A Letter from Lhasa

The following letter was written by a resident of Lhasa, who wishes to remain anonymous. It gives a personal account of the current situation and the tense atmosphere in the city:

Yesterday it was quite hot outside and the soldiers guarding one of the petrol stations had a big umbrella to protect them from the intense sunlight. Today it’s the opposite: cold, cloudy and even light snowfall as storm-fronts hover over the mountains and sometimes close in on the valley. Like the weather here in Lhasa the rules are quickly changing too. One day you can go nearly everywhere, the next, military checkpoints won’t let you pass. At the beginning of last week it seemed life was getting back to normal. Guards at the checkpoints relaxed and they seemed not as serious anymore, and overall, there was less military on the streets. But then suddenly heavy military presence was back. A few days ago, in the evening, I walked up Beijing Road. As I did, many military trucks passed me and there were patrols everywhere, only a few cars were to be seen driving around, and the streets were near empty of civilian people. The atmosphere was tense and made the young, normally childish looking soldiers, suddenly look scary.

It is difficult to describe Lhasa these days, because you can only see a fraction of what is really going on. If you quickly glance at the city it may seem normal except for the old Tibetan centre, east of the Potala Palace. In the centre, the military has occupied every intersection and stand on every side street, diligently checking your identity card. Even the tiniest of alleyways have at least four military personnel, of whom at least one has a bayonet and all of them a shield, a baton and a helmet. The bigger intersections have more military, and people have to line up in order to get checked. Ethnic Chinese can pass these checkpoints much easier than local Tibetans. Tibetans living at Tromsikhang and the Barkhor area need a special permit, issued by the police, in order to be allowed to go in and out the immediate area surrounding their homes.

The square in front of the holiest Tibetan Temple, the Jokhang, normally a sea of people, prostrating, circumambulating and socialising, is now completely empty. In front of the square two military-men in blue uniforms strictly ensure nobody walks on the square. As back up, in case they miss a person, military-men in green suddenly appear out of nowhere to apprehend and push back person’s entering these normally public areas. The round pedestrian street circling the Jokhang is empty too. Only people living in this area are allowed to pass, but everyone is forbidden to do religious Koras around the Jokhang. Instead on the normally bustling retail and religious lanes you can only find small children playing football and other games, trying to get on with life, behind the military guards on these silent streets.

On Beijing Road and Sera Road the government has initiated road works. Sections of road are being dug up and replaced where cars were burnt during the March 14 protests leaving burned tarmac. Sidewalks on Beijing Road are being repaved as well after protesters used the pavement stones to throw and break shop windows. As you walk through Lhasa, you can still see many burnt or damaged shops. On Beijing Road alone, there are around 16 shops or shopping complexes burnt out, one of them being the Bank of China and one a jewellery store.

Not only are roads and shops getting rebuilt, but also some old, traditional Tibetan houses.

If you look casually around you may not think there is a heavy military presence anymore. However, if you look inside hotels and the courtyards of building, and walled grounds, you see trucks, tents and often companies of soldiers exercising. Wherever there is space, you find the military. They are hidden in any empty building, behind buildings and even in the hospital courtyard of Lhasa City Peoples Hospital.

Walking the streets of Lhasa, seeing big tea houses unusually empty and many shops still closed, makes you aware of how scared people are these days. Very few people stop on the street when they meet friends, because every gathering of people is cause for suspicion. A lot of people still stay at home because they are scared they will get arrested for no reason if they go out.

When you finally find someone not too scared to talk to you, you hear consistent, dramatic, disturbing and daunting stories that give you nightmares. But since they don’t have proof of what happened, it is difficult to inform the media. From the 14th of March 2008, there has been a heavy military presence throughout the city. But people are scared to take photographs because of the many security cameras which monitor the city. People were too scared to take photographs of the tanks in front of the Jokhang Temple and elsewhere in town. And since all the dead bodies got immediately carried away by the military or taken from people’s home during nightly military raids, nobody could prove their brother, relative or friend died. All they could do was confirm that this person had disappeared. All you hear are rumours about the death toll and the number of arrested people. These are anxiously passed on from person to person.

