Ven Ngawang Phulchung by Lucy Popescu

Lucy Popescu

Ven Ngawang Phulchung


Ven Ngawang Phulchung, a senior monk from Drepung Monastery near Lhasa, was singled out as the leader of the Drepung printing group, which in the 1980s secretly produced literature that was critical of the Chinese occupation of Tibet. Phulchung (who is now forty-four years old) has been in prison since 1989, and is serving a nineteen-year sentence for his role in producing pro-independence literature.

According to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), successive British Governments have regarded Tibet as autonomous, while ‘recognising the special position of the Chinese there’. The current Government does not regard independence for Tibet as a realistic option, as ‘it has never been internationally regarded as an independent state and no member of the United Nations (UN) regards Tibet as such’. The Government remains concerned by reports of human-rights issues in Tibet and regularly raises the issue with the Chinese authorities.

In 1950 the People’s Republic of China invaded Tibet, on the pretext of ‘liberating’ the country. The Tibetan Government protested to the UN but no action was taken. In 195 1, a Tibetan delegation travelled to Pelung for talks. Threatened with further military action, they were forced to sign an agreement which the Chinese called the ‘Seventeen Point Agreement on Measures for the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet’. The Dalai Lama fled to India in 1959, followed by an unprecedented exodus of Tibetans into exile.

Tibet formally became an autonomous region of China (known as the TAR) in 1965. The Communist power justifies its position by insisting that Tibet was always part of China. It continues to suppress religion and deny political freedom, and remains extremely sensitive to criticism and international scrutiny of the Tibetan issue. Accoding to the FCO’s Human Rights Department, China stated at the UN Commission on Human Rights in April 2003 that international concern over human rights in China was ‘unimportant, meaningless and irrelevant’.

Phulchung is one of five children from a poor family. Although unable to attend school regularly, he taught himself Tibetan and joined Drepung Monastery at an early age, going on to reach an advanced level of study in Buddhist philosophy. In 1987, he and twenty other monks &m the monastery initiated a peaceful pro-independence protest in Lhasa, which sparked off a series of marches for freedom. The Chinese authorities dealt harshly with many of the demonstrators, who were reportedly beaten. The twenty-one monks were detained without charge for four months and were &ally released as a result of intense international media attention. Nine of the original group and one other formed a secret organisation called the ‘Group of Ten’ to work for Tibet’s independence and the promotion of human rights. Phulchung was elected President. They undertook various non-violent activities in support of a free Tibet, and organised peaceful demonstrations.

Phulchung’s printing group published a Tibetan translation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the first Tibetan political manifesto – The Meaning of the Precious Democratic Constitution of Tibet, which called for a democratic system based on Buddhist tradition. It also produced pro-independence leaflets that criticised human rights human rights violations and listed the names of those arrested or lulled by the Chinese police and military. One describes how pro-independence Tibetan demonstrators were shot dead by police. The Drepung printing group was covered and put under surveillance by the Chinese authorities in 1988. For a time, the group managed to continue publishing its work, but in September 1988 the Chinese began a re-education programme at the monastery.

On 22 April 1989 Phulchung was rearrested from his monastery and detained in the TAR Public Security Bureau Detention Centre for more than seven months. During his detention he reportedly suffered extensive interrogation sessions and ‘extreme brutalities’. On 30 November 1989, the ten monks were sentenced before a forced public gathering for their involvement in the Drepung printong group. Phulchung and fellow monks Jarnphel Jangchup, Jamphel Chunjor, Ngawang Gyaltsen and Ngawang Oeser were given the harshest sentences, ranging &m seventeen to nineteen years’ imprisonment. It is thought that the long sentences were intended as a warning to other advocates of Tibetan independence. Phulchung was also sentenced to five years’ deprivation of political “rights, to run after his prison sentence. The monks were accused of ‘forming a counter-revolutionary organisation’, ‘spreading counter-revolutionary propaganda which venomously slandered the people’s democratic dictatorship’ and ‘passing information to the enemy’.

There are reports that Phulchung was beaten unconscious by Chinese army units and placed in solitary confinement for six weeks after taking part in a protest against prisoner transfers on 27 April 1991.

Phulchung and Jangchup are the only members of the Group of Ten who remain in Drapch Prison. Jangchup is reportedly in fragile health, with a weak ludney and heart problems. One of the group, Keslang Thutop, died in prison in 1996. The rest have been freed over the years after completing their sentences. Phulchung continues to protest at the ill-treatment of prisoners, and as a consequence is regularly placed in solitary confinement. He is due for release on 15 April 2008. Readers may send appeals calling for the early release of Ngawang Phulchung and Jamphel Jangchup to:

His Excellency Hu Jintao c/o HE Ambassador Zha Peixin The Chinese Embassy, 49-51 Portland Place, London, WIN 3AH Fax: 020 7636 2981

Iranian journalist and honorary member of English PEN Ali Reza Jabari, featured in November’s Silenced Voices, was released on 14 October 2004, after more than eighteen months in prison, as a result of international pressure and a campaign by Chilean author Isabel Allende, initiated by English PEN.

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