ANGRY over the jailing of 21 brethren in a pro-independence protest, nearly 100 young Tibetan monks strode down the dirt path from their monastery last week to rally at China's government offices in the Tibetan capital of Lhasa. ``We told them they must free our monks,'' a Buddhist explained later from Drepung Monastery, a vast maze of whitewashed chambers on a hillside outside Lhasa.
``But the Chinese policemen were very angry, they hit us with their guns,'' said the maroon-robed monk, one of 92 Drepung novitiates who joined the march.
The monks were beaten with rifle butts and electric prods, thrown into trucks by some 300 heavily armed police, and taken to a Lhasa jail for questioning.
Since Sept. 27, Tibetan Buddhist monks - some shouting pro-independence slogans and hoisting Tibet's sacred flag of lions and the snow mountain - have sparked three major demonstrations demanding the return of Tibet's exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, and an end to 37 years of Chinese communist control.
The recent clash between activist monks and Chinese authorities underscores the deeply conflicting visions the two groups hold for the future of Tibet - visions stemming from traditions of religion and nationalism that have evolved over centuries.
The protests - in which six police and at least seven Tibetans were killed - mark the most serious anti-Chinese outbreak in Tibet since March 1959, when Chinese troops crushed an uprising by thousands of Tibetans and the Dalai Lama fled to Dharmsala, India.
More than any single group in Tibet, monks embody the ancient theocratic society that communist leaders have sought to eliminate since China's People's Liberation Army (PLA) subjugated Tibet in 1951 after a year-long campaign.
Before the Chinese invasion, some 20,000 monasteries employing about one fifth of all Tibetan men enjoyed unparalleled respect and power as centers of education and culture in the vast, sparsely populated Himalayan country.
The monks practiced a unique Tibetan form of Buddhism known as Lamaism, which emerged in the 8th century A.D. when Mahayana (great vehicle) Buddhism spreading from India absorbed Tibet's animistic faith. At the pinnacle of this ecclesiastic state since 1391 was a line of 14 Dalai Lamas. Discovered at youth through what Tibetans believe is divine revelation, each Dalai Lama is viewed as a bodhisattva king, an incarnation of the Buddhist deity of compassion and Tibet's patron saint.
During its rule, China has decimated all but 13 of Tibet's monasteries and killed or sent to labor camps thousands of monks in an effort to rid the Buddhist kingdom of its ``superstitious'' faith.
Despite the Chinese suppression, many monks remain fiercely loyal to the 14th Dalai Lama and support his international campaign to win Tibetan autonomy.
Chinese authorities, clearly incensed by what they consider an attack on China's territorial integrity, have responded to the recent wave of protests with a crackdown bolstered by an estimated 1,000 armed police.
Officials say 26 Tibetans arrested for participating in the Sept. 27 demonstration will be tried for counterrevolutionary crimes, which can bring the death penalty under Chinese law. Public security authorities in Lhasa have announced an Oct. 15 deadline for those who participated in a major protest on Oct. 1 to surrender or face arrest on the basis of videotapes made of the demonstrations.
``I have no way to be sympathetic with the monks,'' said Chen Gao, a Chinese reporter at the official Tibet TV station. He filmed the Oct. 1 protests in order to document those involved. ``Tibet is an indivisible part of China. ... Their protest was unreasonable.'' Mr. Chen is critical of foreign reporting on the protests.
Peking claims Tibet has been part of China since the 13th century. But Western historians maintain China had only tributary relations with Tibet until 1720, when Chinese troops invaded Tibet and established a loose protectorate.
When Sun Yat-Sen's 1911 revolution led to the collapse of dynastic rule in China, Tibet's 13th Dalai Lama proclaimed himself free from ties of vassalage to the deposed Chinese emperor.
But the awakening of a strident nationalism in China led Peking to claim what it considered its ``sovereign rights'' over Tibet, Mongolia, and other bordering regions. After China invaded Tibet in 1950, it sent thousands of Chinese settlers, troops, and officials into the region in an attempt to absorb Tibetans into the Chinese state.
Today, there are 1.93 million Tibetans, 73,500 Chinese residents, and an estimated 350,000 PLA troops in Tibet.
Almost every Tibetan interviewed in Lhasa last week praised the protests, though - unlike the monks - many were intimidated by the presence of police.
``We want independence,'' said a young Tibetan, his friends all nodding. Pulling open the tea house curtain, he pointed out four armed police on an adjacent rooftop. ``It's something in our hearts.''
This story was based on interviews done in Lhasa, Tibet last week before foreigner reporters were expelled.