Saturday, April 01, 2006

"Song of Sadness" from Drapchi Prison

International Campaign for Tibet (ICT) -- March 31, 2006

The release of 34-year old Tibetan nun Phuntsog Nyidron into exile in the United States on March 15 marks the end of the imprisonment in Tibet for a courageous and determined group of women who became known as the "singing nuns" of Drapchi prison (Tibet Autonomous Region Prison).

All of the nuns were imprisoned while in their teens or twenties for peaceful protests against Chinese rule over Tibet, and all of them suffered beating, torture and solitary confinement during their imprisonment. They were known as the "singing nuns" after they secretly recorded songs about the Dalai Lama and Tibet's future on a tape cassette that was smuggled out of prison and reached the West.

ICT has obtained a copy of the court document from Tibet which gives details of the sentences and "counter-revolutionary crimes" of the 14 singing nuns, which is made publicly available for the first time (see below).

The document makes it clear that the nuns' non-violent acts of defiance and continued comradeship and loyalty to the Dalai Lama in prison were regarded by the authorities as threats to the Chinese state.

Former Drapchi cell-mates and friends Phuntsog Nyidron and Ngawang Sangdrol were reunited on Phuntsog Nyidron's release to the U.S. on March 15, 2006. Thirty-four year old Phuntsog Nyidron, who has suffered from ill-health following torture while in custody, was accompanied by a U.S. Embassy official on the flight and released into ICT's care on arrival.

The court document states that Phuntsog Nyidron, a former chant-mistress from Mechungri nunnery who served 15 years in prison, was one of the "main criminals" among the group of nuns who recorded the songs.

The court hearing, which was presided over by three Tibetan judges, stated that the 14 nuns recorded "the reactionary song: "The Chinese have taken Tibet, our home/Tibetans are locked away in prison/Oh, fellow Tibetans, please come here/Buddhism's holy land will be free soon".

The nuns' defense that recording the songs in their cells was intended "to commemorate their lives [together] in prison" was rejected by the court, according to the sentencing document, which is dated September 22, 1993.

The judges conclude that the 14 nuns had "recorded reactionary 'Tibetan independence' songs in an attitude of counter-revolutionary arrogance" and with "the aim of countering the revolution". It states that "their behavior was criminal" and 'their attitude to confession was abominable", and details the extended sentences imposed on each prisoner.

The longest extended sentence of eight years was handed down to Phuntsog Nyidron, who was already serving a nine-year sentence. Ngawang Sangdrol, her former cell-mate, who was 16 at the time, had her sentence extended by six years, and served 11 years of a sentence that was approximately 21 years, before her release and departure to the U.S. in 2003.

Former Garu nun Ngawang Sangdrol, who is now studying English in New York, said: "We recorded the songs because we wanted our families to know that we were still alive, and we wanted Tibetan people to know about our situation and our love for our country. We hoped it would reach our families, but we didn't know for sure. I had no idea until I arrived in America that people all over the world heard those songs while we were still in prison. Now, it makes me feel so sad to listen to the recording, because I remember our friends in prison who died."

In February 1994, a year after the new sentences for the tape recording were handed down, Garu nun Gyaltsen Kelsang collapsed after a session of military drills enforced by the authorities as punishment for the nuns and other prisoners at Drapchi. Gyaltsen Kelsang was hospitalized, suffering from paralysis in her legs, and released on medical parole in December 2004. She died at home two months later, at the age of 26.

In June 1998, five nuns died in Drapchi after five weeks of severe maltreatment following peaceful protests at the prison a month earlier. All of the nuns were close comrades, ranging in age from 19 to 25 at detention, and all of them had been imprisoned for peaceful resistance to Chinese rule in Tibet. Their names were Drugkyi Pema (lay name Dekyi Yangzom); Tsultrim Zangmo (layname: Choekyi); Lobsang Wangmo (layname: Tsamchoe Drolkar); Tashi Lhamo (lay name Yudron) and Khedron Yonten (lay name: Tsering Drolkar).

In June 1998, five nuns died at Drapchi Prison after weeks of torture.

The Drapchi nuns were known for their comradeship and solidarity, and sometimes put their own lives in danger to protect their friends and cell mates.

