Namgyal Dolkar Lhagyari, President of the Gu-Chu-Sum movement for former Tibetan political prisoners, based in Dharamshala, India. Photo: TPI

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Dharamshala, India — Lhagyari Namgyal Dolkar is the President of the Gu Chu Sum Movement of Tibet, an organization that works for the rehabilitation of former political prisoners from Tibet. The youngest Member of the Parliament-In-Exile, she is a Delhi University alumna and daughter of a political prisoner herself in addition to being related to the family of the ancient Dharma Kings of Tibet.

In this candid interview, she speaks about her organization, Chinese influence around the world, her experiences growing up in exile, and her takes on the issue of Tibet.

Where does the name of the organization come from?

The name of the organization is gu chu sum which basically means 9, 10 and 3. These are the three months that are taken from the protests, the pro-independence protests in the capital city of Tibet, Lhasa. It was in September and October (9&10) of 1987 and March (3) of 1988. These are crucially significant because, after ‘59 (which was the first protest against the Chinese), it was the first time ever where we saw massive protests against the Chinese authority. It was a big jolt for them because they expected since ‘59, there were many protests taking against them in the 60s and 70s, but it was never as big as this. So they never saw this coming especially with a change of leadership. The King and his Associate, compared to the Chinese Communist Party ideology, he was very liberal. They were opening up the economy to the west, and they were opening up to foreigners.

They opened China and Tibet to tourists. At that time it was supposed to be all fine and he actually came in the early ‘50s and he was shocked at how laid back Tibet was, about how there was not much development compared to China, per se. There were lots of things happening, like the liberal leadership coming in and concerned about Tibet, wanting to do something, yet having seen such a protest was a big shock and from ‘87/’88/’89 we have lots of photographs, and the entire credit of that goes to the tourists who were in Tibet at the time. They saw a huge number of Tibetans coming out, taking part in peaceful protests against the Chinese Government, against Chinese Police, against the system and shouting and calling out “LONG LIVE DALAI LAMA”, and “FREE TIBET”. Those slogans were heard everywhere, there were young and old (people), there were nuns and monks, students (school and college) participating. There were Tibetans from all provinces participating in that movement. It was basically huge.

After ‘59 there was a second generation of Tibetans who were literally born and brought up under the Chinese Communist Leadership. So for them to see that new generation protest against them was huge. So that’s why I believe this ‘87 - ‘89 are very crucial. It was like a second wave where we saw the largest numbers of political prisoners being imprisoned. My late father was imprisoned in ‘59. He was imprisoned till ‘79 for 20 years and 6 months. The 80s are the second wave with the largest amount of Tibetan Political Prisoners, so that is very important. So the name of the organization came in ‘91 when many former political prisoners came to India, they found out that there is so much the exiled government is doing for the political prisoners they felt like there should be a platform where all the political prisoners come together, speak up together and be there for each other.

This was like the brotherhood/sisterhood to be there for each other which is so important especially when you want to talk about emotional and psychological support, which is paramount for a political prisoner having gone through all the torture. So this became a platform, which started it all. And they believed that the name should be something that reminds not just us, but the world of the injustice that took place, about how the peaceful protestors were brutally and violently cracked down. And it was out in public, this had a lot of news coverage, the Nobel peace prize was happening. Tibet was everywhere. This name was taken in as a reminder to the world what happened to Tibet and what happened to political prisoners at the time. So the name Gu Chu Sum is 9, 10 and 3, basically.

Where does the funding of the organisation come from? Does it come from the CTA or the Indian Government, or do you raise funds yourself?

I hope and wish and pray that it was the first two that you mentioned. However, it is not. But I have to mention that the CTA is indirectly helping us. I’m saying that because CTA is supporting Tibetan Political Prisoners on the individual level. So, it is not supporting the organization but is supporting many members of the organization which is their responsibility. They are emphasizing a lot on the rehabilitation of refugees and if you look at the Tibetan Political Prisoners they are a second class when it comes to the refugees. They have suffered way more and for them to be able to cross the Himalayan Borders to come here, it was not easy. Many Tibetan refugees say that when they come here they feel freedom. And, they (political prisoners) felt it too but they had to rejuvenate and free themselves from a lot more things that they had gone through. So the CTA has to help them. They need the Exiled Govt. So they are indirectly helping us because they are helping the members of our organization.

