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.

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Expensive dish causes controversy

by Tenzin Shakya, Staff Writer

Fishermen capture millions of sharks each year, cutting off their fins and then throwing the used bodies back into the sea. Shark fins are a highly prized ingredient used in the traditional Asian delicacy, shark fin soup.

Bay Area animal rights activists and environmentalists recently petitioned for legislation to ban all shark fin products in California in an effort to raise the shark population and restore balance in the ecosystem.

The San Francisco-based Aquarium of the Bay collected more than 3,600 individual letters that will be sent to the National Marine Fisheries Service in hopes of raising awareness for a ban on shark finning.

The tradition of the soup began centuries ago during the Ming dynasty in China as a delicacy fit for only emperors and noble members of society. The soup became a symbol of statues and families began serving it at banquets and weddings across Asia as a way of honoring special occasions.

In the Chinatown district alone, there are more than 20 restaurants serving the soup for an average of $32 per serving. The soups are priced as high as $100 per serving at some high-end restaurants.

“It’s a way of sharing expensive, rare items to tell others that they are special,” said SF State alumni Christopher Winn, an advocate for the protection of sharks from overfishing and a volunteer with Sea Steward, a non-profit shark conservation and documentary film organization.

Making shark fin soup is a tradition that SF State student Kim Nyugen and her mother practice.

“My mother makes it occasionally and a shark is just another fish for her,” she said. “It’s pretty tasty and we only serve it on rare occasions.”

The shark finning process results in more than 73 million shark deaths annually, according to Oceana, the largest international organization focused solely on ocean conservation.

“Shark fins are the most unsustainable seafood product being served,” said David McGuire, director of Sea Steward. “The problem is that fins are coming from other countries, almost entirely certainly from the finning fishery.”

However, some cooks have found creative ways to take the ‘shark’ out of shark fin soup.

Award-wining San Francisco chef Corey Lee, of Benu restaurant in San Francisco, has cooked up his own alternative for consumers who wish to enjoy the controversial dish.

Lee serves faux shark fin soup to his customers in the belief that the flavor and nutrients actually come from the other ingredients that are used to prepare the soup.

“The ‘shark fin’ that we have on our menu is not really shark fin,” said Carey Snowden, administrative manager at Benu. “Chef Lee, appreciating both the unsustainability of the dish and the culinary importance of it, used hydrocolloids to develop a faux shark fin for the soup.”

By definition, hydrocolloids are substances that mix gel and water together. Many hydrocolloids come from natural substances and have been used in various cultures around the world.

Congress banned the practice of shark finning in U.S. waters in 2000. However, transporting shark fins by sea is not illegal, which allows fishermen to practice shark finning elsewhere and export the fins to the Bay Area.

The Shark Conservation Act of 2009 planned to close these loopholes. The legislation passed the House of Representatives last year only to be blocked in the U.S Senate by Sen. John Rockefeller in a filibuster blocking all committee votes.

Over the summer, Hawaii became the first state to pass a law that banned not only shark finning but also made it illegal to possess, sell or distribute shark fins in the state.

If the SCA, also known as SB 850, had passed in the United States, the loophole that currently allowed the transporting of fins to the country would be illegal. However, many sharks are still protected by the Endangered Species Act of 1973.

With the 111th Congress nearly out of session, activists are unsure of where SB 850 stands. However, that has not stopped them from localizing the issue by campaigning for local legislation in cities worldwide.

Though many other species impact life under water, sharks affect the nature of the sea the most, swimming high on top of the food chain. Within the last two decades, the shark population has decreased by nearly 90 percent, according to Sea Steward’s website.

Some consumers have no plans to quit consuming shark fin soup, however.

“I eat it because it is good and there are several different ways to make it,” said Luly Lui as she stepped out of Mayflower Seafood Restaurant in Chinatown. “Also, it’s good for you since it has a lot of nutrients in the soup. Unfortunately it is a bit pricey.”

Aside from the animal rights argument, some groups have also said that the dish may not, in fact, be safe for consumption.

Studies conducted by WildAid, an organization with a mission to reduce consumer demand for endangered wildlife products and to encourage responsible energy consumption behavior, show that sharks have the highest levels of toxic mercury among other fish and that shark fins are a health hazard, especially for pregnant women.

According to the U.S Food and Drug Administration, most sharks have more mercury intake than is considered safe for humans.

Using digital media to raise awareness, WildAid started producing campaigns online featuring some of China’s biggest celebrities, such as Jackie Chan and Yao Ming, in an attempt to change society’s attitudes toward the soup.

For some, these campaigns have swayed them away from the tradition.

“When I lived in Hong Kong, I had a lot of shark (fin) soup” said Kwan Lee, a resident of Chinatown. “Last year, I saw a movie about it and it was so sad that I stopped eating shark fin soup.”

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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 Phayul.com 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.

“The Tibetans in Tibet are waiting and they will remember!”

Tibetans all over the world are feeling the after math of the earth quake right now.

A Newsweek article titled “A Sympathetic Hearing” written by Isacc Stone Fish in Newsweek today reported the following statement “This week’s earthquake—and footage of the devastation—is allowing the average Chinese to see both the poverty and humanity of a region they’re used to seeing only in political terms. “It’s very hard to see real Tibetans” through the media, says Yang. “On TV, they’re dancing all the time, shaking hands with leaders, celebrating, or shown as troublemakers. This is an opportunity to realize that Tibetans live and suffer like we do.” In addition, the sensitivity about minority issues—especially Tibetan ones—in China has choked off civic opportunities for Tibetan-Chinese connections. The earthquake is bringing “unprecedented” Chinese-Tibetan grassroots understanding, “and this could be a very good thing,” says Yang.”

