On the 30th anniversary of a small but unprecedented, trend-setting demonstration on Sep 27, 1987 by a handful of monks of Sera Monastery in Tibet’s capital Lhasa, Dr Blake Kerr*, an American doctor who witnessed the event and the savage Chinese crackdown on it with his lawyer friend John Ackerly*, relives that fateful moment and remains disappointed that there have since then been more disappointments than hopes for solution to the issues that have given rise to that fateful moment, with the result that Tibetans have now taken to carry out protest self-immolations in the face of a seemingly genocidal fate their ancient homeland and people appear to be destined for.
Thirty years ago, John Ackerly and I witnessed the largest independence demonstration in the Tibetan capital of Lhasa since the Dalai Lama fled into exile in 1959.
After John graduated from American University law school in Washington DC, and I graduated from SUNY Buffalo School of medicine, we bought one-way tickets to Hong Kong on July 4, 1987, and traveled overland across China to the Tibetan side of Everest. After getting to 22,000 feet in our sneakers, we hitchhiked back to Lhasa in search of lost kilos.
On October 1st, China’s National Day, a handful of monks from Sera Monastery with homemade Tibetan Flags circumambulated the Jokhang Temple – the heart of Lhasa and Tibetan Buddhism. Pilgrims stopped prostrating. Vendors closed their stalls. Everyone followed the monks.
When John got to the police station, hundreds of Tibetans were chanting, “China out of Tibet” outside the police station. Five jeeps packed with police had just herded the monks inside. John could hear muffled gunshots. A woman yelled in English, “They’re killing our monks.”
John photographed the crowd laying siege to the police station; police shooting from the rooftops and street; two monks running into the flames with rocks in their hands; one monk coming out of the blaze with all of the skin falling off his face and arms, a 25-year-old man shot through the chest.
It took three days to wash the blood off my hands from documenting 12 deaths, including a 16-year-old boy who had been beaten to death with a shovel inside the police station, and a 10-year-old boy shot through his heart that died in my hands. The following week, sneaking out to treat the wounded hiding in their homes and monasteries, I encountered people dying from gunshot wounds, internal bleeding, infections, torture, and something worse.
As I was cleaning the entrance and exit wounds through one man’s calf, I asked his 19-year-old wife, Kunyang, if she had any children. When Kunyang spoke, she recounted the previous year when her work unit leader noticed she was pregnant and told her to go to the People’s Hospital. Kunyang did not have permission to have a child and was trying to hide her pregnancy.
A doctor at the People’s Hospital gave Kunyang an injection in her abdomen that made her go into labor. She heard her baby cry twice. Once when his head presented in the birth canal, and when the doctor injected the soft spot of the boy’s forehead, killing him. Kunyang was sterilized by tubal ligation the next day.
While 10,000 soldiers surrounded the Barkhor and began house-to-house searches, John worked with a handful of Tibetans and overland travelers who stayed as long as they could to chronicle Chinese soldiers dragging injured Tibetans, or anyone in possession of an image of the Dalai Lama, from their homes to Drapchi Prison. Overland travelers were stripped of their film and forced onto buses. One week after the riot, soldiers with nails driven through the ends of clubs attacked the monks in Sera Monastery after midnight.
We were lucky to slip onto the last flight to Kathmandu, where reporters asked why Tibetans had taken guns from Chinese police and shot Tibetans. When we described Chinese police firing into unarmed crowds, we were able to refute the Chinese propaganda at that time. We also learned that the Dalai Lama had invited us to Dharamsala, India, home to thriving Tibetan culture, in exile.
The Dalai Lama was saddened to hear that Tibetan monks–who had dedicated their lives to nonviolence–had thrown rocks at Chinese soldiers. He also understood that this was a reaction to extreme stress. His Holiness listened intently as John described his impressions of Lhasa before the riots: more Chinese immigrants than Tibetans, children not learning their own language in schools, and monks who said they were “workers in a museum.”
His Holiness peppered us with questions about everyone who was killed: “How many people were in the crowds?” “How many Tibetans worked for the police?” and, “Did any Tibetan policeman shoot into the crowd?” When John gave His Holiness a handful of bullet casings, he laughed. “Some people bring me flowers. You bring me bullets!” Before we left, His Holiness admonished us to not hate the Chinese for what they are doing. “The Chinese are good people. It is governments that make trouble.”
Back in Washington DC, after addressing the Congressional Human Rights Caucus, and Senate Foreign Relations Committee, we published a dozen articles and reports on Tibet that were in no danger of becoming bestsellers. We also accepted over 100 invitations to speak at high schools, colleges and human rights organizations across North America. At every large university after our slideshow ended, angry Chinese students (who had never been to Tibet) denounced us and said that Tibet was an “Internal Affair of China.” This was exactly what we had heard from the US State Department.
