Sangye Lhamo

Sangye Lhamo, 26 years old, protested along with two other nuns from Dragkar nunnery in Kardze county on May 28 before being detained by authorities.

Tibetan nuns have taken a leading role in dissent in Kardze (Chinese: Ganzi) Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in Sichuan (the Tibetan area of Kham) with two further peaceful protests on Wednesday (May 28) and at least six more separate protests since more than 50 nuns were detained after a bold demonstration on May 14.

More than 80 nuns have now been detained in the unrest in Kardze that has continued despite the severe ‘anti-separatist’ crackdown in Tibetan areas upheld even since the earthquake struck Sichuan on May 12. In an incident on Wednesday (May 28), a 21-year old female student, Rinchen (or Rigden) Lhamo, was fired upon and possibly injured in the leg by armed police after she unfurled the banned Tibetan ‘snow lion’ flag at the government headquarters in Kardze, according to an eyewitness report received by the Tibetan Center for Human Rights and Democracy (TCHRD), and other Tibetan sources. Her whereabouts is now unknown.

Senior lama Phurbu Rinpoche, head of a nunnery in Kardze County where more than 50 nuns were detained after they protested against the repression that has followed the wave of protests in Tibetan areas since March 10 was detained on May 18 or 19. Two monks from a local monastery were later taken into custody after they held a protest about his arrest and calling for the Dalai Lama’s return. The recent incidents in Kardze are part of a second wave of dissent since March 10 that appears to have been sparked by the authorities’ heavy-handed response to acts of peaceful protest, and stringent ‘patriotic education’ campaigns that compel Tibetans to denounce the Dalai Lama.

On May 28, three nuns of Dragkar nunnery in Kardze County, Kardze Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, staged a brief peaceful demonstration in the town market square and distributed leaflets before they were detained, according to Tibetan sources with contacts in the area. The nuns were identified by TCHRD as 26-year old Sangye Lhamo (pictured), 26 years old from Serchuteng Township, Kardze County; Tsewang Kando, 38, also from Serchuteng Township, and Yeshi Lhadon, 24, from Tsozhi village, Kardze County. A Tibetan source told ICT: “The tension heightens after each such protest, how small it may be. Word gets around and there is an increase in the number of troops in the area.”

Approximately two hours later, 21-year old Rinchen Lhamo from Thingkha Township in Kardze left her college class during a break and, despite the heavy presence of police in the market square due to the nuns’ earlier protest, she unfurled a Tibetan flag. The same Tibetan source, who has spoken to several Tibetans with contacts in the area, said: “She shouted ‘May His Holiness the Dalai Lama live for thousands of years; His Holiness should be welcomed back to Tibet; freedom in Tibet; release political prisoners’. She shouted these slogans from the top of her lungs as if these are the last words she was going to utter.” According to several sources, she appears to have been injured on the leg after security personnel opened fire. At least one eyewitness reported seeing blood on her body when she was taken away.

A Tibetan source who witnessed a protest in Kardze on March 18 told the Tibetan newspaper in exile Bod Kyi Bang Chen: “It could be that they [the protestors, particularly referring to the monks] could not take oppression any more. The fact that the Chinese are forcing Tibetans to denounce His Holiness the Dalai Lama everyday makes Tibetans put their lives on the line and protest.” The same source reported that a nun in the area left behind a letter with her relative before joining a protest in Kardze, saying: “I cannot bear any longer the constant denunciation campaign against His Holiness the Dalai Lama. I cannot even concentrate on my prayers. I have 500 Yuan [US$72] – give away 50 to others and keep the rest for prayer after I die.”

Since May 11, more than 80 nuns, two laypeople and two monks have been detained following at least six separate incidents of protest in different areas of Kardze.

The Dragkar nuns’ protest on May 28 was the third incident of dissent by nuns from this nunnery in the last few weeks. Two Dragkar nuns, named by TCHRD as Sonam Lhamo and Thubten Dolma, were detained on May 11, after protesting against ‘patriotic education’. The next day, a group of Dragkar nuns again protested against the Chinese authorities in Kardze and ten were detained, according to TCHRD and other Tibetan sources.

On May 14, around 55 nuns, whose names are known to ICT, from Pang Ri nunnery in Su-ngo township, Kardze County in Kardze Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, staged a demonstration two days after the Sichuan earthquake. According to Tibetan sources, including TCHRD, the Pang Ri nuns protested on May 14 because of their distress and anger at the crackdown, detentions and disappearances that have followed peaceful protests in different areas of the Tibetan plateau. They were also angered by the implementation of the ‘patriotic education’ campaign by the Chinese authorities. There has been an intensification of this campaign since protests swept Tibet on March 10, and it has been particularly rigorous in areas where dissent has occurred.

According to TCHRD, the Pang Ri nuns vowed not to take part in any ‘patriotic education’ campaigns and said: “It is better to die than to denounce, criticize and attack the Dalai Lama, to sign official documents denouncing the Dalai Lama, if there is no place for us to worship and live, let us go somewhere else or die, if the Chinese authorities kill us, let us be killed, we have no regrets.” On the afternoon of May 14, the nuns marched peacefully towards the Kardze County government headquarters chanting slogans including “Long live the Dalai Lama” and calling for the Dalai Lama to return to Tibet. They were detained as soon as they approached the building and taken away in police vehicles.

According to a Tibetan source in exile, “Police and soldiers responded violently to the protest and the nuns were arrested on the spot, many got severely beaten up and stains of blood were seen on the street, with nuns’ robes and shoes scattered everywhere. The nuns were seen being taken away in trucks. People were too scared to pick up the nuns’ robes for fear of being detained themselves.”

