Draconian Sentences For Tibetan Monks After Monastery Raid

A new Human Rights Watch Report on the secret trials of four Tibetan monks has shed light on repression in Tibet. At The Guardian, Helen Davidson summarized HRW’s report on the raid against a small monastery in the foothills of Mount Everest and the charges leveled against the monks:

Four Tibetan monks were sentenced to up to 20 years jail in secret trials with no apparent evidence of criminal wrongdoing after a violent raid on a monastery in 2019, according to a report from Human Rights Watch, which calls for their release.

The raid, details of which the rights organisation says have come to light for the first time, was sparked by police obtaining a phone, accidentally left at a cafe, containing WeChat messages to people in Nepal and evidence of a donation to an earthquake relief effort.

[…] Four monks; Choegyal Wangpo, Lobsang Jinpa, Norbu Dondrup, and Ngawang Yesh, were detained for more than a year before being tried in secret, on undisclosed charges, in the Shigatse intermediate people’s court, and sentenced to “unprecedented” terms of 20, 19, 17 and five years in prison. HRW found no evidence the monks’ families had received sentencing documents, or that the defendants were allowed independent legal counsel. [Source]

The Human Rights Watch report describes the Tengdro monastery incident as a “perfect storm” involving Party loyalty campaigns, tightening internet regulations, and overlapping bureaucracies. Tibetan Buddhists are increasingly expected to ardently proclaim their love for the Party: one Lhasa monk recently told reporters that Xi Jinping, not the Dalai Lama, is his spiritual leader. New regulations have targeted previously tolerated financial and other contacts between Tibetans within the PRC and those living abroad. Finally, a number of bureaucracies have overlapping national security jurisdictions, leading to cascading repression as each strives to fend off potential accusations of laxity from higher authorities. Excerpts from Human Rights Watch’s 61-page report on the Tengdro incident show how these factors triggered the suicide of one monk and draconian sentences against four others for non-violent offenses of unclear criminality:

Immediately after the raid, a team of cadres began holding daily political education sessions with monks from the monastery and the village residents. The education sessions focused initially on “Loving the Nation, Loving Religion” and on “opposing separatism.” During the sessions, the cadres made statements denouncing the Dalai Lama.

Three days later, at 8 a.m. on September 7, 2019, just an hour before the daily political education meeting was due to start, the Tengdro monk Lobsang Zoepa took his own life. It is not known how he died or whether he left a note, but his death appears to have been a protest against the treatment by police and cadres of his fellow monks, family members, and other villagers. Close contacts say that Lobsang Zoepa, besides being beaten during both the raid and then during interrogation, had been forced along with other villagers and monks to attend the daily political education sessions meetings following the raid. These contacts also reported that cadres had shouted at and abused Lobsang Zoepa during those meetings.

[…] Known as “the ‘Twenty Prohibitions’ on Network Communication Activities” in the TAR, these banned any online content involving “activities to subvert the country, undermine national unity, and overthrow the socialist system” or any use of “network communication tools to fabricate and disseminate information such as provoking ethnic relations, [and] creating ethnic contradictions.” The “Twenty Prohibitions” focused particularly on communications abroad, banning online users who “provide information to domestic and foreign organizations, institutions, or individuals” that “has not been [previously] disclosed by the state” (article 4) or who “collect, produce, download, store, publish, and disseminate information that subverts the country, undermines national unity, and overthrows the socialist system” (article 5). According to one unconfirmed exile report, at the same time the document was issued in February 2019, the TAR authorities were offering rewards of up to 300,000 yuan (about $45,000) for reports by members of the public on illegal online activities.

[…] Such anxiety on the part of officials is due partly to the fact that, in Tibet particularly, security is not an issue limited to officials in public security or national security departments: all cadres at every level and in every agency have the responsibility to identify and counter threats to national security and social stability. In addition, the Tengdro case involved overlapping areas of policy and administration—not just the management of online communications, but also the management of monasteries, transnational funding flows, border security, and other issues. Officials from numerous departments would thus have been involved in the case, including, among others, the Public Security Bureau, the State Security Bureau, the United Front Work Department, the Religious Affairs Bureau, the TAR Internet Affairs Office, and the Internet Management Department within the Public Security Bureau. The various Party Committees charged with oversight of these agencies at the four levels of administration—township, county, prefecture, and region—would have faced particular scrutiny, not to mention the village- resident and monastery-resident cadre teams stationed in Dranak and in Tengdro monastery. Officials in all these agencies were obliged to identify security threats in advance, and would have come under pressure to explain why they had not done so in the Tengdro case. [Source]

