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Famed Tibetan dunglen artist Kelsang Yarphel released from prison after four years

Kelsang Yarphel

The Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy (TCHRD) welcomes the release of popular Tibetan singer and composer Mr Kelsang Yarphel from prison after the completion of his four-year term.

Mr Yarphel, 41, was released yesterday from Mianyang Prison near Chengdu city, capital of Sichuan Province. Despite heavy restrictions, TCHRD was able to obtain photos and videos that confirm the artist’s release. In one of the videos, friends greet him with traditional Tibetan ceremonial scarves (khatas) while another showed the artist wearing a baseball cap singing at a banquet.

Mr Yarphel and his family stayed overnight at Chengdu city before leaving for his home in Machu County this morning.

TCHRD is unable to obtain an immediate update on his health condition due to restrictions on communication imposed by the Chinese government.

Mr Yarphel was detained at around 14 July 2013 in Lhasa and taken to a detention centre in Chengdu where he remained incommunicado until his sentencing on 27 November 2014. It was his third detention that eventually resulted in a prison term. In 2012, while still in Lhasa, he was arbitrarily detained on two different occasions by the local security officers but released without charges. Around the same time, Chinese authorities enforced a ban on the sale and distribution of Mr Yarphel’s DVDs many of which were confiscated.

Mr Yarphel was primarily targeted for his many popular dunglen songs that called for unity among Tibetans and expressed pride in collective Tibetan identity. The numerous concerts he organized in Lhasa attracted full house audiences. His own popularity all over Tibet ensured that he had the best of Tibetan musical talents such as Yadong, Sherten and Yangchen Lhanze perform at these shows. In October and November 2012, at one such concert called Khawei Metok, Mr Yarphel performed a song called Bhodpa Tso (‘Fellow Tibetans’) the lyrics of which exhort Tibetans to learn and speak Tibetan, to unite, to build courage and patriotism for the future of Tibetan nation. Some sources also point to another show he organized in Lhasa the same year that attracted the attention of Chinese authorities. At the Nyenchen Thangla Night Show, Yarphel performed Nga ni Bhod ki Bhu Yin (‘I am a son of Tibet’) which is a classic dunglen song first performed and made popular by the inimitable Dubay, who passed away last year.

The dunglen (‘strumming and singing’) music, also known as “guitar songs of the national pride” (la rgya’i rdug len) has spread since 1980s in Tibet particularly in Amdo and Kham region. In his highly acclaimed book, Tibetan scholar Dr Lama Jabb explains that dunglen songs provide a “channel for voicing dissent and reinforcing Tibetan national identity by evoking images of a shared history, culture, and territory, bemoaning the current plight of Tibetans and expressing aspirations for a collective identity.” Almost all dunglen lyrics in one way or the other counters the master narrative of Chinese state on Tibet, thus making it a potent mode of subversive narrative.

Dubay was one of the leading lights of the second-generation dunglen artists, along with Doray, both of whom were mentored by Palgon, the father of dunglen music. Yarphel arrived on the dunglen scene in the early 2000. He quickly rose to popularity, performing at various local shows and also on Qinghai TV, which was considered a rare honor for established artists. He composed, produced and sometimes wrote his own songs. His more than 40 CDs and DVDs some of which were titled Yudrug Ngonmoi Chugtsel (‘Agility of Turqoise Dragon’), Gong Nai Yudrug Drag Song (‘Thunder in the sky’) and Gesar Gyi Phayul (The native land of Gesar), evoke strong images of a distinct Tibetan national identity. Mr Yarphel later moved his base to Lhasa where he organized many cultural shows and concerts until his imprisonment. He was at the peak of his career when he was arrested.

Mr Yarphel was born and brought up in nomadic camp no. 5 of Makhug Tara village in Machu (Ch: Maqu) County, Kanlho (Ch: Gannan) Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Gansu Province, in the Tibetan province of Amdo. Son of Mr Gonpo Tseten and Mrs Makho, he is married to Tsezin Palmo and the couple has two sons, Ogyen Kyab, 26, Konchok Tenpa, 24, and a daughter, Dolkar Lhamo, 23.

TCHRD is deeply concerned over the health condition of Mr Yarphel and urges the Chinese authorities to allow his family members to seek proper medical treatment without undue intervention or surveillance. Post release, Tibetan political prisoners have to invariably serve an additional sentence of ‘deprivation of political rights’, ranging from one to five years, during which their rights to freedom of speech, press, assembly, association, procession, and demonstration are taken away. They are monitored and put under close surveillance by local police. TCHRD maintains that Mr Yarphel’s imprisonment was a blatant violation of the right to freedom of expression guaranteed in Chinese Constitution as well as international human rights law. There are many Tibetans like Mr Yarphel who continue to get detained, disappeared and tortured merely for exercising their human rights. Chinese authorities must release all prisoners of conscience and respect human rights of all citizens.

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