Secret Songs of Freedom and Love

The 26-Year-Old Buddhist Nun and Activist Won't Be Silent

Type Ngawang Sangdrol’s name into any Internet search engine and prepare to be bombarded. A quick Google hunt reveals over 2800 web pages carrying her name?with good reason. Ngawang Sangdrol, a Tibetan Buddhist nun and Tibetan independence activist, was for a time China’s longest-serving female political prisoner. Before her October 2002 release on medical grounds, Sangdrol had spent 13 years in a Chinese jail. She is now 26 years old.

Sangdrol’s activism started young. In 1990, at age 13, she and other Buddhist nuns were arrested in Lhasa, Tibet for peacefully protesting against the Chinese. During her first few months of incarceration, Sangdrol was beaten so often that she sustained permanent damage to both hands. While Sangdrol was released after nine months, she was re-arrested when she was 15 for further peaceful protests and sentenced to three years in jail.

In 1993, she and other nuns incarcerated at Lhasa’s Drapchi prison secretly tape-recorded themselves singing songs of freedom and love and had the tapes smuggled out. When the Chinese authorities learned of the tapes, Sangdrol’s sentence was increased by six years. In 1996, Sangdrol protested while in prison and had her release date bumped to 2013. According to the Tibet Information Network, during her time in jail, Sangdrol was regularly beaten. According to Sangdrol, as heard on NPR, she has yet to be broken.

Strength in purpose
Sangdrol’s voice is quiet but strong. She speaks calmly about her years at Drapchi?a prison better known for the suspicious deaths of its Tibetan inmates than for its comforts. Despite her age and experience, though, she maintains her focus. Her life has not been wasted but spent calling out for the freedom of her oppressed people.

Her recent release from jail seems to have only reinforced her commitment to Tibetan independence. When Sangdrol walked out of Drapchi, she noted that Lhasa?the historical seat of Tibetan spiritual and political rule?was changed: new buildings, cars, and Chinese faces. Lhasa had been transformed.

Since the 1959 Chinese invasion of Tibet , China’s communist government has steadily relocated ethnic Chinese to Tibet in an effort to ease the local Tibetan population out of dominance. The Chinese claim their presence has brought business and modernization to the area. Sangdrol claims that whatever benefits business and modernization have brought to Tibet are of no benefit to Tibetans. In Lhasa, the Chinese own cars. Tibetans remain impoverished.

Purpose for passion
Sangdrol might be Buddhist but her struggles are very Easter. Like Christ, she was raised in an occupied land, under a foreign power. She spoke out for love and was arrested and detained. She was tortured and driven to despair. Yet, she remains peaceful. She seeks only to work for the true liberation of her people.

Recently, Sangdrol arrived in the United States. When asked during the NPR interview what she will do now that she is free, Sangdrol pauses. She is an ex-convict and Tibetan-in-exile; what could freedom mean to her? She says she will work for world peace. Ngawang Sangdrol, it seems, won’t be silenced at any cost.