And to tell you, the membership of this organisation, initially focused just on Tibetan Political Prisoners and then it slowly kind of grew. Now, we have a membership that is categorized into three: we have the former political prisoners, the former Tibetan Activists inside Tibet who somehow escaped imprisonment or were somehow not caught, but they did political activity which was deemed to have been a threat and the third category is the second generation of political prisoner like I am. My father was a political prisoner, my family is filled with political prisoners. So we have 3 categories of membership and this is how we accept, with no other conditions other than these three or you volunteer to become part of this organization.

When it comes to funding it’s neither of the above, it is like we are taking care of ourselves but to achieve that it is usually the support of many individuals who care about this movement, the Tibetan movement at large, but also of the Tibetan political prisoners and the work that we engage about Tibetan Advocacy, about sharing the stories of the political prisoners from the political prisoners themselves and the family of the political prisoners to the world. And we are doing that through different means not just by public talk. We are doing that through an exhibition, through dramas and we are doing that through so many different engagements but using the basic thing about sharing the story at a human level.

That is the machinery we are using. It is doing this through different means that we are able to get monetary support from many individuals. Apart from that, we do have a tailoring session, where we make different clothes and different products, very Tibetan in nature, not necessarily Tibetan. We make traditional Tibetan performance clothes, we make all sorts of things and customaries. Apart from that, beneath the office, we also have this Japanese Restaurant that we have given on rent so we have some money. It is not a lot, but it is some money nonetheless. We have different means of gaining support from everywhere and mostly our focus is trying to become self-reliant through the tailoring session but also relying heavily upon individual donations.

While you were speaking about exhibitions and raising awareness, I remembered that I read about this incident a couple of years ago, involving one such exhibition where a Chinese woman who attacked you. Could you tell us more about that?

It was very interesting because whenever we plan any sort of campaign, any Tibetan Advocacy, any form of reach out we plan everything from how we go about it, what are the issues to be discussed, what are the pointers that we should raise when we are talking to visitors. With each photograph, there should be an explanation that correlates with all my colleagues. So these are the things that we discuss and after that, we discuss the security as well. That was because of her, we were like we must discuss this in the future.

It was very interesting. It was the 30th anniversary of October 1st, 1987. We were having a 30th anniversary. We were putting up all the photos of that event. 30 years is very important. We wanted people to see what was going on. So we had that outside Tsuglagkhang, where there is a Martyrs’ Pillar so we felt like they deserved to be at that spot. It was for the martyrs, so many people died during that protest. So anyhow, we were prepared with all the photographs and everything and it was very simple because we used thread and clips and we used all the photographs whether it was black and white or color. Everything was ready.

The press were there and I had my mic on because I was about to give my interview and there was VOA, VOT and I was just about to give my interview when a Chinese lady (I did not know that she was Chinese at the time) tapped me on my shoulder with one photo taken out of her bag, it was already in her hand and she tapped on my shoulder and said something and I just nodded and looked at the cameras ready for interview and she tapped my shoulder again and her voice kind of raised and I was like “what’s happening”, my focus was the interview and I called my colleagues to talk to her. I was about to give the interview and that is how we had evidence because the cameras were rolling and they have the footage of how this thing started. It was very interesting how she started to shout and yell and started to say how these were all fake, all fake photographs, and asking us “why are you doing all of this? Dalai Lama is all about peace. Why you putting up all these fake photographs.”

And so I had to tell her “this is the 30th anniversary and when you have an anniversary you put up photographs at the event, it is common sense.” She was not ready to listen and I could tell from her accent that she knew English. All of these things kept happening. I was trying to control her, trying to explain except she went on and I felt rather victimized at that time just because I was trying to explain and she would go just crazy very aggressively. She kept taking the Dalai Lama’s name and I was very confused because I was wondering why she kept repeating his name again and again because it was just making us very awkward. For somebody who we revere, and she was just politicizing that human being. She kept saying “He is talking about World Peace, and talking about dealing with China.” We are talking about dealing with China but that does not mean we forget the reality, that we forget what is actually happening inside Tibet, the atrocities that are being committed on our people and we are just trying to show that and nothing is fake. It is all on the internet, the photos are taken by tourists, people who actually saw all that.

So this was happening and I was trying to control her and there was this girl from the press who was trying to take her photos which was her job and she was obviously not used to the freedom of the press which I understand. She screamed at her and said, “you, why are you taking my photograph” and so she started running away and the press was coming over and the entire thing happened and we were trying to stop her from attacking the press, almost bullying. With all of this happening, she hit the press and her (the reporter’s) specs fell off and she was looking for her aspects and I didn’t know whether to laugh or feel bad.

