Saturday, July 30, 2011

When Suffering is Not Enough

I've been struggling with this post for a long time. I hope that I'll be able to express myself properly on such a sensitive topic.

We've all heard the stories. Tibetans are imprisoned, brutally tortured, killed, all for peaceful expression of their religious, political or cultural desires. Yes, this is all true. This is what we tell people when we want them to understand how bad the situation is in Tibet. We name prisoners: Dondrup Wangchen, Rungye Adak, Tulku Tenzin Delek. We share the testimonies of brutal tortures experienced by the nuns of Drapchi prison, by Palden Gyatso, by Ama Adhe. And these stories are horrible. They are fodder for nightmares, tortures so brutal that it seems nearly impossible that human beings could willingly carry them out.

All of it is true. None of that is an exaggeration. However, it isn't the full story either. Suffering in Tibet is not limited to torture cells in prison.

I remember a few foreigners who've turned to me in shock when finding out that many Tibetans leave Tibet not fleeing torture or death, but for the sake of a better education. Their lives are not in danger, but they want the freedom to worship or speak their language as they please. I vividly recall one or two people who felt as though their trust had been betrayed. All of a sudden they felt that the situation in Tibet was not as bad as they had been led to believe. These people didn't really need to leave Tibet. Why were they asking for our help?

I was literally stunned into silence by that reaction. Why is their suffering not enough?

In Tibetan conversation, when someone mentions detention or imprisonment, one of the first questions asked is "Did the beat you?" It is not assumed. Many people are not beaten. Does that make their suffering worthless? I met a young woman recently from Yushu. She told me she lived down by GuChuSum, the Tibetan Political Prisoner's association in Dharamsala. I asked if she'd spent time in prison and she answered that she had spent one month. I asked if she'd been beaten. She said no, she hadn't been beaten. She had, however, spent an entire month in iron shackles. She had been underfed, to the point of starvation.

Other acquaintances were not held in prisons during their detentions, just in hotel rooms. None the less, they were under constant surveillance and denied sleep.

When Tibet supporters look at this as "not that bad" they are forgetting that we are talking about people being arrested for the most basic expression of their rights, or often for no reason at all except the suspicions of a paranoid government. They are denied access to people who can help them, and put into a position of constant fear. How is this not suffering?

A 2007 study, published by the journal The Archives of General Psychology found that mental torture and physical torture have the same psychological effects in the long run. Included in their definitions of psychological torture: sleep deprivation, threats of rape, and threats of family members being violently harmed. While the first two occur most commonly in detention situations, the last occurs in daily life for Tibetans who live in constant fear and under constant threat of the detention and abuse of their friends or family members.

And what of the majority of Tibetans who will never spend a substantial period (by which I mean more than 2 weeks) in detention? They still live in constant fear of when a detention might come, whether for a reason or not. They still cannot express their views, educate their children as they please, control their politics or even their economy. They have no rights.

By over-emphasizing the situation of Tibetan torture victims, we immunize ourselves and other potential activists against the horrific, yet less acute, forms of suffering endured by the general population.

It is time that we, supporters, stop thinking only about the minority who will suffer extreme brutality in prison, and pay attention to the vast majority of Tibetans who live with a constant level of suffering based on fear and a complete lack of freedoms. Their suffering is enough.

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