Yesterday I talked to a Tibetan man who was speaking for himself and his friends who want the world to know what is going on here. He asked me if I could pass all the information he has to foreign media, so people here could get help and don’t have to be so scared anymore. By talking to me he risked being arrested and being tortured in prison, but he seemed desperate enough not to care about that. In order to protect him, his family and friends and also myself, I will not mention details about the place we met, his age or job. This is what he told me:

“On March 14th in the afternoon we heard that there were demonstrations going on in front of Ramoche Temple. Later we saw four people dragging a person who was shot dead in front of the Jokhang and that was when we became really scared. Normally the government should use gas or water against protesters, but here they shoot them. So we went home as fast as possible.

In the evening my wife went to pick up our child from school around 6p.m. At that time the military was already on Jiangsu Road were the school was. The military was shooting at the locals who went to pick up their children. One woman got shot in her leg and one man was hit in the head or neck and he died. Later his brother wanted to get his body from the hospital, but the hospital didn’t want to give it to him. Finally the brother became so desperate that he threatened to burn himself and the hospital if they didn’t give his dead brother to his family. The hospital finally gave him his brother’s body, but just a few hours after that the military came and took the dead body away.

After March 14th whenever somebody died, you had to get three different papers in order to be allowed to bring the dead body to the sky burial place. If you didn’t have these papers you got pushed back inside your house with the dead body by the army; a very bad omen in Tibetan culture. These three papers one needed were from the local police, the hospital and a lawyer. The reason for this was that with this rule the government made sure that everybody who didn’t die under normal circumstances was found and taken away from the family, so nobody can take photographs and show them to friends or journalists outside Tibet. The problem for the people was that all the offices were closed during these days and therefore nobody could bring their dead family members to the sky burial place on the days they should have according to Tibetan astrology.

On March 14, 15 and 16 the military came around midnight to check the homes in our area for pictures of the Dalai Lama, and took everybody with them who didn’t have an identity card. They also had with them pictures of people who were in the demonstrations and they compared them with our faces. About 50 military men with guns came to our home and searched everything. We stayed at home for three days, only going out to go to the toilet and we only had tsampa to eat, and people whose home ran out of gas couldn’t even boil water. The gate to our house complex was closed and there were soldiers posted in front of it. If you went out, you got beaten up quite badly by them. After three days everybody who worked for the government got a phone call and had to go back to work. Without this working permit we were still not allowed to go out. I know at least seven people who got arrested and one who got shot for going out without a working permit.

When the foreign journalists were in Lhasa, I think it was from 27th to 29th of March, the military suddenly disappeared from the streets. Instead of wearing their military uniform they changed into traffic police uniforms, gatekeeper uniforms or civil dress and they were hiding inside buildings and behind corners where the journalists couldn’t see them. We were suddenly allowed to go everywhere; there were no checkpoints for those three days. When the journalists were allowed to walk around by themselves, officials in normal clothes or traditional dress followed them, answered their questions and took photographs of individuals who talked to the press. We wanted to tell the press what is going on here in reality, behind the show that was being performed for them, but we didn’t have any chance to get close to them without being punished for that later. When we finally heard that the Jokhang monks told them the truth we were very happy.

The pilgrims inside the Jokhang temple at the time were all elderly officials who were forced to go there for pilgrimage on those three day. Normally these people are not allowed to engage in any religious activities, but on those days they had to go. A lot of the other officials were given leave from their office and were told to go to the Barkhor and the Potala, if possible with their families, so that it looked like there was a lot of freedom in Lhasa.

After the journalists left the military immediately came back in strength, and we heard that the Jokhang monks got arrested for their statements to the foreign media and foreign officials two days later.

Between 17th and 20th of April most of the monks were taken away from Sera to an unknown place. Sera Monastery normally has over 300 monks but now there is only a handful left who care for the chapels. Around midnight about fifteen to twenty military trucks came and detained the monks. We have this information from inside the monastery and also from an abutting (?) owner. But we don’t know what is happening in Drepung and Ganden, two of the biggest monastic centres around Lhasa, but we have heard that monks have been arrested and taken out of Lhasa.

