(CNSNews.com) – Languishing in a Chinese prison, Lukar Sham was ready to die behind bars, but then chose to fight for his life so that one day, he could share his story of hardship and political oppression at the hands of the communist regime.
“Initially, I thought that it is better to die in the prison and then somehow I came to the realization that I needed to survive,” Sham, speaking through an interpreter, said during a three day conference in Washington, focusing on Chinese prison camps in Tibet.
“Then I came to realize if you die like that there’s no meaning for the human life and therefore the best thing is to survive in prison.”
Sham, whose 17-year prison sentence beginning in 1992 was cut short due to illness, said fellow inmates were told that he stole yaks, so that they would not know he was a political prisoner accused of being a Tibetan separatist. China has occupied Tibet since 1951.
Chinese authorities told Sham that his sentence would be extended if he made his real “crime” known to other prisoners.
Sham, who is now vice chairman of the Gu-Chu-Sum Movement of Tibet – an ex-prisoner aid organization – was one of seven Tibetans who shared stories of violations suffered in Chinese prisons.
The “Laogai in Tibet” conference, which took place on Friday, Monday and Tuesday, was co-sponsored by the LaoGai Research Foundation, the International Campaign for Tibet, the Tom Lantos Foundation for Human Rights and Justice and the Victims of Communism Memorial Fund.
The Laogai is a prison network in China made up of thousands of labor camps. According to the Washington-based Laogai Research Foundation, Beijing has since 1949 used the camps as a source of labor and revenue. They operate as commercial entities such as factories, mines and workshops, with inmates – political or otherwise – forced to toil for the government.
“As a prisoner in the prison camp, you’re also subject to forced labor and thought reform,” the foundation’s executive director, Harry Wu, told the conference. “No matter what is your political view, forget it. You have to uphold communism – this is the basic idea.”
From 1960-1979, Wu was held prisoner in a Laogai camp for criticizing the ruling Communist Party.
The Tibetans who took part in the conference were all arrested, or wanted, for staging various forms of protest against the government. Nearly all served sentences in the Laogai network and each experienced inhumane treatment by the authorities.
Ghang Lhamo was first arrested as a college student in December 1989 on suspicion of being a “counterrevolutionary,” after she took part in a pro-democracy rally at the university in the Tibetan capital, Lhasa.
Because of torture endured while in prison, Lhamo said her health greatly deteriorated. Her family had offered a bribe of 6,000 Yuan (about $940) and expensive cigarettes to prison officials so she could receive medical treatment.
Lhamo is a member of the Tibetan parliament-in-exile and general secretary of the Gu-Chu-Sum Movement.
One survivor who was pursued by police but never caught was Tsewang Dhondup, who participated in a March 2008 demonstration in support of the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader who is reviled by Beijing. During the demonstration, Dhondup was trying to help an injured monk when he was shot by police, wounded in the arm and torso.
Since he was unable to immediately seek medical attention, Dhondup’s injuries became progressively worse. He eventually fled Tibet and, although he could have sought proper treatment, he intentionally keeps his arm limp to send a message about human rights violations in Tibet, he said.
“These wounds that I carry on my body are a hard testimony of the truth of the Chinese government’s repression of the Tibetans in Tibet for the peace- and truth-loving people of the world,” Dhondup said in a written statement.
Dolkar Kyap, also a member of Tibetan parliament-in-exile, said in a statement an estimated 50 million people have been held in Laogai camps since 1949, and that does not include Chinese detention centers. A Laogai prisoner’s food budget is typically $9.50 per month, not all of which will necessarily be spent on food for the prisoner.
The other three Tibetans who took part in the conference were Tubten Khetsun, Jampel Monlam and Ngawang Sangdrol.
Since March 2008, at least 600 Tibetans have been detained by the Chinese for political reasons, according to International Campaign for Tibet.