Yesterday on August 3, Ama Adhe breathed her last breath in Dharamsala. She was 88. Ama Adhe, known mostly for enduring twenty-seven years of her life in prison, represents the resistance and brutalization showcased and suffered by Tibetans of her time. Her story reflects the larger political question of Tibet and Tibetan people and the extended range of people who resisted, fought and were killed following the Chinese occupation of Tibet.
Adhe Tapontsang, also known as Ama Adhe, was born in 1932 in Nyarong in Kham, eastern Tibet. She later moved to Karze and settled in a place called Lhobasha while she was still a young child along with her mother Sonam Dolma and father Dorje Rapten and her brothers and sisters. Her birthplace Kham historically becomes an important place where the Chinese Communist military was first stationed. The insidious invasion into Kham became a gateway for incursions into larger parts of Tibet to establish the Chinese clout and influence over the rest of Tibet. In the 1950s, the Chinese troops called “The Eighteenth Army of Southwest Military Region” had already made their way into Kham in Karze.[i] The Chinese at first seemed to be friendly, giving silver coins to the Tibetans, which later turned to attempting to win Tibetans trust. Soon enough the Karze streets were inundated with the parades of Communists waving signs and holding large photographs of Mao Zedong and Zhu De. The Chinese plunged into various diatribes to justify their presence as well as build their power over eastern Tibet. They put up a garrison and made Karze as the place where the Chinese cavalry operated.[ii]
In 1954, the Chinese soon released a series of policies in Karze that stood in stark contrast to Tibetan worldviews. The military trucks were also soon ushered in later in 1956. The Chinese subjected many Tibetans to thamzing sessions (struggle sessions) where Tibetans were chastened, beaten and killed. In the ensuing months, Tibetans rose in rebellion against the Chinese and attacked them. The revolt led by Dorji Yudon fought and attacked the Chinese garrison in Nyarong. At the initial stage of the battle, the Tibetans rebels defeated the Chinese troops but after sending over fifteen thousand soldiers of the Eighteenth Army, Tibetans fought but forced to flee into the forest. After the battle, Tibetan warriors fled into the mountains. Ama Adhe’s role became important in that juncture as she formed and spearheaded an underground resistance movement confiding in the trusted friends of her plans. She laid out a series of plans in 1956 and took them to action the next year. Over sixty women participated in the resistance; the women gathered and discussed their plans speaking in subdued voices at night to avoid being noticed by the Chinese guards. The group silently examined the military strength and workings of the Chinese stationed. Ama Adhe took an active role in informing the men hidden in the forest of the latest Chinese development by forming contacts and communications. The women then would meet at a rendezvous point at night and pass on the information and food provisions to the Tibetan men in the forest. Ama Adhe’s story exemplifies the sacrifices and resistance delivered by many Tibetan women who were engaged in the resistance movement. [iii] Her story symbolizes the subtle resistance of the Tibetan women against the Chinese occupation but it also foregrounds other forms of resistance. The sole role of which a woman called Dorji Yudon played a crucial part who led the Tibetan armed resistance to fight the incoming Chinese troops.[iv]While Ama Adhe showcases the subtle resistance staged by the Tibetan women, Dorji Yudon, on the other hand, represents the many active roles played by Tibetan women in staging a military resistance against the Chinese occupation. Both of these women and many other women equally succeeded in blurring the gendered distinction of Tibetan women and men by their uniquely active presence in the resistance movement.
Ama Adhe was later arrested. She was separated from her three year old Chime and her new born child Tashi Khando. Many Tibetans who were arrested became separated from their loved ones which is one of the debilitating consequences resulting from colonization and breakdown of communities and their members. During the interrogations she refused to give away the names of the other women to the Chinese cadres. She was then sentenced to twenty-seven years in prison. Her life in prison was larger reflection of the Communist treatment of their (political) prisoners in Tibet. The Chinese shifted Ama Adhe and TIbetan prisoners like her intermittently to many other prisoners and Labour Camp. She witnessed, amidst the ruins and rubbles around, a chamber of a monastery that had turned into a prison where they were detained. Ama Adhe suffered severe brutalization in prison where she endured the ordeals of food deprivations, hard labour and gendered violence.[v] In Gyothang Gyalgo, a hard labour camp, she along with many prisoners endured food deprivation with hard labour and by the time she was sent back to Dartsedo, out of one hundred women who had been transported, only four had survived, including Ama Adhe herself.[vi] But for Ama Adhe what kept her alive all through the ordeal was her belief in Tibetan Buddhism and her prayers. She would recite mantras and prayers in prison to fortify her spirits.
During Deng Xiaoping’s liberalization period, Ama Adhe finally became released in 1985 and reunited with her daughter, other family members and friends. After an arduous journey into exile she reunited with her elder brother Jughuma in Nepal. She and her second husband Rinchen made their way to Dharamsala to meet with His Holiness the Dalai Lama. In exile, she represented Tibet on many international platforms and shared her experiences in prison to highlight the plight of Tibetans and the Chinese role in it. The reform era, though, ushered in a relatively relaxed political climate, the policy ended up being a short lived and even farce when a new group of Tibetan protestors, mostly young nuns and monks, rose in rebellion against the Chinese in 1987 that lasted till the mid-1990s.[vii] This further unleashed further repression and caused innumerable suffering for the people in Tibet.
Over the years of being in exile, Ama Adhe shared her experiences to many people from all over the world who visited her home in Mcleodganj in Dharamsala. Ama Adhe story is a testament to the resistance and resilience shown by the Tibetan people and also to Tibetan women for whom religious and cultural identities are important to their sense of agency.
Tashi Choedon is a research fellow at the Tibet Policy Institute, doing research on gender issues and diaspora studies. Views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the Tibet Policy Institute.
[i] Blakeslee, Joy, Adhe, Ama, ‘Ama Adhe, The Voice that Remembers: The Heroic Story of a Woman’s Fight to Free Tibet’, Wisdom Publications, 1997, pg, 257,( 43)
[ii] ibid (46-49)
[iii] ibid, (72-73
[iv] McGranahan, Carole, ‘Narrative Dispossession: Tibet and the Gendered Logics of Historical Possibility’ Comparative Studies in Society and History, Vol, 52, No 4. Cambridge University Press, 2010. pg 768-797, (782-788)
[v] Blakeslee, Joy, Adhe, Ama, ‘Ama Adhe, The Voice that Remembers: The Heroic Story of a Woman’s Fight to Free Tibet’, Wisdom Publications, 1997, pg, 257,( 112)
[vi] ibid, (132)
[vii] Barnett, Robert, ‘Women and Politics in Contemporary Tibet’, ‘Women in Tibet, (eds) Hanna Havnevik and Janet Gyatso, C. Hurst & Co. Ltd, United Kingdom, London, 2005, pg 436, (322-366)