Speaking to the BBC about Dhondup Wangchen’s Arrival in USA

It’s been heartwarming to see all the positive responses from all around the world to the news that Dhondup Wangchen arrived safely in the US on Christmas Day. Dhondup Wangchen’s escape from Tibet has been a rare piece of good news!

There has been strong media coverage of Dhondup Wangchen’s story that started with our Filming for Tibet press statement on 27 December. There have been news reports on New York Times, Reuters, Guardian, amongst many others.

Yesterday I was invited to speak with Sharanjit Leyl on BBC World News during the 8pm news, the video is above!

After the news of Dhondup Wangchen’s arrival came out, there were statements welcoming him from many organisations who had worked on his campaign. Thank you to Amnesty International, Dui Hua Foundation, International Campaign for Tibet and Students for a Free Tibet. Also the President of the Tibetan Government in Exile, Dr. Lobsang Sangay praised Dhondup Wangchen for his “courage and contribution to the cause of Tibet.”


Similarly, many took to Twitter including Nancy Pelosi and the Committee to Protect Journalists:

This is all so amazing and quite surreal, considering it’s been ten years since Dhondup Wangchen started filming “Leaving Fear Behind” –  what a journey.

For those who want to go back and watch “Leaving Fear Behind”, it’s online here: https://vimeo.com/50220285

To read about the day I spent with Dhondup Wangchen on 10 March, 2008, read my piece for CPJ here: https://cpj.org/blog/2009/12/the-story-of-dhondup-wangchen-a-filmmaker-jailed-i.php

Happy new year and see you in 2018!


Dhondup Wangchen Honoured with 2012 International Press Freedom Award

I just wanted to share this video that was made by CNN and shown at the awards ceremony last week where Dhondup Wangchen was honoured by Committee to Protect Journalists with their 2012 International Press Freedom Award. A huge thank you goes to CPJ, not only for this award but for their support for Dhondup Wangchen and “Leaving Fear Behind” ever since 2008.


Here’s a link to a blogpost I wrote for CPJ in 2009 about my meeting with Dhondup Wangchen: http://cpj.org/blog/2009/12/the-story-of-dhondup-wangchen-a-filmmaker-jailed-i.php


My Article on the Rise of Tibetan Video Activism Published Today on WITNESS Blog

Timed to coincide with the Tibet Film Festival(s) taking place from today onwards in Zurich and Dharamsala, WITNESS has published an article that I originally wrote for the Festival’s programme on the rise of Tibetan video activism since 2008.

Read the full article here: http://blog.witness.org/2011/10/the-rise-in-tibetan-video-activism/

My Geneva Summit Talk

Below is the talk I gave at the Geneva Summit earlier this week. I was speaking on the panel titled “After Liu Xiaobo’s Nobel Prize: the Situation of Human Rights in China” and there is a video of the session online on www.genevasummit.org I can’t work out how to embed that video into this post! I am adding links into the text for those who wish to find out more!

Dechen Pemba at the Geneva Summit, March 15, 2011

My name is Dechen Pemba. I am a UK born Tibetan and I am the editor of High Peaks Pure Earth, a website that monitors Tibetan blogs and translates online writings by Tibetans in Tibet and the People’s Republic of China from Tibetan or Chinese into English.

Most of my working life has been dedicated in some way to advancing the issue of Tibet. In 2002, I was a volunteer translator for two Tibetan nuns who were political prisoners in Tibet for a six month European and US tour organised by Amnesty International. I also worked for almost 4 years for the International Campaign for Tibet Germany as a full-time campaigner, working on many human rights issues such as highlighting the cases of Tibetan political prisoners, for example the Panchen Lama who has been missing along with his family since 1995, and Tenzin Delek Rinpoche, a high profile monk in eastern Tibet who was targeted, framed and sentenced to death by the Chinese government. Due to mass campaigning and lobbying, Tenzin Delek Rinpoche’s deathsentence was commuted to life imprisonment.

Despite working full time on Tibetan issues, I felt that it was necessary to understand China in order to gain an insight into the situation on the ground in Tibet today. Therefore I decided to move to Beijing in 2006 to learn Chinese at the Central University for Nationalities. I lived in Beijing until 2008, during which time I was able to travel to Tibet several times. As everyone here will be aware of, Tibet erupted in widespread protests against Chinese rule just over 3 years ago, starting in Lhasa on March 10, 2008. For several months afterwards, the whole of Tibet was a media black hole, no foreign journalists or tourists were allowed to travel in and the whole area was under military lockdown. Despite promises of media freedom by the Chinese government in the lead up period to the Olympic Games in August 2008, these promises were not kept in Tibet’s case.