Anyway, we went to pick her specs up and her camera also fell off which she was least concerned about, and we were helping her while that woman went to the corner and took out her scissors. The scissor was not there in the scene. She was all prepped up, she knew where her bag was, she knew it contained a scissor and it was not a paper cut scissors. It is what you use to cut cloth. And those are literally weapons. It is not small, it is massive, which is literally a weapon to harm somebody. And if she needed to cut the thread, made of jute, she didn’t need a scissor this big. She knew this was happening went and bought a scissor or already had one. She didn’t need big scissors. She had the intention of ruining the thing, she needed the drama. She basically wanted to provoke us. We were talking about non-violent advocacy, we were talking about freedom, democracy and so many things that don’t make any sense to these people.

And despite being an American citizen, this Chinese’s Communist Dictatorship was sort of embedded in her and that was clear because she did not understand freedom, freedom of the press, or freedom of advocacy or the fact that we were on Indian soil, in a democratic nation where the Indian police did not stop us because it was a part of the freedom this country provided us with but she didn’t understand that.

This entire thing happened and she came to me and said, “You poor Tibetans”. That is where people thought she slapped me. Literally, at that time I felt that a Chinese woman is actually looking down upon me and at that time I was not so non-violent anymore. I literally went to hit her. At the time when we were holding her, I knew she had no strength. And I thought this is not what you do to someone who is weaker, I knew I could hit her, I knew I could kick her because I could feel that she had no nerves. She was trying so hard, and I was not using so much strength. I eat well. (Laughs).

That time I almost went to her chin but I didn't hit her because somebody came in and I don't know who did and I am forever indebted to that person. Like for me, I could tolerate anything but she was looking down upon me. “You poor Tibetans”! And I think it is easy to do advocacy for peace, but when you are the daughter of a political prisoner I know how Tibetans are looked upon on their own soil by somebody outside, ruling over our country for so many years and the discrimination that exists on our own soil.

But to see that happening on free soil, it is not something that you can easily tolerate. So it was very difficult for me to talk about the non-violent tactic. And I couldn't tolerate it. So I remain forever indebted to that person who came in, whoever he was. For the next few nights, I was having difficulty sleeping because I was thinking about a Chinese woman looking down on a Tibetan. Because if this was happening here, on free soil, what was happening inside Tibet. It is not just about the violent crackdown over our people or the suppression of our people, but on a daily basis how they look down upon us. That is something Tibetans inside Tibet face every day.

And this is why the younger generation if you look at 2008, they are still not able to forget. Because this is what they face every day in Tibet on our own soil. And this is what I feel, no matter how many future generations come, they are never forgetting this. Tibetan resistance is never going to stop. They won’t allow us to stop this. They will continue to remind us of the reality that is happening. It doesn’t matter the amount of money they invest in our land, the fact will always remain that this is how they will always look at Tibetans on our own soil. That was the day I experienced it. Because up until then, I had only heard the stories my late father shared with me and the stories that my family and colleagues shared with me and my friends, as political prisoners, shared with me and Tibetans from Tibet. And that was the time I actually faced it.

I was thinking that India is the place where I was born, right in front of Martyrs’ Pillar, on October 1st. There’s a lot of things going on in your head but I was just slowly gradually very thankful that that person came in and nothing happened. I could tolerate her using force but I couldn’t tolerate being looked down upon. There was a woman from Hong Kong who helped. Our General Secretary came in, he was trying to explain and she kept screaming I was trying to take away the scissors from her and I knew that if something went wrong it could hurt or stab somebody. So we took the scissors away, the General Secretary came in and spoke to her in Mandarin but she would not budge. Thankfully this woman from Hong Kong came in and started to explain to her. She asked her what she was doing. She said, “A Chinese speaking woman, you call yourself a student of the Dalai Lama and this is what you do?” That made her feel embarrassed. Because she could not look down upon a Non-Tibetan who made her understand the reality even though she could not accept it. She could listen to it, unlike somebody like us telling her.

It was a very interesting experience for me something that I cannot forget. Something that will remind me how strong our reach is, and that it isn’t limited to Tibet. It is everywhere. Like recently in March I went to Geneva to give a talk about Tibetan Political Prisoners and the Chinese representative stopped me saying “You have to use UN language.”