From the monasteries around Lhasa a lot of monks and nuns got taken away too and the ones who are still at their monastery are under house arrest. We think the government is worried that when the Olympic flame is in Lhasa there will be new protests by the monks and nuns. That’s why they detain them. They took all of them, no matter if they protested on March 10th and the following days or not, Only chapel custodians, drivers and a few other monastery workers are allowed to stay in the monasteries.

Lately there are only a few monks to be seen on the streets. It is dangerous for them, because on the Tibetan TV channel they said that for every suspicious person you report to the police you will get RMB20,000. In reality you only get about RMB2000 but still some people call when they see monk or nuns.
Since last week all Tibetans who are not from Lhasa have been ordered to go back to their home districts, except students and teachers studying at government schools. Now the police come to your residence and make you leave Lhasa if you are not from this city. When the Olympic Torch will be in Lhasa only local people and Chinese will be allowed to be here. They did something like this a few years ago at the celebration of the 50th Anniversary of the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet.

There is a big problem in the jails now. There is not enough food, not enough water and not enough blankets. The prisoners have to sleep on the ground and sometimes they only get one cup of water a day and nothing else. This way they get health problems, their bodies get really weak and they sometimes die, either in prison or after they are released. The prisoners get beaten very badly. They especially hit prisoners in the kidney, liver and gall-bladder region so prisoners get internal injuries and die slowly. I know this from three friends who were just released from prison.

We are so worried about our friends and family members who are in prison. We need to help them, but we don’t know what to do. That’s why we have to tell the foreigners so the world will get to know and help us.
The situation is controlled very tightly here in Lhasa. Without ID cards you cannot go out and if you live at Tromsikhang or Barkhor you need a special paper. Wherever there is a gathering or argument people get arrested.

At the schools and in the offices people have to write reports and confessions about the 14th of March and they have to speak ill of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. When they write about the Dalai Lama they are only allowed to write Dalai, and not Lama. Otherwise they have to write it again. My child already had to write such reports three times.

We are scared and worried about the prisoners. After the demonstrations, I saw some military vehicles like they use in the Iraq war, the same vehicles I saw in the news about Iraq. (probably tanks or armoured troop carriers. ed) but they were in our city. I thought these vehicles are only allowed in war between two countries. On the Tibetan TV News one presenter said that the military did a very good job since this was their first experience with something like war and a good opportunity for them to practise how to shoot and how to kill people.

Now they are starting the preparations for the Olympic Flame to come here. They are putting up decorations on the Potala and Jokhang Square. Big Olympic Rings were set up in front of Jokhang and removed again yesterday evening”.

What this man told me, I have also heard from other people not connected to him in any way.

I have no doubt the Chinese government will forbid foreign tourists from visiting here for the next few months. Tibetans want a chance to tell their side of the story; they try to tell you what happened to them. They know they need help from outside and therefore I believe, by preventing tourism, the government has a way of controlling, censoring and suppressing the situation here. What has happened and continues to happen in Lhasa is extremely sad and scary. Never before have I heard monks talking about methods of torture used in local prisons and different gun types that were used by military during this year’s demonstrations in Lhasa. And never before have I seen Tibetan people so desperate and angry that they do things they know they will die for, or be put in prison for a long time.

With the up coming Labour Day Celebrations and Torch Relay in May anxiety has increased in Lhasa and fear of citywide house arrest has resulted in the stockpiling of food.

Every day you see people arguing with soldiers at checkpoints. A father and daughter wanted to pass a checkpoint however the military personnel told the man he was permitted but his daughter, who is not old enough to have an identity card, was refused access due to not having one.

