Thursday, 28 December 2017

Tibetan's Escape to the US

A recent picture of Dhondup Wangchen who landed in San Francisco
We are fascinated by the news that a Tibetan filmmaker managed to elude police surveillance in China and escape to the United States.

Dhondup Wangchen, 43, arrived in San Francisco on Christmas Day where he was reunited with his wife and children who were granted political asylum in 2012.

"After many years, this is the first time I'm enjoying the feeling of safety and freedom," Wangchen said in a statement issued by Filming for Tibet, a group set up by his cousin that campaigned for his release.

A scene from Wangchen's documentary, Leaving Fear Behind
"I would like to thank everyone who made it possible for me to hold my wife and children in my arms again. However, I also feel the pain of having left behind my country, Tibet."

He's a self-taught filmmaker from Qinghai province where he spent five months in 2007 interviewing Tibetans about their hopes and frustrations living under Chinese rule. His documentary, Leaving Fear Behind, has many Tibetans talking about their love for exiled Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama, and how they thought the 2008 Beijing Olympics would do little to improve their situation.

Wangchen was detained in 2008, after his footage was smuggled out of China and shown at film festivals around the world, and shown to a group of foreign reporters ahead of the Olympics. He was later convicted for "inciting subversion" and sentenced to six years in prison.

Wangchen's wife, Lhamo Tso campaigned for his release
While he was in prison, many rights groups campaigned for his release, saying he was denied medical care after he contracted hepatitis B in jail, that he was forced to do manual labour and kept in solitary confinement for six months.

His case was apparently raised by the United States with Beijing "at the highest level", according to a Tibetan rights group called International Campaign for Tibet.

However, Wangchen's supporters did not explain how exactly he managed to escape, as he was under heavy police surveillance, with his communications monitored.

"The six years Dhondup Wangchen had to spend in jail are a stark reminder of the human costs that China's policies continue to have on the Tibetan people," said Matteo Mecacci, president of International Campaign for Tibet. "Dhondup Wangchen should never had to pay such a high personal price for exercising his freedom of expression."

Tibetans cannot openly worship the Dalai Lama
In the coming days, weeks and months it will be interesting to see what he has to say about how life is like in Tibet these days. Since the Chinese government began ruling over Tibet in 1950, there have been repressive measures in place, in particular since 2008 when riots erupted in the area.

Devotees of the Dalai Lama are forbidden from speaking about him, having his picture posted on the walls and Tibetans say their culture and language are being threatened by Han Chinese.

A shocking statistic to keep in mind is that more than 150 people have set themselves on fire since 2009 in protest against the Chinese government, the latest case on Wednesday. In turn Beijing calls these self-immolators "terrorists" and blames the Dalai Lama and exiled Tibetan rights groups for inciting them.

While we are pleased Wangchen is now safe, he may feel powerless to help fellow Tibetans from the outside. It's a difficult existence, but one that he and many dissidents before him have had to navigate. We hope he finds his footing and renewed purpose in his new home.

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