China's crackdown reaches beyond Tibet
At Repkong monastery in central China, monks see more police.
Tongren, China — Squatting in one of the the courtyards of this ancient Tibetan Buddhist monastery, gathering his scarlet robes around him against the afternoon chill, the young monk spoke softly.
"We are all very nervous," he said simply.
For the past three weeks, he explained, since police violently dispersed a protest by monks and lay Tibetans in this remote town in central China, Repkong monastery's neighborhood has been swarming with plainsclothes and militarized police.
Last week's violence in Lhasa and other Tibetan areas has only heightened the surveillance, monks here said, prompting most of them to return home and the rest to stay within the monastery walls.
Sunday, Tongren's streets were full of police cars, while militarized police troop trucks parked ostentatiously on one of the small town's main thoroughfares.
The heavy security here reflected a massive effort by the Chinese government to prevent Tibetan resentment from spilling too far over from Lhasa, the capital of the Tibetan Autonomous Region, into areas of central China where large Tibetan minorities live, such as Qinghai Province, to which Tongren belongs.
In the nearby town of Xiahe, in neighboring Gansu Province, the site of another important Buddhist monastery, reports said police were using armored personnel carriers and large bodies of troops marching in lock-step formation to quell unrest.
All foreigners traveling on the road from Lanzhou, the capital of Gansu, were stopped by police 100 miles from Xiahe on Saturday night, although some reporters managed to slip into the town before the roadblocks were established.
In Lhasa, meanwhile, where at least 80 people have been killed in the violence so far, according to the Tibetan government-in-exile led by the Dalai Lama, the local government imposed a 24-hour curfew and declared a "popular war" against opponents of Chinese rule on Sunday.
The official Chinese Xinhua News Agency reported that at least 10 civilians were killed Friday.
Much of the violence in Lhasa appears to have been directed against Han Chinese migrants, officially encouraged to settle in Tibet over the past 20 years in what local people say has been an effort to dilute and stifle Tibetan culture.
Some recent incidents in Qinghai, during which the authorities have used violence to restore order, also appear to have had undertones of ethnic conflict. One man died two months ago in the town of Guoluo, residents say, when police intervened forcefully in a dispute between Tibetans and members of the Hui Muslim minority over a disputed sale of sheep.
Likewise, the Tibetan protest in Tongren last month, which police put down by arresting 200 people and seriously injuring 10 others, according to participants, originated with a petty dispute between a Tibetan man and a Hui neighbor over a balloon.
Called to settle the argument, the police beat and arrested the Tibetan, while letting the Hui man go. That prompted a mass protest by angry Tibetans, explained the monk, who asked to be identified as "Aron," not his real name, for his safety.
"We feel the government treats minority groups differently," he said. "It is not fair."
Asked why his fellow Tibetans were protesting now, Aron lowered his head, pondering the wisdom of a frank answer. The silence of the monastery, a warren of brightly painted temples straggling up a dusty hillside, was broken only by the cooing of pigeons and the musical tones of wind chimes fluttering from temple eaves.
He looked up, clearly resolved to speak from the heart. "Because we want freedom," he replied.
By that, he said, he meant both political independence for Tibet, which Chinese troops occupied in 1951, and religious freedom for Buddhist monks, who complain of restrictions by Chinese authorities.
"We want our culture to survive and to pass it on," said a fellow monk, who also asked not to be identified. "But we don't want to use violence; we want to solve this problem in a peaceful way.
Among their hopes, the two men said, were that the Dalai Lama, vilified by the Chinese government as a "splittist" enemy of Chinese unity, would be allowed to come home, and that they would be spared the annual "patriotic education" sessions at which they are obliged to listen in silence as the Dalai Lama is denounced by a Chinese official and to swear loyalty to the Chinese state.
In the wake of last month's disturbances, they said, monks at the Repkong monastery were chafing under added restrictions – forbidden to practice religious rituals such as incense burning and to leave the monastery in groups larger than two.
Phone calls to the police station seeking a response went unanswered.
Normally, 470 monks live and pray at Repkong, but the threatening atmosphere, Aron and other monks said, has driven most of them away for now. On Sunday, the monastery was a semideserted shadow of the community that has thrived here since it was founded in 1300. A few monks went about daily chores, lighting candles at shrines or sweeping courtyards, but did so under the surveillance of a phalanx of plainclothes policemen stationed on a hillside terrace overlooking the monastery.
Aron seems resigned to this presence. The monastery abbot, he said, had instructed his monks to show no resistance and cause no trouble. "Even if I don't agree with that, there is nothing I can do."