China/Tibet: “singing nun” released

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Tibet, the A.R. of China:
Last “singing nun” released from prison, exiled


The release of 34-year-old Tibetan nun Phuntsog Nyidron into exile in the
United States on 15 March 2006 marks the end of the imprisonment in Tibet
for a group of women who became known as the “singing nuns” of Drapchi
prison, according to a report by the International Campaign for Tibet

They were known as the “singing nuns” after they secretly recorded songs
about the Dalai Lama and Tibet’s future on a tape cassette that was smuggled
out of prison and reached the West.

Phuntsog Nyidron was regarded one of the “main criminals” among the group of
nuns who recorded the songs. She was given the longest sentence among the
group: eight years imprisonment for her singing “crime” on top of that she
was already serving a nine-year sentence, making her total sentence 17 years
imprisonment.

The former chant-mistress from Mechungri nunnery ended up spending 15 years
of her youth in prison. In February 2004, she was released from prison, two
years before time. On 15 March 2006 she arrived in USA as a political
refugee.

A tape cassette smuggled out

In 1989, when Phuntsog Nyidron was 19 years old and lived in the Tibetan
capital Lhasa, she participated in a peaceful rally for Tibetan
independence, and was detained by Chinese authorities. Together with a group
of fellow Tibetan nuns, she had been shouting, ‘Long live the Dalai Lama!’
and ‘Free Tibet’, inspired by the news that the Dalai Lama had just won the
Nobel Peace Prize. The Chinese court sentenced her to nine years of
imprisonment.

In 1993, she was among a group of 14 nuns in prison who secretly recorded
songs expressing their devotion to the Dalai Lama, hopes for the freedom of
their homeland, and touching on the situation of the political prisoners.
The songs were recorded on a tape cassette which was smuggled out of prison.

Some of the lyrics went:

      The Chinese have taken Tibet, our home
      Tibetans are locked away in prison
      Oh, fellow Tibetans, please come here
      Buddhism’s holy land will be free soon

At the court hearing, the court rejected the nuns’ defense that recording
the songs in their cells was intended “to commemorate their lives [together] in prison”. The judges concluded that the 14 nuns had “recorded reactionary
‘Tibetan independence’ songs in an attitude of counter-revolutionary
arrogance” and with “the aim of countering the revolution”. It stated that
“their behavior was criminal” and detailed the extended sentences imposed on
each prisoner.

In February 1994, a year after the new sentences for the tape recording were
handed down, Garu nun Gyaltsen Kelsang collapsed after a session of military
drills enforced by the authorities as punishment for the nuns and other
prisoners at Drapchi.
Gyaltsen Kelsang was hospitalized, suffering from paralysis in her legs, and
released on medical parole in December 2004. She died at home two months
later, at the age of 26.

In June 1998, five nuns died in Drapchi after five weeks of severe
maltreatment following peaceful protests at the prison a month earlier. All
of the nuns were close comrades, ranging in age from 19 to 25 at detention,
and all of them had been imprisoned for peaceful resistance to Chinese rule
in Tibet.

Purpose of the songs

Through the songs, the nuns wanted to communicate to their families that
their spirits had not been broken – even though they had suffered beating,
torture and solitary confinement.

“We recorded the songs because we wanted our families to know that we were
still alive, and we wanted Tibetan people to know about our situation and
our love for our country. We hoped it would reach our families, but we
didn’t know for sure. I had no idea until I arrived in America that people
all over the world heard those songs while we were still in prison. Now, it
makes me feel so sad to listen to the recording, because I remember our
friends in prison who died,” said former Garu nun Ngawang Sangdrol who was
16 at the time she was detained. She had her sentence extended by six years,
and served 11 years of a sentence that was approximately 21 years before her
release and departure to USA in 2003. She is now studying English in New
York.

“I had no idea until later that these songs became known all over the world,
and we were described as the “singing nuns” in newspaper articles,” says
Phuntsog Nyidron to International Campaign for Tibet.
“My protest in 1989 was entirely peaceful, and yet I served 15 years in
prison. The Tibetan struggle has been overwhelmingly nonviolent – despite 50
years of oppression, there are no Tibetan suicide-bombers,” she remarks.



Phuntsog Nyidron.
Photo by Diane Daly, ICT

Audio:

International Campaign for Tibet:
Listen to an extract of the cassette tape

Sources:

Commentary by Phuntsog Nyidron
The Washington Times – 19 April 2006:
‘A Voice Once Silenced in Tibet’

Lyrics and more information about the sentencing document
International Campaign for Tibet – 30 March 2006:

‘ ‘Song of Sadness’ from Drapchi prison: the official Chinese verdict on the Drapchi ‘singing nuns’ ‘

International Campaign for Tibet – 22 March 2006:

‘Statement by Phuntsog Nyidron’

International Campaign for Tibet – 15 March 2006:

‘Phuntsog Nyidron, last of the ‘Drapchi singing nuns’, arrives in US’

Washington Diplomat – 13 April 2006:

‘Singing Tibetan Nun Enjoys Newfound U.S. Freedom’

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