Every time we speak something, they stop us in the name of a rule saying “this is not allowed”, or “How can you say that, you were not born there.” And then I have to tell them that these are not stories this is something that was shared with us with real experiences. And I have to tell them that I am the daughter of a political prisoner, even if I did not suffer my parents did, because of you guys. They felt that I could be any other Tibetan Refugee born here whose parents escaped in ’59. They did not know that I was the daughter of a political prisoner or that my entire family suffered years and years because of them. They did not know that and this is what they do. Their bullying happens everywhere, all across the world. Even in places like the United Nations where we discuss Human Rights and the charter, and how do they do it? Through the power of money and that is very scary.

And that is why I feel more and more youngsters have to learn what reality is, they have to learn to be courageous, they have to learn to speak up, know the reality to begin from. China wants to become a world power and they do everything in their hands whether it is lying or bringing in things like “UN Language.” They don’t maintain the UN charter themselves, forget about language. These are things that happen. This is not just the official representatives of China but also the public. And I am still trying to tell myself that thank god I didn’t raise my hand on her. That event was a small event but showed a reality that needed to be known, that China is a bully. And no matter where you are they will bully you, and that is a reality and that is something you need to be careful and cautious about.

I understand that you come from royalty. Could you tell us more about how growing up in India was, being from the family of the Dharma Kings of Tibet? How has it affected your life?

I prefer to call myself a daughter of a political prisoner. I don’t know/ I have always been told that this is where my family lineage comes from but in reality, the state of affairs was that I had always been born into a family that had suffered lots of financial difficulties. So I had a life where it was much more difficult than many normal families. This is what I had to suffer. It’s just that I had a big name on my shoulder, a big tag. But I always tell my friends that my life was more difficult than you guys. It is just that I have a big surname but I went through more shitty times then all of you. And we were still expected to serve, to do something even when my family was going through so much when no help was provided to them.

For me it did not matter because I was in TCV School, I didn’t need anything. I had food provided on my table three times a day, I had the education to think about, I had lots of school friends to chat with. But things were not so great for my late father and my mother. So for me, when I was much younger, I never knew about this. My parents never told me about this. I never knew, for me, I was like any other Tibetan refugee. That was life for me. I always knew that despite my financial situation, despite the fact that we had nothing here. I knew that my late father did everything to provide for us. Not only being materialistic but with all the love that he could give. More importantly, the experiences that he had to share to make sure that I turned out into the person that I am.

Basically, someone who would continue in his footsteps. Basically, someone who would hold on to the dream that he had which was to go back to a Free Tibet. So that was something that he really focused on and shared the experiences of Tibet. It is amazing when I think about it, how it has always been so positive from my father’s side. He would tell me such positive things even though he would talk about his imprisonment. He used to talk about all the times they would have starvation as they would hardly get anything to eat, and he would turn it around and talk about the times he was on kitchen duty and those were the times you would get extra buns.

There were times when political prisoners were strolled on the road because the Chinese Government wanted to show the people that this is what would happen if you revolt. And he said those are the times the Chinese expected them to be shameful but that was the time when Tibetan women, holding a Tibetan apron had a lot of barley with dried cheese and jaggery and lots of butter. And you can imagine for someone who doesn’t have a lot of food, those were the times those ladies provided that. So you know, I think this is how he shared his story with me.

And his message was that there could be bad times but you can always have a different way of looking at it, to make yourself a positive, to make sure that you stand up, despite what your surname is you can always stand up, and you can always look at it in a positive manner and face it. This was my experience. My father always told me that I was very lucky because I was able to go to school and study English, which was a big deal. My mother never went to school. She learned her Tibetan language when she got married to my father. She always wanted to go to school, always wanted to learn and that is what my father saw in her. He taught her the Tibetan language.

Slowly she learned English with us, which was very cool. My childhood was very normal. As I grew, I learnt that my family was very different, people would take my surname and I realized that maybe you know we are somebody. The amazing part was that they always made sure that I was grounded and maybe that is why I feel more grounded than any of my friends. I prefer to be in my pajamas in the office as well and I am super comfortable like this.

For me, my work speaks for it, my ideology, my affirmations speak. Because this is what my late father stood for. And I want to make sure that the dream to go back to Free Tibet is something that everyone shared. Because it wasn’t just about my late father. It was also many like him who shared the dream. And what scares me is that many of us are losing that. You know it is not just about going abroad or becoming an Indian Citizen, it is not about that. It is about losing that will to fight, the challenge. It is all about “China is getting strong, getting powerful.” I think once you lose that will, that determination, you just lose it. You know for me, I am not always saying that we are going to be bad-ass, we are going to kick their ass, and I am not saying that. What I am saying is that there will be a change of events when China will become weak, there will be a time when possibly things could change.

