“I was only planned to go to the Tibet protest at Minnewaterpark” – an interview with Lobsang Khedup.

On April 1st, 2014, Chinese President Xi Jinping visited the city of Bruges in Belgium. Just before the arrival of the President, Lobsang Khedup jumped over the fences on the market and called a number of slogans in Chinese and English, about the human rights violations in Tibet.

Dennis Barbion (Karma Dondub), President of Tibetan-Flemish Circle of Friends did an interview with the man on April 7th, to find out more about his motives for his action. He also invited the press. The Belgian newspapers “Het Nieuwsblad” and “Brugsch Handelsblad (Krant van West-Vlaanderen)” accepted the invitation, and they also had a conversation with Lobsang Khedup. Those articles have already been published. The interview was partly in Tibetan. Tenzin Menlek did the translations.

Dennis Barbion and Lobsang Khedup
Dennis Barbion and Lobsang Khedup

The interview:

Is there actually a large Tibetan community in Bruges?

There are about 25 Tibetan families in Bruges, so let’s say 60 Tibetans, but some are also staying in the reception centers for asylum seekers in Bruges, Oostkamp, Beernem… Let us say there are about a hundred Tibetans living in Bruges and surroundings.

Maybe introduce yourself first please?

My official name is Luo Song Ke Zhu, or Lobsang Khedup in Tibetan. I was born in 1974 in Bathang, Kham (eastern Tibet), now it is in China’s Sichuan province.

I have three brothers, two older brothers and one younger. According to our tradition, two of the four boys would become monk. My two older brothers did not want to become a monk. At that time I went to a Chinese school, where the Tibetan language was strictly forbidden. I left school to become a monk at the request of my parents. I did well in school, I had good results, but my parents urged me to become a monk. I was 14 when I became a monk, along with my younger brother. After three years in the monastery, I knew hardly anything about Buddhism.

After China invaded Tibet, a part of the monastery was transformed into a military post in 1962. Bachoidi Gompa is an ancient monastery, 500 years old, but after the Chinese occupation of Tibet, a piece of the monastery was repeatedly occupied by the Chinese army, for offices, storage space etc. We got no class on Buddhist philosophy, as it was not allowed by the Chinese authorities. There was even not a teacher. In total there were four hundred monks. The only thing we were allowed to do was praying, for example in people’s homes if someone had passed away. We received no teaching on Buddhism or our culture, nothing. We wore monk’s clothes but did not know much. The monks were also used by the Chinese authorities to repair buildings.

When did you escape Tibet?

Three years later, along with three other monks I wanted to go to India to meet our spiritual leader the Dalai Lama. We had heard that in India there were great monasteries with good teachers and education. That’s why we wanted to go to India. My parents also suggested that I should go to India, where I would at least get a good education and learn about Tibetan history, Buddhist philosophy, Tibetan language and our culture.

I only had 200 Chinese Yuan (24 euros) then, I didn’t have more than that. We first went by truck to Lhasa, the capital of Tibet. From there we crossed many mountains to reach Nepal and then further into India. During the trip we were often up to our knees or deeper into the snow. We went to Lhasa in 1989, during the mass protests by Tibetans in the late 1980s. Many Tibetans died during the peaceful uprising against the Chinese oppression. When I was in the city of Lhasa, I saw lots of Chinese soldiers with guns, and even tanks! Many Tibetans were checked; they had to show their papers, and also the special permit to visit Lhasa. Everyone was checked, men, women, monks, elderly people, children… I was 15 years old. I did not know much about freedom and human rights, but I knew that the Chinese authorities killed Tibetans, because in my own family, seven people were murdered by the Chinese, in the initial period when China illegally invaded Tibet in 1950: my grandparents, uncles and aunts were all killed. So I had heard stories that the Chinese killed Tibetans. When I was in Lhasa in 1989, I saw Chinese police and military check Tibetans and even beat them up with the butts of their rifles. That was the first time I have seen something like that, three or four soldiers beating Tibetans with the butt of their rifles at the Barkhor Square in front of the Jokhang Temple in the center of Lhasa, where there was a market with lots of people who saw all that happening. In the past, I had only heard of it. When I saw that, I had such a pain in my heart…

Why were those people beaten?

There was a Chinese law that prohibited three or more Tibetans from gathering together. When three or more Tibetans stand together somewhere, even if it’s just to talk to each other, the police intervened, to prevent any possible uprising, and often they beat them. There is no freedom of assembly. When I saw that, I was very sad. Why are three or more people not allowed to stand together to talk? When this happened, the police came immediately and asked them what they were doing. It also happened that when they were beaten up and they lay down on the ground, that the police dragged them further with their hairs.

Then you went to Nepal and India with three other monks?

