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 security forces have tightened their grip on the Tibetan plateau, while monasteries appear to be emptying out, gripped by an atmosphere of fear and loss.
In this town, the monks refused to set off fireworks at Chinese New Year at the end of January, boycotting normal celebrations as a mourning gesture. “Too many of our people died this year,” one monk says, 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 town’s streets, and on the morning of the new year, security forces took preemptive action.
“Paramilitary forces from elsewhere were sent here,” says the monk. “There were tanks too.”
Another monk says security forces closed off all the exits to their monastery and didn’t let them leave. The paramilitary police withdrew afterwards, but monks say plainclothes police remain inside the monastery. The monks listen secretly to Voice of America (VOA) news every night, despite feeling an almost physical pain at the bleak news. Despite a Buddhist prohibition against violence or suicide, they are of one mind on the self-immolation protests.
“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.”
Those who have set themselves on fire include a 42-year-old tulku, or living buddha, Sonam Wangyal Sopa Rinpoche. He ran an old people’s home and an orphanage in Darlag, Golok prefecture, Qinghai province, and left behind a crackly audio recording of his last message, where 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 Jan. 8, standing in front of a police station in Darlag, he drank kerosene and then set himself alight.
A Sign Of The Times
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 Szechuan province, two gatherings have ended in bloodshed. Exiled groups say at least seven Tibetans have died in clashes with the security forces.
China accuses the Dalai Lama of instigating unrest. A foreign ministry spokesman blames what he called the “Dalai Lama clique”, saying its behavior in not condemning the self-immolation protests 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 18 dead. Since then, Beijing has tightened its controls on the monasteries it sees as the crucible of unrest.
At Ta’ersi monastery, also known as Kumbum, only a handful of monks are visible, selling tickets or sweeping floors. Officially 600 monks live here, but that’s less than half the monastic population before the unrest in 2008. Across the plateau, monasteries are depleting as 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 to reduced to just 460, less than than half what it had been before 2008. In Drepung monastery, another major teaching center, the number dropped 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. “The number of monks and nuns has declined, primarily … they have been expelled for not obeying Chinese commands. Many voluntarily left the monastic institutions, because they cannot tolerate the repression the monks and nuns have to undergo.”
These include submitting to new monastery committees headed, for the first time, not by monks but by government officials. A new system put in place last November offers incentives to monasteries such as paved roads, electricity and piped water, but also places full-time government cadres inside the monasteries.
“This is much more significant than incidents of unrest,” says Robbie Barnett a professor of modern Tibetan studies at Columbia university. “This is for the long term. It’s a real indicator of policy change. The use of force and troops has been a panic reaction in the past four or five years.
“It is also unprecedented in that it completely changes the relationship between state and society,” Barnett says. “For thirty years there’s been an effort to ensure the party is not involved in religion — that’s all gone now.”
In Ta’ersi, ticket machines beep as tourists swipe through. This monastery is one of the main schools of the Dalai Lama’s sect, and it’s also become a major tourist attraction, with groups of Chinese paying almost $13 a head. There are no pictures of the Dalai Lama here; testament to Chinese efforts to use “patriotic education” to divorce Tibetan Buddhism from its spiritual leader.
The Tibetan tour guide doesn’t want to talk about the reasons why.
“Lots of tourists ask me, but the monastery doesn’t allow us to talk about these things,” she says. “We’re supposed to talk about the history and culture of the temple, the artworks, the lives of the monks, their food and customs.”
In a different monastery on the Tibetan plateau, wooden prayer wheels creak as pilgrims spin them in prayer. 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 saying simply speaking with the monks makes them truly scared.
“They could get shot,” he says. 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 Szechuan, the epicenter of unrest, have become heavily militarized, with riot police armed with spiked clubs and fire extinguishers on every street.
In other monasteries where monks still chant and pilgrims still pray, the repression is largely invisible and internalized. Ultimately, this will only serve to strengthen Tibetan identity and build resentment, pushing China’s Tibet problem further into the future.