Abigail Sewell, assistant director of Pah-La, sat down with PhD candidate Darig Thokmay to speak about Tibetan history and his involvement in bringing Abhishek Majumdar’s new play to life.
Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your studies?
My name is Darig Thokmay (Kunsang Thokmay). I was born in the eastern part of Tibet. While I was young, I studied in monasteries in Amdo Ngawa and also went to a local Chinese school. I escaped to India when I was 12 and then went to Tibetan schools run by the Tibetan government in exile, which had a bilingual education system.
After high school, I went to Delhi University and then had the fortune to study at Tokyo University in Japan and Warsaw University in Poland. In 2016, I studied International Relations at Cambridge University. Now, I’m at Oxford University for my DPhil (Ph.D.) in Oriental Studies.
What was your experience of crossing the border from Tibet into India?
Like many other Tibetan refugees, I escaped to India on foot by crossing the Himalayan Mountains. Generally, people come to Lhasa and pay someone who can guide them through the border.
I tried to cross the border twice: the first time was in 2002 but the Chinese border force captured us at the border. They kept me in jail for about a year. I was transferred from one prison to another: one in Tinri county, Shigatse city, Lhasa, and finally to Nakchu district prison. I was released a few days after the New Year in 2003.
In my second attempt, I succeeded in crossing the border after 32 days of the arduous walk.
Can you tell us about your involvement in the play?
For the actors, it’s vital to understand the characters and how they feel about particular events in the play. When it comes to the question of experience and emotions, there are many things that we just can’t read about in the papers and books so I’m delighted to find out that there are Tibetans, like myself, involved in this project in different ways. The cast members of this play are very enthusiastic. They have many questions and are so eager to know more about the social, cultural, and political issues around this play which is mainly based on the uprising in 2008. I think it’s really inspiring.
In the play, one of the characters carries out an act of self-immolation. How did self-immolation become part of the Tibetan independence campaign?
The first Tibetan self-immolation happened in 1998, in Delhi, the capital city of India; but it became a constant movement since 2008 uprising that affected every Tibetan individual. The Chinese presence in Tibet was so powerful, so strong, that it didn’t give people any space to speak out or express what they really feel. Plus, China is not a democratic country, people are not allowed any form of protest.
Under such circumstances, Tibetans want to do something but as a Buddhist you can’t do anything that is going to harm others, it goes against your religious principles. So, they chose to immolate themselves. It continues to happen now. It is perhaps the most difficult form of protest without harming others.
For you, how does self-immolation differ to suicide?
On the surface, both actions are an attempt at killing oneself but the purpose, I think, is very different. In many cases, suicide is related to personal problems, a kind of hopeless choice. But Tibetan self-immolation isn’t about desperation, losing hope for the future, but rather about having bigger hopes and dreams. It is not just for oneself, but for others. People self-immolate because they think it is worth sacrificing their lives for a more significant cause. I think that’s very different from suicide.
Why do you think the story of Pah-La is important to tell?
It’s crucial to deliver the right information to people about what happened, what was the cause, what were the surrounding events in the context of Tibet in 2008. Pah-La brought up significant stories of the 2008 uprising and self-immolation. For many people, this theme is too sensitive and too political but this play fearlessly steps forward to tell us about these issues. The story of Pah-La is very unique and brave in this regard.
It’s important for people to know about self-immolations in Tibet. Without knowing the context or reasons behind these actions, there is a very high probability that people may misunderstand this kind of drastic measures. So, I hope Pah-La can bring up the right information to the people.
What do you hope audiences will take away from seeing the show?
I hope every individual can take away the positive and accurate information about the Tibetan freedom struggle from seeing this play. This is not just entertainment, this narrates a very crucial story that many have been ignoring. If anyone is inspired and wants to be a part of this, they can contribute to the movement in many ways and help Tibetans preserve their culture and identity.
At the same time, people can also learn the spirit of non-violence and peaceful strategy to restore freedom and dignity, which is a valuable lesson during this century’s political corruption and terrorism.
Pah-La plays in the Jerwood Theatre Upstairs 3 – 27 April. Click here to book your tickets