One of the other monks knew someone who would help us to escape. We had to pay him, he was our guide. We reached Nepal after 15 days. Normally the journey from Lhasa to Nepal takes longer but we were looking for the shortest way. From Lhasa to India usually it takes a month or even longer. When we fled Tibet it was very cold, it was winter. We escaped then because there was less border police and fewer controls because of the extreme cold. It was so cold you almost died from the cold. We also had to be careful not to die of cold in our sleep. So we did not sleep much. At some moment we were up to our waists in the snow for four hours, we could not go fast.

Then you arrived in Nepal safely?

Yes, in Nepal there is a special center for Tibetan refugees. As I was a monk and I wanted to continue my monastic life in India, they advised me to go to South India, to the Sera Monastery. It is a very big monastery with about four thousand monks. There were twenty classes, one class per year, and I have completed them all, for twenty years. We got a very good education, about the history of Tibet, Buddhist philosophy, Tibetan language and culture… I have learned that all there, not in Tibet.

What about your family in Tibet when you were in India?

At one time my mother was very ill. She had sent me a letter asking me to return because she was seriously ill. I went to the Chinese Embassy in New Delhi to apply for a visa so that I could visit my sick mother. I tried several times but in the end I was told, “You can return to Tibet in the same way that you came here”, go back over the mountains in the snow.

When my mother was so ill, I really wanted to go back to Tibet. I was desperate to return. I would have gone back illegally, risking being arrested and spending some time in prison. I really wanted to see my mom again. She had sent me a letter and she wrote that she wanted to see me again one more time. She wrote that she would not close her eyes and die before she could see me. Again I submitted all necessary documents for my visa application to the Chinese embassy in New Delhi-photocopies of my documents, passport photos etc. They told me that they would contact me after two or three months, but I never heard anything. A year later I went to the Chinese embassy in New Delhi and tried again. It was just the same. For four years, I kept going to the Chinese embassy and submit my visa application. They always kept me in suspense, they would either ask for additional documents or tell me that they would contact me after a few months, but I never got an answer. Meanwhile, my mother must have died already… After a few years the same thing happened with my father. I also got a letter from him in which he asked me to come back. My grandparents, aunts and uncles had already died, my mother too. Meanwhile my brothers in Tibet were married and had children. I have tried so many times to go back to Tibet but I have never seen my parents and other family members again.

Could you send letters to your family in Tibet?

Yes I could, however not by post but through the grapevine, so I could give a letter to Tibetans who came to India from Tibet with a valid visa and who returned to Tibet afterwards. In this way I also received those letters from my parents in India, which were given to Tibetans who came to India. Of course, this takes a long time, sometimes two or three months. Maybe my mother had already died by the time I received her letter…

In total I have been seven times to the Chinese embassy in Delhi, I kept trying because I wanted to go back. I have never received an answer. It was expensive to travel so far, from my monastery in South India to New Delhi in northern India, and it took a lot of time to reach Delhi, it’s three days on the train.
I really wanted to stay as a monk, also after my training in the monastery in India. I went to Delhi many times to go back to Tibet but it never worked out. After all those attempts I even wanted to go back to Tibet illegally, but that was in the year 2009, a year after the Beijing Olympics. In March 2008, the mass uprisings of Tibetans began in Tibet, and in 2009 there still were many problems in Tibet, with very strict controls and harsh repression. So I could not go back…

When did you come to Belgium?

I was in the monastery in South India from 1990 to 2009. Then I came to Belgium in May 2009. They told me I could get the opportunity to receive a passport here in Europe after six, seven or eight years, so I would have a chance to go back to Tibet with a visa. Now I don’t have that passport yet, I do have the status of a recognized refugee. It’s the only chance in my life to ever return to my country legally.

During my asylum procedure I was eight months in the Red Cross refugee center in Menen. I was very happy when I got papers here; it was the first time after more than 20 years that I got an ID!

Which relatives do you still have in Tibet?

I have two brothers in Tibet; they are my only family in Tibet. I also have a little brother who is now a monk in India. My parents, grandparents and all my aunts and uncles have passed away, but I would love to see my brothers, sisters-in-law and their children, and of course also my hometown. In the past I was a child in Tibet, now I’m already an uncle, but I have never seen my cousins, only in pictures. Sometimes when I sleep and dream about my family, I have a lot of grief and I have to cry. Look, here is a picture of my brother with his wife and two children, but that woman, my sister-in-law is already dead; she had an accident. These pictures were sent through Tibetans who came to India.

Can you tell us exactly what happened in Bruges on Tuesday April 1st, 2014?

