Protests near Labrang Monastery

Protests near Labrang Monastery on March 14, 2008. (TCHRD)

A translation of the words of the monks who protested to a group of foreign media last week during a visit to Labrang monastery (Chinese: Xiahe) in Gansu province reveals concerns about religious freedom, views about the Olympics, and anger that the Chinese authorities have accused monks of possessing weapons.

The 15 monks burst into the courtyard at Labrang on April 10 where about 20 Chinese and foreign journalists on a state-organised media tour were assembled. They spoke for several minutes to the journalists, first attempting to communicate in Tibetan, but then switching to Chinese. The whereabouts now of the monks is unknown although several sources report that they were taken into custody after the press had left Labrang. This report has not been possible to confirm due to the crackdown at Labrang and the harsh penalties by the authorities for communicating information to the outside world. In different areas of Tibet where protests have taken place, the authorities have confiscated cellphones and computers, turned off cellular transmission facilities or cut landlines, and interfered with internet access, according to various reports received by ICT.

Several of the Labrang monks were weeping as they spoke to the journalists, and some carried the Tibetan snow lion flag made out of paper. The monks offer a khatag (a Tibetan white blessing scarf) to a journalist and one of them says: “We sincerely thank you for coming here.”

Reporters on the trip told ICT that Chinese security photographed the entire protest in addition to the press cameras. Labrang monastery was already full of security police and the monks experiencing severe repression following protests on March 14 and 15 which were dispersed by armed police with tear gas. The monks spoke quickly, often at the same time, in their rush to communicate their concerns face to face with an outside delegation.

According to a translation of their comments from footage of the protests broadcast internationally, one of the monks said that they were not against the Chinese hosting the Olympic Games. A young monk holding the large Tibetan flag says: “We support the Olympic Games and you must understand this…” Another monk interjects by saying, “Yes, you must understand this.” The young monk repeats what he’s just mentioned saying: “The Olympic Games will start in August and we’re not protesting against it.” Referring to plain clothes police or soldiers, another monk says: “In recent days we haven’t had many tourists like this but they are Chinese soldiers in ordinary clothes just for show.”

One monk told the journalists: “We want human rights”, and speaking to the other monks said: “Do we want human rights?” The response was in the affirmative in Tibetan, and one monk repeated this in Chinese. One of the young monks holding the large Tibetan flag shouts: “We want human rights, we want freedom for Tibetans (Free Tibet). We can no longer bear to live under this repressive Chinese rule. They exercise repression in every part of Tibet and because of that we can no longer develop the Buddha dharma and without that the idea of world peace (cannot flourish).”

Another monk addressed the current situation in Labrang during the current crackdown, saying: “A lot of people have been arrested, and a lot of army are in the streets. No human rights. No freedom. We have to denounce the Dalai Lama. We want the Dalai Lama to come back soon. A few days before we protested and then they put the poison [tear gas] on us. A lot of people arrested. A lot of soldiers here. No human rights. No freedom.”

During the protest, monks shouted repeatedly: “We want human rights, we want human rights!” Off the camera a journalist asks, “What’s your message?” A monk responds holding a small white banner with another monk: “We don’t have human rights. We want the Dalai Lama to return. We want the Dalai Lama to return to Tibet soon…” The banner demands “Human Rights!”

One of the monks tells the journalists: “Tibetans, especially the elderly, are like the setting sun over the peak of a mountain.” According to the translator, this means that Tibetans are leading a precarious existence on the brink of extinction.

The monk who spoke about the Olympics also said that they were angry that ‘they’ (the Chinese authorities) had reported that the monks had knives and guns, saying: “We don’t have anything like that.”

Over the past few weeks the Chinese state media has alleged that caches of weapons have been hidden in various monasteries, in a clear attempt to portray the Tibetans as plotting to engage in violent protest, and causing distress among many Tibetans. Xinhua reported yesterday that police seized explosives, a gun and banned Tibetan flags during searches of six monasteries in Tibetan areas (April 15). China has reported seizing weapons from monasteries on several occasions in the past few weeks but does not offer evidence besides photographs of displays of guns and swords that were allegedlyconfiscated.

One source told ICT that a weapons cache was indeed found at a monastery in Kham, but the weapons were all guns, rifles and even bows and arrows handed in by local nomads who had been persuaded by the monks to stop hunting wild animals. According to the same source, who is in touch with Tibetans in the area, police praised monks for their initiative, took the weapons away, and then reported that “weapons had been seized from monks”.

The recent demonstration at Labrang is the second to interrupt a state-organized media tour since the wave of protests began across the Tibetan plateau on March 10, the anniversary of the 1959 uprising against Chinese rule. Monks from the Jokhang Temple in Lhasa protested in front of a group of foreign journalists on March 28 after authorities allowed foreign journalists into Lhasa for the first time since the effective closure of the city to outsiders.

After visiting Labrang, the group of foreign press was escorted to Machu (Chinese: Maqu) in Kanlho Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Gansu (the Tibetan area of Amdo). There have been mass detentions and a severe crackdown in the Machu area following protests on March 16 by local people, nomads and students, who carried images of the Dalai Lama or Tibetan flags, shouted pro-independence slogans, and called for the return of the Dalai Lama. Some demonstrators singled out government and other property during the protest, targeting government offices and Chinese businesses.

Just as armed troops and security were ‘hidden’ in compounds during the visit of an earlier group of journalists and a second group of diplomats to Lhasa, sources told ICT that during the visit to Machu too, uniformed armed personnel were not visible to the press. A reporter on the trip told ICT: “We saw only one uniformed policeman in the whole of Machu town – and this was a traffic policeman. Even so, there was a very obvious plain clothes presence.” The same reporter said that there was clearly an atmosphere of fear and tension “among all ethnicities” in the area. ICT has received reliable reports that numerous Chinese people are leaving areas of eastern Tibet hit by the protests.