Monks lead Tibetan `civil disobedience’ in China

March 9th, 2009 - 11:46 am ICT by IANS  

By Bill Smith
Rebkong (China), March 9 (DPA) “We are not celebrating the New Year this year,” said a burgundy-clad Tibetan monk at the Rongwo Buddhist monastery in China’s western province of Qinghai.

“We don’t have a happy life. We have no freedom,” the monk said to explain why he was boycotting the festivities to mark the start of the Tibetan New Year, or Losar, in late February.

He left the conversation to speak to his two companions, who knew little Chinese.

“They said they daren’t speak the truth. They should say, ‘Everything’s OK’,” the monk said, referring to recent propaganda trips organised by the Chinese government to monasteries in the Tibet Autonomous Region.

The names of the three monks, who spoke behind the closed curtains of a monk’s quarters, are withheld to protect them from possible reprisals as monasteries have served as the centres of resistance to Chinese rule.

In a nearby temple of the sprawling monastery complex in Qinghai’s Rebkong town, known in Chinese as Tongren, a large photograph of the exiled Dalai Lama - Tibetans’ spiritual leader, who China has labelled a separatist - hung above the altar.

Throughout the monastery, lay Tibetans in sheepskin-lined robes spun giant gilded prayer wheels and bowed before images of the Buddha, the Dalai Lama and other revered Tibetan gurus as they observed Losar.

But there were no signs of celebration as they prepared for this month’s first anniversary of protests in Tibetan areas of China and the 50th anniversaries of the failed Tibetan uprising against Chinese rule and the Dalai Lama’s flight into exile.

In his New Year message, the Dalai Lama talked of “hundreds of Tibetans losing their lives and several thousand facing detention and torture” after the widespread protests last spring.

He said the New Year was “certainly not a period when we can have the usual celebrations and gaiety”, reflecting a campaign by exile groups to boycott New Year celebrations to protest the crackdown by the Chinese government.

About one million of China’s estimated six million Tibetan people live in Qinghai, which is home to more than 4 million other people from the Han Chinese, Hui Muslim, Mongolian and other ethnic groups.

Tongren was one of the earliest scenes of last year’s conflict in mid-February when Rongwo monks and lay Tibetans protested the disruption of a religious ceremony by paramilitary police.

Police used tear gas on the crowd and arrested more than 200 people, according to reports by Tibetan exile groups.

Larger protests began in Lhasa, the capital of the neighbouring Tibet Autonomous Region, March 10 last year, the 49th anniversary of the 1959 uprising against Chinese rule.

The three monks said police arrested more than 100 people from Rongwo last year.

The arrests were followed by mass “patriotic education” sessions for hundreds of monks in one of the largest temple yards and the confiscation of the monks’ computers, they said.

Many monks left Rongwo, some of them persuaded to return home by anxious families.

Tibetans in plain clothes are still closely watching the remaining monks inside the monastery with police stopping and searching monks who visit the nearby county town, the three monks said.

One of the monks, in his mid-20s, put his wrists together as if he was handcuffed, then thrust his hands behind his back to show the treatment he expected if security officers found him giving negative statements to a foreign journalist.

One arm was decorated with the spindly blue lines of a tattoo, which he said he drew by himself. “It says, ‘Free Tibet’ in Tibetan,” his older friend said.

Police have increased security in many Tibetan areas in the run-up to the anniversaries of last year’s protests and the flight into exile of the Dalai Lama March 17, 1959.

The ruling Communist Party tried to counter the anti-New Year movement by urging Tibetans to take part in government-sponsored events, and some lay Tibetans in Qinghai said they visited monasteries to mark Losar.

But some monks have already staged new protests. One monk set fire to himself in late February after authorities prevented him from observing a traditional prayer festival at the Kirti monastery in the south-western province of Sichuan.

US-based Radio Free Asia said paramilitary police sealed off Qinghai’s Lutsang monastery after more than 100 Tibetan monks staged a candlelit vigil outside local government offices on the first day of the Tibetan New Year.

Several other small protests were reported in Tibetan areas this month, and Matt Whitticase of the London-based Free Tibet Campaign said they “show the depth of resentment” of Tibetans.

“Tibetans are resisting peacefully and those acts of resistance are beginning to spread,” Whitticase said.

The monks at Rongwo said they believed the heavy presence of plain-clothes police would probably prevent a repeat of last year’s large protests.

“I don’t think there will be (protests) because they have such strict controls,” said the oldest of the three, who was in his mid-30s.

Whitticase said he had shifted his view about the likelihood of protests after the recent self-immolation, which suggested there was “much more general active resistance.”

“It now seems that protests are more likely than I was thinking a few days ago,” he said.

Tibetan writer Tsering Woeser, who lives in Beijing under heavy police surveillance, wrote on her blog recently of a “great civil disobedience spreading throughout all of Tibet”.

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