But even in this difficult time you still see brave and good action. Yesterday I saw a little boy, around one or two years old; that I believed displayed a good example of Tibetan spirit. The baby looked as if he had just learnt how to walk and was out with his grandmother and her little dog. They were standing in front of the Jokhang Square where soldiers in blue uniforms ensured that nobody crossed the square. The baby walked up the three steps to the square and started to make prostrations towards the Jokhang while his grandmother also prayed but her frail body prevented her from prostrating as well. When the boy finished he looked at the guards, then at his grandmother, and then started to walk closer to the temple. The guards looked at the baby, not knowing what to do. After about ten meters the baby boy stopped and prostrated again, then turned around, walked back to one of the guards and took his hand to say goodbye. Seeing this reminded me that all Tibetan people want religious freedom and the right to preserve their culture.

They are tired of writing papers against the Dalai Lama, of patriotic re-education and all the rules and regulations that make their life so difficult.
Lhasa, 27.04.2008


24 Replies to “A Letter from Lhasa”

  1. This letter tells us all that we must work hard for a free Tibet. It gives us a glimpse of life under the cruel occupation of Chinese regime, which do not have any mercy on anybody and determine to destroy our identity, livelihood, cultural and very existent of being. This is the only reason Chinese are there and their only goal.

    What we have left to loose now, if we can not live the life we were given?
    What choice we have, other than fight back and be brave?
    What more suffers our brothers and sisters have to endure?
    What more humiliations my countrymen have to go through?
    What kind of tortures fellow human being have to suffer?
    What rights the Chinese government have not only invaded and killings?


  2. Foolish is the man who try to add another lie by using another wretched wacko letter. How pitiful is the Tibetans and their Westerns cohorts. How much lower can they go before their conscience in their heart will be overflowed with hatred and sins. My Buddha bless them for their evil doings.

  3. This letter is one of the most heartbreaking things I have ever read. Thank you Mr. Norbu for sharing it with us. Your work and your and your energy I am sure is so appreciated by all the Tibetans and the world.

    I hope you can some how get it to the mainstream media so the word can get out there, and people realize how Tibetans are living in fear for their lives every day.

    Maybe if enough people read this it might make them finally think about not attending the Olympic games and standing with the Tibet people who have been fighting for 50 some years for their freedom.

    How can that pathetic government of China celebrate anything while they are killing people, I just cant understand.
    My heart is breaking for these Tibetans.
    Free Tibet

  4. Jinmaz,

    Obviously you prefer the state-run tabloid network known as Xinhua which can make up or spin a story faster than the American National Enquirer.

  5. Tenzintsering,

    FYI, I am not from China. I believe in Buddha just as you believe in your ‘Buddha’. Those were the days I used to listen to the good teaching of the Tibetan Buddhism.

    However, not only due to your evil action where innocent peoples were killed in Lhasa, you and Dalai Lama continue to act holy without even feeling guilty over it. The world is ashamed to have your group of evil false buddhists damaging the good image of Buddha.

  6. Here’s what Jinmaz wrote a few days ago at asiasentinel.com. I quote exactly:

    “… : Jinmaz
    So what if it did happen.

    I will be more delighted to hear Mao reborn again to finish off his uncompleted mission of getting those Tibetans annihilated just like the natives or aborigines in America or Australia
    May 8, 2008”

    I recommend ignoring him completely. He has nothing worth saying.

  7. Jinmaz & Tenzin Tsering,

    Please, leave these negative emotion to yourself, and don’t try to brush aside Dalai Lama with your immaturity and a small boy thoughts. It’s very easy to criticise someone without any valid arguments.

    And especially to you, my chinese friend, (Jinmaz) Don’t try to be smart here. We are no longer being fooled by your lies and irrelevant accusation which are borne out of practicising Buddha Dharma in a false way. Only you have to blame yourself for being what you are.

  8. It is such a tragedy what China is doing in Tibet. They have all but destroyed one of the most beautiful and unique cultures on earth. But an equal tragedy is the hatred that has been propagated by Xinua and the Chinese media against the Tibetan people. The Chinese are so totally brainwashed by the lies in their media. An example of this is the above comments by the self-proclaimed “Buddhist” Jinmaz. During times like this, it is difficult to embrace what HH Dalai Lama said that “the Chinese are our best teachers.” It is like the Christian teaching to love thy enemy and turning the other cheek. A very difficult lesson, but one which we sentient beings must learn. Bod Gyalo!

