Yeshi’s story: protest and punishment in Tibet

In 1989, Yeshi* put up posters on many different occasions on the walls and gates of public areas in Chinese-occupied Tibet calling for respect for the Tibetan people’s fundamental human rights and democratic freedoms. A range of issues were addressed, such as religious freedom, language rights and for His Holiness the Dalai Lama to be allowed to visit Tibet. Authorities, using handwriting analysis, identified Yeshi – a father of 8, husband, teacher and farmer – as the author.

In 1990, Yeshi was sentenced to three years imprisonment and was sent to the much feared Drapchi Prison in Lhasa, a long bus journey from his family home. Drapchi prison is infamous for torture, beatings, and ill treatment of prisoners, particularly political prisoners. While in Drapchi prison, Yeshi was very badly treated and even tortured.

He was forced to work many hours in the green house and was not allowed to come out for fresh air or to cool himself; he suffered dehydration and chronic kidney disease from three years of hard labour in the green house. When the work was finished, Yeshi and other political prisoners were made to stand at attention under the hot sun for hours during summer without a drink. If anyone moved they were forced to run for hours until they fell on the ground semi-conscious. In the extreme cold of winter, when the temperature dipped into the minuses, they were forced to stand still for hours in the shade and any body movements were punished by being forced to stand up on the ice with bare feet, before being pushed to the ground, causing severe injuries to their feet.

During his time in Drapchi prison, Yeshi and other prisoners were required to memorise the lyrics of a song to sing praise and express joy about the Chinese Government. Yeshi refused though, and said to the prison officers, “If I am happy with the Chinese Government, then why am I in prison? I am not happy with the way the Chinese Government treats Tibetans.” The prison authorities were very angry and beat him badly and put him in Drapchi’s draconian solitary confinement cells. He spent three months in a cold, small, dark and very narrow room with just enough space for a prisoner to lie down. A small window on the door, where scant food was passed through was the only outside contact during that time he was in solitary confinement.

His family travelled 8 hours by bus to Lhasa to visit him and even though the family came from far away they weren’t allowed to meet him every time. Repeated requests led to an officer accepting some money to allow a visit. The family had to wait for hours and make many pleas to see Yeshi, visiting a trauma upon his family that was unimaginable – when he came out to the visiting area, his family was unable to recognise him until he called their names. His head had been shaved clean, he had aged, he was in bad physical shape, very skinny, in shredded clothes – an image that haunts his daughter, Pema*, to this day.

After his release, Yeshi faced severe restrictions on his day-to-day life. He was not allowed back to his previous job at the monastery, leaving him jobless with no way to support his family. He was required to report to the People Armed Police (PAP) regularly for the remainder of his life, they could call him in at any time and he remained under surveillance.

To add to his anguish, his children were removed from school and not allowed to return. With great difficulty he decided to send his children away to India, telling them they needed to be literate, educated, to have freedom; they couldn’t stay in Tibet as it was like living life in a prison. He hired a guide who led his daughter (14 years) and two sons (nine and 12 years) to India, a harsh trek that took 27 days of solid walking via crossing snowy mountains and icy rivers in some of the world’s harshest conditions, avoiding Chinese border patrols, and moving at night.

This desperate action of a father brought PAP to his door again. PAP demanded to know where the children were and ordered that he “bring them back from wherever they were” and made threats to take away the farmlands of the family. Yeshi refused to cooperate and simply stated that he didn’t know where they were. Most of Yeshi’s farmland was taken away because he refused to cooperate and bring his children back to the prison called Tibet.

His daughter, Pema, later found out that due to long-term physical and mental damage, he needed regular blood transfusion and medical attention. Sadly, he passed away at the age of 73 having suffered ongoing physical distress caused by injuries sustained during his time in prison and without able to say goodbye to his three youngest children.

Pema now lives in Australia and had regular calls home to her mother for normal family chats – no politics and no banned topics were discussed. Her mother was called in for questioning by PAP and Pema now rarely calls her mother out of fear that PAP will call her mother in again or that worse could happen. Fear still stalks Yeshi’s family.

One of Yeshi’s sons followed in his father’s footsteps and became a monk. He too was imprisoned for four years for putting up a poster calling for Tibetan human rights and freedoms to be respected as well as support for the Dalai Lama and the right to preserve Tibetan culture and language. After he was released, he was not allowed to return to being a monk or to the monastery; he is now a layman. Yeshi’s sons have had to look for work in the cities well away from their family home, without their farmland there was nothing they could do.

Pema fulfilled her father’s wishes and gained an education at the Tibetan Children’s Village, a school for refugees in India, up to Year 12 before coming to Australia. She worked very hard, and with support from her husband, undertook Higher School Certificate studies at TAFE, became an enrolled nurse, completed studies at the Australian Catholic University for a nursing degree to then become a registered nurse. She felt the hole caused by missing parents and siblings with no family members to support her or share her victories with except for her husband.

She is positive about life in Australia as she is able to enjoy the basic human and democratic rights which Tibetans in Tibet are unable to enjoy. Pema willingly does her best to pay back her new nation (her home away from home), including being on the frontline of the COVID-19 response to take swab tests and administer COVID-19 vaccines to frontline workers, health care workers and the general public.  As she says, “I’m really grateful for this country.”

*Name changed to protect family members still in Tibet