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Army cordons seal off rebel monasteries in Tibet

July 14, 2008

The Sunday Times
July 13, 2008

More than 1,000 Buddhist monks are still locked up under armed guard in
monasteries around Lhasa, four months after anti-Chinese riots, while
the authorities implement their harshest crackdown on religion in decades.

Eyewitnesses confirm that People’s Liberation Army (PLA) troops have
sealed off Drepung, the largest monastery in Tibet. Nobody may go in or
out. Photography is banned and passers-by are shooed away.

A camp of olive-green tents and two rings of roadblocks surround this
sanctuary of meditation. Local people say the monks pay the army for
food to be sent to them.

Drepung was singled out for punishment and “re-education” because
Chinese security forces identified many of its monks on video recordings
of the protests against Beijing’s policies in Tibet.

The Nechung monastery, about a mile south, was also sealed off. Tibetans
said its monks were known for their fidelity to the Dalai Lama.

Although pictures of him are banned, the exiled spiritual leader of
Tibetan Buddhism still exercises an uncanny grip on his people that half
a century of Chinese propaganda has failed to break.

Modern Chinese rhetoric omits to say that the Dalai Lama, then a very
young man, did his best to co-operate with China when its troops entered
Tibet in 1950. He fled to India in 1959 after communist policies set off
an uprising among the Tibetans.

The Dalai Lama himself has always condemned violence. He says he does
not want independence but genuine cultural and religious autonomy within
China. The Chinese say they do not believe him.

That is why control over the religious life of Tibet is crucial to
Chinese rule.

Drepung may be a fortress of resistance but across Lhasa the picture
varies. Some monasteries have complied with Chinese officials and
installed party-controlled committees, allowing them to pursue their
Buddhist studies in troubled silence.

One pleasing result for the authorities can be found at the Sera
monastery in north Lhasa, whose 500 monks did not join the protests and
have collaborated in the formation of an “administrative committee” to
supervise them.

“We now study the Chinese constitution, the law against separatism, the
law against demonstrations, the criminal law and other documents
requiring us to love the motherland, love the government, support
stability and understand the real intentions of the Dalai Lama,” said a
monk named Chamba.

Tibet was reopened to foreign tourists on June 25. Compared with foreign
diplomats and journalists, who have been admitted only on short, tightly
controlled tours, tourists have been able to circulate with relative ease.

Accounts from travellers paint a picture of frightened Chinese residents
protected by bored soldiers, while Tibetans are divided between
government employees loyal to China and a majority of sullen, resentful
people.

Economic growth, fast and furious under Chinese stewardship, has
deepened some of the divisions. Most taxis are driven by Han Chinese;
most rickshaws are pedalled by Tibetans.

Superficially, coercion appears to be working. On the road to Lhasa from
the airport, every Tibetan farmhouse flies the red and gold Chinese
flag. Sentries are posted on bridges and outside official buildings.

On every street corner in the city centre, a soldier stands watch. Most
temples and monasteries are under 24-hour surveillance.

“I began to realise that Tibetans hate the Han [Chinese] from their
bones and their hearts,” said a shopkeeper who migrated to Lhasa from
Shanxi province in central China. “They are a very strange nation. They
do not care about material things but only about the spirit.”

Riot toll: Communist party papers and Tibetan exiles have revealed the
scale of the trouble

— 908 businesses and 120 homes were destroyed during riots in Lhasa
after protests by monks were broken up by security forces and Chinese
migrants became the targets of ethnic hatred

— 242 Chinese police officers and soldiers were killed or wounded as the
violence spread

— An estimated 200 Tibetans died in the crackdown by Chinese authorities
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