And therefore, we need to be ready. This could happen tomorrow, and we cannot be lazing around, forgetting about this issue because we have to earn money. We have to tell ourselves that this could happen at any time. For me, I always say that China will fall down, by that I mean the People’s Republic of China will fall down. This is something I see. Because I feel like they see that they are being attacked from everywhere. Not necessarily voluntarily, but involuntarily, they are challenged. Not just by Tibetans, but by Chinese themselves who want democracy who want change, who want equality unlike how it has been for the past 70 years. And now there are these amazing students in Hong Kong who are protesting. And they are being attacked by everywhere, and it is important now that we have to come together. Because we all know that China is a bully and that is something we cannot tolerate.

Even if we talk about India and what is happening how they are bullying into coming into the territory and they don’t really care. They will just say “oh no, it is mine, not yours and we are going to own it.” And they don’t care if there is a territory or a border. When it comes to India, they care about crossing the border, but China really does not care. They would just walk in. This shows their mental state. It just shows that they are big bullies. And right now, I look at India, I was born here, I am a citizen of this country, and I feel quite attached to this country because this is the land that I was born on. I don’t want to talk about patriotism, but I love this place. I love this country. I love that it provided a home for my late father. This is where we were born, this is where we rebuild our story, here in this country. That is important for me. And I see this country, when it comes to talking about Pakistan, the kind of guts India has, it is amazing. I have something against Pakistan and I don’t even know why. Just being born in this country, it happens to you. But then I look at what happens when it comes to China. They hardly talk.

Last year with regard to the Thank You India thing, it was really sad. I was asked, and all these Tibetans said that they understand, I said I was hurt. As a citizen of this country, I was hurt and as a Tibetan, I was in pain. I was literally ashamed as a citizen of this country about what the government decided to do. It was just the exiled people in this country wanting to thank this government for providing a home for our religious leader, home for our exile government, and provided homes for our parents and grandparents. We are indebted to this government, and that turned into politics and that was hurtful to me and I was ashamed as a citizen of this country. I was hoping that they would show the same guts when it came to China. This was a situation I was born in.

And I always say that I am a very interesting combination of a very, very Tibetan person and has a lot of touch of Indianness in her which I can’t help. And I don’t know what Indianness is, it comes with being born here. But, I feel like I am more responsible for this nation more than many of my so-called Indian friends. It is about responsibility, it is about how you feel owed to this nation how you give back to the nation which I think is more Indian than just claiming that you are Indian.

This is who I am and this is how my childhood has been. This is how I was brought up with my parents who made sure that I turn into the person that I am. So I continue to do what I want to do and not care about the bullies, not just the Chinese but just anyone, anywhere. It is important that dissent continues, it is important that you speak up, every time that you see a bully, and if you are privileged then you speak for the underdog. This is something that is ingrained in me, it is something that my father made sure I have. And I feel like I do, I feel like I try to be a representative of the minorities, the minority of thoughts. Speaking for the Tibetan people have become a minority of thoughts. I am further becoming a minority as a Tibetan woman, there are a lot of things that I try to speak up for, and try to be representative for. Being the youngest Tibetan Parliamentarian, I try to speak for the Tibetan youngsters as well, becoming their voice. Trying to let the old heads know that, that is not something we believe in. I try to do that. And in doing that I know I can tell that I am being challenged. I can tell that people will try to drag me down. But if my late father did not care when he was going through torture, this is nothing for me.

Being the youngest Tibetan Parliamentarian, is there a conflict of identity, or a question about your identity when it comes to it, because you are a voter here, and you hold an Indian passport. Are there people in your community who question your “Tibetanness”?

I think I have faced that, on a very initial stage, when I was not even a part of the exile government or the parliamentarian race, I did face that. But I guess this issue has slowly died down. People have started to realize the reality that, we have been in exile for 60 years, Tibetans have become citizens of a different world. All the countries around the world we have citizens and we never had any objections against that, and so why have double standards against Indian Citizenship. I think that is something that is being openly accepted, mostly by the younger generation, who do not see that as a threat or a problem and I think it something that the older generation can also see, that it is not against the charter of the Tibetan Government, so why discuss this. But there are some people who talk about it, like 0.0001 % and I don’t have to care.