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On Monday November 28th, the Athenaeum at Claremont McKenna College welcomed Tibetan monk Palden Gyatso to a small tea-time conversation in which a select few students learned about one of the most pressing human rights issues of the last century. Gyatso, a protestor and prisoner in Chinese-occupied Tibet, shared his incredible experiences in a talk organized by the Center for Human Rights Leadership’s Religious Tolerance Task Force.

He began his story with his entrance into monastic school at the age of 10 in the early 1940s. Gyatso wanted to live as “a simple monk,” which he did for many years. On March 10th, 1959, at the age of 28 he met demonstrators on a road from the Tibetan capital. The protesters were holding a peaceful rally to protest the Communist Chinese regime’s occupation of Tibet, a rally that the monk gladly joined. Chinese soldiers soon broke up the protest, and Gyatso, along with many of his fellow demonstrators, was detained. He spent the next 33 years enduring torture in Chinese prisons.

CMC students with Palden Gyatso

Now in his late 70s, Palden Gyatso has traveled around the world speaking on behalf of the prisoners of Tibet. He has written a book, The Autobiography of a Tibetan Monk, which includes jarring pictures of various devices of torture that he was able to smuggle out of prison. These pictures were passed around to the students gathered for tea in the Athenaeum.

Sitting next to his translator, Gyatso took a minute to pause from his retelling and contemplate his dentures. He took them out and showed the assembled students. His translator chimed in, explaining that while in prison, soldiers attached electrodes to the inside of the monk’s mouth, causing all of his teeth to break and his tongue to forever lose the sensation of taste.

Gyatso went on to detail a game that the soldiers played with the Tibetan prisoners. The soldiers would ask them: “Is Tibet its own country?” If the prisoners refused to admit China’s dominance, they were stripped, put on a sling, whipped, and made to drink and bathe in scalding water. For Gyatso, to deny his own country’s sovereignty and swear loyalty to the Chinese would also mean renouncing his belief in freedom, renouncing the Dalai Lama, and, worst of all, renouncing his Buddhist faith. He never relented in his support of Tibet’s independence, and so for 33 years, until his release, he suffered cruel and violent torture.

Gyatso was finally freed due to overwhelming pressure on the Chinese government coming from the international community. He explained that it is through such international attention that Tibet and other oppressed peoples will gain freedom. His advice to graduates seeking to help is to find an internship or a job working for an international amnesty-seeking organization or a news organization to spread awareness of injustice. Many Tibetans still live under the heel of an oppressive regime, but if the international community can be made to focus on their plight, they, like Monk Palden Gyatso, can be freed.

In welcoming monk Gyatso to the college, Professor Edward Haley described CMC’s students as setting out to become leaders in the battle for human rights, no matter what career each student followed. As with Monk Gyatso’s release, the first step towards holding a superpower accountable is by making its actions known to the world. If students leave the college with that mission in mind, with the resources provided them by their education, and with the blessing of whistle-blowers like Palden Gyatso, they too can become leaders at the forefront of the battle for international justice.

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  • Laura Epstein

    Great article Kyle, and I’m so glad that you wrote it! For those reading it – if you’d like to get involved in the Religious Intolerance Task Force as part of the Center for Human Rights Leadership (that’s who sponsored the tea), please email me ([email protected]).

  • Laura Epstein

    Great article Kyle, and I’m so glad that you wrote it! For those reading it – if you’d like to get involved in the Religious Intolerance Task Force as part of the Center for Human Rights Leadership (that’s who sponsored the tea), please email me ([email protected]).

  • Anon

    For a more IR perspective on the issue, I would recommend The Snow Lion and the Dragon. The author argues that the West has been “bad friends” to Tibet and only supports their independence through rhetoric rather than realpolitik.