"Shol" Dawa: Obituary of a Political Activist

Sixty-four year old "Shol" Dawa, one of Tibet’s most well-known and respected political activists, has died while serving his third prison term at Drapchi, the Tibet Autonomous Region Prison Number One. The circumstances of his death on 19 November are not known although he is said to have been suffering from a kidney ailment. He was in poor health and had been subjected to maltreatment and beatings on several occasions in the last few years. An elderly former political prisoner from Lhasa who is now in exile said: "Although he had many children, he continued to work for the cause despite being imprisoned three times. In the end, he gave up his life for the common cause [of Tibetans]. Shol Dawa didn’t show his regret or remorse, and he didn’t change his political views even when in prison."

"Shol" Dawa, a Lhasa tailor who earned his nickname from the former village of Shol at the foot of the Potala Palace, was serving a nine-year prison sentence for trying to compile a list of names of political prisoners to send out of Tibet – an offence classified as "espionage" by the Chinese authorities. It was his third and longest prison term, and he was due for release in August 2004.

Dawa was one of the first Tibetans to be arrested when the "liberalisation" period began in the early 1980s following the excesses of the Cultural Revolution. He was first imprisoned in 1981 and sentenced to two years for creating 260 cyclostyled copies of a pamphlet about Tibetan history called "Twenty years of tragic experience", written at his request by the renowned dissident scholar Geshe Lobsang Wangchug, who died in prison in 1987. The 1982 official court sentencing document stated that he had "also printed a picture of Tibet’s national flag on top of the circular". In 1985 Dawa was detained again and later sentenced to four years for writing "with his own hand some ten copies of a circular denouncing the ‘deteriorating living conditions’ " of Tibetans in Tibet, according to a copy of the court document obtained by the Tibetan government in exile. The posters and circulars were reportedly displayed in the Barkor, the traditional Tibetan quarter of Lhasa, and a number of other locations including the Lukhang (the park behind the Potala), the office of the Tibet Autonomous Region Performing Arts Department and the Number Two Government Guesthouse.

Shol Dawa is said to have been warned on his release from this second prison term that he would be executed if he was arrested again. Six years after his second prison sentence, he was arrested for the third time in 1995. Shol Dawa and another Tibetan, Topgyal, were detained in Lhasa and accused of compiling a list of Tibetan political prisoners that they intended to send to India. The court judgement stated that they prepared the list by asking two former prisoners, Dondrub Dorje, a former driver, and Ratoe Dawa, a former monk, to compile the list from memory. The official sentencing document stated: "The Lhasa City Peoples’ Procuratorate accuse that since 1993 and 1994 the defendants Xue Dawa [Chinese transliteration of Shol Dawa] and Duobujie [Topgyal] gathered together such items as a list of names of current and released political prisoners from our region, and hand-written reactionary letters, stamping them with an ox-head stamp of their own manufacture, to report abroad to the Dalai clique. The hearing proved that between 1993 and 1994 the defendant Xue Dawa caused Dunzhu Duojie [Dondrub Dorje] and Reduo Dawa [Ratoe Dawa] to collate a list of names of current and released political prisoners from our region which they then handed over to the defendant Xue Dawa." (Criminal Verdict of the Intermediate Peoples’ Court, Lhasa, TAR, 1996). The official sentencing document states that Shol Dawa was also accused of making contact with the "Dalai clique’s ‘Tibetan Women’s Federation’", which appears to be a reference to the Tibetan Women’s Association, a research and campaigning group connected to the Tibetan government in exile based in Dharamsala. Shol Dawa and Topgyal were accused of "actively accepting a mission specially appointed by foreign enemies, actively gathering various kinds of intelligence about this country within our borders and engaging in criminal activities that endangered state security".

