Story of Ngawang Sangdrol la, Tibetan female political prisoner who spent 11 years in the Drapchi Prison

Before the era of Twitter and Facebook, political prisoners such as Ngawang Sangdrol-la recorded songs on tape cassettes to document the inhumane treatment they experienced in the Drapchi prison of China. 

Sangdrol-la (la is used after an elder’s name as a title of respect) shared her story at Amnesty International’s office in San Francisco during her first visit to the Bay Area last week on the eve of the National Tibetan Uprising Day.

Sangdrol- la at age 13

She told the audience that she was only 13 in 1990 when she decided to join 20 other protesters in Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, in a demonstration aimed at expressing opposition to the oppression she felt under the Chinese government. She and the other protesters had joined together to express their desire for a free Tibet.She remembers the day vividly still, walking through the streets of Lhasa shouting “Free Tibet” and “Long live His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama.”The protesters knew they couldn’t be in a group together and decided to spread out individually, shouting and singing their message.

“We knew we would be caught. We had no desire to run or escape. Our plan was to shout until they (the Chinese police) caught us,” she said. And they did, she said, recalling how Chinese army officials pinned her to the ground and then dragged her away from the crowd.

“I remember people saying, ‘She’s so young, please let her go, she’s bleeding,’ ” said Sangdrol-la. She had violated an official Chinese governmental policy banning all pictures of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan flag.Sangdrol-la said she did not receive a fair trial and was sent to a detention center for nine months. Still, prison was better than the fate of her brother, she said. Chinese police shot him dead when he, too, was 13.When she was very little, she used to watch movies made in China, depicting the Chinese army as “kindhearted soldiers,” fighting against the Japanese Army to protect the mother country.

“I remember feeling like the Chinese are our own people because the TV made me think I was no different. I disliked the Japanese because in the movies they were the bad soldiers who killed the kindhearted Chinese soldiers,” Sangdrol-la recalled. But “father yelled at me and told me the real story of my country, and what had happened to my brother.”

She said that she suffered terrible interrogations, was beaten and tortured in prison, kept hungry and in solitary confinement because she would not denounce the Dalai Lama. She told the audience about the terror of shock treatments she received.”One day the authorities brought a strange object that looked like a telephone. It was actually an electric prod,” she said. The officer asked her if she wanted to call home and when she said her home didn’t have a telephone, she said the officer said he would install one.”Then he put the object in my shirt and turned it on. My entire body shook in a way I couldn’t control. That was my first electric shock, but not the last.”She was arrested again in 1992 during a similar protest and sentenced to three years in prison, but her sentence was increased to 13 years because she would not renounce her beliefs.The prison did not allow family members to visit very often but through surreptitious means, Sangdrol-la and another inmate were able to get their hands on the cassettes and began recording songs to smuggle outside of the prison.

“We recorded freedom songs to tell our loved once that we were OK and even though the conditions were horrible in prison, we still had hope and we were not going to give up,” said Sangdrol-la. “We never thought it would actually reach the outside world like this.”

In 2002, she was released to the U.S. government. She was in critical health and, upon arrival in America, was taken to a hospital in Chicago.Yangchen Lhamo, a member of the Students for a Free Tibet, part of the S.F. Team Tibet coalition, which co-organized the event, said she has heard this story before but “it never gets any less disturbing.””I now live in freedom. But, everyday, I worry about those thousands of Tibetans who are still suffering today, right at this minute, for doing nothing more than a peaceful protest,” said Sangdrol-la.


Bay Area protests language policies in Tibet

Photo Credit : Yangkyi Deteng

Dozens of pro-Tibet activists gathered outside San Francisco’s Chinese consulate on Oct. 29 to demonstrate against the Chinese Community Party’s proposition to make Chinese-Mandarin the official language in local schools.

A series of protests began Oct. 20 in Western China involving thousands of students following the announcement and activists are saying that this policy threatens the identity of Tibetans and other minorities established in China.

“These policies targeting a set of minorities resemble the tactics used back in the 80s during the Cultural Revolution,” said SF State student Lhamo Dolma, 21, International Relations major.

Dolma’s parents fled Tibet after the Chinese invasion in 1959, and settled in a remote village in Southern India before immigrating to California in 1996. Since then, Dolma has been active in the Tibetan movement by helping coordinate events and volunteering with Students for a Free Tibet, an organization campaigning for “Tibetans’ fundamental right to political freedom and independence.”

The online Tibetan news site reported more than 1000 students in Tibet marching through the streets of Western China and Beijing carrying banners reading “Protest ethnic minority languages, carry forward Chinese civilization.”

