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Gelek: A Personal Account of a Chinese Crackdown on Tibetan Dissent

July 5, 2010

by Ben Dunant
The Tibet Post International
July 3, 2010

Dharamshala -- Gelek was a monk from the eastern
part of Tibet, and was pursuing a life of
contemplation in Sera monastery near the Tibetan
capital, Lhasa, before an irreversible brush with
the Chinese state on March 2008. On March 10th,
as anti-Chinese sentiment was brewing across the
plateau in the run up to the Beijing Olympics,
thirteen monks marched through Lhasa demanding
human rights and freedom of expression and religion. All were arrested.

The situation escalated: the next day five
hundred monks from Sera monastery, Gelek
included, marched on Lhasa shouting for the
release of the arrested monks alongside the
aforementioned calls for greater freedom. Fifteen
minutes into it they were met by almost a
thousand Chinese paramilitary troops with tear
gas, riot shields, electrical batons and guns.
The monks were forcibly escorted back to Sera and
surrounded in the monastery yard while
negotiations were undertaken between the state
and monastery officials (a proportion of the
latter being state-appointed). As a result they
were allowed back into their monastery, only with
prison-like strictures imposed: none were allowed
to make contact with the outside world, let alone leave.

On the 12th, between 3 and 5pm, around a hundred
monks began shouting protest slogans. The act was
repeated the next day, and on the 14th the
monastery authorities warned that, if they
continued, Chinese troops would storm the
monastery and search their possessions for
defamatory material - anything that might warrant
arrest, pictures of His Holiness the Dalai Lama
included. And so the monks stopped. But the
troops would not disperse from outside the
monastery. The monks remained in effective house
arrest for a month, denied any outside contact.
Many become sick, and were helpless to remedy themselves.

On the 10th of April, at 3am, paramilitary troops
burst in with the common armoury of guns, tear
gas, electrical batons - and in this case axes,
to splinter the door of any monk who would deny
them entry to their room. Gelek opened the door
to one soldier and three policemen, who
immediately fell to beating him with their
electrical batons. Phones, wallets and rosaries
were confiscated and 400 monks, Gelek included,
were bundled into trucks and taken to Tsal
Gongthang Detention Centre, 3km from Lhasa.

Monks such as Gelek from the so-called Autonomous
Region were detained for eight months, with monks
from elsewhere carted off to detention centres in
their respective provinces. Alongside meagre food
rations and a draconian regime of rules and
regulations, Gelek was subjected to daily
‘patriotic' re-education: Chinese development
tales of shiny new bridges and bountiful food
provision were told, and their ‘crime' of protest
was condemned as a dangerous act of separatism
with the probable backing of foreign anti-Chinese
forces - in much the same manner as His Holiness
the Dalai Lama is condemned as a lackey of
Western imperialist powers. The monks were
interrogated one by one, and Gelek was firm that
he protested neither for His Holiness the Dalai
Lama nor foreign intervention but simply to
bemoan the lack of religious freedom and the
Chinese state limitation of monk numbers in
monasteries. The interrogator, however, was a
sympathetic Tibetan who advised him to exercise caution in everything he said.

As time went on many monks became sick, and were
only allocated medical help if they successfully
coughed up blood. The ‘beds' provided - raised
plinths of concrete on the cell floor - gave rise
to agonising swelling conditions, not least for
Gelek. After the eight months they were
transferred to detention centres in their own
respective districts - Chamdo county, in Gelek's
case. Much the same rigmarole continued for Gelek
for the next month and eleven days, after which
he was finally released on the 12th January 2009.
Gelek returned to his village, but life could not
return to how it was. He was forbidden for two
years to travel beyond his village without
official permission, he was kept under regular
surveillance and, most galling of all, he could never again practice as a monk.

Increasingly frustrated at the half-life he was
forced to lead, he made contact, through a series
of discreet connections, with an outfit dedicated
to smuggling Tibetans across the Himalayan
divide. He paid the mandatory 16,000 Chinese Yen
(2,362 US Dollars) and his escape began on the
27th of May 2010, travelling in a taxi for three
days and a night and walking the rest of the way.
Thanks to an expert guide with a knowledge of
hidden routes, he evaded capture from the Chinese
border guards and arrived in Nepal on the 4th of
June. After a stint of rehabilitation in the
reception centre in Kathmandu, he was conveyed to
Delhi on the 18th of June, arriving two days
later in McLeod Ganj, Dharamsala. Since then
Gelek has been staying in the reception centre
for recent arrivals on Jogiwara road, and he
looks forward to his meeting with the Tibetan
leader, whose presence drives so many Tibetans to
brave the escape over the high Himalayan passes.
Reduced circumstances may still plague Gelek in
McLeod Ganj, and his future remains uncertain -
but for now he can enjoy an environment of
relative freedom among his own kind, in a society
where his rights are respected and his ancient
culture is permitted to flourish.
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