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    Greater China
     Apr 28, 2011

Tibetan monastery faceoff nears crisis point
By Saransh Sehgal

DHARAMSALA, India - A month-long confrontation between police and monks at a monastery in a Tibetan area of China's southwestern Sichuan province has put Beijing's Tibet policy back in the international spotlight.

The flare-up began at the Kirti monastery, located in Ngaba or Aba county, on March 16 after a 24-year-old monk called Phuntsok set himself ablaze to mark three years since a bloody crackdown on Tibetan demonstrators there. Ahead of the Beijing Summer Olympic Games in 2008, the monastery was a center of Tibetan unrest.

Phuntsok was seized, allegedly beaten by the police and died the next day. This prompted protests, and clashes erupted between security forces and protesting Tibetans and monks at the

monastery. Authorities responded by putting the monastery under lock-down and exile groups say protesters have been detained and sent for compulsory "patriotic re-education".

The Chinese government has dismissed reports that it has blockaded the Tibetan monastery and surrounding areas, saying the situation there remains "normal".

"According to what we understand, over the past few days the life and Buddhist activities of the monks at the Kirti monastery are all normal. Social order there is also normal. Material supplies in the temple are totally sufficient," Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said at a press conference on April 19.

On April 22, state media accused monks at the monastery of drinking, gambling and using prostitutes. The Aba county government said it had given some monks "legal education", in view of their "problems and illegal activities", reported the state news agency Xinhua.

"Some monks in the monastery had visited prostitutes, got drunk, kicked up rows and engaged in gambling. And some disseminated pornographic videos," said a government circular.

"Relations between the police and the temple have always been harmonious," said Hong.

Amid the 2008 tensions, Beijing admitted police had shot four protesters in Aba while exiled Tibetan groups alleged that 39 Tibetans were killed. Tibetans in the region fear that they are being marginalized economically by Han Chinese and that their religion and culture are under threat from restrictions imposed by the government.

However, Beijing says Tibetans' living standards have improved because the government has invested billions of yuan in infrastructure and development projects in the region.

Chinese state media have denied that the young monk was beaten, saying that a post-mortem found no injuries other than burns. It alleges that he died because other monks denied him medical treatment.

However, exiled Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama has condemned the authorities. "Instead of putting out the flames, the police beat the young monk, which was one of the causes of his tragic death."

"I am very concerned that this situation if allowed to go on may become explosive with catastrophic consequences for the Tibetans in Ngaba," the Dalai Lama said in a statement issued on April 15. "In view of this I urge both the monks and the lay Tibetans of the area not to do anything that might be used as a pretext by the local authorities to massively crack down on them."
He urged the international community, governments around the world, and international non-governmental organizations to persuade the Chinese leadership to "exercise restraint in handling this situation".

The Tibetan government-in-exile in Dharamsala, India, has also expressed deep concern over the clashes, appealing to China to lift its alleged blockade of the monastery.

"We deeply regret the tense stand-off between the local Chinese authorities and the monks of Kirti monastery and the local Tibetan population of Ngaba in northeastern Tibet," said Kalon Kesang Takla from the Department of Information and International Relations of the exiled Central Tibetan Administration.

"We urge in the strongest possible terms both the Chinese authorities and the Tibetans in Ngaba to exercise utmost restraint. At the same time we urge the local Chinese authorities to immediately stop its blockade of Kirti Monastery," added Kalon's statement.

The US-based International Campaign for Tibet (ICT) has reported that hundreds of local residents had gathered outside Kirti last week in fear that authorities would forcibly remove monks for "patriotic re-education".

"The authorities have now imposed a lock-down on the monastery, with a new barbed wire fence and wall being built around the back of the monastic complex and armed troops within the compound preventing monks from leaving and food from being delivered," reported ICT's sources.

The ICT said armed police had unleashed trained dogs on residents outside the monastery and beaten them when they tried to prevent forces from entering the compound.

International human-right groups are asking Beijing to show restraint.

"The use of violence against peaceful, unarmed demonstrators including those surrounding the Kirti monastery would be both unjustifiable and completely unlawful," said Sophie Richardson, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch (HRW) said.