Even though it has been over 3 years since those mass protests, the situation on the ground today has not improved. Recently, just prior to the 3 year anniversary of the protests, a travel ban was imposed on the Tibet Autonomous Region on March 7, 2011, restricting foreigners from travelling there, including media. Radio Free Asia reported on February 25, 2011, that police in Lhasa were cracking down on banned songs, searching mobile phones for mp3s deemed “reactionary”. According to a Tibetan in Lhasa:

“If someone has this [type of] song [on their mobile phone], they are detained, jailed from 10 to 15 days, heavily fined, and even brutally beaten”.

Despite this fierce crackdown all over Tibet, protests have not stopped, Tibetans continued to protest to voice their grievances throughout 2009 and 2010 against specific issues, for example in May 2009 a peaceful protest by Tibetans in Kardze Prefecture of Sichuan province against the construction of a hydroelectric dam leading to displacement of tens of thousands of local Tibetans was forcibly broken up by police with six people injured.

In August 2010, at least four Tibetans were killed and 30 injured when police officers opened fire on a crowd outside the Palyul county government offices in Kardze Prefecture. Local Tibetans were protesting the expansion of a gold mining operation damaging to the environment.

Most recently in October 2010, thousands of students in Eastern Tibet took to the streets in support of Tibetan language and against a new policy that would increase Chinese-language medium teaching and undermine Tibetan language study.

Since 2008, Tibetans have faced severe punishment for merely exercising their right to freedom of expression. According to the International Campaign for Tibet, more than 50 Tibetans, including 13 writers, involved in the arts and public sphere are either in prison, have been ‘disappeared’ or have faced torture or harassment for expressing their views.

Under the circumstances, Tibetans today are finding new ways to assert their identity and resist passively, such as refusing to celebrate Losar, Tibetan New Year, in 2009, out of respect to all those who died in 2008. Tibetans are also engaged in strategic nonviolent resistance, a new movement called “Lhakar” is underway currently. Lhakar literally translates as “White Wednesday” and it is considered an auspicious day as it’s the soul day of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. A growing number of Tibetans are making a special effort to wear traditional clothes, speak Tibetan, eat in Tibetan restaurants and buy from Tibetan-owned businesses every Wednesday.

My work today with High Peaks Pure Earth is dedicated to supporting Tibetan voices from inside Tibet and the PRC. Tibetans are fully capable of speaking for themselves and their voices are often eloquent and extremely courageous. It is important for these voices to be heard, amplified and represented. New media has afforded many new opportunities for communication and exchange between Tibetans and the outside world but not without risk. Blogs, social networking sites, SMS and microblogs are all being used by Tibetans as a forum for expression. The most well-known figure using these new technologies is Tibetan writer, poet and blogger Woeser. Woeser’s blog is regularly translated from Chinese into English by High Peaks Pure Earth and hers is a rare bold Tibetan voice coming directly out of the PRC today. Woeser is using her blog and social media such as Twitter to make the true feelings and situation of Tibetans in the PRC today known, fort his she has been placed under house arrest and harrassed by the police several times. Her blogs, Skype, email and Twitter have been hacked several times by Chinese nationalists.

The Chinese government fear free exchange between their citizens, especially between Tibetans. It is no coincidence therefore that prior to March 10 last week, a prominent Tibetan social networking site MyBudala was inaccessible along with Tibetan language blog-hosting sites DobumNet and Sangdhor. These sites are still down today.

Finally, I would like to draw attention to the following cases of human rights violations related to freedom of expression:

Dhondup Wangchen

Sentenced to 6 years in prison in December 2009 for making the documentary film “Leaving Fear Behind” that interviewed Tibetans about their feelings towards Tibet, China and the Olympic Games. Dhondup Wangchen was detained and tried in secret, two sets of Chinese human rights lawyers were barred from representing him. He is currently in Xichuan Labour Camp in China’s Qinghai province. He has contracted Hepatitis B in prison and is receiving no medical treatment.

Wangdu and Migmar Dhondup

Both NGO workers, Wangdu and Migmar Dhondup were accused in December 2008 of collecting “intelligence concerning the security and interestsof the state and provid[ing] it to the Dalai clique…prior to and following the ‘March 14’ incident”. Wangdu received a life sentence and Migmar Dhondup a sentence of 14 years.

Norzin Wangmo

Female cadre and writer from Ngaba, eastern Tibet. The exact details of the charges against her are not known, but she was convicted and sentenced to 5 years in prison on November 3, 2008 for passing news through the phone and internet about the situation in Tibet to the outside world.

Thank you.

The story of Dhondup Wangchen, filmmaker jailed in China

Below is a blogpost that I wrote for the Committee to Protect Journalists Blog. The original can be viewed here: http://cpj.org/blog/2009/12/the-story-of-dhondup-wangchen-a-filmmaker-jailed-i.php

The article was kindly re-published by The Comment Factory, that page can be viewed here: http://www.thecommentfactory.com/the-story-of-dhondup-wangchen-filmmaker-jailed-in-china-2517

Many thanks to CPJ for their work publicising Dhondup’s case, thanks to The Comment Factory for publishing me once more and, last but not least, many thanks to a talented momo-maker for their feedback, it made my article a lot stronger.

