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10:01 pm
Mon February 20, 2012

Protests, Self-Immolation Signs Of A Desperate Tibet

Originally published on Tue February 21, 2012 6:44 pm

In a monastery on the Tibetan plateau, monks swathed in crimson robes chant under silk hangings, in a murky hall heavy with the smell of yak butter. Photos of the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama — seen by China as a splittist — are openly displayed, as if in defiance. But Chinese security forces have tightened their grasp on this region, and monasteries appear to be emptying out, gripped by an atmosphere of fear and loss.

In one town, monks boycotted the usual Chinese New Year celebrations at the end of January as a mourning gesture, refusing to set off fireworks.

"Too many of our people died this year," one monk told me, referring to nearly two-dozen Tibetans who have set themselves on fire as a protest against Chinese repression. Identifying details have been removed to protect those who talked to NPR.

Police cars patrol the streets here, and on the morning of the new year, security forces took pre-emptive action.

"Paramilitary forces from elsewhere were sent here," says the monk. "There were tanks, too."

"They closed off all the exits to our monastery and didn't let us leave," says a second monk. The paramilitary police withdrew afterward, but monks say plainclothes police remain inside the monastery. The monks listen secretly to Voice of America's Tibetan service news every night, despite feeling almost physical pain at the bleak news.

There's a Buddhist prohibition against violence or suicide, but these monks are of one mind on the self-immolations.

"What they did was great," says the first monk. "Yes! Yes! Yes!" says the second. "That's why we didn't mark the new year — because of them."

A Sign Of The Times

Those who have set themselves on fire include Sonam Wangyal Sopa Rinpoche, a 42-year-old tulku, or "living Buddha," who ran an old people's home and an orphanage in Darlag, Golok prefecture, Qinghai province. He left behind a crackly audio recording of his last message, saying, "This year in which so many Tibetan heroes have died, I am sacrificing my body to stand in solidarity with them. ... I pray that the Dalai Lama will return to Tibet."

On Jan. 8, standing in front of a police station in Darlag, he drank kerosene. Then he set himself on fire.

It's a sign of Tibetan desperation, and Tibetan radicalization, with the anger bursting into a number of peaceful protests in Qinghai province. In neighboring Sichuan province, at least seven Tibetans were shot dead by security forces and more than 60 wounded, according to exiled advocacy groups, when police put down protests late last month. Chinese state media said police fired in self-defense.

China accuses the Dalai Lama of instigating unrest. A foreign ministry spokesman blames what he calls the "Dalai Lama clique," saying its behavior in not condemning self-immolations is "a disguised form of violence and terrorism, as the group has actively tried to pursue separatism by harming people."

The last time the plateau was in such turmoil was in 2008, after race riots between Tibetans and Han in Lhasa left 19 dead. Since then, Beijing has tightened its controls on the monasteries it sees as the crucible of unrest.

Government Control

At Ta'er Si, also known as Kumbum monastery, ticket machines beep as tourists swipe through. This monastery is one of the main schools of the Dalai Lama's sect. Close to the city of Xining, it has also become a major tourist attraction, with Chinese visitors paying almost $13 a head. There are no pictures of the Dalai Lama here — a testament to Chinese efforts to use "patriotic education" to divorce Tibetan Buddhism from its spiritual leader.

"Lots of tourists ask me, but the monastery doesn't allow us to talk about these things," says our Tibetan tour guide, reluctant to discuss the Dalai Lama. "We're supposed to talk about the history and culture of the temple, the artwork, the lives of the monks, their food and customs."

Here, only a handful of monks are visible, selling tickets or sweeping floors. Officially, 600 monks live in Ta'er Si, but that's less than half the monastic population before the unrest in 2008.

Across the plateau, monasteries are depleting; the authorities used administrative controls to send "unregistered" clergy home after the unrest. Official Chinese reports show the number of monks at Sera monastery in Lhasa has been reduced to 460, less than half what it was before 2008. In Drepung monastery, another major teaching center, the number was halved to 600 after the management sent home 700 visiting monks.

