Tourists are reportedly trickling back in to Tibet, four months after China effectively closed the area to foreigners.
That followed violent protests in Lhasa in March and unrest in the ethnic Tibetan areas of the neighbouring provinces of Gansu, Sichuan and Qinghai. But one man who has had access to the region is Dr John Powers.
Presenter: Tom Fayle
Speaker: Dr Powers, a scholar in Tibetan religion and culture at the Australian National University
POWERS: Well, I spent about three weeks in India, in Dharamsala, which is the capital of the Tibetan exiled community and then I flew into Western Tibet, into Kashka, which is normally a good way to get into the Western parts of the Tibetan Plateau. In particular, I wanted to go to Mt Kalash, which is an important pilgrimage spot and I went to some travel agencies, and they said it was absolutely closed down. There was no way anybody was getting in. So then I went to the eastern part to Chin Hai, and I was able to get into some mixed Tibetan areas on the other side of the pass that was the traditional separation between Tibet and China. And then I went to Chengdu, to try to get into some mixed areas and that was during the earthquake. I was actually there during the earthquake and so the areas where I was planning to go to were actually flattened by the earthquake.
FAYLE: Now you did meet some Tibetan monks. What stories did you hear?
POWERS: Well, the most striking one was from a monk that I met at a Buddhist pilgrimage spot in China, who had escaped from a monastery in Eastern Tibet and he said that when he was there at his monastery, this was in late March, after the demonstration, some Chinese troops came into his monastery and started shooting the monks, randomly so it wasn’t that they were looking for people in the protest. It was pure retaliation for the fact that they protested. He said that three of his closest friends had been shot dead right in front of him. He started running, and he heard more shots and more monks falling and then he managed to escape travelling by night over the next couple of weeks and he has no idea of what actually happened, because he hasn’t been able to get any information in or out to his monastery.
FAYLE: We have been hearing that the monks in Tibet are being forced to take patriotic tests. What’s involved here?
POWERS: Well, it’s called patriotic re-education. The program started in 1996 and it was originally confined to the region of centre Tibet around Lhasa, the capital. In 2002, it was greatly extended, and now it’s at all of the major monasteries across the Tibetan cultural area, which includes what the Chinese call Tibet and what has traditionally been Tibetan regions. Basically there are variations, but I actually obtained a classified document which is a manual that the cadres are given to run these courses.
The main thrust of it actually is denunciation of the Dalai Lama. According to all the monks that I have interviewed, the key factor is at the end of course, which is basically Communist indoctrination, but at the end of the course, they are required to sign a form officially denouncing the Dalai Lama. Those who do, according to the monks will pass the course, those who don’t, no matter how good their grades have been will fail and that means they are usually expelled from their monasteries.
FAYLE: So, you say this expulsions from the monasteries. What other consequences are there of failing the test?
POWERS: Well, the expulsion from the monastery is quite significant, because it means that they can’t function as a monk. It means they have no support. Many of those who refused to denounce the Dalai Lama end up basically having to escape, because they really have no way to continue to live in Tibet as monks. So about 3,000 to 4,000 Tibetans are escaping every year into exile, and the overwhelming majority are monks and nuns and overwhelmingly they say the reason is because they are unable to practice their religion.
FAYLE: So, apart from those going into exile, is it your sense that the monks are going along with these tests in order to stay in the monasteries?
POWERS: Oh a lot do, and the Dalai Lama himself has issued statements that have been spread across Tibet saying ‘denounce me without hesitation’. He says everybody knows that it’s done under duress and that you’re being forced to do it. But many of the monks that I’ve talked to who have escaped have said that they just can’t bring themselves to do it, even though he has told them to do it. It’s such an important emotional thing for Tibetans, the reverence they have for the Dalai Lama that to denounce him is just something that’s very, very difficult.