Jane Macartney in Beijing
Tibetan monks claim that violence is being perpetrated against them by Chinese troops (Torsten Blackwood/AFP/Getty Images)
A month before the Olympics, China is so determined to present a trouble-free image to the world that it has imposed a news blackout on reports of continuing deadly unrest in Tibetan parts of the country.
Three Tibetan sources, all speaking on condition of anonymity, told The Times
that two monks at a monastery in western Sichuan province that borders Tibet proper were killed in a clash on July 12. For monks of what are popularly known as the “red hat” sects, the date is one of the most auspicious festivals of the year.
It is the first report of the deadly use of gunfire against Tibetan protesters demanding the return of the exiled Dalai Lama and independence since April 2 at the Tongkor monastery, some 100 miles to the south.
However, a dozen calls to the town of Dege, in a remote region on the edge of the Tibetan plateau, resulted in exhortations to be calm or professions of ignorance of any incident on that date. Information has barely managed to trickle out from an area where People’s Liberation Army troops man roadblocks around almost every town and village.
The Tibetan sources said the trouble erupted when monks at the Gonchen monastery, one of the most prominent in the region and renowned as a centre for the printing of Buddhist sutras or scriptures, attempted to mark a festival that falls on the tenth day of the sixth month of the Tibetan calendar.
The festival pays homage to the birthday of Padmasambhava, or Guru Rimpoche, the founder of Tibetan Buddhism. But officials assigned to the monastery to ensure that all monks are indoctrinated in Chinese law and discouraged from supporting the Dalai Lama, especially since a deadly March 12 riot in Lhasa, refused to allow the men to hold their traditional dances.
What exactly happened next may never be clear. China has imposed a blackout on information from the region. A worker at one local hotel said: “The incident on July 12 was just an accident. Everything is safe here.” Another said: “The monasteries are open to visitors.” A government official hung up the phone when asked about the incident.
Chinese officials installed in the monastery refused to answer questions.
Tibetan sources were too afraid to give details of what exactly happened after the confrontation between the monks and security. They said officers from the paramilitary People’s Armed Police were deployed to halt any violence and shots were fired. One said: “Two monks were killed. These were my relatives.” The government in Beijing is particularly eager to suppress any details of unrest in Tibetan areas, particularly reports of fatal violence, with less than one month to go before it shows off its economic and social achievements to the world with the August 8-24 Olympic Games in Beijing.
Security authorities have repeatedly stressed their anxiety about threats of terrorist attack from the Muslim Uighur ethnic minority living in its westernmost Xinjiang region. Just this week, they said they had tracked down 12 terrorist groups operating in the region. Earlier, Communist authorities said they had arrested gangs planning to kidnap athletes and foreign journalists at the games.
There have been no reports of threats from Tibet’s restive monks. But a ban on spectators waving flags from any non-participating countries is a move to prevent groups that advocate independence for the deeply Buddhist Himalayan region from brandishing its “snow lion” flag that has come to be associated with bids to separate the Roof of the World from China.