Blazing monks

The tragic burning alive of Tibetan spiritual leader, monk Nyage Sonamdrugyu, and 2 other attempts at self immolation, this month brought the Tibetan cause briefly back into the mainstream world news circuit and haunted me into recalling my promise to tell the story of some Tibetan friends.

How bad must it be to feel like this is your only way out?

Pretty bad, it seems. In 2009 on a trip through India I spent some time with Tibetan refugees in McLeod Ganj.  I ended up befriending some local Tibetans, which is easy enough in this area (the home to the exiled government of Tibet and the Dalai Lama). I got along well with them and gave some English lessons to one of the guys. Over the course of the coming days my conversations with my new friends would change me. They would each tell me their story in their own way as we chatted over tea or beer, played ping pong, and wandered about the hills near Dharamsala. Thinking of the combusting monks, I felt the urge to share these stories.

One guy had been a guide for tourists in Tibet. For him it was heartbreaking to have to tell tourists blatant lies about the areas, the people, and the history. (FYI If you take a guided tour through Tibet, this is what you’re likely to get).  At one point he had befriended a tourist and was caught by the government for trying to help that foreigner access some information on Tibet. To pay for it he was taken to a room somewhere in a place like a railway station. You see, the government doesn’t have jails per se but tucked away in many buildings and obvious public places are holding cells. He remained there for days. He was beaten and not well fed. Finally, he was allowed to contact his father and was released. He escaped the country shortly after.

Another friend was worse off. He had tried to escape and been caught on the Himalaya. He was taken back to Tibet, held, tortured (electric shocks whilst dunked in water) and then eventually one day released. Cold dark stones enter my stomach as I think back to that conversation. He risked all that to attempt escape again: this time making it. The common thread for all I met there is the journey over the Himalaya to escape the occupiers. If you make it, that’s about 48 days walking to get to Nepal; mainly at night; nothing but the clothes on your back and Tsampa, the Tibetan barley porridge powder to eat. A hell of a hike. Now they can’t go back due to the reprisals, but obviously they miss the plateau, their families (who they do seem to freely call, text, and often e-mail), nature, and for some the nomadic life they lived as yak herders.

The situation today in Tibet is alarming: why else would nuns and monks burn themselves alive and young vibrant people risk their lives to escape? I watched footage that a Tibetan student had taken as he snuck back into the country in 2008. Women testifying that they were forced to have sterilization treatment: taken to clinics, not told why, then left there, bleeding and in pain. Large compounded housing units are erected in the middle of nowhere to house people, who have been evicted from their lands and nomadic lives. The atrocities seem to go on and those responsible for it are left unchecked by the international community – valuing economic growth over fundamental human and religious rights. Every time a monk burns it blazes into my heart just how sad this is.

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