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Dharamshala: As always with Asian people, it was hard to guess Palden's real age. As he related the opening lines of his story, his recollections seemed so precise that I wouldn't have guessed him to be older than 30. Yet when he faced the audience, there were ages and ages of suffering deep inside his eyes that seemed to have turned him into an old man. 

Palden was born in the village of Phenpo, where his father was a carpenter. At the age of 15, he became a monk at the Depheng monastery, where he continued to master his father’s craft. "We didn't have total religious freedom in the monastery, so we went to protest for this," Palden stated, explaining why he and 15 other monks took to the streets of Lhasa on 15 May 1992. Their peaceful demonstration lasted for ten minutes, after which they were crammed into a truck and brought to Gutsa Detention Center to be interrogated. "We had to stay for two hours with our faces to the wall and hands up, then all of us, men and women, were forced to take off all of our clothes." He recalled the humiliation of the following five months, during which Chinese police tortured the prisoners in an attempt to obtain the name of the person behind their protest. Because the demonstration occurred spontaneously and there was no one person, like His Holiness the Dalai Lama, giving orders from behind the scenes, the prisoners had little valuable information to tell their interrogators—which made the beatings even more severe. According to Palden, after one month of daily questioning, their meetings with the police became less frequent: one every two or five days until they were sentenced and relocated to Drapchi Prison, the largest jail in Lhasa. 

"Another monk and I who held the Tibetan flag got six years, the two monks who led the protest received eight years, another two got five years, three got four years, two got three years, one person got two years, and two persons got one year each," recalled Palden, adding that when he tells his story to foreigners, they often don't believe that a person could receive eight years of imprisonment for ten minutes of shouting in the streets. 

Folding and unfolding his fingers, Palden related that prisoners in Drapchi were given booklets with rules and expected to memorize them in one week. After the first week, they were tested on the rules, and those who failed were beaten. The next week, the Chinese set everyone to work in the vegetable garden, which consisted of one small and one large greenhouse. When the prisoners managed to grow something, some corrupt captives would sell the vegetables outside the jail’s premises. "It was prohibited to talk about what was going on in the prison, but sometimes they managed—although they were beaten afterwards," Palden stated. 

After two years, the garden work was replaced by the study of Chinese propaganda in locked cells. " The Chinese forced us to write statements saying that we had changed our minds about the freedom of Tibet, and were new people now. When we refused, they beat us," Palden recalled. While more and more political prisoners were transferred to the wards, guards divided the old prisoners and newcomers into two groups, in order to lessen the "bad" influence of old prisoners on the novices. "There were seven groups of prisoners in total-old and new, male, female, political, and criminal. The guards were constantly trying to make us compete: this day they told us that one team was good, that day another team was good," Palden recalled.   

In 1996, the military came to Drapchi and forced the prisoners to do military exercises, followed by the punishments of sitting on the ice in winter, and standing in the sun wrapped in warm blankets during the summer. Palden also endured a month in solitary commitment, trapped in a tiny cell with nothing but a bed and toilet hole.            

The largest riot in the prison’s history occurred in 1998. It lasted for four days and during this time, the Chinese shot five nuns and three monks were. Around this time, another prisoner committed suicide and left a note explaining his decision. The riot was followed by interminable interrogations in the police office. At that time, Palden had only thirteen days remaining until the end of his term—but because he took part in the riot, he was still beaten harshly. "Buddhism helped me a lot at those times," Palden emphasized, "Of course I got angry with the guards when they were beating me—the anger came automatically—but then I thought to myself that it was their duty and tried to calm myself down." According to Palden, Tibetans suffer so much because of their bad karma: "Maybe we did something very bad in the previous lives," he speculated with a sense of calm contentment.  

On 13 May, Palden was finally transferred to his local police station and then sent to Phenpo, where he had to stay for one year and receive police permission to leave during the second year. This was followed by years of inequality and unemployment, and finally his trip to Nepal and India, where he has been living for the last three years. "My family was called to the police office when I was first imprisoned and again when I left for India—but now, after three years, there is not so much of a problem, and I call them once in a while," related Palden in a more relaxed manner. He recently completed one year of studying English, Tibetan, and computer skills at the Gu-Chu-Sum school, and is now looking for a job. He hopes that his motherland will see better days soon, although he admits that, “it will be extremely hard in this age where everything is based on economics.”

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