Below is a comment posted by SopheapAng on NewsWeek’s article :

I really wonder how this writer Issac Smelly Fish who was employed to bad-mouth China for a living and those despicable so-called exiled Tibetans would use such a natural disaster to bad-mouth China. One thing I want to ask these disgusting and despicable people is this: Where is your help?

The Tibetans in exile needs to answer this question. We need to tackle it head- on and communicate to the rest of the world and SHOW them that we are helping. The Tibetan associations around the world should fund-raise money, donate money, and support the Tibetans in Tibet. Most of the Tibetans in exile have already donated money, but have failed to reach the masses to announce that Tibet is at our top priority and we are helping our people.

Here is comment by TenzinZ on the same article:

I hope China will help rebuild this region and give the Tibetans greater opportunity and freedom, maybe it’ll be a start for us Tibetans and Chinese to gain a better mutual understanding. Also, I hope international community will donate as they have so generously done in Haiti -because the Tibetan people need your help so desperately. Please consider giving to Tibetan charities as the funds will go directly to those affected by the earthquake as opposed to other infrastructure development or get lost somewhere! I know we Tibetans have a resilient spirit, may we continue to believe in hope.

It is wonderful to see that the Chinese government are aiding the Tibetans during this devastating tragedy.

The Wall Street Journal reported “China’s leaders took a high-profile, hands-on approach to dealing with the disaster that struck one of the country’s most troubled ethnic-minority areas… and quoted Wian Jia Bao saying “We will make all-out efforts to build a new Yushu,” Mr. Wen, a member of China’s majority Han ethnic group, promised residents Friday, according to state media. “Whether you are Tibetan or Han, we are all from one family and we need to take care of each other.. Your suffering is our suffering,” Mr. Wen told townspeople in Jiegu, where most residents are Tibetan.

One would hope that Mr Wen’s words are genuine and heart felt to the current situation of Tibetans in Jyekundho, Tibet.

In fact, if one accessed the statement correctly, the message behind the “one unity mantra” carries precisely the same universal message that His Holiness the Dalai Lama has been stating for over 51 years. We are all the same, and our suffering is your, suffering. In fact His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama’s statement  at the TIBETAN-CHINESE CONFERENCE IN GENEVA ON AUGUST 6, 2009 read the following statement “I request your help in carrying a message to the Chinese people that we Tibetans harbor no hatred against our Chinese brothers and sisters, and that we Tibetans are neither anti-Chinese nor anti-China. I seek your help and cooperation in preventing the issue of Tibet being turned into an issue of racial prejudice and antagonism between the Tibetan and Chinese peoples.”

When such natural disasters hit the poorest countries of the world, one thing is for certain; people react!

We can raise funds, individually, or with our community or even with our co-workers or even online. We can raise funds, we have seen it done before and we know it is possible.  Here are some ways in which Tibetans in exile can help the Tibetans in Tibet and let the know that we are thinking of them!

Write an email to your local businesses, foundations, friends, family members and co-workers. ASK FOR DONATION! It might be $5 from your neighbor and $5 from your friend, but if one person from the community gets even $100 and contribute to an association or a network of Tibetans, they will know.

Twitter, Facebook, youtube, etc- all social networks which carry thousands of friends, strangers, supporters and PEOPLE- make an URGENT call and ALERT THEM!

It is my personal belief that a community donating together will make a bigger effect on the Tibetans inside Tibet. Announce it on your association’s website, blog that you are doing a fundraising drive for the recent quake that hit Tibet. Once we have the money, we need to advertise, YES i said advertise- Let the whole world know, we are in support!

We cannot stop these natural disasters from occurring it seems, but it is definite that we can do something to help in the aftermath of such events to assist the vicitims and help them survive.

Kennedy once said “We have nothing to fear but fear itself”.. . Perhaps it is my own fear….  I fear that the Tibetans in Tibet will remember if we don’t come through for them now. One thing is for sure, we need to reach them and let them know, we are helping, we are definitely helping and trying our best.

I was informed today that four NGO’s based in the US – working in Tibet have networked together and formed a FUND for the Tibet Relief Fund which is provided by the SSG.

Update from Program Director of SSG: Snowland Services Group (SSG) is the best known Tibetan NGO in the earthquake area and is likely to lead many local NGO efforts there.  It is difficult to assess the situation: around 80% of building houses have collapsed, the water dam has been damaged, people are afraid that it might collapse and flood the city. Most people moved to the house festival ground this evening where some tents have been installed. SSG is trying to organize emergency services: water, food, medicine, tents, clothes and beddings. Our cashier who was seven month pregnant has died. It is hard to assess the number of persons who died. SSG believes it is much more probably above 3000. One important issue is that people have stopped rescue after a couple of hours, due to lack of hope and equipment. I still need time to asses to situation as today we have mainly been trying to find survivors….people fear that another earthquake might occur this evening. The needs are huge… The situation , here is critical.”

You can donate to feed, shelter and supply food and medical aide to the victims of this earth quake by donating to the following organizations. 100% of the donation goes directly to the Tibetans in Tibet.

Please visit the following sites to donate!

  • Yushu Earthquake Response
  • Tibet Village Project
  • Tibet Relief Fund
  • Machik
  • Tibet Foundation
  • If you cannot donate, then please send this letter to all your friends, co-workers and family members.

    Also Visit Students for Free Tibet’s blog to find other ways to make a difference during this devastating time!

    MORE WAYS YOU CAN HELP – Students for a Free Tibet


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