The Photographer's Diary
Why I Care about Tibet
by Eugene Louie
San Jose Mercury News Photographer

Six months before I found myself in New Delhi, India, in a sweltering slum photographing an "unto the death" Tibetan hunger strike I didn't even know where Tibet was. The protest was held by exiled Tibetans to convince the United Nations to resume the debate on Tibet's right for self-determination. 

I challenged myself with this self-assignment to bring attention to the plight of Tibetan people because I was touched by the unique gentle culture of Tibet; and the piety and daily devotion Tibetans apply to their religion. Tibetan Buddhism's basic tenet is compassion -- a theme that I recognized in W. Eugene Smith's photographs as a high school student. His photographs ultimately inspired me to forgo pursuing a master's degree in clinical social work to become a photojournalist. 

The producers of the movies, "Seven Years In Tibet," and "Kundun," must have had me in mind as their target audience as they were making their films. Their work inspired me to educate myself about the people who live on the "Roof of the World."  

What I discovered horrified me. The communist Chinese invaded Tibet about fifty years ago. During their occupation, an estimated 1.2 million Tibetans have been killed, more than 6,000 monasteries and their ancient contents destroyed, and people are routinely imprisoned and tortured for exercising free speech. Even possession or display of the Dalai Lama's picture is illegal.  

Lhasa, Tibet's capital, looks like any other Chinese big city today due to "population transfer," a policy of cultural genocide which encourages Han Chinese to move to and work in Tibet for higher wages than what the locals receive. The intent of the Chinese is similar to the mission of the Borg, the bad guys in the science fiction series Star Trek -- resistance is futile, prepare to be absorbed. 

Children in Tibet are taught Mandarin Chinese, their native language is not allowed in school. Pursuit of religion is discouraged. The similarities between China's attitude toward Tibetans and frontier America's treatment, and ultimate annihilation, of the  indigenous American Indian is frightening. It is not an exaggeration to say Tibet is an endangered culture. 

As Tibet's situation grows bleaker, many Tibetans wonder if the 40-year-strategy of non-violence will ever win their country back. The Tibetan movement has become a symbol of hope for those who long for a global political culture of non-violence and dialogue. However, living daily life as a moral example may be too high a price to pay for a generation of frustrated Tibetans who have seen little progress; even though they have played according to the rules of international law.  There is an entire generation living in exile who has never even set foot on native soil because a returning Tibetan places himself in great peril. 

This is the history which led me to the tent of six Tibetan Youth Congress volunteers who vowed to stay on an indefinite hunger strike until the United Nations agreed to resume the debate on Tibetan autonomy. The UN had promised to do just that in their resolutions in 1959, 1961, and 1965. These resolutions condemned China's human rights abuses in Tibet and was a decision made by international jurists from the United Nations. These six radicals were determined to remind the world of that fact, even if it took creating a martyr. 

I stayed with the hunger strike for the final three weeks when New Delhi police ended the fast on the 50th day. China's Minister of Defense was scheduled to arrive in New Delhi and the Indian government did not want to offend the visiting official with an "in your face" issue as sensitive as Tibetans starving themselves to death for freedom. In an early morning surprise raid, the police destroyed the camp arresting the remaining protesters and force feeding them intravenously in a hospital. 

I will never forget the courage and determination of the Tibetan people.  In particular, Sonam Dekyi, the mother of a Fulbright scholar who the Chinese arrested, secretly sentenced and imprisoned for 18 years. They say he was spying for the United States because they caught him videotaping inside Tibet. Choephel, a gifted musician who passionately felt it was his life's duty to preserve his dying culture, legally entered Tibet on a Chinese visa and began recording what was left of his dying culture through its music and dance with his video camera.  

His act touched me in a way I had not expected. This is exactly what I would do if I were Tibetan, I thought. Choephel is a musician, teacher and scholar at Middlebury College in Vermont. He was last reportedly seen in Drapchi prison near Lhasa. Observers say he looked in poor health. Draphci is a high security prison where torture and rape have been documented by former prisoners and human rights groups. 

I met Sonam Dekyi sitting on the street facing the five-star Park Hotel begging, not for money but, for signatures from passers-by for a petition she will send to Chinese President Jiang Zemin. She maintains her vigil about 50 yards from the hunger striker's tent. Her petition is a plea to China to release her only son. Because she wants her sacrifice to be thorough and pure, she lives in a lean-to and eats a meager diet of donated food. The only expenditure she allows herself is to buy paper for the petitions. She contracted tuberculosis during her campaign and because of poor health fears she won't live long enough for her son's release. I had come to India to cover the dramatic struggle of the hunger strikers, but came away even more moved by the simple sacrifice of this tenacious mother. 

In October of 1998, I had a reunion with Sonam at Harvard University in Boston. She was touring the east coast making pleas for her son's release to members of the United States Congress, students at Columbia, Brandeis Universities and her son's college in Vermont. She had a very emotional meeting with her son's former teachers at Middlebury. Tibetan support organizations sponsored her trip. 

See the RealVideo of Sonam Dekyi, 
produced by Ruthie Ristich.
Click on the appropriate modem speed:
28.8K    56.6K    High-Band
On her return trip to India, Sonam met Paul McCartney in London who promised he would write a letter requesting Chinese President Jiang Zemin to release her son. McCartney apparently got involved in this human rights case because he identified with Ngawang as a musician. Sonam's hard work looked like it was finally beginning to bear fruit --  until she arrived in Paris, France. 

During her campaign in Paris, Sonam learned her son had been removed from Drapchi prison in Lhasa and moved to an obscure high security prison hundreds of miles to the east. China observers fear the government responded to the increased world attention Ngawang Choephel was getting by moving him further away from his mother's reach. The act appears to be a not so thinly veiled threat that the more Sonam works for her son's release, the more his well-being may become in question. 

After returning to India, Sonam returned to the streets to pursue her lonely mission. My goal is to make sure she is not forgotten. I hope I can find some grant money to return to India to produce a video documentary, as well as make still photographs to show the Chinese government the protective devotion and love that bonds this mother to her son. As China's economic influence increases into the 21st century,  a century economic experts say will belong to China, it is imperative to let their government know that fear will not silence Sonam Dekyi -- or the thousands of mothers like her. Sometimes one woman's plight can symbolize the tragedy of an entire culture. 

Eugene Louie 
San Jose Mercury News 
750 Ridder Park Drive 
San Jose, CA 95190 

If you would like to know more about Tibet:
The International Campaign for Tibet -- The largest and most complete center for information on issues pertaining to Tibet.   
Contact John Ackerly, president of ICT at: 202-785-1515 
International Campaign for Tibet 
1825 K Street NW, Suite 520 
Washington, DC 20006 

The World Tibet News-provides a daily compilation of news related to Tibet and delivers it in a daily e-mail to you. To subscribe send an e-mail to: with SUB WTN-L [your name]  in the body of the e-mail. 

International Committee of Lawyers for Tibet 

The Milarepa Fund 
1230 Market Street, #11 
San Francisco, CA 94102 
Phone: 415.533.8533

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