In January 2002, the Dalai Lama had to cancel a major religious ceremony in Bodhgaya, India, due to illness. News quickly spread to the Kandze (known locally as Karze) Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture (TAP) in Eastern Tibet via Voice of America and Radio Free Asia. Tibetans in Kandze began organizing a traditional religious ceremony to pray for the long life of an individual – in this case, the Dalai Lama. They collected funds and materials, and by February 2002 (during the month of the traditional Tibetan New Year), over 50 hamlets and villages carried out these “long life ceremonies.” The ceremonies involved monks and nuns chanting, the display of images of the Dalai Lama, and speeches to crowds ranging from a few dozen to several hundred.
Attendees at some of the ceremonies took video footage, and VCD’s were subsequently made and distributed in order to demonstrate the devotion of the Kandze Tibetans to the Dalai Lama. The local police obtained a copy of the VCD and then used it during their investigation of the ceremonies to identify the organizers and main participants.
Over 100 Tibetans were detained in and around Kandze township for their suspected association with the long life ceremonies. Most were held for a few days and released after being interrogated.
ICT has received accounts of widespread torture of detainees at the Kandze Public Security Bureau detention center, where many of these Tibetans were interrogated. ICT has also confirmed that ten Tibetans were formally charged with “splittist” activities and sentenced to 3-5 years in Kandze, Xinduqiao, or Miyang prison in Kandze TAP. At least eight more Tibetans have disappeared. It is unknown whether they fled or were detained by the police. All eight had appeared prominently in the long life ceremony VCD. It is likely that there were more arrests than ICT has been able to confirm.
In the early 1990s, Chinese policy towards religion in Kandze and other Tibetan areas under Sichuan Province was widely perceived to be less repressive than in other traditional Tibetan areas outside the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR). The “Patriotic Education Campaign,” which reached monasteries in Kandze in 1997, has led to increased restrictions on religious practice, such as attempts to reduce the size of the area’s monasteries and a requirement for monks and nuns to denounce the Dalai Lama – the issue that has triggered the most resistance in Kandze.
Kandze TAP is historically known for its political volatility. Although Kandze township was initially chosen as the capital of the area, its remoteness and political instability, in addition to its lack of modern facilities, resulted in the selection of Dartsedo (Ch: Kanding) as the prefecture seat when the Kandze TAP was established in 1955.
Over the last two years it has become clear that Chinese authorities have specifically targeted Tibetan Buddhist lamas (teachers) engaged in social welfare activities. Lamas such as Tenzin Delek Rinpoche, Geshe Sonam Phuntsok, and Khenpo Jigme Phuntsok, among others, had attracted large popular followings in various parts of Kham. While maintaining traditional religious practices, these Buddhist teachers have also undertaken a number of social activities, such as developing Tibetan language classes and schools, building orphanages and homes for the elderly, and sponsoring traditional Tibetan opera and dance recitals.
New information is also emerging about the 1999 arrest of a very important monk who also was affiliated with a previous long life ceremony held for the Dalai Lama in 1988. Geshe Sonam Phuntsok was a scholar-monk and highly respected teacher in the Kandze township area. Known for his humble nature, he taught Tibetan history and language to thousands of students in impromptu classes, as well as formal religious classes at Dargye monastery and other small monasteries in the Kandze area.
Following his arrest, hundreds of Tibetans demonstrated, leading to the imposition of martial law in Kandze township for a month. Over fifty Tibetans were arrested during the demonstration. Geshe Sonam Phuntsok was beaten severely shortly after being arrested and has lost some mobility in his right arm due to boiling water being poured on his back and arm during interrogation. Geshe Sonam Phuntsok was sentenced to 5 years in prison and is believed to be held in Ngaba prison in Maowun county (Chinese: Maoxian) in Ngaba (Ch: Aba) Tibetan and Qiang Autonomous Prefectures. His scheduled release date is October 10, 2004.
In official court documents obtained by ICT, Geshe Sonam Phuntsok was accused of a variety of separatist activities including knowledge of a bomb blast at a medical clinic, although no evidence was presented in the court papers. Nearly all the charges against him concerned his connection to the Dalai Lama and activities that had taken place several years earlier. Court documents said that when Geshe Sonam Phuntsok was arrested, thousands of Tibetans protested the arrest:
In order to achieve his aim to separate the country and sabotage the unity of nationalities, the accused illegally organized a mass gathering with 2,000 participants at Puse Township of Kandze County on January 30th in 1998 to pray for the long life for the Dalai Lama, the exile who has been engaged in activities to separate the motherland.
At this prayer gathering, the accused raised a giant portrait of the Dalai Lama, which was provided by the accused himself, and entered in the gathering with slogans. During the religious teaching session, the accused not only chanted long life prayers for the Dalai Lama, but also openly advocated monks and other people to believe in the Dalai Lama. At the same time, the activity of chanting long life prayers for the Dalai Lama was taped by video camera, and the tape was spread in many places.
October 25th in 1999, when our public security bureau based on law took an action to control the accused, because of a few reactionary elements, over 3,000 local people attacked the township government and the police station.