Photo Credit: Yangkyi Deteng

“Even though China is massively progressing in the world economy, policies like this proves the weakness of a government not able to protect the rights of its citizens,” Dolma said.

Protesters used bull horns to amplify their slogans while shouting “Equality of race and freedom of language.” The Tibetan advocates accuse the CCP of detaining 20 students already since last Saturday’s protests in China.

According to Article 4 of the Chinese constitution “The people of all nationalities have the freedom to use and develop their own spoken and written languages, and to preserve or reform their own ways and customs.”

Xinhua News, the official press agency of the People’s Republic of China released statements from officials denying allegations of targeting the Tibetan identity through the oppression of their language.

China was scrutinized many times for their ways of operating internet censorship and government controlled media.

Google experienced this first hand when it announced it’s decision to pull out of China back in March after the company discovered China-based cyber-attacks trying to breach Google’s infrastructure. The company moved to Hong Kong and China’s internet system is currently censored by government authorities.

Education Department Director Wang Yubo of the Qinghai province in China said “the program to teach classes only in Mandarin Chinese was not aimed at wiping out Tibet’s native tongue,” according to Xinhua.  Officials were reported saying that they will respect students and parents viewpoints before enforcing the policy but no promises have been made yet.

However, according to the document submitted to Qinghai government in China, over 300 teachers have signed their names to a letter requesting the Chinese government to reconsider their proposal, stating that it does not benefit the education system.

“Freedom to speak one’s own language is inherent to the principles of freedom and equality and are being forcefully denied to Tibetan students as a direct result of China’s illegal occupation of Tibet,” said Giovanni Vassallo, SF State alumnus and president of Bay Area Friends of Tibet.

Photo Credit : Yangkyi Deteng

The tension between ethnic minorities and the dominant Han Chinese has become an issue in the world arena since the March 2008 protests in Tibet that left over 200 people dead, and resulted in a ban against foreign correspondents and journalists to China. Ethnic groups in China were seen on cell phone videos uploaded on youtube demanding for the halt on Han Chinese migration to their rural towns through the new railway system which they said was hurting their local economy. San Francisco witnessed this first hand during the controversial Beijing Olympic torch‘s arrival back in April of 2008.

Thousands of activists opposed the torch relay ceremony that was held in San Francisco – the only city to receive it in North America. Advocates condemned China’s conduct in relation to human rights, including torch bearer Majora Carter, executive director of Sustainable South Bronx.

“So, although I have no longstanding connection to Tibet, I would not be able to call myself a drum major for justice if I did not speak my concern for Tibetans inside Tibet who are being persecuted by the Chinese government for expressing their desire for freedom,” Carter said in her statement to the press that day.

Though opposition groups accuse this policy of being a human rights issue in China, the Chinese government officials claim their intent is to bridge the education gap between China’s various ethnic groups and promote development in ethnic minority areas according to Xinhua.

According to Director Jiaxin Xie of The Confucius Institute at San Francisco State University “Language not only connect people, it connects the culture and economy.”

Xie said it’s good to teach different languages but “Every country needs a predominant language.”

Mandarin is the common language spoken by more than 90% of the Han Chinese population however, majority of immigrants tend to speak languages of their own dialect as a mean of preserving one’s culture.

Jenny Leong who works at the Chinese Cultural Center of San Francisco’s China Town District said the center does not take any political stance regarding China’s policies. But, in regards to the importance of languages other than Mandarin, she said “Cantonese is spoken more than Mandarin in China Town and majority of the first Chinese immigrants spoke Cantonese, not Mandarin.”

Despite differences of political views, language has historically been marked as one of the key ingredients in preserving ones cultural background, and ethnic identity. A study conducted by the American Forum for Global Education cites language of choice as “a major way of asserting ethnic identity. Ethnicity in turn is tied to language loyalty: staying with a language even when you might expect economic forces to turn you away from it.”

“We call upon the Chinese government to adhere to its own constitution and respect these principles at the heart of the ethnic Tibetan identity, they must allow the Tibetan language to be respectfully taught in all of Tibet,” said Vasallo.

Terrorist Liaisons hired by the San Francisco Police Department

By Tenzin Shakya, staff writer

Hundreds of Bay Area residents gathered in front of the Human Rights Commission Sept. 23 to voice concerns regarding the San Francisco Police Department’s decision to hire additional Terrorist Liaison Officers.

“San Francisco, a city which prides itself on its progressive values, just hired 40 new terrorist liaisons and none of us even knows what that means,” said Veena Dubal, staff attorney at the Asian Law Caucus.