"The population in monastic institutions has decreased tremendously," says Lobsang Nyandak, the representative of the Dalai Lama in the U.S. "Either they have been expelled for not obeying the Chinese commands, and many voluntarily left the monastic institutions because they cannot tolerate the repression the monks and nuns have to undergo."

That includes submitting to new monastery committees that are headed for the first time not by monks but by government officials. New management mechanisms introduced in November offer incentives to monasteries such as paved roads, electricity and piped water, but also place full-time government cadres inside the monasteries. Inside the Tibet Autonomous Region itself, monasteries have been ordered to display pictures of four Chinese leaders, including Chairman Mao Zedong.

"It's to do with the unrest after the March 14 [riots] and the self-immolation of monks," says academic Wu Chuke from Minzu University of China. "That such incidents should repeatedly happen inside monasteries shows that our former management system was problematic. The [former] management committees comprised of monks perhaps don't stand on the side of the government's interests."

As an example, he says, he believes monks are ill-equipped to deal with monasteries' increasing economic revenues: "As the money mounts up, I've seen monks with the most up-to-date mobile phones and cars. If the monks are solely responsible for monasteries, there may be many problems. The senior monks may get very rich, but that would create a big wealth disparity within the monks."

But others, like Robbie Barnett, a professor of modern Tibet studies at Columbia University in New York, see this policy shift as having wider importance.

'Relationship Between State And Society' Changed

"This may be more significant than incidents of unrest," Barnett says. "It's for the long-term, and it's an indicator of a considered, strategic shift in policy, whereas the use of military force and troops seems more of a panic reaction to the recent surge in protests."

"It is also unprecedented in that it changes the relationship between state and society. For 30 years, there's been an effort to ensure the party is not directly involved in religion. That's all gone now."

At a different monastery on the Tibetan plateau, wooden prayer wheels creak as pilgrims spin them. Police cars drive up and down outside the monastery. Inside, there's no security presence. All appears calm, tranquil even. But this place has seen unrest, and panicky conversations show the underlying terror.

"We don't have the right to speak freely," one monk says. "We are scared. If we talk to you, they'll arrest us."

Another man butts in. "You speaking with the monks makes them truly scared," he says. "They could get shot."

He makes the shape of a gun with his fingers, and puts it to his head, pulling the trigger. Then, in case of any misunderstanding, he repeats the gesture.

It's a sign of how sophisticated the apparatus of control has become. Parts of the Tibetan plateau, like Aba in Sichuan, the epicenter of the self-immolations, have become heavily militarized, with riot police armed with spiked clubs and fire extinguishers on every street. Other monasteries are still open to praying pilgrims and chanting monks, but there the repression is largely invisible and internalized.

And the Chinese party line is to draw up battle lines; officials inside Tibet have been ordered to get ready for "war against secessionist sabotage."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Tibetan monks over the past year have protested Chinese repression by setting themselves on fire. At least 20 monks have died this way, and reportedly one more in recent days. China's security forces have now tightened their grip on the Tibetan plateau. NPR's Louisa Lim dodged the security cordon and found an atmosphere of fear and loss. She's left out some details to protect those who spoke with her.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHANTING WITH BELLS)

LOUISA LIM, BYLINE: Monks swathed in crimson robes chant. The air is heavy with the smell of yak butter. In this monastery, photos of the Dalai Lama - seen by China as a splittist - are openly displayed, as if in defiance. Here the monks refused to set off fireworks at Chinese New Year, boycotting normal celebrations as a mourning gesture.