A massive drive to develop Tibet’s economy has taken place alongside broader efforts to “Sinicize” the region. While the push has brought undeniable economic growth—Tibet’s GDP grew by 7.8% in 2020, the highest growth rate in all of China—many observers are concerned that it comes at the expense of Tibet’s rich cultural heritage. The promise and pitfalls of economic development may be best represented by Tibet’s first bullet train line, which opened on June 25. The line connects Lhasa to Nyingchi and will eventually extend to Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan. Global Times claimed the line will become a driving force in Tibet’s economic development, especially tourism. In 2020, Tibet received 35 million tourists, ten times the region’s 3.5 million population. A government campaign to rewrite history has been part of the push to make Tibet a tourist destination. From Mark Schiefelbein and Sam McNeil of The AP:

Millions of visitors come to Tibet every year, with 2020 seeing a 12.6% increase from the previous year, according to Ge Lei, deputy director of the China Tourism Marketing Association.

He said he expects the amount of visitors to roughly double by 2026 — a glut of visitors that far exceeds Tibet’s population of 3.5 million people. He said that means caution is needed to protect the environment and culture.

[…] The tourism sector reinforces government propaganda, said Emily Yeh, a professor of geography at the University of Colorado Boulder. The ruling Communist Party says it liberated hundreds of thousands of serfs when it overthrew the theocracy in 1951 and has since brought economic development to the high plateau that borders the Himalayas.

“Rewriting of history is very much a part of the tourism landscape,” Yeh said. [Source]

In an interview with the AFP, Tibet expert Robert Barnett provided his perspective on the costs of the tourist economy:

Tourism in Tibet fits with one of China’s key aims — poverty alleviation — but also, experts warn, follows a pattern of co-opting and reshaping outlying areas with a history of resistance to Beijing’s rule.

[…] “The cultural degradation that is involved in this case of hyper-managed mass tourism spectacle is very worrying,” said Robert Barnett of the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London.

“It’s hard to identify though, since of course there is benefit for Tibetans in that trade; what is harder to quantify is the damage.” [Source]

The Tibetan government-in-exile hopes to engage Beijing on questions of cultural preservation. Tibetan language classes have been pared back in the region and advocates for its promotion have been jailed. During an interview with the AP’s Ashwini Bhatia, the new president of Tibet’s government-in-exile, Penpa Tsering, said that he hopes to work with the Chinese government to protect Tibetan culture:

Penpa Tsering, the former speaker of Tibet’s parliament-in-exile, was sworn in last month as president in Dharmsala, where the Dalai Lama has lived since he fled Tibet after a failed uprising against Chinese rule in 1959.

He said China should take “a middle-way approach” that would give autonomy to Tibetans allowing them to protect their culture and language, without full independence.

[…] “The language is very important but today it has become something only taught in a language class. All other subjects at school are taught in Chinese, and the Chinese leaders are not even following a two-language system in which you give equal weight to both languages. That, as well as the government policy of not publishing official documents in Tibetan, is striking at the very root of Tibetan existence. If our language goes, the religion will also go away slowly.” [Source]

Relations may founder over the Dalai Lama, whom the Chinese government claims is a terrorist. At Reuters, Sanjeev Miglani reported that India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi was among the world leaders extending birthday wishes to the Dalai Lama this week—an indication of rising tensions between China and India:

Indian leaders have generally been circumspect about public contact to avoid upsetting Beijing, but with India’s own relations with China at a low ebb, Modi said in a tweet he had passed on his best wishes personally.

[…] Chinese troops seized Tibet in 1950 in what Beijing calls a “peaceful liberation”, and the Dalai Lama fled into exile and made the hillside town of Dharamshala his headquarters after a failed uprising against Chinese rule in 1959.

[…] Back in 2019, when Modi was still pursuing a detente with Chinese President Xi Jinping, his government had asked Tibetans in India not to hold a rally to mark the 60th anniversary of the uprising. [Source]


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