The Voice of Tawu

[Guest post by Gabriel Feinstein Jr. – in collaboration with anonymous Tibetans]

Following is an interview with a brave Tibetan, herein dubbed “the voice of Tawu.” He is Rinpoche, a teacher, a friend, and a man I highly respect and love. Given the current reality of Chinese surveillance, I have changed many of the actual names, places, and dates within this intimate account in order to protect Tibetans still living in Tibet. Much of the information contained in this account was given by inhabitants of Tawu, with full knowledge of the risks.

My dearest friend, the ‘Voice of Tawu,’ agreed to an interview in order to shed light on the home from which he is barred. It was clear from our discussion that he wanted to illuminate what Tawu, Kham (Tibet) had been like during his earlier life and to share his reaction to the tragic events that have taken place in Tawu.  During my relationship with ‘the Voice,’ I could always see, feel, and hear from his stories what we in the Tibetan movement were actually fighting for. When I seek advice and counsel on Tibetan issues, it is to him I turn. He also works diligently behind the scenes, offering advice to other young Tibetan activists, and instructing them in both the written and spoken Tibetan language.

What I have learned through my acquaintance with the “Voice of Tawu” is that the Tibetan genocide is a multi-generational tragedy: Chinese brutality affects everyone, from grandparent to children, and there are very few in the community who have not lost a relative to prison, execution, or torture. Tibetans are on the brink of survival – physically, emotionally and spiritually.

Buddhism is, of course, one of the fundamental pillars of the Tibetan struggle; without faith, determination, and the deepest devotion to the Three Jewels, Tibetans would not rise up as they have done. The bravery of the monastic and lay community may, in part, come from the mind training that is an integral part of Buddhism. Much of this calculated bravery may also derive from Tibetan’s intimate familiarity with death and suffering. But most of all, it comes about from a deep-seated acceptance of the truth.

‘The Voice’ represents the Tibet you may never know or see, that lives in the shadows of the exile world — between the legal cracks of a modern country — seeking asylum. I was once told that in the West, many high Lamas live among us, some washing dishes or working as janitors, without a name or reputation. We may see them in passing, but they are there, like hidden protectors watching over us.

Born as a wandering Khampa nomad, ‘the Voice’ almost always insists that he is nothing more than a homeless man, lost in a ‘pure land’ called America. When he visits me for prayers, it is always my expired passport on my desk that he glares at, wishing it were his. He often picks it up and throws it somewhere in frustration. If I could make it his I would, but I cannot.  How else can he return to Tibet without being imprisoned? The Chinese Security Bureau already has visited his family and friends and questioned them about his whereabouts. The dangers of returning are very real.

There are moments throughout a day when things stop, and I can see that it is Tibet he is thinking of. It often will come unannounced: there is a distinct look in his eyes as he glares in the distance. Other times, he reminds me of how time and progress had been previously measured in Tibet: spiritual activity and attending to the pasture were meaningful, not paying rent or acquiring new material items. My petty concerns for this and that seem to fade into thin air upon his frequent reminders. Perhaps the nomadic life is extraordinary, something we should all experience.

During a moment at lunch this week, he looked at me and said in his thick accent, “Maybe I should burn myself like Tsewang Norbu and Phunstok.”  I almost could not believe I was hearing this. I paused for several moments as we were silent, and as I swallowed my food. “Tsewang Norbu was really amazing, even after drinking gasoline, he was still able to put his hands together in supplication and die with this kind of devotion.” Both of us looked out the window as a sense of deep frustration and sadness took over. I imagined watching my teacher burning before me on the street, powerless to stop it.  He looked at me again and said, “Maybe it’s better we die trying.”

On a separate occasion, we were sitting down reading in a library, when a conversation about Tibetan politics somehow began. Often times we will start a friendly debate. As I was ardently speaking about the woes of this and that, and the need for action, he cut me off and said, “You know you think you guys believe you are brave, but when you are face to face with Chinese soldiers with rifles aimed at you, you begin see who is truly brave.”  His posture shriveled up, as to show me how it actually feels to cower for one’s life.

Often in the moment we forget what it must actually be like to face such a choice. Perhaps we don’t realize what resistance actually entails inside Tibet. Just look at protestors in the Middle East and around the world, mowed down as they march down the street in unison. Could we follow? Who is really brave enough to face the cracking sound of bullets? Semshook takes on another meaning altogether; outside Tibet we aren’t in danger of being shot at for marching against the oppressor. His questions cut through and remind us of what we are actually capable.

The next day we sat down as he began to draw a map of Tawu. On the phone was his sibling, inside Tibet. In their thickest Tawu dialect they exchanged details and reminisced over the streets of Tawu. The atmosphere of their hometown has changed: soldiers are on the streets, even tanks. I asked for them to explain to me what it is currently like in Tawu. I wanted to convey a clear image of this Chinese occupation.