  9. Its really touching and rare fact revealing letter that all can ever witness from the recent protest in tibet…
    it clearly shows that silent but cruel barriers of even tongue-proof(forget about internet information flow)shield that chinese communist regime has built systematically over the years in order to hide the reality of events that happened and happening against their propaganda in tibet and china. The letter also tells us how deep the innocent tibetans relying their ultimate hope on the consciences of people in the free world.

  10. Dennis, loving one’s enemy consists of doing what’s best to bring them out of ignorance and destructive behavior. One does not love a child by giving in to what he or she selfishly wants in every case; this is known as spoiling the child.

    Among world powers, China is like a spoiled child who is quick on its way (and I would argue, already there) to becoming the world’s largest bully. Kindness and smiling and naive ‘compassion’ just reinforce China’s view that they’re entitled to behave like they do.

    Really loving one’s enemy would mean treating them in skillful and sometimes wrathful ways, not cruel or violent or spiteful, but nonetheless ways that cause particular cost and suffering which both disrupt their pattern of behavior psychologically and force them to reevaluate what future course of action is in their best interest. This is the only way we can bring China out of their ignorance and help them become a legitimate world power.

  11. After going through the letter (although i knew somehow that these things had to be going on in Tibet. hte chinese are such cowards), i suddenly want to do something very stupid. i fear it will keep growing. Good or bad is just a point of opinion, so please spare it.


  12. Ngatrul Dragpa Gyaltsan,

    Comments on this blog are restricted to criticism of or discussions on articles posted by Jamyang Norbu. It is not a general discussion forum on Tibet, religion or even the Dalai Lama. Comments outside the theme of the posted blog or essay will not be accepted. Consequently we cannot accept your comment for publication.

  13. Dear Jamyang Norbu,
    I am a blogger from Taiwan. I wonder if I can translate this letter into Chinese and publish it on my own blog? More people need to know what happened in Tibet. There has been such eerie silence. And by translating this letter, I hope I will help people never to forget the plight of the Tibetans under the Chinese rule.

  14. Dear Rosaceae from Taiwan,
    Thank you. Go ahead and translate it. As many people as possible need to know what is going on inside Tibet. There is a real reign of terror going on right now.

  15. Dear Jamyang Norbu,
    Thank you. I will do that and make a trackback from the translated article.
    Have you contacted the media? Especially the Economist, since it is their correspondent, James Miles, who was partly responsible for not witnessing the killing of the Tibetans on March 14 and 15? This would be a poignant story for them.

  16. Dear jamyang norbu

    After reading this heart breaking account about Tibetans in Tibet,I am being Tibetan must say that we need to change our approach to find the solution in Tibet. Tibetan goverment has been practising non-violent and religious approach for the last 50 or 60 years to the Chinese Communist Regime who doesn’t even believe in religion.(This is more than stupidity) we should approach a new way by not mixing Politic and Religion together. There were many reasons for losing our country to China but the one important reason would be confronting Communist Regime under the guidlines of Tibetan Phylosophy,so called Religiion-politic approach.
    Young generation of Tibetans must understand that this are the seperate principle. Througout the world history there is not a single country has gain freedom based on this approach. Tibetan Goverment in Exile has been using H.H. The Dalai Lama’s name and fame to gain control of the Tibetan people to pursue this approach for over 50 years even though H.H.The Dalai Lama has given full rights and responsibilities to the Tibetans to form a Democratic goverment to express rights and grievance. I don’t understand why Tibetan Govt in exile still use the same old tactics which is nothing more than waiting patiently for the Communist Regime to call them for the fruitless meeting,and back up the same old non-violent approach after the meeting. Some may speculate that if Tibetans may pursue more violent approach(I’m not saying killing people), Tibetans may be called terrorist. So what, if we are called Terrorist. we will going to terrorise the Chinese Communist Regime who himself believe in terrozing their own chinese people including Tibetans. we should regain our motherland,Tibet violently or non-violently so that we can save our Tibetans brothers and sisters from repression and tortures of Communist Regime We must choose methods that Chinese Communist Regime understand and acknowledge. I don’t see any fruitful result of Non-Violence approach in the international Platform, but i do see the riots and disturbance brings up Tibet issue on the international platform every now and then.

