From “Protests, Self-Immolation Signs of a Desperate Tibet,” by Louisa Lim, NPR’s Morning Edition, February 21, 2012
Monks swathed in crimson robes chant under silk hangings in a murky hall, heavy with the smell of yak butter. Photos of the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama – seen by China as a splittist – are openly displayed, as if in defiance. But security forces have tightened their grip on the Tibetan plateau, while monasteries appear to be emptying out, gripped by an atmosphere of fear and loss.
In this town, the monks refused to set off fireworks at Chinese New Year at the end of January, boycotting normal celebrations as a mourning gesture. “Too many of our people died this year,” one monk told me, referring to nearly two dozen Tibetans who have set themselves on fire as a protest against Chinese repression. Identifying details have been removed to protect those who talked to NPR.
Policecars patrol the town’s streets, and on the morning of new year, security forces took pre-emptive action. “Paramilitary forces from elsewhere were sent here”, says the monk. “There were tanks too.”
“They closed off all the exits to our monastery and didn’t let us leave,” says a second monk. The paramilitary police withdrew afterwards, but monks say plainclothes police remain inside the monastery. The monks listen secretly to Voice of America’s Tibetan service news every night, despite feeling almost physical pain at the bleak news. Despite a Buddhist prohibition against violence or suicide, they are of one mind on the self-immolations.
“What they did was great”, says the first monk, “Yes! Yes! Yes!” says the second. “That’s why we didn’t mark the new year. Because of them.”
Those who have set themselves on fire include a forty-two year old tulku or living buddha, Sonam Wangyal Sopa Rinpoche, who ran an old people’s home and an orphanage in Darlag, Golok prefecture, Qinghai province. He left behind a crackly audio recording of his last message, where he says, “This year in which so many Tibetan heroes have died, I am sacrificing my body to stand in solidarity with them…. I pray that the Dalai Lama will return to Tibet.” On January the eighth, standing in front of a police station in Darlag, he drank kerosene. Then he set himself alight.
It’s a sign of Tibetan desperation, and Tibetan radicalization, with the anger bursting into a number of peaceful protests in Qinghai province. But in neighbouring Sichuan province, at least seven Tibetans have been shot dead by security forces and more than 60 wounded, according to exiled advocacy groups, when police put down protests late last month. Chinese state media said police fired in self-defence.
“We’re supposed to talk about the history and culture of the temple, the artwork, the lives of the monks, their food and customs.”
… In Ta’ersi, also known as Kumbum, ticket machines beep as tourists swipe through. This monastery is one of the main schools of the Dalai Lama’s sect, and, close to the city of Xining, it’s also become a major tourist attraction, with Chinese visitors paying almost thirteen dollars a head. There are no pictures of the Dalai Lama here; testament to Chinese efforts to use “patriotic education” to divorce Tibetan Buddhism from its spiritual leader.
“Lots of tourists ask me, but the monastery doesn’t allow us to talk about these things,” says our Tibetan tourguide, reluctant to discuss the topic of the Dalai Lama. “We’re supposed to talk about the history and culture of the temple, the artwork, the lives of the monks, their food and customs.”
… “The population in monastic institutions has decreased tremendously,” says Lobsang Nyandak, the representative of the Dalai Lama in the US. “The number of monks and nuns has declined. Primarily either they have been expelled for not obeying Chinese commands. Many voluntarily left the monastic institutions, because they cannot tolerate the repression the monks and nuns have to undergo.”
He makes the shape of a gun with his fingers, and puts it to his head, pulling the trigger. Then, in case of any misunderstanding, he repeats the gesture.
These include submitting to new monastery committees headed, for the first time, not by monks but by government officials.
… “We don’t have the right to speak freely,” one monk says. “We are scared. If we talk to you, they’ll arrest us.”
Another man butts in. “You speaking with the monks makes them truly scared,” he says, “They could get shot.” He makes the shape of a gun with his fingers, and puts it to his head, pulling the trigger. Then, in case of any misunderstanding, he repeats the gesture.
It’s a sign of how sophisticated the apparatus of control has become. …