Since the protest by the Pang Ri nuns, the crackdown has worsened in Kardze County. Even so, on May 23, two nuns in their twenties, Jampa Lhamo and Rigzen Wangdon, held a further protest, calling for the release of political prisoners, freedoms for Tibet, and a long life for the Dalai Lama, according to a Tibetan monk in exile. The two nuns, from Dhargay Hardu nunnery in Trehor, Kardze County, were detained.

Their protest follows the arrest of four nuns from Gesay Nunnery, also in Trehor, on May 22. The nuns, Bhumo Tengah, Rinchen Jamatsang, Jamgah Dolma and Pema, scattered leaflets which called for a free Tibet, long life for the Dalai Lama, his return to Tibet, and the release of all political prisoners, according to the same source. TCHRD reported that the four nuns staged their protest outside the county government headquarters, and that they were severely beaten after being detained.

Two days before, on May 20, three Tibetan nuns from Nyagay nunnery, also in Kardze County, made a protest calling for greater religious freedom, according to TCHRD, which named the nuns as Achoe, Soe Choekyi and Tashi Yangtso. The nuns had left their nunnery in the early hours of the morning in an attempt to avoid being stopped by security personnel on duty in the area en route to Kardze county town.

Four days after the demonstration by the more than 50 nuns from Pang Ri, a senior lama who was the head of the nunnery, Phurbu Rinpoche, was detained, according to Tibetan sources in exile who received information from the area. Phurbu Rinpoche, an incarnate lama of Trehor Kardze monastery who lives in Dragyab village, Kardze, was taken into custody at around 4:30 am on May 18 or 19, according to the same sources. His current whereabouts and welfare are unknown.

Phurbu Rinpoche is a deeply respected local figure known for his work in the community, including the building of a center for elderly people, and two pharmacies. In addition to Pang Ri, Phurbu Rinpoche is also the head of Ya-tseg nunnery, according to TCHRD.

Nuns ordered to raise Chinese flag

According to a further source from Kardze, prior to the protest of the nuns on May 14, the Chinese authorities had been enforcing the raising of Chinese flags at Pang Ri nunnery and Ya-tseg nunnery. The source said that after protests in March in Kardze: “Security personnel have ordered nuns to hoist a Chinese flag atop the nunnery; they have asked nuns to reveal the instigators and say that they are grateful of the Chinese government. Also, they always ask nuns to denounce His Holiness the Dalai Lama. In return, nuns have told officials that they cannot say that theyare grateful of the Chinese government because for five years when nuns were not able to get enough financial backing to rebuild the nunnery, the government did not extend any help for their difficulty. As for the protests [in March], [they said] no one instigated any one, they all took part voluntarily.” (Translation from Tibetan, the Tibet Express, Bod Kyi Bang Chen, May 28, 2008).

Two monks from a nearby monastery, Tsitsang, were taken into custody on May 20 after protesting against Phurbu Rinpoche’s detention, according to TCHRD. The two monks, identified by TCHRD as Loyang and Tenzin Ngodup, shouted slogans calling for the Dalai Lama’s return and the release of political prisoners, including Phurbu Rinpoche, in front of a county government building before being detained.

Sources from Tibet also reported that nuns from Ganden Choeling nunnery in Kardze protested on May 14, leading to the arrest of six nuns and one layperson.

As of March 17, Kardze County had more known Tibetan political detainees than any other county outside of the Tibetan Autonomous Region, according to the Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC). ‘Patriotic education’ was stepped up in Kardze earlier this year, even before the recent protests. Citing an official article in the Ganzi Daily, the CECC reported that on January 8, 2008, authorities began a pilot program which utilizes “propaganda and cultural service kits” and “mobile propaganda banners” in select county villages aimed at increasing anti-separatism and ‘patriotic education’ initiatives.

Mary Beth Markey, Vice President for Advocacy of the International Campaign for Tibet, said: “Political restrictions were in place at Kardze even before the recent crackdown, making the personal risks taken by the nuns in protesting at this time all the more remarkable. If Chinese hardliners ever believed that making the veneration of the Dalai Lama an outlawed political act would sever the bond between the Tibetan people and their lama, then the nature of the protests in Tibet this spring continues to prove them wrong.”

Eyewitness testimony of March 18 protest in Kardze

An eyewitness source told the Tibetan newspaper Bod Kyi Bang Chen about the aftermath of a demonstration in Kardze on March 18. He said: ‘Initially [on that day] ten monks protested in Kardze County [town], followed by three nuns and a young man named Sergah.

The protest had just happened when I reached the market, and Chinese police were disposing of small pieces of paper that were scattered everywhere. I did not see what was written on the paper, but others told me that the words on the paper read: ‘His Holiness the Dalai Lama must be welcomed back to Tibet soon.’ Police had sealed off the area, but blood stains were still visible on the street. They say it belonged to the young man, Sergah. The three nuns and Sergah were beaten to the point where they couldn’t move and than thrown on to a truck as if they were bags of luggage – it is difficult to tell whether they were alive nor not. In the crackdown, police kicked the heads of monks and other protestors [who were on the ground] and plastic bags were shoved in their mouths to gag them.

“Since then, 10 to twenty armed soldiers roam in the street everyday. Aside from guns, they carry other weapons to quell or control people. When they happen to come across a group of monks or nuns they immediately become suspicious and point guns at them.” (Translated from Tibetan, Bod Kyi Bang Chen, May 28, 2008).