We were able to plot the locations of many different events, including the actual streets that Tsewang Norbu walked through in Tawu in his last hours. We determined where he started his self-immolation, where he fell to the ground, and where his final death occurred. He walked almost 1,000 feet in the fifteen minutes that he was burning, and even after falling, stood back up on his feet. According to what the ‘Voice’ and other natives have said, Tibetans had been with him in his final moments, and after he was finished protesting, others encouraged him to begin his prayers to prepare for death. They told him to let go and think of Dharma and remember his Guru. If you look at the picture of him as he is burning, you can actually see his hands in supplication and prayer.

In addition to these details, we also were informed of the whereabouts of several jails and detention centers, a police barracks, a newly built underground prison, an army base, and one of many police checkpoints.  The amount of Chinese police enforcement has risen with great efficiency and speed. Within this highly restrictive environment, walking down the street is dangerous, since at any time you are only a few blocks from another jail cell.

All of this took us several hours to compile as we carefully examined each building on Google Maps to make sure we had it right. Through visual memory and first hand accounts, they have recreated Tawu for us. By looking at the map you can retrace the steps of Tsewang Norbu. There is also recorded video of him at Namgyal Chorten – a famous gathering point for Tibetans during horse races just down the road from downtown Tawu. In a leaked Youtube video, Tsewang  is seen giving Khata to two other monks singing a new Tibetan song. “Long Sho – Bhunda tsok, gyalwa  Longsho!”

All of a sudden, during our conversation, the phone connection is lost. Many times you wonder if it is something that has been said and if the authorities have cut the line, or if it is just a bad signal. You never really know. We decided to begin with the interview.

What has been happening this year in Tawu?

“This year [2011], there was a very big plan to celebrate the Dalai Lama’s birthday. Many Tibetans went to the holy mountain near Tawu and burned incense. It was said that around 30,000 or more Tibetans gathered. The district government found out about this gathering, and stood in front of the people. The Chinese army blocked the road over the bridge near the river and demanded that the Tibetans stop. The Chinese district governor came out in front with a pistol and told the army, ‘Today, if Tibetans do any protesting, immediately kill them. I give you one hundred percent permission.’ After the Dalai Lama’s birthday, the Chinese government cut off the water supply to the monasteries. Six times the monks went and fixed the pipes that supplied the town, and every time the Chinese would cut the pipe.”

“You may be walking down the street casually, and a Chinese solider will grab you and ask for your ID. One time the Chinese soldiers grabbed me while I was wearing a long coat and robes and they made me take all my belongings out and empty all my pockets. They quickly arrested me for no reason and placed me inside a jail cell. Inside there [the jail] were two large rooms, with guns hanging on the wall and electric wires used for torture.”

“When they arrest people they take them to the main jail in Tawu. In Chinese slang, they call it Yaya-ni. They torture many Tibetans at this particular location.  They keep people there for many months. They took one of my relatives, and they caught her and placed her there for one week.  Rang-nga-kha is a separate prison that other prisoners are transferred to in the area in Dhardho district.”

How many of your relatives have been tortured or killed, and have suffered because of the Chinese?

My father’s father died in prison. My mother’s father hands were both crushed due to such severe beating that he cannot even use them. My father’s family has tribal chief lineage, many people in our area trusted them. The Chinese tortured and executed many of the people in our family. None of my siblings have been arrested. My uncles were also frequently beaten by Chinese soldiers. They would be ordered to fetch wood on demand, and upon returning would be beaten to a pulp. My father suffered the most, because my grandfather was a guerilla and, even as a child, the Chinese would interrogate him in order to find out his whereabouts.

How many families in your area, let alone Tibet have this experience?

“Innumerable – innumerable really.”

“The Chinese caught several of my distant relatives once and killed three all at the same time. Instead of taking just one of them, they took all three of these men, plus an extra two. They killed all of them in public. The Chinese kill like this. Before in the 1950’s, they would make the family pay for the bullet (bullet fee). The Chinese would make the family pay for the bullet and then give the family a time and date for a last goodbye. Normally, and to this day, they would put the prisoners inside a big truck with about four policemen to one prisoner. In a long caravan they ride around the downtown areas and announce on the PA systems the execution and the names of the prisoners. They give 15 soldiers each a rifle and instruct them to aim at the heart. Sometimes it would take many shots to kill them, but now they aim for the head. These days, though, the actual executions are kept private.  But once the prisoner is dead, the relatives are allowed to collect the body from the ditch. This kind of thing happened every year. After putting people in prison for three years, then after this long stretch they kill them.”

“Sometimes, people are immediately shot, and there is no time to protest and demonstrate. It’s instant. When we see the Chinese soldiers and police in uniform, we instantly think, ‘there go the killers.’ I can honestly say that this is our thinking.”

Have you ever protested while in Tibet?

During our annual horse race in Tawu, several of us went downtown once and decided to throw flyers saying ‘Long live the Dalai Lama’ and ‘Tibet Belongs to Tibetans.’ This was before we had streetlights, so we could go out at night when it was dark and post flyers on walls around town.

When we were caught, they [Chinese police] arrested over 20 Tibetans. They didn’t actually know who did this, but they just rounded up as many young men as possible. They just torture everyone. That is the Chinese way, they don’t know exactly who it is but they arrest you, beat you, and make you confess to things you actually never did. So many people actually give in and confess to crimes that they have not committed.

