Indian monastery aids Tibetan monks facing crackdown

The Kirti Monastery in Dharamsala, an Indian hill town home to thousands of exiled Tibetans, has become a crisis center for the turmoil at its sister monastery under lockdown in Sichuan, China.

Kevin Frayer/AP
In this June 30 photo, Tibetan Buddhist monks watch television at the Kirti Monastery in the hill station town of Dharamsala, northern India.

Perched on a hill in northern India, Kirti Monastery overlooks a picturesque green valley carpeted with Himalayan cedars. All appears peaceful.

But the serene image belies the crisis response management happening inside, where two monks work all hours to gather news from Tibetan monks they say are under government lockdown across the border in China. Buddhist monasteries are not normally crisis communications centers, but Kirti has assumed that role in an effort to aid the monks at its Tibetan sister monastery of the same name in southwest China.

The ad hoc effort at the monastery in India shows how technology and savvy on the part of a few can circumvent China’s stringent communications clampdowns. Nevertheless, “uncensored communication links from Kirti are fragile, discrete, and under constant threat of surveillance and disruption by Chinese government authorities and security forces,” says Phelim Kine, senior Asia researcher at New York-based Human Rights Watch.

On March 16, just after the 52nd anniversary of Tibet’s failed uprising against China in 1959, a young monk from Kirti Monastery in Amdo Ngaba, a Tibetan district of Sichuan, set himself on fire as a form of protest. Shortly after the monk’s death, Chinese placed the Amdo Ngaba monastery and its approximately 2,500 monks on lockdown. Nearly four months later reports indicate that conditions remain tense.

The repression in Amdo Ngaba is so severe that in April the Dalai Lama, who relinquished his political role that same month, said in a statement: “I am very concerned that this situation if allowed to go on may become explosive with catastrophic consequences for the Tibetans in Ngaba.”

What happened?

According to the monks in India, about 300 monks were taken away by Chinese authorities in April. Classes and prayers have stopped and remaining monks were forced to take “patriotic re-education” classes.

Some 400 government officials are camped out at the monastery in China, said the International Campaign for Tibet, a US-based advocacy group. Cameras and recording devices are positioned throughout. Phone calls and e-mail from Kirti Monastery in China are monitored by Chinese authorities who can detain or arrest people they deem a threat to China's control over Tibet.

Though China has not officially acknowledged the lockdown, Chinese police claim the self-immolation of the young monk who precipitated it “was a carefully planned and implemented criminal case, aimed at triggering disturbances,” according to Xinhua, China’s state news agency.

To quash other potential disturbances, Chinese police arrested hundreds of monks although there were no displays of violence after the self-immolation.

Local residents surrounded the monastery in Amdo Ngaba in an attempt to protect monks from being detained but were allegedly beaten by Chinese forces and attacked by police dogs. Two elderly Tibetans reportedly died in the clash.

Enter the monastery in India

Information about arrests, beatings, protests, surveillance, and police activity were conveyed along a circuitous network from Tibetan locals in China to Tibetans living in neighboring India, home to nearly 100,000 exiles.

News was passed along among Tibetans via clandestine phone calls, e-mails, and digital photos until it reached the Dharamsala branch of Kirti Monastery.

After the first piece of information made its way to them, Losang Yeshe and Kanyag Tsering, two monks at Kirti Monastery in India, became the de facto crisis communications team. They are in charge of the grim task of organizing detailed lists of arrested monks, trying to confirm names of Tibetan civilians beaten or detained while protecting monks, and liaising with human rights organizations and the media via regular e-mail updates and interviews.

Mr. Yeshe and Mr. Tsering both say they would prefer to do their prayers, attend classes, and study religious teachings. But with Kirti Monastery in crisis, the Tibetans fear for the well-being of monks and locals there. “We have no choice but to disseminate this knowledge,” says Tsering through an English interpreter.

In Tibet, monasteries are esteemed institutions of Buddhist knowledge and culture. The one under crackdown in Amdo Ngaba was established in 1870 and is one of the largest monasteries on the Tibetan plateau. Now, its future appears threatened by the lockdown.

Major monasteries in Tibet once housed thousands of monks. But because of restrictions over the decades, numbers at some monasteries have dwindled to hundreds, whereas sister monasteries flourishing in India house thousands of monks today. Tibetans “fear that Chinese authorities are now seeking to weaken Kirti significantly through this systematic campaign,” according to a statement from the International Campaign for Tibet.

Confirming the information the monks give them takes weeks, but Human Rights Watch says their reports are accurate.

A spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry denied illegal detainment of monks and said that the monks at the monastery “enjoy a normal life and normal Buddhist activities.” However, foreign journalists and tourists are barred from traveling to the monastery in Amdo Ngaba and nearby areas.

Human Rights Watch raised concerns about the crackdown, noting that it is part of a series of arrests and disappearances in recent months of dozens of China’s human rights advocates, lawyers, Internet activists, and those who assert Tibetan national identity openly.

And in June the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances expressed “serious concern” about the wave of alleged enforced disappearances in China in the past few months, including of monks in the Tibet region.

“Enforced disappearance is a crime under international law. Even short-term secret detentions can qualify as enforced disappearances,” the UN group said.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.