Officials from Beijing and Chengdu have ordered thousands of monks and nuns to leave a massive monastic encampment in eastern Tibet, according to several eyewitness sources.

As monks and nuns leave, their residences are being destroyed to prevent them, or others, from returning and inhabiting the sprawling complex.

The confrontation has been building for weeks and higher-level officials from Beijing, including from the United Front, have been called in to oversee the expulsions and demolition. The monastic community known as Larung Gar near the town of Serthar in Sichuan Province is the largest concentration of monks and nuns anywhere on the Tibetan Plateau. The story was first reported by the Taiwanese Central News Agency last Friday.

Larung Gar is a monastic encampment, not a monastery, and its inhabitants have come on their own accord based on Larung Gar’s reputation that has spread by word of mouth. Moreover, its monks and nuns from all areas of Tibet and China form a loose-knit community where students have to provide for themselves and are not under the formal control of any abbot. However, students have been drawn by a charismatic teacher, Khenpo Jigme Phuntsok, who established Larung Gar a decade ago as a ritro, or mountain hermitage, with only a few students. Khenpo Jigme Phuntsok and other lamas lead a traditional curriculum of Buddhist study, teaching in both Tibetan and Mandarin.

The encampment is believed to have between 7,000-8,000 monks and nuns, of which nearly 1,000 are Chinese. A majority of the inhabitants are nuns. Often the Tibetans who come to this remote area study for a limited period of time before returning to their home monastery to teach others.

Larung Gar is a place where “the sacred landscape of Tibet was being revived,” and is a “marked contrast to the alienated state in which institutionalized Buddhism finds itself in many parts of Tibet,” according to the 1998 book Buddhism in Contemporary Tibet. Because of the unique opportunity to receive a comprehensive Buddhist education, Larung Gar is one of the few places on the Tibet Plateau that is attracting students.

The Chinese government authorities who arrived recently are trying to enforce a ceiling of 1,400 monks and nuns. Previous attempts by government cadres to reduce the numbers of students at Larung Gar have proved largely unsuccessful. During these attempts by local authorities, Khenpo Jigme Phuntsok reportedly called on the authorities to “safeguard the people’s religious belief” which is guaranteed in China’s constitution. The revered teacher also told the government officials that as he had not invited nor recruited the monks and nuns to Larung Gar, it would be inappropriate for him to ask them to leave. There is no reported political or “splittist” activity at Larung Gar.

Tibetan leaders and Tibetologists are viewing the recent events as extremely significant as Larung Gar will be seriously compromised as the leading center for Buddhist learning in Tibet and China. There is also concern about the safety of Khenpo Jigme Phuntsok and other teachers, who could face reprisals by the authorities.