Too many of our people died this year, one told me in explanation. Police cars patrol the town's streets. And on the morning of Chinese New Year, security forces took pre-emptive action.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Foreign language spoken)

LIM: Paramilitary forces from elsewhere were sent here, says one monk. There were tanks, too.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Foreign language spoken)

LIM: They closed off all the exits to our monastery and didn't let us leave, says a second monk. The paramilitary police withdrew afterwards. But monks say plainclothes police remain inside the monastery. The monks listen secretly to the Tibetan service of Voice of America every night, despite feeling almost physical pain at the bleak news. Despite a Buddhist prohibition against violence or suicide, they are of one mind on the self-immolations.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (Foreign language spoken)

LIM: What they did was great, says one monk. Yes, yes, yes, says the second. That's why we didn't mark the New Year, because of them.

(SOUNDBITE OF RECORDING)

SONAM WANGYAL SOPA RINPOCHE: (Foreign language spoken)

LIM: This is the last message of a 42-year-old monk, Sonam Wangyal Sopa Rinpoche, who ran a home for the elderly and an orphanage. In an audio recording, he says this year in which so many Tibetan heroes have died, I am sacrificing my body to stand in solidarity with them. I pray that the Dalai Lama will return to Tibet.

On January the 8th, standing in front of a police station in Darlag in Qinghai province, he drank kerosene. Then he set himself on fire.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CHATTER)

LIM: This is a sign of Tibetan desperation and Tibetan radicalization. The anger has burst into protests, like this peaceful one in Nangchen in Qinghai. But others have ended in bloodshed. Exile groups say at least seven Tibetans have died in clashes with the security forces.

China blames what it calls the Dalai Lama clique for instigating unrest, in a move to undermine stability. The last time the plateau was in such turmoil was in 2008, when ethnic riots in Lhasa left 19 dead. Since then, Beijing has tightened its controls on the monasteries it sees as the crucible of unrest.

At Ta'ersi monastery, ticket machines beep as tourists swipe through. Also known as Kumbum, this is one of the main schools of the Dalai Lama's sect. Close to a large city, it's become a major tourist attraction, with Chinese paying almost $13 a head.

There are no pictures of the Dalai Lama here, testament to Chinese efforts to divorce Tibetan Buddhism from its spiritual leader. Our Tibetan tour guide doesn't want to talk about the reasons why.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Through Translator) Lots of tourists ask me, but the monastery doesn't allow us to talk about these things. We're supposed to talk about the history and culture of the temple, the artworks, the lives of the monks, their food and customs.

LIM: Pilgrims prostrate themselves along the ground in devotion. Only a handful of monks are visible, selling tickets or sweeping floors. Officially, 600 monks live here. But that's less than half the number of monks before the unrest in 2008. Monasteries are emptying out like this across the plateau. The Dalai Lama's representative in the U.S., Lobsang Nyandak, says there are two main reasons the clergy are leaving.

LOBSANG NYANDAK: Either they have been expelled for not obeying the Chinese commands, and many voluntarily left the monastic institutions, because they cannot tolerate the repression that monks and nuns have to undergo.

LIM: In another monastery, prayer wheels creak as pilgrims spin them. Beijing's bringing these monasteries under its control, by putting government officials in place to manage them instead of monks. Here, police cars drive up and down outside. Inside, there's no security presence. All appears calm - tranquil, even. But this place has seen unrest. And panicky conversations with the monks show just how scared they are.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: (Foreign language spoken)

LIM: We don't have the right to speak freely, one monk says. We're scared. If we talk to you, they'll arrest us.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: (Foreign language spoken)

LIM: Then another man butts in. You speaking with the monks makes them truly scared, he says. They could get shot. He makes the shape of a gun with his fingers, and puts it to his head, pulling the trigger. Then, just to make the point, he repeats the gesture.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing in foreign language)

LIM: It's a sign of just how sophisticated the apparatus of control has become. Parts of the Tibetan plateau, like Aba in Sichuan, where many of the self-immolations happened, have become heavily militarized, riot police armed with spiked clubs and fire extinguishers on every street.

But here, where the monks still chant and the pilgrims still pray, the repression is invisible and internalized. And the Chinese party line is to draw up battle lines. Officials in Tibet have been ordered to get ready for war against secessionist sabotage.

Louisa Lim, NPR News, Beijing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.