What is it like living with Chinese people in Tawu?

Most of them are very poor and cannot find jobs in China, so they open shops and businesses. Some support the Chinese officials, but they think ‘I’m Chinese – ‘They are Tibetan.’ We are not fighting the Chinese people. Really, the only times we actually fight directly with Chinese people is when they kill animals, especially the deer. They hunt, smoke, bring alcohol, and we definitely do not approve of this. We vigilantly protect the animals so when we see Chinese people hunting we fight back. Tibetans never kill animals. Most Tibetans’ perspective on alcohol is also really bad. Even the drunkard thinks of what he is doing as being really negative. I don’t know what is going on the exile culture. On the outside people look happy but I wonder if they really feel that way.

What do you think Tibetans inside Tibet would say to Tibetans in exile? What would the people of Tawu say?

“They would say, ‘Please, you guys have more opportunity to speak out and get support by showing our real situation, our suffering. We need to show that we are suffering and try to find a solution through different methods. In Tibet, we are fighting directly with the enemy, but you guys, nobody is torturing or beating you, but in Tibet, we cannot even say ‘I am Tibetan.’ Inside our minds we will not forget that we are Tibetan or give up, but we cannot show our despair.”

Why do you think Tsewang Norbu burned himself to death?

“His hope was for freedom and he when burned himself it was an amazing act. It helps people understand what is actually happening, and it makes sense for the hard liners to see him suffer, to bring out their humanity. He thought ‘Okay, I cannot spend my life this way. There is nothing I can do, I am powerless.’ Going up, going down, all the time they control you. You don’t have freedom of speech — nothing. If you don’t have the spirit of the Tibetan nation, then you don’t have problems. If you do have this feeling, ‘I am Tibetan, I have faith in the Dalai lama, I am a Buddhist, I am not Chinese, then everything is blocked for you.”

“If you put a small picture in your room of Kundun or the Karmapa and someone knocks on your door, the first thing we think is ‘Where is His Holinesses’ pictures?’  Ninety-nine percent of Tibetans have this thought when someone is knocking on the door.

What makes Tibetans brave?

“Basically, we are right, we have truth on our side. We have not lied. We remember that we had independence, we still want independence, and we are not Chinese, we have our own country, that is why we are not afraid. We have truth, that is why we are not afraid. If we did not have our unique culture, language, then we couldn’t say ‘I can die as a Tibetan,’ we wouldn’t be brave because we wouldn’t have this basic truth. If the police come and arrest us, we are not afraid, because we didn’t do any wrong. When we protest, we are fighting for the truth.”

“After 2008, everything changed, Tibetans started to stand up. Of course we know we are Tibetan, not Chinese, but very few people knew how to protest. Before, we had no information about the Dalai Lama or anything in exile, but now we know through technology, we are Tibetan, we know about the government in exile, therefore inside Tibet we really strive for solidarity.

Do you think that in Tibet and in exile, Tibetans have to break the law to fight for the truth?

“I feel it makes sense. Rules and laws are made by people. Will this particular law always be useful? Sometimes we have to break the law. Just like a particular substance is not so beneficial when you are healthy, but when you are sick this substance is very necessary. In this way we must use resistance in all forms.”

What do you say to Tibetans who advocate against protest and disobedience, especially in the T.G.I.E?

“What will we do if we do not protest? If we stop, what is the benefit? What approach or method will we use to achieve our goal? I feel if we can have another 2008 uprising, it would be very effective. The Chinese are always telling lies. If we can repeat 2008 we can really hurt, and really shake the hardliner’s rule. If we beg for autonomy and just use our thumbs (the Tibetan gesture of appeal), saying we don’t want to protest, it doesn’t make sense. But since the Chinese government doesn’t listen we must protest. We must use non-violence, or people will not support us around the world.”

Do you think that another uprising is coming soon?

“I feel it is really possible. Since 2008 and even today, they [Tibetans] feel very strong and patriotic. In Tawu, right now the whole area has this feeling, this strong emotion. People have woken up.”

Do you have a message for Tibetans in Tawu?

“I am a Tibetan, and it is my responsibility to do something, and I will never forget this.  In the future many people will burn, I’m sure. It looks very difficult now and hard to imagine that many people will die but if we think of the Chinese and we see how many guns and soldiers they have, we might get discouraged.  We should not fall into despair, we need to have courage. This issue is for a nation, for an entire people. Everyone has this same potential to keep this feeling, this feeling for Tibet.”

Is this a Buddhist struggle as much as it is a Tibetan struggle?

“If Tibet is finished, Buddhism is automatically finished. In my opinion this is the reality. There are many Buddhist countries, but Tibetan Buddhism is complete in its teachings. If there are no Tibetans left, who can spread this authentic tradition? Automatically Dharma is protected if Tibetans are alive and free. We have this power to protect this heritage. This is part of our culture, and it is inseparable from us. If the Tibetan nation is finished, the religion will die as well.”

The Voice of Tawu speaks…