The story of Dhondup Wangchen, filmmaker jailed in China

By Dechen Pemba
On the same day that historic protests started by monks in Lhasa began and were to sweep all over Tibet in the subsequent months, Dhondup Wangchen was nearly 3,000 kilometers away in Xian, in China’s Shaanxi province. It was the last day of filming for his documentary film project that sought to give voice to Tibetans in the run-up to the Olympic Games. As was the case throughout China, Xian was caught up in an Olympic fervor. Big red banners were hung all over the city, the Olympic mascots peered from shop windows in unspeakably bright colors. None of this however, seemed to have the slightest connection to Tibet or the discontent of the Tibetan people.

For many around the world, the protests that began March 10, 2008, were a surprise. International media were suddenly giving unprecedented coverage to a struggle that had been going on for more than 50 years. Journalists, NGOs, governments and even exiled Tibetans were given a stark reminder that a conflict was unresolved and that, in the run-up to the Olympics, Tibetans were still risking everything to be heard. It hadn’t taken months of protests and a military crackdown in Tibet, however, for Dhondup Wangchen to be aware of the suffering of his people. It was something he had lived, and it was this that he was seeking to convey through film and simple testimony.

I had travelled 1,200 kilometers from Beijing to Xian to meet Dhondup Wangchen and learn about his film project. It was to be the first and only time that I would meet him. On arrival at the train station, I bought a local Chinese paper; I wanted to remember this day. Later on in the day, we even filmed Dhondup Wangchen with this newspaper as a record. Within minutes of our meeting, I was struck by his determination and drive to accomplish something that he felt was important—to depict the injustice of life as a Tibetan under Chinese rule. As one of his interviewees so eloquently said, “We Tibetans living in the PRC are like stars on a sunny day, we can’t be seen.” Just hearing the sheer scale of Dhondup Wangchen’s project was impressive, traveling through remote areas of eastern Tibet in the Tibetan winter of 2007-08 and recording under the harshest imaginable conditions the views of more than 100 ordinary Tibetan men and women, amassing more than 40 hours of video footage. All this with just a cheap video camera, no professional training in journalism or film-making, and constantly in fear of being detained for his citizen journalism activities.

Despite painful toothache that day in Xian, Dhondup Wangchen told me that he, together with his friend Jigme Gyatso, a monk, had come up with the idea to make a documentary as early as 2006. The year and a half before beginning filming, Dhondup Wangchen planned how he would make the film, even taking his parents, wife, and four children to India to safety so they would not be at risk when he returned to Tibet to make the film. Having a cousin in Switzerland meant that once the footage was safely out of the country, the documentary could be edited and prepared for an international release in time for the Olympic Games.

On August 6 2008, his documentary film, now edited into 25 minutes and titled “Leaving Fear Behind”, was screened to a select group of foreign journalists in Beijing. But Dhondup Wangchen, along with Jigme Gyatso, had already been in secret detention since the end of March. On completion of filming, they had gone back to their respective hometowns only to find the places in turmoil with almost daily Tibetan protests occurring and a huge military deployment under way. On Jigme Gyatso’s release in October 2008, it was learned that they had both undergone severe interrogations and torture in detention that included electric shocks. It wasn’t until a well-known Beijing human rights lawyer took up his case early this year that Dhondup Wangchen’s sister in Xining even learned of her brother’s incarceration, another outright violation of China’s own detention laws.

Dhondup Wangchen’s trial reportedly started behind closed doors in September this year. According to Amnesty International he is being charged for “subversion and incitement to separatism” and has contracted Hepatitis B in prison for which he has received no treatment. After his Beijing lawyer was forced by the Chinese government to stop representing Dhondup Wangchen, local lawyers were appointed, leaving little hope of a fair trial.

I spent less than a day meeting Dhondup Wangchen. When we parted back at the train station, he told me to take care of myself and gave me a little bag containing some drinks and snacks for my journey. A few months ago on YouTube, I saw a video clip of pictures of Dhondup Wangchen in his teens, a casual-looking young man eager to leave behind the constrictions of his village on a quest for adventure greater than he could have known. The Dhondup Wangchen that I had met was older and thoughtful. The many months of constant traveling had clearly been physically exhausting. I had always thought of him as a kind of Tibetan hero, a citizen journalist and human rights activist but last month I was walking down the street in Dharamsala, northern India, with a friend who stopped to talk to the woman who sells bread there early every morning. The bread-seller was Dhondup Wangchen’s wife, Lhamo Tso. After spending time talking with her I suddenly thought about their separated family and of Dhondup Wangchen as a husband, a father, and also a son—and their own personal sacrifices.

