COOKSVILLE, Md. – The frail-looking monk carrying the Tibetan flag stopped walking north on Route 97 long enough to take his teeth out and tell of Chinese government torture.
Imprisoned for 33 years, Palden Gyatso said he lost all his teeth when an electrical shock gun was aimed at his mouth. His Chinese torturers wanted him to admit that Tibet was a part of China. He refused.
Gyatso, 65, was marching across Maryland Friday with Thubten Jigme Norbu, 73, the elder brother of the Dalai Lama, to raise awareness of Tibet’s continuing struggles with China.
The two were joined by 13 others in what is expected to stretch into a 45-day, 300-mile walk from the Chinese Embassy in Washington to the United Nations in New York.
“We are a small country swallowed by the Chinese,” said Norbu, a retired professor at Indiana University. He taught Tibetan language and culture at the school for 24 years.
“The world should know,” he said. “They have tried to destroy our religion, our beliefs.”
Their homeland in the Himalayas was taken over by Mao Tse- tung’s communist government in 1951. The Tibetans said the Chinese have since attempted to eradicate Tibetan culture and traditions, uprooting monasteries and executing and torturing dissenters.
“Tibet was a very peaceful and non-violent country,” Gyatso said. “That’s why China took it over.”
Lu Wenxiang, first secretary at the Chinese Embassy, denied in a telephone interview that torture tactics had ever been used in the region. “Tibet has always been an undeniable part of Chinese territory since ancient times,” he said.
Gyatso said Tibet dates back 2,123 years.
The Dalai Lama, the religious and political leader, fled to northern India in 1959 after an unsuccessful Tibetan uprising against the Chinese.
After the uprising, Gyatso said he was imprisoned for his beliefs.
He said he shouted, “Tibet is not under Chinese,” and was taken to Dapchi prison. His monk clothing was taken and burned.
“There [are] a lot of people in jail there,” Gyatso said. He described in detail torture methods used on him, bearing his bald head to show scars and scratches that he carries with him.
He said he was chained and hung by his wrists over a fire for three to four hours during questioning, doused with scalding water and scratched with sharpened sticks. Women were also tortured with electric shock guns, he said.
Gyatso said he is taking shock weapons with him on his trek, to exhibit at universities along the way, such as Swarthmore and Princeton.
He also described more subtle brainwashing and tradition- busting tactics he said the Chinese government continues to use, such as distributing free alcohol in the streets of Lhasa, the country’s capital.
“I’ve never heard about claims like that in China, except by those people,” Lu said, referring to Tibetan nationalists.
Gyatso said he was released from prison in August 1992 because of petitioning by the British and Italian governments.
Last year, Norbu walked 70 miles from Bloomington, Ind., to Indianapolis to raise awareness of the issues. He estimates that a million Tibetans have been killed by the Chinese, and another 100,000 have been dispersed as a result of the oppression.
Lu said a million casualties is exaggerated, and that the area’s whole population in 1950 numbered that much.
This year’s marchers should reach the United Nations April 25, the birthday of the Panchen Lama, a 6-year-old boy who is the second most prominent figure in Tibetan Buddhism. Norbu and other Tibetans charge that the Chinese abducted the boy and his family and then installed another in his place Dec. 8.
“Probably he’s in danger for his life,” Dyatso said of the boy. “Maybe he’s alive. I’m not sure.”
Lu denied that the boy chosen by the Dalai Lama had been abducted.
Among the marchers Friday was Lhakpa Tsering, 26, a Tibetan electrician living in Dharamsala, India. He had lost his parents as a child and was raised in a Tibetan religious school.
“It’s my responsibility to fight for my country,” Tsering said.
Aaron Jorgensen, 20, of Williamstown, Mass., also walked. He said student activist groups such as Students for A Free Tibet are growing.
“Tibet is not in the news, but what is going on in Tibet is real,” Jorgensen said.
The marchers average about seven to eight miles a day, and stop every night at 6 p.m. for meditation. The group stays in friends’ homes at night, shuttling the next morning to resume where they left off.
Gyatso walked determinedly in silence, sometimes coughing. He carried a flag, with two snow lions offering flames to a rising sun. “In this peace walk, even if I die, I will walk,” he said. -30-