Kirti Monastery in the Ngaba prefecture of Tibet has been victim to Chinese repression for many years.
On March 16, 2008, the Chinese police prohibited a morning prayer session at Kirti Monastery. At least 10 Tibetans–including 16-year-old schoolgirl Lhundup Tso–were shot dead after police opened fire on unarmed Tibetans who joined the spontaneous protest.
In February 2009, at the start of the Tibetan New Year, the Chinese police banned prayer services at Kirti Monastery. A young monk, Tapey, set himself on fire in protest; he was shot by police, and removed immediately. Over two years later, his whereabouts cannot be confirmed.
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Article 36 of the Chinese constitution expressly states:
Citizens of the People’s Republic of China enjoy freedom of religious belief. No state organ, public organization or individual may compel citizens to believe in, or not to believe in, any religion; nor may they discriminate against citizens who believe in, or do not believe in, any religion. The state protects normal religious activities. No one may make use of religion to engage in activities that disrupt public order, impair the health of citizens or interfere with the educational system of the state. Religious bodies and religious affairs are not subject to any foreign domination.
Phuntsok’s Protest and Death
On March 16 of this year, a young Kirti monk named Phuntsok set himself on fire, at the top of the market street near to Kirti monastery in a heroic protest against Chinese rule. He shouted slogans against the government while setting himself on fire. Local security personnel who came beat him as they tried to extinguish the flames.
Over 1,000 monks and laypeople staged a protest march. They had gone less than half a kilometer down the main street when they were dispersed by a large military force using steel truncheons and electric batons; many were arrested. In particular, authorities targeted monks. Among those who evaded arrest, some were seriously injured.
Phuntsok passed away around 3 am local time on March 17.
That same day, the monks and laypeople of Ngaba began a protest rally. Students at the upper middle school in Ngaba prefecture (Barkham) staged a hunger strike in sympathy with the Ngaba people; the protest spread to Namda Township in Dzamtang County in Ngaba.
In response to this, the Chinese government imposed an immediate clampdown, sending large numbers of troops to blockade Ngaba County, Namda Township and especially Kirti monastery and the prefecture upper middle school.
The Soldiers Arrive
In the first days of April, soldiers surrounding Kirti monastery entered the compound and prohibited elderly monks from a daily prayer activity (walking the outer circumambulation path). They established observation posts (with binoculars) on the stepped platforms of the monastery’s stupas, keeping watch on the monastery inside and out.
It is reported that now over 30 people have been arrested and detained.
On March 20, a five-day ‘reeducation’ campaign called “love the nation, love religion” was conducted in Kirti monastery. Monks were forced to attend these communist indoctrination classes.
Following these classes, Chinese government officials who came to lead the reeducation campaign split into groups and went into each monastic dormitory to harass the monks in various ways on the pretext of “gathering opinions” or “getting feedback.”
Since March 19, the monastery’s regular program of religious observances has been cancelled, and armed soldiers and police with dogs prowl around the monastery by night, aggressively beating monks.
International Campaign for Tibet reports that even burning incense is prohibited.
In early April, the Chinese authorities started building a barbed wire fence on the north side of the monastery, where the boundary wall does not extend.
It has been very difficult for the 2,500 monks to supply themselves with food, and they have been reduced to depending upon the barley flour and butter donated voluntarily by the laypeople. It is now reported, though, that authorities have prohibited the faithful local Tibetans from offering food to monks.
For the past few days, the village committees in Ngaba County have been calling public meetings to praise and celebrate the Communist Party.
As the government has sent many soldiers to enforce the clampdown on Ngaba county and Kirti monastery, the ordinary monks have so far remained calm, as they were instructed to do by the Lamas and monastery officials, but it is understood that 800 more troops arrived in Ngaba county on April 9, and if the situation continues to deteriorate, the outcome is hard to predict.
The History of Kirti Monastery
The monastery has a long history in the region. It was originally established in 1723 by Dangku Phuntsag and named Dangkugon Yugyal Samtenling; later Dangku Phuntsag gave the monastery to the 8th Kirti Rinpoche Lobsang Tinley, who moved and renamed it Kirti monastery in 1870.
Kirti Rinpoches have been running this monastery since then; it is home to over 2,500 monks. The monastery had established other institutions such as schools to benefit the people of the Ngaba region. However, local authorities shut these down.
Phuntsok’s Family and Fate
Phuntsok comes from a large family; his parents and grandmother are cared for by his elder brother, sister-in-law and their two children in the family home. Three of his brothers are also monks at Kirti. Phuntsok’s two older sisters are married and live with their families.
The Chinese press has been circulating their own stories about Phuntsok, trying to condemn his actions as both ‘counter revolutionary’ and ‘against Buddhism.’ Articles in Xinhua News quote lamas condemning his actions, saying, “Monks should obey religious disciplines and love Buddhism and the country.” Sources inside Tibet, though, have never heard of Lama who supposedly made this comment, nor his monastery. Other articles condemn the foreign media for reporting that the police beat Phuntsok as they put out the flames.
Phuntsok’s action was a direct result of the oppression within Tibet, and his aim was to draw international attention to this, in hopes the international community would stand together to call for change and action.
Author’s Note: I would like to extend heartfelt thanks to two wonderful friends and activists who made interviews, and direct reports from inside Tibet readily available for this article.
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Photo credit: Abhishek Madhukar
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