Dharamshala: Lobsang Tharchen is a gentle Buddhist monk who lives in Dharamshala, northern India. He resides in a small room with basic amenities: a kettle, a pot, a bed and a TV. A small window looks out onto a functional concrete courtyard.
In one corner of the room is an image of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. If the room were in Tibet, he would by now, at best, have been arrested and imprisoned by the Chinese police for simply displaying this image. At worst, given his political history, he would most likely have ‘disappeared', leaving his family, like many others, to wait and wait in hope of his return.
Lobsang has a gentle round face and liquid brown expressive eyes. He comes from the Nagchu region of Tibet. It is one of the highest places on Earth, at an average 4,500 meters above sea-level, and is also where much of the Tibetan opposition to Chinese rule is centered.
In 1990 this decent and shy man became a monk - a rite of passage for many young Tibetan men.
In June 1995, a Chinese political re-education work team (including many ethnic Tibetans in its number) visited Lobsang's monastery to instruct the monks in Chinese communist ideology: love of the ‘motherland' and anti-Dalai Lama propaganda - in effect, nationalist indoctrination.
On 3 March 1996, Lobsang was arrested and detained for putting up pictures of His Holiness in his town. He and some friends also pasted posters on walls encouraging the return of the exiled spiritual leader to Tibet, and demanding freedom of religion and expression.
Freedom of religion is a fundamental human right, covered by Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is also covered in Article 36 of the Chinese constitution as a legal right to be granted to all citizens of China, including those from ethnic minorities.
Amnesty International's 2012 annual report on the state of the world's human rights stated that ‘'The [Chinese] authorities increased ongoing efforts to bring all religious practice within the control of the state; this included harsh persecution of some religious practitioners,'' and that there are ‘' increasingly punitive security measures [being imposed] on religious institutions and lay communities in the [Tibet] region''.
Lobsang was sentenced to four years imprisonment in Drapchu prison, Lhasa, for his political activities. He told me that he was beaten up by guards, kicked and abused regularly, and than an electric prod was used on his legs and other parts of his body. The electric prod was used not only as an instrument of physical torture, but also as an instrument of psychological terror on the hundred or so political prisoners at Drapchu.
In 1998, the authorities planted the Chinese flag in the middle of the prison courtyard to celebrate May Day - an act interpreted by the prisoners as deliberately provocative. In the ensuing riot, 13 people died. Some were shot dead by Chinese troops brought in to quell the disturbances, and some of the prisoners committed suicide. After the protests, conditions got even worse in the prison. Many inmates spent all day and night in their cells as punishment.
Lobsang's hands twitched nervously as he recounted the story of the prison riot to Sangay, my Tibet Post International colleague and Tibetan interpreter for the day. Despite Lobsang's discomfort, he told us that he wants the world to know his story, and the stories of other political prisoners, in China's Tibetan prisons.
When eventually released in 2000, Lobsang was told by the prison police that if he continued his political activity there would only be ‘'one way'' for his future to go. It was not an idle or boastful threat. Further, he was banned from being seen in public with more than three people at a time.
Lobsang came to Dharamsala in 2004. Chinese security forces were constantly watching him in Tibet and he decided, with some regret - judging by his demeanor - to make the dangerous trek across the Himalayas, as have thousands of Tibetans since China invaded in 1959.
Lobsang came to India for three main reasons: to escape Chinese repression, to see His Holiness the Dalai Lama and to work actively for human rights in Tibet. In India - a democratic country despite all its faults - he can do this without fear. At the interview's conclusion, he told me in broken but sincere English, "I want the world to know of Tibet's story." I replied that it is difficult to make the world listen, but maybe someday enough people will do so. Maybe.