“Since Sept. 11th, we have received harrowing accounts from clients and ourselves witness the McCarthyist tactics of the FBI and Joint Terrorism Task Force against both political activists and the Muslim community at large,” Dubal said.

TLOs are active duty police officers who volunteer to receive training from other government agencies.

At the meeting, community members related their experiences after 9/11 and argued that San Francisco Police Chief George Gascón’s desire to change department rules on gathering intelligence infringes on their First Amendment rights.

The first speaker was Josh Singh, an 8-year-old Sikh boy who donned a red “patka,” a religious head garment. He said when he was at San Francisco International Airport, officials separated him from his parents and told him to remove the garment. His mortified parents stood aside, separated by a glass wall as they saw their young son go through the search. Singh said he continued to ask what he did wrong, but was not told anything. He asked, “Why was I the only boy behind the glass box?”

Sgt. Troy Dangerfield, a spokesman for the SFPD, said TLOs do not watch religious organizations or specific groups of people. Police officials must prove reasonable suspicion of criminal activity before opening an investigation, according to staff attorney Julia Mass of the American Civil Liberties Union.

“The definition of First Amendment protected activity includes expression, advocacy, participation, expressed conduct to further any political or religious opinion,” Mass said.

SFPD’s “One Year Retrospective Report” was released by Chief Gascón in August 2009 and reported that Homeland Security decided to increase the number of TLOs from 40 to 100.

According to the report, TLOs reach out to the community by educating business owners about terrorist threats and reporting protocol.

In 2008, California Homeland Security Director Matthew Bettenhausen testified before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee and urged them to give more authority to local governments by allowing full access to information gathered by terrorism prevention institutions created after 9/11.

Consistent with the 9/11 Act, homeland security grants states at least 25 percent of Urban Areas Security Initiative appropriated funds to go toward anti-terrorism efforts.

“We need local legal safeguards to prevent intrusions on the civil liberties of San Francisco’s residents,” said Hararah. “Because of police collaborations with the FBI or ICE, our communities do not feel we can rely on the local law enforcement for help.”

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Californians face marijuana legalization decision in November

by Tenzin Shakya, staff writer

Photo Credit Samuel E Heller

On Nov. 2 California voters will decide if marijuana should be legalized for individuals over 21 years of age to possess and cultivate despite the federal government’s disapproval.

If the measure passes, Assemblyman Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco) plans to make the state Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control responsible for regulating the cultivation and sale of marijuana by taxing commercial use. Anyone over age 21 would have the legal right to consume less than an ounce of marijuana freely in non-public places without being penalized and would be allowed to cultivate marijuana in personal spaces limited to 25 square feet.

Ammiano’s introduction of Assembly Bill 2254 which is currently pending, would tax $50-per-ounce and directly fund the state’s drug related education programs.

“It’s a 21 and over law and varies from county to county and if LA does not want legal weed, they don’t need to have it. If San Francisco wants it, it can,” said Joshua Nermon, president of the SF State Student’s for a Sensible Drug Policy. “You have to start somewhere and everything in the past decade has built up to this moment, legalizing marijuana and starting to look at our whole drug policy in a totally different light.”

Nermon said Proposition 19 would reduce the penalty for possession, send fewer people to jail and address the public’s use of marijuana. He said medical marijuana is designed for patients, but people have abused it by using it for recreational purposes.

According to the World Drug Report 2010, provided by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, marijuana is the most commonly used illicit drug in the world.

“But in a way, it’s a good thing because it has opened people’s eyes to how harmless it is,” said Nermon. “Marijuana does not create a dependency as other drugs like heroin.”

Max Mier, a medical marijuana patient and the creator of the iPhone application “Herb Converter,” gathered signatures for Proposition 19 by the Dolores Park Cafe in San Francisco’s Mission District. He said, “Marijuana is a much safer alternative to relieve stress versus the currently available alcohol which does, in some cases, destroy families.”

At SF State, “the typical consequence for possession (of marijuana) is completion of an educational module,” said Ellen Griffin, spokesperson for SF State. However, a “student with an intent to sell is automatically evicted from University Housing.”

SF State’s policy on marijuana is in compliance with the federal government’s Controlled Substances Act which recognizes marijuana as an illegal drug and does not acknowledge the difference between medical and recreational use of marijuana.

“Local or state laws do not apply on campus, so Proposition 19, if passed, will not affect the University,” she said.

Proposition 19 is estimated to generate $1.4 billion in tax revenue and help fund state programs. Despite revenue generated, opponents are in disagreement.