I work for the technical service department of the OCMW (public center for social work) here in Bruges. I actually had to work on the day the Chinese president visited Bruges, but my employer gave me the afternoon off so I could attend the peaceful protest in the Minnewaterpark. At noon after work, I wanted to go home first to have lunch, get changed and take my Tibetan flag with me. I wanted to go to the Minnewaterpark by 1.30 pm. On my way home from work I saw many policemen, they were everywhere! I also received several phonecalls from Tibetans who warned me to be careful because apparently several Tibetans had already been taken into custody by the police. On the way home I realized that I was being followed by plainclothes police. At that moment I changed my plans. Instead of going home, I went to the Market Place to see Xi Jinping. A whole crowd of people went to see him, and I too was curious. Walking through the center of the city, I looked for other Tibetans. I searched around for about 15 minutes but I didn’t see Tibetans. I only saw Chinese, a whole lot of Chinese, and many tourists. I didn’t see a single Tibetan. Apparently the centre of the city was forbidden territory for Tibetans.

In a corner, not far from the Market Place, I saw two policemen talking. I managed to pass by behind them without them seeing me. I quickly slipped passed them and went to the Market Place. I didn’t get noticed because I have a paler skin colour than other Tibetans, and most people thought I was from Mongolia or somewhere else, but not from Tibet. Because I had already been followed by police and I had no place to go without risk of being arrested, I was looking for a piece of cardboard on the Market Place, to write some slogans on. I wanted to put them up without saying or shouting anything. I found a piece of cardboard and wrote in Chinese: “Tibet needs human rights”. I also wrote some slogans in English: “Stop killing in Tibet” and “No human rights in Tibet”. An elderly English couple helped me. They were standing around me to shield me from others seeing me write on the cardboard. I wanted to show this cardboard sign as a quiet and peaceful protest because of the huge number of Chinese in the city that day. Many of them were waving the Chinese flags and there was a lot of noise. I hid the cardboard and went looking around on the Market Place.

Suddenly I saw a big luxurious car approaching. All Chinese people got very enthusiastic and loud. I thought Xi Jinping was arriving, so I took my cardboard sign and went closer. But as soon as I drew out my cardboard sign, I saw a policeman behind me. He came after me and wanted to grab me, although at that moment I hadn’t done anything yet. I had no choice, I was surrounded by the crowd of people all packed up together, there were fences in front of me, and a lot of police behind me. I had no choice but to go stand on a bench and to jump over the fences. At that moment, a policeman had already taken away the cardboard sign from me. The only reason why I jumped over the fence was to escape from the police chasing me, I had no other option. Then I just started to shout the slogans. I had absolutely no intention to attack the Chinese president, but I did want to make a statement.

Did the fact that a Tibetan nun from your home village self-immolated had something to do with your action?

A few days earlier, on March 30th, 2014, a Tibetan nun self-immolated in my home village Bathang in Tibet. Until now, approximately 140 Tibetan people have set themselves on fire, to protest against the Chinese oppression. But on that day, my only plan was to go to the peaceful protest in the Minnewaterpark. It was on the way home from work that I changed my plans, also because of the fact that I heard about several Tibetans who had been taken into custody.

So you didn’t plan the action for that day beforehand, like a week or one or more days before?

No, not at all. It was from the moment I walked home from work at noon and heard several Tibetans had been arrested in Bruges. I initially wanted to go home to get my things. But I didn’t reach home, there was too much police. That’s why I decided then to go to the Market Place for a quiet protest. I only wanted to go to the protest in Minnewaterpark, but I didn’t make it. It all happened within moments, and it was all under coinciding circumstances.

So what exactly did you shout on the Market Place?

First I shouted in English about respect for human rights: “We Tibetans want human rights”. Of course, there were many Chinese and I also saw high ranked Chinese people in nice costumes. I thought Xi Jinping was close by. That’s why I then shouted in Chinese: “All those years, why did so many Tibetans die? Xi Jingping, Chairman Xi Jinping, did you hear this? The Dalai Lama wants to return to Tibet. Why don’t you let us return to Tibet?” And then I continued in English: “We Tibetans want to go back. We Tibetans want to go back to our motherland. Why have so many Tibetans been killed? Did you hear this? Tibet has no human rights.”
For me personally, it was also because I haven’t seen my family in all these years and I want to return to Tibet. I also wanted to call for an end to killing Tibetans.

Could you tell us something about the self-immolations of Tibetans?

From 2009 until now, there have been a total of approximately 140 self-immolations in Tibet. Those people do that to stick up for human rights in Tibet and to protest against the lack of freedom and Chinese oppression. The Chinese authorities keep silent about this and it’s forbidden to bring it out in public.

In my hometown there is a nunnery. Two days prior to Xi Jinping’s visit to Bruges, there was a public self-immolation of a nun in Bathang. Many other nuns of the same nunnery have been arrested afterwards, and nobody knows where they are.

