Armed troops gather at Drepung on October 17, 2007, the day the Dalai Lama received the Congressional Gold Medal. Picture obtained by the Tibetan Center for Human Rights and Democracy, India, www.tchrd.org
Conditions are said to be increasingly tense within the three major monasteries in Lhasa, which are under lockdown and surrounded by troops following peaceful demonstrations over the last three days by hundreds of monks from Drepung, Sera and Ganden monasteries on the outskirts of the capital. Ganden monks demonstrated yesterday, marking the third day in a series of protests unprecedented in recent years that have now rippled through the Lhasa area, while others are reported in at least two remote rural monasteries and towns in areas of central and eastern Tibet.
All three monasteries are closed off to tourists according to several tourism operators. Two Drepung monks are said by Radio Free Asia to be in serious condition after stabbing themselves in a possible attempt to commit suicide, while monks at Sera are refusing to attend classes and are on hunger strike in a bold act of protest despite the crackdown at the monastery.
The number of Tibetans detained as a result of the protests could not be confirmed today. Although the initial response on the ground appears to have been more restrained than expected, there are indications that the authorities have begun a process of investigation in monasteries that could lead to detention and torture in a standard official pattern of reprisals followed by political re-education. There is an intensified atmosphere of fear and tension in Tibet's capital.
In a familiar official response, the Chinese authorities blamed the Dalai Lama for the protests that began on Monday, the 49th anniversary of Tibetan National Uprising Day. Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman Qin Gang called the protests "a deliberate political plot of the Dalai Lama group to cause social unrest, separate Tibet from China, and wreck the stable, harmonious, and normal life of the Tibetan people." (Xinhua, March 13).
A Tibetan scholar with connections in Lhasa told ICT: "Over the past few years the Chinese authorities have taken a heavy-handed approach with its policies on religion and culture. Combined with the economic marginalization so many Tibetans face, it seems that many people in Lhasa and other areas have reached almost a breaking point. Now there are real fears for how the authorities will respond. The typical reaction is what is happening now - the gathering of information, leading to reprisals."
Drepung monks in suicide attempt?
The two Drepung monks who stabbed themselves in the chest, hands, and wrists in an apparent suicide bid were identified by Radio Free Asia's Tibetan service as Kalsang and Damchoe, both originally from Kirti monastery in Sichuan province. According to RFA, the two monks are in critical condition and are not expected to survive. They refused to move from the monastery to be hospitalized and are in Drepung's clinic.
More than 100 Drepung monks held a demonstration on Monday, March 10, seeking the release of Drepung monks apparently detained following an attempt by monks to mark a major award for the Dalai Lama, the Congressional Gold Medal, last October. Drepung monks led the first in a wave of protests that began in October, 1987 and culminated in the imposition of martial law in Lhasa in March, 1989, presided over by the then Tibet Autonomous Region Party Secretary, Hu Jintao, now China's top leader. In the late 1980s, too, protests rippled through Lhasa's major three monasteries and the broader population.
In a show of defiance unprecedented in recent years, over the past two days, monks at Sera monastery are observing a hunger strike, and requesting the removal of paramilitary People's Armed Police forces from the monastery compound, according to Radio Free Asia and other sources. Several hundred Sera monks were dispersed by tear-gas on Tuesday (March 11) after they demonstrated and shouted slogans calling for freedom.
The Sera monks are also calling for the release of monks detained during a protest in the Jokhang on March 10. Radio Free Asia has identified 11 of the monks who participated in this protest as Lobsang Ngodrub, Lobsang Sherab, Lodroe, Sonam Lodroe, Lobsang, Tsultrim Palden, Geleg, Pema Karwang, Zoepa, Thubdron, and Phurdan. The Tibetan Center for Human Rights and Democracy, based in Dharamsala, India, reported that four further monks were in the group and identified them as a reincarnate lama, Tulku Tenpa Rigsang, Gelek Pel, Samten and Thubwang. Other reports suggest that two laypeople were also in the group, possibly both women.
The day after the protest, on Tuesday (11 March), Jampa Phuntsog, chair of the Tibet Autonomous Region, denied that any Tibetans were in custody as a result of the protests in response to a query from journalists in Beijing. But the Sera monks' actions indicate that this group of monks may still be in custody. It is not known whether any other monks are in custody due to restrictions on information flow which have led to fear over contact with the outside world.
Protests during visit of patriotic education team in Qinghai
Reports have emerged over the past two days of a protest at remote Ditsa monastery in Bayan (Chinese: Hualong) county in Haidong prefecture, Qinghai, which, significantly, took place during the visit of a 'patriotic education' work team. The protest was said to involve many if not most of the monks at the monastery and there was no violent retaliation, according to reports. This was possibly because officials were outnumbered and without access to immediate support. Troops have now surrounded the monastery and according to at least one reliable report investigations by the authorities have begun, generally the precursor to the official approach of reprisals followed by a period of political re-education.
A further report indicated that in one village near Lhasa local officials were instructed to check all registration permits (hukous) with the objective of checking who has been away for a long time. A source told ICT that the intention appeared to be to establish if local people had traveled to India recently. There is a particular sensitivity towards Tibetans who have escaped into exile and returned, as the authorities perceive them to have fallen under the influence of the 'separatist' 'Dalai clique'. Following the protests, it is possible that border security may be tightened in an attempt to block the flow of information about protests to the outside world, through Tibetans escaping into exile. The Chinese authorities impose severe penalties on Tibetans who are caught attempting to pass on news to people outside Tibet.