Shol Dawa’s political views appear to have been formed when he was a young man living in Lhasa during the period of the Lhasa Uprising in March 1959, when the Dalai Lama escaped to India. A friend of Dawa’s who is also a former political prisoner, now living in exile, told TIN: "He did a lot of thinking about the situation in the late 1950s, and during the Cultural Revolution his dislike for the Chinese intensified." In the late 1970s, during the Cultural Revolution, he was categorised as a "black hat", a Communist term indicating someone who has earned the disapproval of the Party. The same friend of Dawa’s, who did not want to be named, said that Dawa’s determination and patriotism were an inspiration to other Tibetans. "In the early 1980s, a Tibetan from a village outside Lhasa came to Pa Dawa-la’s [a term of respect, meaning Father Dawa] tailoring shop and saw a picture of His Holiness the Dalai Lama on the wall. He was so moved that he started crying. Then Pa Dawa-la gave him a copy of a document and said: ‘His Holiness is in India, he is well, and working for the Tibetan people.’" The former political prisoner also recounted an incident when Shol Dawa was delivering political pamphlets around Lhasa. "He even dropped a note through the window of a police car he thought was empty. Then he noticed the face of a policeman in the window; he had been asleep, stretched out on the back seat. A few days later Dawa was arrested for the second time."

Shol Dawa is remembered with great affection by former political prisoners who knew about his frequent visits to prisons in Lhasa to bring food parcels, during the periods when Dawa was not imprisoned himself. He began to take food, including tinned pork meat, butter, sugar and tsampa, to political prisoners in the 1980s. A young former political prisoner who is now in exile told TIN: "Some prisoners wouldn’t even know [the person] who was bringing the food. People [like Dawa] would sit down with us, speak a few words, and give us milk powder, butter, noodles, and so on. We had the feeling from these visits that our political actions, our demonstrations, meant something to the wider society; they hadn’t just been individual acts that had gone unnoticed."

Shol Dawa’s family were under constant surveillance due to his political activities. His son, Samdrub was reportedly detained temporarily and beaten on several occasions. Samdrub died two years ago in Tibet. Another of Dawa’s sons lost his job, his daughter was expelled from school following his second arrest, and security police conducted several raids on the family home. Dawa’s wife, Lhagpa Drolma, died in 1987 during her husband’s second period of imprisonment. Shol Dawa was said to have been in poor health following his release from prison after his second period in detention; he had lost a lot of weight and suffered from headaches and sickness. According to one report he could only eat tsampa (roasted barley flour) and would vomit if he ate any other food. Following his third arrest in 1995, Shol Dawa was reportedly singled out on several occasions for severe beatings during his imprisonment in Drapchi. The beatings are likely to have been a result of Shol Dawa’s continued political intransigence; the Chinese authorities reserve their most severe treatment for prisoners who fail to "reform", and reports from Dawa’s friends indicate that his political stance never wavered. A young former political prisoner from Lhasa who was in Drapchi with Shol Dawa and who is now in exile told TIN that Dawa would have suffered from further beatings following the pro-independence protests on 1 and 4 May 1998 at Drapchi prison. The former political prisoner told TIN: "[Following the May protests] first the army [People’s Armed Police] came in with [riot]shields and guns. Then the police took some prisoners outside [for punishment]. Some elderly prisoners were among them but Shol Dawa-la was not taken outside at that time. However, later six policemen visited each cell to beat the prisoners. During that time everyone was beaten, so it is certain that he suffered beatings too."

The same ex-prisoner, a former monk in his twenties, said that Shol Dawa was excused from labour duties due to ill-health and a kidney ailment. "Elderly prisoners are often required to do the sweeping in Drapchi, but because he couldn’t bend properly he was unable to do this," said the former prisoner, who is now living in India. According to unofficial reports, medical treatment offered to Shol Dawa by the authorities was either delayed or inadequate. "Generally Shol Dawa-la didn’t talk a lot with other prisoners," the same former prisoner told TIN. "He normally stayed [in his cell] doing his prayers and practising religion. But we invited him for tea in our cell once, before the May 1998 incidents, and he told us a lot about what happened in the time around 1959."