Since August 2008, “Leaving Fear Behind” has been screened in more than 30 countries worldwide and translated into five languages, including Chinese. The worldwide campaign for his release continues. Looking back, it’s hard to believe that Dhondup Wangchen, with just a small camera, a motorbike, his blue backpack and the help of trusted friends, found a way of expressing himself truthfully.

The simple truth is that just spending 25 minutes watching “Leaving Fear Behind” gives all the background necessary to see that some kind of uprising was surely inevitable in Tibet. But truthfulness in a state like China is always an act of defiance and can‘t survive without a struggle.

Dechen Pemba has been the spokesperson for “Leaving Fear Behind” since she left Beijing in July 2008. She is based in London.

Human Rights Watch: “China: Ensure Fair Trial for Tibetan Filmmaker”


China: Ensure Fair Trial for Tibetan Filmmaker
Dhondup Wangchen Being Denied Due Process


(New York, August 3, 2009) – The Chinese government should ensure that that the trial of Dhondup Wangchen, a Tibetan filmmaker arrested in March 2008 on charges of “inciting separatism,” is open and fair, and that he is represented by the counsel of his choice, Human Rights Watch said today.

In July 2009, the judicial authorities in Xining, Qinghai province, arbitrarily replaced the lawyer chosen by Wangchen, Li Dunyong, with a government-appointed lawyer. No justification for doing so was provided. Wangchen had only been allowed to meet with Li once, in July 2009. Li reported that his client had been tortured in order to extract a confession and that some of the injuries he sustained as a result were still painful a year later. During that discussion Wangchen stated that he intended to plead not guilty and had admitted no wrongdoing during his 16 months in detention.

“A verdict against Dhondup Wangchen under the present circumstances will have no legitimacy whatsoever,” said Sophie Richardson, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “Wangchen must be represented by a lawyer he chose, in an open trial where the evidence against him can be challenged and witnesses can be cross-examined, as required by international fair-trial standards.”

Dhondup Wangchen, 35, was arrested on March 26, 2008, in Tongde county, near Xining, the provincial capital of Qinghai province. Wangchen had conducted about a hundred interviews with ordinary Tibetans between October 2007 and March 2008 for a documentary film shot without official approval in Tibet. The documentary, “Leaving Fear Behind,” was later edited abroad and distributed to foreign journalists during the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. Unauthorized documentaries in Tibet are rare because of the risks of arrest or retribution by the authorities against both the filmmakers and those they interview.

Wangchen, who is also known by the Chinese names Dunzhu Wangqing [顿珠旺青] and Dangzhi Xiangqian [当知项欠], was initially detained at the Ershilibu detention center in Xining. In July 2008, he was then transferred to a government-run guesthouse in the vicinity, possibly for the purpose of interrogation, before being sent to the No. 1 Detention Center in Xining. Wangchen has been suffering from hepatitis B, for which he says he has been denied adequate medical treatment.

Jigme Gyatso, a monk from Qinghai province who worked with Wangchen on the documentary, was arrested at the same time. He was released on bail seven months later, on October 15, 2008, and reported that he had been tortured in detention. Several other people involved with or appearing in the documentary have also been investigated by the authorities.

In July 2009, the Xining judicial authorities instructed Wangchen’s lawyer, Li Dunyong, that he was not allowed to continue to represent him, and informed the family that the court would designate a government-appointed lawyer for the trial. This was in violation of China’s criminal procedure law and its obligations under international human rights law, which guarantee criminal defendants the right to choose their own defense counsel and to meet with their counsel while in detention.

Particularly after a wave of protests across the Tibetan plateau in March 2008, trials of Tibetans have become politicized to such an extent that independent and impartial adjudications are extremely rare (http://www.hrw.org/en/news/2009/03/09/china-hundreds-tibetan-detainees-and-prisoners-unaccounted ).

Human Rights Watch expressed grave concern about the charge of “inciting separatism.” The current definition of “inciting separatism” under article 103 of the criminal law is incompatible with international human rights standards, as it criminalizes protected speech and violates the right to freedom of expression by conflating criticism of the government and its policies with a state security threat. Sentences on separatism charges range from five years of imprisonment to the death penalty.

Human Rights Watch called on the Chinese government to ensure that Dhondup Wangchen’s trial met international fair-trial standards, including the right against self-incrimination, the exclusion of evidence obtained under torture or other mistreatment, and the right to be represented by a counsel of one’s own choice. Because Chinese law provides that trials should be open unless they involve state secrets, Human Rights Watch called on diplomats and journalists to ask to attend Dhondup Wangchen’s trial.

“Dhondup Wangchen should either be given a fair trial or he should be released,” said Sophie Richardson. “Violating due process to ensure a conviction will only further damage respect for the judiciary in China.”