A photograph that’s come out of Tibet today shows the prison release of one of the first Tibetans to carry out a lone street protest, a relatively new form of protest that started to occur in 2014. It shows Lobsang Tenpa standing outside the gates of a detention center in Chengdu. He is not wearing his monk’s robe, but a white t-shirt and pants, with a brocade Tibetan robe that his greeting party must have draped around him. He looks straight into the camera, without a hint of joy on his face.
On April 26, 2014, the then 19 year old monk from Kirti monastery, located in the heavily securitized town of Ngaba (Chinese: Aba), walked calmly down the town’s main street, carrying a large portrait of the Dalai Lama in his hands, and wearing a bandana painted with the Tibetan national flag. The cell phone photos and video of his protest shocked Tibetans at the time because unlike the self-immolation protests which had rocked Tibet over the previous five years which often ended in the death of the protester, it was clear that Lobsang Tenpa was going to end up in a Chinese prison, a prospect considered worse than death by many Tibetans.
Within minutes of his protest he was taken away by security police, and seven months later, charged with ‘anti state activities’ and given a two year sentence in a closed door court. He didn’t have any legal representation and none of his family were allowed to be present.
According to accounts from almost every Tibetan who has faced similar charges in prison, Lobsang Tenpa would have been severely beaten and tortured during his detention, certainly in the five months before his sentencing when the authorities try to extract information that corroborate China’s state narrative on Tibetan protests, which essentially says that since Tibetans are happy in today’s Tibet, any act of dissent must necessarily be instigated from the outside; by the ‘Dalai Lama clique’, and or hostile foreign forces. The harsh and prolonged interrogations faced by Tibetans for expressing their dissent peacefully often result in serious bodily harm, many times leading to permanent organ damage and death, either while in detention or soon after their release.
So why has there been an increase in the number of Tibetans who carry out public acts of dissent which invariably end in their detention?
The most likely reason for this trend lies in China’s own response to the Tibetan self-immolation protests which in 2013 started punishing the family and friends, and sometimes even the entire communities of a person who carries out a self-immolation. In other words, a form of protest chosen by someone because it limited the pain and liability to just oneself, was made no longer viable by new Chinese laws that inflict pain and punishment far beyond the individual carrying out the protest. So in order to avoid causing punishment on his or her family and communities, people like Lobsang Tenpa are choosing to protest and be detained, knowing fully well the consequences for themselves.
In the photograph of Lobsang Tenpa outside the prison gates today, the most startling visual element is the dazzling white t-shirt that he’s been issued to wear for his release. It makes him look healthy and athletic, and negates any thought in the viewer’s mind of the humiliation and torture that he may have undergone.
But even as Tenpa’s punishment for carrying a photograph of the Dalai Lama may have ended today, another young monk from his monastery who took out a similar protest last Monday is most likely being forced to provide information that would reinforce China’s narrative on Tibet – a narrative as white as Tenpa’s t-shirt.