Ngawang Sangdrol recalls the aftermath of the May 1998 protests in Drapchi, when all of the prisoners were severely beaten and tortured after they protested about the raising of the Chinese flag, and shouted slogans in support of the Dalai Lama.

She said: "At one point several guards were kicking me in the head and beating my body with batons and I fell unconscious. Later, I heard that another nun, Phuntsog Peyang, had thrown herself on top of me to protect me from the beating, thinking that I would be killed. She was then beaten badly herself. Phuntsog probably saved my life."

The nuns' determination and refusal to submit to prison officials is noted in the sentencing document, which describes their "attitude to confession" as "abominable".

Phuntsog Nyidron, who was one of the most senior of the group of Drapchi nuns in age, and highly respected by the others for her religious devotion and scholarly nature, said last week: "During my time in prison, although the Chinese government made it difficult for me both physically and mentally, I did not waver at all in my initial motivation. At times when I underwent unimaginable torture, my determination to struggle for Tibetan independence became stronger. After 15 years in prison, I owe my freedom firstly to the grace of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and also to those countries who have shown their concern for the Tibetan political prisoners by putting pressure on the Chinese government."

Criminal sentencing document of the Drapchi singing nuns

Prisoners in Tibet and China are generally given copies of relevant legal documents, especially sentencing documents, which inmates often keep with them while imprisoned or send home to their families. They provide "proof" of charges, length of punishment, and post-release conditions.

These documents have become more difficult to obtain in recent years given the risks that former prisoners face in bringing them into exile, and also because a substantial number of the documents were destroyed during a period of tightened security in Rukhag (Unit) 3 of Drapchi Prison, which housed female political prisoners, after the May 1998 protests.

The report 'Rukhag 3: The Nuns of Drapchi Prison' by Steven D Marshall, quotes two of the nuns, Choeying Gyaltsen and Choeying Kunsang, as saying: "In 1998 they came to collect all books, letters and sentence documents from our rooms, and they burned them . . . Some nuns had their sentence documents hidden in their pillow, but they searched mattresses and pillows as well, and all sentence documents were confiscated . . . [The documents were burned] in the kitchen" (Tibet Information Network, 2000). The nuns clearly appreciated the importance of the documents: Another nun said: "[The sentence document] contained clearly what they had said and what we had said. [ . . . ] It was confiscated from us [ . . . ] and they burned it. Ours was in Tibetan, it was very clear, otherwise these would have been very important to keep."

"I looked out from Drapchi prison" and other song lyrics by the Drapchi 14

A recording of the songs sung by Phuntsog Nyidron, Ngawang Sangdrol and the other nuns was smuggled out of prison and to the West, where it was made into the CD Seeing Nothing but the Sky available from Free Tibet Campaign. Following is an extract of lyrics.

We've Sung a Song of Sadness
We've sung a song of sadness
We've sung it from Drapchi prison
Like the happy and joyful snow mountains
We've sung this song for the sake of freedom
Previously, a spiritual realm of dharma
Now, is changed to a barbaric prison ground.
Even at the cost of our lives, we Tibetans,
Will never lose our courage.
O, what a sad fate we Tibetans have!
To be tortured mercilessly by barbarians
We don't have freedom
Under the yoke of these barbarians

I looked out from Drapchi Prison
I looked out from Drapchi prison
There was nothing to see but sky
The clouds that gather in sky,
We thought, if only these were our parents.
We fellow prisoners
[Like] flowers in Norbulingka,
Even if we're beaten by frost and hail,
Our joined hands will not be separated.
The white cloud from the east
Is not a patch that is sewn
A time will come when the sun will emerge
From the cloud
And shine clearly
Our hearts are not sad;
Why should we be sad?
Even if the sun doesn't shine during the day
There will be the moon at night
E ven if the sun doesn't shine during the day
There will be the moon at night

"May No Others Suffer Like This"
Song of sadness in our hearts
We sing this to our brothers and friends
What we Tibetans feel in this darkness will pass
The food does not sustain body or soul
Beatings impossible to forget
This suffering inflicted upon us
May no others suffer like this
In the heavenly realm, the land of snows
Land of unending peace and blessings
May Avalokiteshvara Tenzin Gyatso2
Reign supreme throughout all eternity