LEH, India—The United States recently took an unprecedented step in calling attention to human rights in Tibet.
In the first meeting between Tibet’s exiled government and the U.S. State Department, the State Department’s recently appointed special coordinator for Tibetan issues, Robert Destro, met for formal talks on Oct. 15 in Washington with Tibet’s president-in-exile, Lobsang Sangay, to address the “dire human rights issues” suffered by Tibetans at the hands of the Chinese regime.
Around the same time, The Epoch Times spoke with two senior refugees who shared what they witnessed before and after the communists took over Tibet and their stories of migration through the treacherous Himalayan terrain into the Indian territory of Ladakh. In the town of Leh, there are among Tibetans who have first-hand experiences with human rights abuses.
Kalsang Lhamo, 85, vividly remembers the tactics used by the Chinese Communist Party against Tibetan religious and political leaders in Chantang, a nomadic area in Ngary Province.
“We were asked to throw soil on them. To spit on them,” Lhamo told The Epoch Times on a sunny morning in the Tibetan refugee colony of Agling in Leh, 126 miles from the border area where India and China are locked in a tense standoff.
Lhamo recalled that the communists gave her father a small black and white picture of the Dalai Lama and Mao Zedong.
“They told us to raise our hand for whatever Mao teaches and show a fist for whatever Dalai Lama says,” she said, adding that raising a hand meant acceptance of Mao and showing a fist meant the Dalai Lama’s government is “over.”
“They told us the Tibetan constitution is wrong. They told us through the Chinese revolution, they will give us human rights, religious rights. They cheated us,” she said, while rotating a prayer wheel with one hand and moving the beads of her white rosary with the other.
“One side of the Tibetan monasteries is painted red. They told us the red color of the monastery is the blood and sweat of you—poor people. They told us the monastery people have fooled us in the name of religion,” Lhamo said, while sitting in the courtyard of another refugee, Lobsang Tempa, 91.
Tempa listened from the window as his son, Ngodeep Gurmey, 57, translated.
“When Chinese came into our country, they sat for a few years saying we are neighbors,” said Lhamo. “Yakpo, Yakpo! They knew only two Tibetan words.”
Gurmey said that “Yakpo, Yakpo!” means “good, good” in Tibetan.
“They cheated us. Slowly, they started torturing us. Our Ruthoktsong (political leaders) and Labrang (religious leaders) were publicly tortured and insulted,” Lhamo said. “Our leaders were forced to say ‘sorry.’ Their hands were tied with ropes, and there were Chinese guards with rifles behind them.
“They did no mistake. They were forced to say sorry. It was a drama,” said Lhamo, who was 25 when the communists were criticizing Tibet’s age-old political and religious institutions.
Two years later, while her family watered their fields to show it was a normal day and they had no plans to go anywhere, silently, they left Changtang along with 300 others for Ladakh. The family left with more than 700 sheep, 100 yaks, and more than 20 horses in tow.
The Agling colony in Ladakh is inhabited entirely by refugees from Changtang. Tempa even remembers the date he left his home in Rutok—Aug. 12–13, 1960.
“We walked for seven days and landed in Demchok. We walked at night and hid with our livestock in the valleys during the morning,” said Tempa, who was a nomad in Chamtang and walked into India with five related families and 100 yaks, 1,000 sheep, and two horses.
In Kachkshung, inside Ladakh, both Tempa and Lhamo’s families lost all their stock to extreme cold and snow within a year of their migration.
“We had to leave behind old men and old women because they couldn’t walk such treacherous altitude. Our nation also got captured. It was a very difficult time,” Tempa said.
Inside India, Tempa earned his living by supplying rations to the Indian army stationed on extreme heights, reachable then only by horses. It takes 15 days on horseback from Leh to reach the disputed India–China border.
“I have been to Galwan almost every winter and summer, when I was supplying rations to the army,” said Tempa about the heights where 20 Indian soldiers and an unknown number of Chinese soldiers died in a bloody clash on June 15.
Both Tempa and Lhamo are aware of events inside Tibet and on the India-China border. For Tempa, it brings back memories, and he feels frightened.
Lhamo doesn’t like to talk about it.
“I don’t pay attention to what’s happening today. I just eat, sleep and chant my mantra: Om mani padme hum,” she said, visibly agitated.
“They tortured us. They said [dirty things in Hindi],” she said, adding that those memories still upset her.
The abuses suffered by Tibetans have continued since Tempa, Lhamo, and their families have relocated.
In the first seven months of this year, the CCP subjected a half-million Tibetans in the Tibetan Autonomous Region in “military-style” vocational training to reform “backward thinking.” The training included “work discipline,” law, and the Chinese language, according to The James Town Foundation.
“This draconian scheme shows a disturbing number of close similarities to the system of coercive vocational training and labor transfer established in Xinjiang,” the foundation said in a statement.
Lobsang Tempa, 91 talks to The #EpochTimes in his broken Hindi about the times he migrated from Tibet to Ladakh.
“We were frightened. We had to leave behind (older people). We walked at night. We walked in daytime.”
— Venus Upadhayaya (@venusupadhayaya) October 19, 2020
Destro said in a message on Twitter on Oct. 15 that the United States is concerned with the continuing Tibet crackdown by the CCP.
“The U.S. is concerned by the lack of meaningful autonomy for Tibetans and the CCP’s ongoing crackdown on Tibetan Buddhists. As Special Coordinator, I will continue urging the PRC to respect the human rights and unique religious, cultural, and linguistic identity of Tibetans,” he said.
Meanwhile, the Chinese regime has rejected Destro’s appointment.
“This is a vain try. China has always opposed setting the so-called ‘coordinator for Tibet issues.’ It has never admitted the position nor will it have contact with the so-called coordinator,” Zhu Weiqun, former head of the Ethnic and Religious Affairs Committee of the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, told the Chinese state-run media outlet Global Times.
“As a result, Destro, like his predecessors, would never get the chance to visit Tibet.”