    Give Me Blood,I Promise you Freedom

    Bod Gyalo

  17. Jamyang Norbu,
    I live in Dharamasala. I worked with the young radicals, who are being detained now in Uttaranchal, teaching them communication skills last fall. I’ve come to personally know Tsundue and Choeying and Palkyi and B. Tsering and many of the other less famous ones who are stopped there near Pithoragarh.

    I am frantic that they now speak of dying for Tibet. I email Tsundue, I text message him. I’m writing a frantic play to him. He doesn’t answer me. I text message everyone of them whose cell phone number i have. Everybody is ignoring me. I think they consider me an out of touch airhead crystal totting do gooder. I don’t care. They can villify me. They can reject me wholesale. I don’t care if they will just live. Just live for Tibet.

    I just want them to live. I want them to raise their voices for Tibet – not die out in the middle of nowhere where the only people to take notice – and celebrate — will be the Red Chinese.

    I’m trying to understand how self immolation can be good. (I fear that now – that some of my friends whom I know the Indian authorities will not allow to go any further will decide that is how they can make the world hear.)

    This morning I read your tribute from 98 to Thupten Ngodup. Please make me understand how it is that that beautiful man did not die in vain.

    Please help me to understand how these precious young radicals will serve the cause of Tibet if they die in a world that is completely indifferent to them. The only way my friends and family in the US even know of their march is because I email everyone. There is no reporting going on about them. The only news coverage they are getting anywhere is in the Times of India – rarely! Am I wrong?

    You Tibetans are so optimistic. So beautifully and trajically optimistic. You thought George Bush’s giving His Holiness the congressional medal meant something. You thought Nancy Pelosi’s coming here was a good sign. I believe if Nancy Pelosi had the power she would do soemthing. But she does not. The suits of the world with their fat wallets are ruling everywhere and, if it will enrich their private coffers, they’ll kowtow to the Chinese until the Chinese have crushed us all.

    I want us to have a real theatre here. Is that stupid and shallow? I want them all to start putting into words what has been in their silent hearts for 50 long years. I want them to begin to speak and maybe just maybe the world will hear. But if they die, their silence will stir no one.

    I want to help. I want to serve Tibetans. And I don’t know how. I never longed to serve anybody before.

    I’m not a Buddhist. I came to India for my personal spiritual practice and fell backwards into McLeod last year when I found it so hot on the plains that I had to come north.

    I know I’m writing off the subject matter of this tragic letter posted here. But I can find nobody who can make me understand. And you seem so clear about what must be done that I’m reaching out to you.

    Please help me to understand. Please help me to grow strong in my desire to serve you not fall into this crater of despair I feel that all is so hopeless for you precious people.

    I’ve begged them all to come back here. I want them to raise their voices. I want the world to hear them. They ignore me.

    i don’t drink orange juice. I’m no new ager. I’m certainly not a fucking jesus freak. (poor jesus what’s been done in his name.) I’m a self-centered old american ex-hippie actor who was finally forced by her own suffering to begin a search within.

    somehow destiny chance i don’t know what ended me up here where I have been so moved by the young people to whom i’ve taught english and communication skills and for whom i’ve edited their english translations from the tibetan that i’ve come to love them so much that i would do anything i could to help them.

    i hope my message gets to you. i hope you find me worthy of a reply.

    with real sincerity and deepest respect,
    daya for Tibet

  18. Daya, have faith in the people you worked with. They’re not fools and they’ll do what they genuinely believe is best. Remember that nonviolent direct action requires crisis. Everyone has the future of Tibet constantly in their minds and hearts. Whatever sacrifice these amazing people might make, look at the sacrifice people in Tibet have made to put it in perspective. This is not a game, not something you can quit and go home from.

    Just trust them. And by trust I mean trust them to make their own decisions, not to make the decisions you would have them make.

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