The other teachers and students would testify that I had not done anything illegal.”

On June 4, 1993, the fourth anniversary of the 1989 crackdown on the democracy movement, and two years and five months after he had moved to Xining, Lama Kyap and a friend opened a Tibetan nursery school with the goal of expanding it one grade a year. “I was the headmaster and decided on the curriculum, books and teachers. We had five or six students. The school was free.” A month later, on July 2, 1993, Lama Kyap was in detention. During interrogation, his captors repeatedly asked, “What was the goal of the school the two had founded? Where had the money come from?” Lama Kyap replied,

As to the goal, there are no facilities in Xining from elementary school through college that are all in Tibetan. In Xining we have Tibetans who don’t know the language and don’t know Tibetan script because they have to study in Chinese. We wanted to have English, Tibetan, Japanese, and Chinese classes. There is no other goal. The money came from Tibetan associations in different areas in Qinghai. The school is legal. The Qinghai Education Ministry gave formal documents.

His interrogators rejected his explanation, accusing him of trying to foment counterrevolution with money from the Dalai Lama clique. After trying to beat a confession out of him, he was abruptly released and allowed to return to school. But his career was over. He and his wife managed a successful escape. In Dharamsala in 1998, Lama Kyap was a busy man, at work as general secretary of the Amdo Community Organization or at the language school he established for local residents, or with his wife at the Delek Cafe which they manage together. The friend with whom he established the kindergarten completed a five-year prison term on July 2, 1998.


Monks who escaped to Dharamsala told yet another story of government interference, this one about the shaping of monastic curricula. In 1997, a Chinese document entitled “A Brief Summary of Propaganda Materials for Patriotic Education in Tibetan Buddhist Monasteries,” declared, “On the basis of the directive of the Central Committee of the CCP and the decision of the provincial Party committee, the propagation of patriotic education was commenced... in all Tibetan Buddhist monasteries in the province with the aim of safeguarding the unity of the motherland, opposing splittism and strengthening supervision of the monasteries.” The document lists “major directions in propagating patriotic education,” among them making sure monks and nuns know “Tibet is an integral part of China,” bringing religion “into harmony” with socialism and keeping it “within the constraints of specific policies and laws.” Those policies include caps on the total number of monks and nuns and on the number in any given monastery or nunnery, management of monasteries by Democratic Management Committees whose members are vetted by government officials, subjecting potential monks and nuns to “patriotic” checks and expulsion of monks and nuns who refuse to acknowledge the Chinese version of Tibetan history.

The Rongpo monastery complex, which is thought to have a history of more than 600 years, is a major Tibetan Buddhist center and a prime tourist attraction. From 1994 to 1997, many of its monks were deeply involved in political activities, distributing leaflets, putting up posters, and using lay and religious festivals to get their independence message out.

By June 1995, arrests had begun, but the major crackdown didn’t begin until March 1997 after the banned Tibetan flag was hoisted in the town center.

On April 27, the arrival of a work team composed of public and state security forces and Religious Affairs Bureau cadres signaled the start of a full-scale reeducation campaign in Rongpo, one that was to last seven months. On the first day, all monks were ordered to a central meeting place on pain of expulsion for non-attendance. Work-team members asked that monks “voluntarily” hand over all photos of the Dalai Lama and all video and audio tapes and other materials from the Tibetan government-in-exile. According to one monk’s account,

They announced this over a loudspeaker and threatened to punish us without mercy or regard for age if they later came to know we had any in our possession. No monks, young or old, handed over any items. The main speaker was the secretary of our prefecture. He was the campaign chairman. He talked about the five main points in the two books he had: oppose the splittist movement; uphold the unity of the motherland; accept the Chinese-chosen Panchen Lama [the second most important religious personage in Tibetan Buddhism, instead of the boy chosen by the Dalai Lama]; accept that Tibet is not independent; accept that the Dalai Lama is trying to destroy the country.

He threatened that all the monks who were not from the Repkong region would be sent back. But at that time at least, the officials were unable to implement such a policy. The work team did close down a monastery-financed school for monks under 15, forcing them to return to their homes. The policy affected some 100 novice monks.

By the second day of the campaign, 40 team members out of the 50 who came were stationed in the three colleges. Each monk was given a letter. The team questioned all the monks one by one but didn’t search their rooms. They planted informers to find out who had raised the flag. There were study meetings every day. Each class in each college of the monastery had study books.

At the October 20 meeting of monks, lamas and senior prefectural officials which marked the end of the reeducation campaign in Rongpo, the names of eighteen monks who were deemed not to have been reeducated were announced. They were expelled, banned from entering another monastery and sent home to try to make a living. The whole procedure was videotaped and eventually shown on Qinghai Television. The meeting itself was described as terrifying, with armed soldiers surrounding the gathering. Monks, after having been told that the soldiers had orders to shoot if there were any disturbances, didn’t dare say a word to each other.

Rongpo monks, along with the many other political and religious activists who made their way to Dharamsala, have gradually made some accommodation to exile. They know there is no going back. They look for new friends to replace the friends and families lost to them. They look for work and opportunities to study; they try to learn new skills; they look for community. Some, not surprisingly, are more successful than others.

Mickey Spiegel is a researcher with Human Rights Watch in New York. All photographs in this article are from Tibet Since 1950: Silence, Prison, or Exile.




Warning: Cannot modify header information - headers already sent by (output started at /var/www/ in /var/www/ on line 1501

Warning: Cannot modify header information - headers already sent by (output started at /var/www/ in /var/www/ on line 1505

Warning: Cannot modify header information - headers already sent by (output started at /var/www/ in /var/www/ on line 1505

Warning: Cannot modify header information - headers already sent by (output started at /var/www/ in /var/www/ on line 1505
Error | Human Rights in China 中国人权 | HRIC


The website encountered an unexpected error. Please try again later.