These self-immolations have been carried out to demand respect for human rights in Tibet, for the return of H.H. Dalai Lama to Tibet, and for China to respect the Tibetan people in Tibet.

Those last few days I felt a lot of heartache because of the 140 Tibetans who set themselves on fire.

It’s such a pity that this doesn’t get any attention here in the Belgian media. We know that in China news about self-immolation is forbidden by the Chinese authorities, but here? News like that isn’t forbidden outside of China, is it? I don’t understand why this doesn’t get any attention. The reason why people don’t understand why this is happening is because it’s concealed or forbidden.

How many Tibetans have been arrested on April 1st, 2014, in Bruges?

In total 22 people were arrested. [Our Tibetan translator confirms this]

I am absolutely sure that at least 17 to 18 people were arrested. I have a photo here, taken outside the police station. It shows 11 people. Together with the person who took the photo, that makes 12. But by then, a few people had been already released, about 5 or 6. When I was in that modern police office, there were about 17 people. Nine of them were people I knew, the rest of them I didn’t know. There were also three Belgians taken into custody, two women and one man. Also two Tibetans who were on the way to meet their lawyer in Bruges were arrested. They weren’t even on their way to the protest in the Minnewaterpark. During the afternoon, three or four people were systematically released. I was set free at 4 pm.

How did the police treat you after your arrest on the Market Place?

Good. Right after they arrested me, the police officers told me to be calm, but I was calm. I told them I had done what I had to do. I told the police commissioner that I am not a terrorist, but a peaceful person and that they didn’t need to worry about me anymore. I said I did what I had to do. The policemen were very friendly. I said: “You can check me completely; I am calm and won’t do anything anymore”. Then I had to step into the police car that was parked near the library, not far from the Eiermarkt.

While I was sitting in the police car, Xi Jinping had already left the city; yet a Tibetan couple was brought to the police car. They had just been arrested. Although the Chinese president was no longer in the city at that moment, Tibetans were still being arrested! Why? I didn’t understand. The three of us were taken to the police station. The other Tibetan was angry. He also just wanted to go to the peaceful protest. He asked the police officers several times: “Why did you arrest us? Why? ” He and his wife were just walking on the street, on their way to the Minnewaterpark. The police stopped them and asked them if they were Tibetan. They had to show their ID papers and were ordered to go with them. That man was really upset, he didn’t understand at all.

Also an Afghan man almost got arrested. My coworker and his friend, both Afghan, were stopped in the center of the city. He looks Asian and even looks Tibetan, so the police thought he was Tibetan. He said: “I’m not a Tibetan, I come from Afghanistan! I’m just walking here, I’m going shopping”. After the police checked his ID card and they saw he really was Afghan, they let him go.

Were the police officers at the police station friendly to you?

Yes, very friendly, really good, the best! [Laughs out loud]

In the center of the city they were way too hard, arresting people for no reason.

Upon my escape from Tibet, I was arrested and locked up for four days in a Chinese prison near the Nepal border. They tied both my hands on my back, my left arm over my left shoulder and my right arm upwards from the back, and so tied my hands together on my back. Both my shoulders were broken. We were treated very badly. I almost died in that prison.

They also once hung me up by one finger. They tied a rope to my forefinger and pulled me up on a hook that was attached to the ceiling. They left me hanging there for hours. It was so painful. That’s why the Belgian police were very good. They don’t do things like that here. They didn’t handcuff me either, like they do in Tibet.

How are you doing now, after all the commotion?

I’m okay, but my knee still hurts, and I have difficulties bending one of my legs, it hurts a lot. That’s because several policemen heavy-handedly threw me on the ground. One of my teeth was also broken, it was bleeding.

Will there be legal consequences for you now?

I don’t know. They didn’t tell me anything.

Is there something else you would like to share?

Yes, as a matter of fact, there is. I got to know that the Chinese Embassy in Brussels contacted all Chinese restaurants and asked them to report Tibetans or members of the Falung Gong during the visit of Xi Jinping. If they could arrest the people they reported, the Chinese restaurant owners would be rewarded with a three-day stay in a hotel for free, food and drinks included. [Our Tibetan translator confirms this and she also heard that 50 euros per day was paid out too, as a sort of “blab fee”]

On Saturday April 5th, 2014, a big party was held in a Chinese restaurant in Brussels to thank the Chinese restaurant owners. I know someone who saw pictures of that party. It was a sumptuous dinner with the best food. It must have been a very expensive party….

Interview submitted by Dennis Barbion (Karma Dondub), Beernem, Belgium.

(Translation of the text from Dutch to English: Dennis Barbion and Iris Coussens)

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