“This free-for-all measure is deeply flawed and poorly written and it’s doubtful that we’ll see the revenue listed by proponents,” said Roger Salazar, spokesperson forNo on Proposition 19.

He said unlike alcohol which is regulated statewide, this measure would leave it up to 536 different counties and cities to enforce and regulate laws in local jurisdictions. It would be “costing law enforcement more time and money to control marijuana and regulate authorized dispensaries.” Salazar called Proposition 19 a “jumbled legal nightmare” and said he doubts it will pass.

Senator Dianne Feinstein, District Attorney Kamala Harris and Mayor Gavin Newsom have announced their opposition to Proposition 19 and are calling on their supporters to vote against it.

“California will not see a single positive result if Proposition 19 passes,” Senator Feinstein said in July when she announced that she would co-chair the No on Proposition 19 campaign. “It is a poorly constructed initiative that will cause harm to Californians on our roadways, and in our schools, workplaces and communities,” she said.

Opponents predict legalized marijuana would lead to a decrease in its price, and the revenue generated from taxes will not be worth the efforts. It would also mean cheaper marijuana for patients who use it for medical marijuana purposes.

According to a study released by the RAND Corp, a non-profit research institute, the retail price of marijuana could drop to as low as $38 per ounce compared to the current estimated $375 per ounce.

In an email to [X]press, San Francisco based pro-marijuana activist and blogger Dragonfly De La Luz said that cities would have the right to levy unlimited taxes on cannabis and “possessing cannabis of any amount will be illegal if it was bought anywhere other than a licensed dispensary, restricting our coming freedom to possess whatever cannabis we choose.”

Frances Hsieh, chair of endorsements at the San Francisco Women’s Political Committee, supports Proposition 19 and said it would help bring money into general funds.

“The amount of money spent on law enforcement could be better spent on social programs involving the youth, family and children,” she said.

The cost of education has been increasing with the state’s budget cuts. Before Proposition 13 of 1978, People’s Initiative to Limit Property Taxation, California schools were funded by local property taxes. After it passed, CA school systems became dependent on state general funds. Proposition 13 limited property taxes in California to no more than one percent of a home’s assessed value, shifting the focus of control from local school funding, to the state.

“We’ll be much better off if we wait until 2012 and vote for the California Cannabis Hemp and Health Initiative (also known as the Jack Herer Initiative),” said De La Luz. “It’ll give us an opportunity to vote in on a legalization initiative that is actually worthy of the name, and that will make fewer people criminals, not more.”

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Student suing SF State after fee increase

by Tenzin Shakya, staff writer

A suit against SF State for breach of contract was denied Monday, August 30, by San Francisco City commissioner Paul Slavit after a two and a half month battle in a small claims court over the school’s 30 percent fee increase.

The plaintiff is SF State student Angela Yuen Uyeda, a communications major graduating next semester. According to court documents, Uyeda requested a reimbursement of a $336 fee increase.

“The increase was a retroactive fee increase for one semester after a fixed amount had been agreed to and paid,” she said in an e-mail sent to [X]Press. “I understand that the fees can be raised, but a deal is a deal.”

Uyeda adds that the “Cal State University system has made a series of rapid-fire tuition and fee increases that have caught students by surprise and created financial turmoil for students and families.”

Due to the latest rounds of California’s budget cuts, the California State University board of trustees voted to raise student fees on June 22.

An email was sent out by the SF State registrar’s office notifying them of the fee increase and another notifying them of of their inability “to register during their Early Priority Registration date and time unless all appropriate fees have been paid.” The fee deadline for students to make final tuition payments was July 8.

Had Yuen not paid the additional $336 she would have lost her priority registration date, requiring her to compete for her classes just weeks before school started.

“The issue with raising student fees is due to the state budget cuts,” said Mike Uhlenkamp, Spokesperson for the CSU system. “We had to find other resources to provide access to the students and it was an unfortunate option but one we had to investigate and implement. ”

The commissioner ruled in favor of the University, citing that no money was owed to Uyeda, meaning the she will not be reimbursed the $336.

“We appreciate the court’s quick and thorough decision, said SF State Spokesperson Ellen Griffin. “Fee increases are truly unfortunate, but as this decision demonstrates, the University acted appropriately.”

Uyeda believes the court ruled in SF State’s favor because she may have failed to make clear to the judge that the retroactive fee increase was not set in stone at the time she paid for the July 2009 tuition.

“I believe the University successfully misrepresented that this policy had always been in force,” she said. “Well, I’ll be better prepared next time. Anyway, the real issue is much larger than my personal law suit.

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