Lhamo Tso brings fight for husband’s freedom to Auburn

Lhamo Tso taking part in demonstration in Times Square

Lhamo Tso, the wife of imprisoned Tibetan filmmaker Dhondup Wangchen, takes part in a demonstration on Times Square to call for his release, on the eve of the 1959 Tibetan uprising, in New York on 9 March 2012. Dhondup Wangchen was sentenced in 2009 following a secret trial in Xining, China, to six years in prison after making the film "Leaving Fear Behind". File photo/AFP/Getty Images/Emmanuel Dunand/US

By Krissi Khokhobashvili | Auburn Journal

ON THE WEB, 8 April 2012

Lhamo Tso has not seen, or even spoken to, her husband in five years.

She has spent years campaigning for the release of Dhondup Wangchen, whose documentary, “Leaving Fear Behind,” cost him his freedom. Since 2008, Wangchen has been imprisoned in China, most recently in Qinghai Province, where he spends long days in a labour camp manufacturing bricks and concrete. His contact with his wife stopped before his arrest, when he sent her to India under the assumption that she would be visiting relatives and her four children, who had been sent to school there.

In reality, Wangchen was protecting his family before the release of “Leaving Fear Behind,” a 25-minute documentary condensed from 35 hours of footage. The filmmakers, Wangchen and Tibetan monk Jigme Gyatso, interviewed 108 Tibetans about their views of the Dalai Lama and the Chinese government. The documentary was released on the opening day of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, screened in secret for foreign reporters. But before it was released, the filmmakers were detained.

“He didn’t do anything wrong,” said Giovanni Vassallo, treasurer of the Committee of 100 for Tibet and Tso’s host in San Francisco. “There’s really nothing wrong, but there is this vague law that anything can be construed as revealing state secrets. … I’m blown away again, as I always am, by China’s total state of control over the lives of all the Tibetans.”

Wangchen’s political awareness began in Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, where he witnessed a pro-independence demonstration that was suppressed by authorities. In 1993, he and a cousin crossed the Himalayas into India on foot, walking more than 5,000 miles to receive the blessing of the exiled Dalai Lama. After that, Wangchen became an activist for the Tibetan freedom movement, but was forced to seek political asylum in Switzerland in 2002.

Back in Tibet, from August 2007 to March 2008, Wangchen and Gyatso interviewed their subjects, who all agreed to have their faces shown on film. Working with Wangchen’s cousin Gyaljong Tsetsrin in Switzerland, they had just smuggled the tapes out of Lhasa when riots broke out and began to spread through the country. The government crackdown on the riots included the arrest of the filmmakers. Wangchen was unofficially detained at Gonshang Hotel, where he was reportedly beaten and deprived of food, water and sleep, and at Xining City, where he was held incommunicado until April 2009. He was finally allowed to meet with his lawyer, who dropped the case three months later, saying that he was ordered to do so by judicial authorities.

Following a secret trial, Wangchen was sentenced to six years’ imprisonment for subversion. Since her husband’s imprisonment, Tso has been campaigning worldwide for his release on humanitarian grounds and, now, for medical reasons. Wangchen, 38, has been diagnosed with hepatitis B, and his health is said to be failing, according to the Sierra Friends of Tibet. “Leaving Fear Behind” will be screened April 10 in Auburn, where Tso will make a brief presentation and answer questions.

Her efforts have not gone unnoticed. Tso said Wangchen’s six-year sentence is relatively short compared to other political prisoners, who sometimes serve 15 years.

“Before, he was to work for about 17 hours in the prison, but now the working hours have been reduced,” said Tso, speaking via translator Tenzin Tselha. “I hope that these are because of the campaigns that I received from different countries and NGOs.”

A number of human-rights groups have condemned the arrests of Wangchen and Gyatso, including Amnesty International, Front Line, The Committee to Protect Journalists, Reporters Without Borders, Human Rights Watch and the Tibetan Center for Human Rights and Democracy. Her work began in India, where she and her family collected signatures on petitions demanding his release and working with monasteries to collect more names. In 2010, she visited five countries in Europe and in 2011 campaigned in England and France. Her US tour will include presentations at Santa Clara University, University of California, Berkeley, San Diego, Los Angeles and the Bay Area. Her stop in Auburn is hosted by the Sierra Friends of Tibet.

“We’re a local, grassroots organization,” said Jesse Gilliam, Auburn area organizer. “We just try to do what we can to bring the issue of Tibet to the forefront, just to let people know a little about what’s going on so they can search their own consciences about what’s going on.”

When she’s not campaigning for her husband’s release, Tso lives in Dharamshala, India, with her children, ages 17, 15, 13 and 11. She wakes up at 1 or 2 am to bake bread and go to a bus station to sell it. She never attended school, but has started to learn English in order to tell her husband’s story.

Tso said updates on her husband’s condition are few and far between. He has a sister in Tibet who tries to visit once a month, but was unable to in March and April. Wangchen’s parents are in their 70s and suffer from heart disease, Tso said, and she fears not only that they might die before they get to see their son, but that he might be harmed or killed in the camp before his release.

“Before, we never imagined in our life that we would be living separately,” Tso said. “We never so thought about it, so it’s very difficult for me and my family.”

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