News is emerging of a protest this morning (March 1, 2009) by several hundred monks from Sey monastery in Ngaba (Chinese: Aba), the Tibetan area of Amdo, after officials prevented them from marking a major prayer festival. Several hundred monks marched from the monastery after officials banned them from praying, calling to be allowed to celebrate the Monlam prayer festival, and for the authorities to release all Tibetan prisoners from the area, according to three Tibetan sources with contacts in the area including one eyewitness. According to one of the sources, the protest was dispersed when armed police and officials confronted the protestors and troops are now surrounding the monastery.

Tension is high in the area following an incident on Friday when a monk from the same area was shot after setting himself on fire, following a similar ban on the Monlam Chenmo (Great Prayer Festival) at Kirti monastery in Ngaba, Sichuan province. The Chinese state media has confirmed that a monk from Kirti was taken to hospital with burns on his head and neck.

The incident today occurred at around 9 am when approximately 600 monks at Sey monastery near Ngaba town (approximately 1.5 kilometers from Kirti monastery) were told by officials that they were not permitted to celebrate the Monlam Chenmo festival. There has been extensive government interference with this important prayer festival that was established in Tibet in 1409 by Tsongkhapa, founder of the Gelugpa tradition. It was banned during the Cultural Revolution, and again in 1990. In defiance of the stated orders, Sey monks had begun to pray, but according to a Tibetan source with contacts in the area, “Right after they started, officials [likely to be members of the work team stationed at the monastery] intervened and stopped the ceremony. The monks asked the officials, ‘Allow us to pray ‘dukkar’ [a precious prayer to remove obstacles] once and we will stop.’ They didn’t say anything and the monks continued to pray.”

At some point the monks present stood up and left the prayer hall. According to the same source, there are likely to have been as many as 600 monks. They left the monastery and walked towards Ngaba town, shouting that they should be allowed to observe the Monlam prayer ceremony and calling on the authorities to release prisoners from Ngaba. It is not possible to confirm how many monks protested as sources varied in their accounts of the number of monks who did so. They walked for around five to ten minutes according to the same source before they were apprehended by officials (likely to be members of the Democratic Management Committee, although that could not be confirmed) who urged the monks not to proceed further for fear of a violent response from troops stationed in the area. One report stated that some senior monks at the monastery were involved in the attempt to stop the protest. A source who knows the area well says that they reached a petrol pump that is just before a bridge leading to Ngaba market, on the opposite side of town to the crossroads where the Kirti monk Tapey set himself on fire on Friday.

Armed police arrived at the scene, and according to two of the reports, Sey monks began to return to the monastery, where they are now surrounded by armed police personnel and likely to be under lockdown after the protest.

The Chinese state media has confirmed that a monk, who has been identified by Tibetan sources as Tapey, walked out of the Kirti Monastery in Aba, Sichuan province, and set himself on fire in a local street on Friday afternoon, Xinhua news agency said, citing the local Communist Party chief, Shi Jun. Shi reportedly said police put out the fire, and that the man was taken to hospital with burn injuries to his neck and head. Unofficial reports received from the area over the weekend confirm that Tapey was shot by People’s Armed Police troops after he set himself alight. His current condition is not known although the Chinese news agency Xinhua reported that he is now in hospital. Shops in Ngaba town market were apparently closed over the weekend after the incident and the presence of troops in the area may have been stepped up, with one eyewitness source reporting a very visible presence of troops in the area close to Sey monastery apparently carrying out manoeuvres.

Tapey had set himself on fire after officials announced a ban on marking the Monlam prayer festival at Kirti. The Monlam (Great Prayer) Festival, falls on 4th -11th day of the 1st Tibetan month in Tibetan Buddhism – directly after the Tibetan New Year (Losar). As the greatest religious festival in Tibet, thousands of monks (of the three main monasteries of Drepung, Sera and Ganden) traditionally gathered for chanting prayers and performing religious rituals at the Jokhang Temple in Lhasa.

The ban on Monlam Chenmo reported at Kirti and Sey is a further example of the way in which state repression of religion has created deepening tension in Tibet, the opposite of the ‘genuine stability’ the Chinese government states it is seeking in Tibet.

The crackdown in Ngaba has been particularly severe following a major protest involving monks from Kirti monastery and local people on March 16 last year, and the presence of troops in the area has been stepped up more recently. At least 10 Tibetans – including 16 year old schoolgirl Lhundup Tso – were shot dead last year after police opened fire on unarmed protestors after a morning prayer session at Kirti monastery on March 16, 2008. Many more monks and laypeople have been imprisoned and tortured since then, and during police raids at Kirti, photographs of the Dalai Lama and senior religious leaders were destroyed. In June last year troops raided Sey monastery, smashing images of the Dalai Lama and harassing monks who were in retreat at that time.

This is the only known period since the anniversary of the March 1959 Uprising when protests have continued in Tibetan areas despite the severity of the Chinese government’s response since March 10 last year.