Human rights investigations are inherently frustrating. It can take hours to interview someone before they feel comfortable talking about the suffering they have experienced or inflicted. When John started working for the International Campaign for Tibet, and I started my general practice on eastern Long Island, we spent our free time interviewing Tibetan refugees in India and Nepal. This culminated in a report published by Physicians for Human Rights in 1989, The Suppression of a People, Accounts of Torture and Imprisonment in Tibet. One month after the report, while testifying before the House Foreign Operations Committee, several congressmen queried, “How did you know who these people were?” “How did you know where they came from?” and, “How can you trust refugees?”
We had to agree that on site information was better than refugee accounts. For the remainder of the 1980’s and 1990’s, we returned separately seven times to Tibet to document the underside of China’s military occupation. While John worked for the International Campaign for Tibet until 2009, he also took it upon himself to photograph China’s prisons in Lhasa: Sangyip, Drapchi, Gutsa, Utitod and Titchu; labor camps in Xining and the Tang Karmo Valley, and China’s gulag in Qinghai. What he learned was shocking.
“The primary purpose of torture is to extract information,” John explains. “Tortures include beatings with electric prods, suspensions, submersions, dogs, exposure to extreme temperatures and malnutrition. Because Tibet has many different cultures and guards, there are a wide variety of tortures with no holds barred.” The worst tortures are reserved for women, especially nuns, who are violated and raped with electric batons.
“If a Tibetan prisoner cooperates with their Chinese interrogators, divulges ‘Agents of the Dalai Clique,’ and proclaims that, ‘Tibet is part of China,’ they will be treated leniently. Suffering is prolonged as long as possible for prisoners who defy their captors. If these prisoners survive and are released, the debilitated shell of their former self is a warning to anyone who defies Chinese occupation.
After meeting Kunyang, I developed an interest in China’s National Family Planning Policy in Tibet, and traveled to People’s Hospitals in Lhasa and remote regions of Amdo and Kham. On one trip, I documented 13 coerced sterilizations and 11 abortions, and confirmed ten times that many. Until recently, China allowed Chinese women in the mainland to have one child, while minority women may have two children, but there are many restrictions. Tibetan women have to be married and have permission from their work unit leader to have one child, and wait four years before having a second.
There is a pressure continuum throughout Tibet. Women with unauthorized pregnancies who go to a People’s Hospital are at extreme risk of coerced abortion, sterilization and, if the child is born, infanticide. Even if the family can afford to pay an exorbitant fine–often several years’ salary–the parents face demotion. Worse, the unauthorized child will not get a ration card for basic food staples, attend school, work or travel.
In 2005, a small human rights organization in Spain, the Comite de Apoya al Tibet, filed a lawsuit against Jiang Zemin, China’s past President and head of the People’s Liberation Army, and Li Peng, China’s past Prime Minister, for committing crimes against humanity in Tibet.
Under the principal of Universal Jurisdiction, any country signatory to international treaties has a duty to bring charges against the perpetrators of genocide in countries that do not have independent judiciaries. The Spanish National Court used this principal to have General Pinochet arrested in 1998 for committing crimes against humanity in Chile during the 1970’s and 1980’s.
For six years, China and the US State Department tried to thwart my testifying in Madrid at the Spanish National Court. In December 2011, after Judge Ismael Moreno heard my testimony, he accepted 20 kilos of John’s and my written, audio, photographic and video documentation taken inside Tibet, and authorized money for their translation.
John and I were gobsmacked in February 2014 when Judge Moreno submitted arrest warrants to Interpol for Jiang Zemin, Li Peng and five other Chinese officials for committing genocide in Tibet. Five months later, when China pressured the Spanish government to overturn their national court’s finding, I made a documentary film from the hidden camera footage submitted to the Spanish National Court, as an offering to the Court of World Opinion.
Reflecting on 30 years of human rights investigations in Tibet, I am afraid that things are getting worse: witness 150 Tibetans who have immolated themselves to protest Chinese occupation since February 27, 2009. As Chinese immigrants outnumber Tibetans in cities and towns, as Tibetan Buddhism is suppressed, as Tibetan children do not learn their own language in schools and Tibetan women are sterilized, I fear that China is conducting a slow, deliberate genocide in Tibet.
John is more optimistic. “I feel that the altitude is Tibet’s best friend. Even though there are a lot of Chinese immigrants coming in, they often return to the Mainland to give birth or retire. Tibet still has a lot of time. Tibetans are investing in their own culture. Although the Chinese Communist party has not changed, and a political solution is nowhere in sight, there is hope, as long as the Tibetans’ spirit remains.”
Water Mill, N.Y.
* Blake Kerr is the author of Sky Burial: an eyewitness account of China’s brutal crackdown in Tibet. His documentary film, Eye of the Lammergeier, won Scientific and Educational award at the Berlin International Filmmaker Festival in October.
John Ackerly, a former President of the International Campaign for Tibet, Washington, DC, is currently with the Alliance for Green Heat, MD.