"It is vital that Chinese security forces respect the safety of all concerned, use the minimum force needed to keep public order, and fully respect both the monks and bystanders' right to freely practice religion, assemble and peacefully carry out protests."

HRW also said in a statement, "Human Rights Watch's concern for the safety of the local residents around the Kirti monastery has been heightened by the fact that Chinese security forces are increasingly disregarding the rule of law as part of a campaign involving the arrests and disappearances of dozens of the country's most prominent lawyers, human-rights defenders, and Internet activists in recent months."

However, such reports originate from campaigners or groups that support the Free Tibet movement, while the Chinese authorities have restricted access to the region. This makes it difficult to independently verify any information coming out of the Tibetan areas.

Despite this, following the Dalai Lama's appeal for the international community to intervene, the United States and European Union have stepped forward to criticize the Chinese government over the situation in Aba, urging Beijing to end the crisis and respect religious freedoms.

The intervention of Chinese security forces in the Kirti monastery is "inconsistent with internationally recognized principles of religious freedom and human rights", US State Department spokesman Mark Toner said last week. According to Toner, security forces "have cordoned off the Kirti monastery". He added that the US administration had raised the issue with Chinese officials. "We continue to monitor the situation closely and obviously are concerned by it," Toner said.

The European parliament on April 19 expressed deep concern over the situation, asking the Chinese government to end the standoff.

"This brutality is typical of the Chinese regime. The authorities must show restraint by withdrawing the armed security police and ending the lock-down of Kirti monastery," said European parliament vice president Edward McMillan-Scott. "I strongly condemn the treatment of the local lay people who were beaten whilst trying to prevent the armed police from entering the monastery. The Chinese have the responsibility to resolve the grievances of the locals in a fair and transparent way," he said.

The Chinese government has rebuked the statements by stressing that the US stop interfering in the internal affairs of other nations using the issue of human-rights as an excuse. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei called on the US to stop making "irresponsible remarks".

Observers say the crisis inside Tibet is of a similar magnitude to riots that erupted in March 2008 in the capital Lhasa that were quashed by Chinese police. Exiled Tibetans across the world are protesting against China for the crisis, and supporters in Dharamsala have begun hunger strikes, candle-lit vigils and rallies.

"On behalf of the Tibetan parliament-in-exile, I beg to draw your attention to the deteriorating human-rights situation in Tibet," deputy speaker Dolma Gyari wrote in a letter to the United Nations secretary general Ban Ki-moon on April 16. The deputy speaker told the UN chief that the monastery in Ngaba has virtually been turned into a prison camp.

Outgoing Tibetan prime minister-in-exile Samdhong Rinpoche fears the standoff may turn into a disaster, "We are afraid there may be mass brutal treatment towards the monks and they may be killed or tortured, we are very concerned and can only pray and appeal to the international community to appeal to PRC [People's Republic of China] to refrain from this genocide. We feel very helpless," he said.

Kirti Rinpoche, a lama from Kirti monastery in Dharamsala said, "Armed troops in conjunction with government officials are currently enforcing a brutal clampdown on Kirti monastery in Ngaba, depriving it of all freedom and reducing it to desperation, and it is out of the suffering and frustration so caused that we seek to address you now."

"China should withdraw its soldiers from the entire monastery and institutions around that area, and in reality they should come up to solve the Tibet issue," said Acharya Yeshee, a protestor currently on a hunger strike in India's capital New Delhi, was quoted as saying by Asia News International on April 22.

On April 23, China banned foreigners from entering Tibetan-inhabitant areas in Sichuan, in an apparent attempt to completely close off the remote, mountainous region.

In the midst of the crisis, Lobsang Sangay, an international law expert and Harvard scholar, was elected head of the Tibet government-in-exile on Wednesday. Lobsang Sangay easily beat two other candidates for the prime minister's post, winning 55% of the vote.

Saransh Sehgal is a contributor based in Dharamsala, India, who can be reached at info@mcllo.com.

(Copyright 2011 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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