There were numerous and severe abuses of religious freedom, including religious prisoners and detainees. Monasteries were increasingly forbidden to deliver traditional educational and medical services to the people of their communities, and official intimidation was used to compel acquiescence and preserve a facade of stability.
Since mid-March, authorities have carried out a prolonged and intense crackdown at Kirti Monastery in Sichuan Province’s Aba (Ngaba) T&QAP, where up to 1,000 local residents staged a peaceful demonstration to protest the violent beating by police of a Kirti monk named Phuntsog, who set himself on fire on March 16 (he died the next day). Authorities subsequently removed hundreds of monks from the monastery, forcing some to return to their hometowns. Several hundred monks who remained in the monastery were required to spend months in small-group indoctrination sessions led by approximately 100 government officials dispatched to the monastery for that purpose.
At least 12 reported self-immolations by Tibetan Buddhist clergy and laypersons occurred during the year. Eight of the 12 were affiliated with Kirti and other monasteries and nunneries located in Aba (Ngaba) T&QAP, where repression was ongoing and particularly intense. Of the remaining four self-immolations, three took place in Ganzi (Kardze) TAP, Sichuan Province, and one in the TAR. Many of the self-immolators were reported to have been clutching photos of the Dalai Lama and calling for religious freedom and the Dalai Lama’s return to Tibet as they set themselves alight. Security personnel reportedly beat, kicked, or otherwise physically abused some individuals as they burned. For example, according to sources cited by the U.S. nongovernmental organization (NGO) International Campaign for Tibet, after 17-year-old Kirti monk Kelsang Wangchuk set himself on fire on the main street of Aba (Ngaba) County Town, Aba (Ngaba) T&QAP, on October 3, he was quickly surrounded by authorities who extinguished the flames and beat him before removing him to an undisclosed location. Kelsang Wangchuk’s whereabouts remained unknown at year’s end.
On August 30, the official Xinhua News Agency reported the People’s Court of Ma’erkang (Barkham) County in Aba (Ngaba) T&QAP convicted three monks from Kirti Monastery of “intentional homicide” in connection with Phuntsog’s self-immolation in March. The court sentenced Tsering Tenzin and Tenchum to 13 and 10 years in prison, respectively, for allegedly instigating and assisting Phuntsog’s self-immolation. In a separate trial, another Kirti monk, Phuntsog’s uncle Drongdru, was sentenced to 11 years in prison on similar charges.
Official interference in monastic life and religious practice in Tibetan areas increased markedly during the year. “Patriotic education campaigns,” in which authorities forced monks and nuns to participate in “legal education,” denounce the Dalai Lama, study materials praising the leadership of the CCP and the socialist system, and express allegiance to the government-recognized 11th Panchen Lama, were carried out with renewed intensity and frequency at monasteries and nunneries across the Tibetan Plateau. The “innovative monastery management” system, which began permanently stationing government officials at monasteries in the TAR midyear, had spread to some monasteries in Tibetan areas of Sichuan province by the end of the year. Government-selected monks had primary responsibility for conducting patriotic education at each monastery. In some cases, the government established “official working groups” at monasteries, and religious affairs and public security officials personally led the patriotic education. Monks and nuns reported patriotic education campaigns detracted from their religious studies, and some fled their monasteries and nunneries because they faced expulsion for refusing to comply with the education sessions. The relentless implementation of patriotic education, coupled with strengthened controls over religious practice, including the permanent installation at some monasteries and nunneries of party and public security officials, are believed by many observers to be among the primary sources of discontent among Tibetan Buddhist monks and nuns, and the impetus behind such acts of protest as self-immolation.
The first reported case of house church persecution in the TAR occurred around the National Day holiday in early October. The U.S.-based NGO China Aid Association reported Lhasa authorities detained 11 members of a Protestant house church for nearly a month. During this time, authorities reportedly insulted and beat church members and confiscated a large number of Tibetan-language Bibles.
Based on information available from the political prisoner database of the U.S. Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC), as of September 1, 527 Tibetan political prisoners were imprisoned in Tibetan areas. The actual number of Tibetan political prisoners and detainees was believed to be much higher, but the lack of access to prisoners and prisons, as well as the dearth of reliable official statistics, made this impossible to determine. An unknown number of prisoners were held under the Reform Through Labor system, to which the Public Security Bureau (PSB) can commit people for up to two years without judicial review. Of the 527 Tibetan political prisoners tracked by the CECC, 483 were ethnic Tibetans detained on or after March 10, 2008, and 44 were Tibetans detained prior to March 10, 2008. Of the 483 Tibetan political prisoners who were detained on or after March 10, 2008, 264 were believed or presumed to be detained or imprisoned in Sichuan Province, 160 in the TAR, 23 in Gansu Province, 34 in Qinghai Province, one in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, and one in Beijing Municipality. There were 113 persons serving known sentences, which ranged from one-and-a-half years to life in prison; the average sentence length was seven years and two months. Of the 113 persons serving known sentences, 62 were monks, nuns, or Tibetan Buddhist teachers.
Many monks and nuns remained in detention due to their alleged involvement in the March 2008 unrest or other acts of protest in the years since. More than 80 nuns reportedly were detained in Sichuan Province after March 2008; their whereabouts remained unknown.
Limited access to information about prisoners and prisons made it difficult to ascertain the number of Tibetan prisoners of religious conscience, assess the extent and severity of abuses, or determine the charges brought against them.
In March a local court sentenced Reincarnate Lama Jangchub and Monk Pesang of Jophu Monastery, Jiangda (Jomda) County, Changdu (Chamdo) Prefecture, TAR, to prison terms of three years and two-and-one-half years, respectively, reportedly for their participation in demonstrations protesting government seizure of land belonging to the monastery.
Jigme Guri, a monk and former DMC deputy chairman from Labrang Monastery, Xiahe (Sangchu) County, Gannan (Kanlho) TAP, Gansu Province, was detained August 20 by police officers who reportedly raided his hotel room in Hezuo (Tsu) City, Gansu Province, seizing computer equipment and dozens of portraits of the Dalai Lama. In 2008 Jigme Guri recorded a YouTube video detailing abuses he allegedly suffered at the hands of prison officials during previous detentions. By his own account, the prison beatings left him unconscious for six days and required two hospitalizations. At year’s end, Jigme Guri remained in detention and the charges against him were unknown.
Jamyang Jinpa, a monk from Labrang Monastery who had been detained in 2008 for protesting against and refusing to participate in compulsory “patriotic education,” died April 3 reportedly of injuries suffered during severe beatings and torture inflicted by local security forces at the time of his detention.
As many as 300 monks from Sichuan Province’s Kirti Monastery were reportedly detained in connection with their alleged participation in protests that followed the self-immolation of monk Phuntsog on March 16, and while several were formally charged, convicted, and/or sentenced, the whereabouts of many others remained unknown. On May 2, the Aba (Ngaba) County People’s Court sentenced Kirti monks Lobsang Dhargye and Kunchok Tsultrim to three-year prison terms, reportedly for the crime of inciting splitting of the state. Another Kirti monk, Lobsang Rinchen, was reportedly detained May 9; his whereabouts and the charges against him were unknown. On May 19, Chinese authorities arrested Kirti monk Lobsang Choephel, reportedly for failing to follow orders during a “patriotic education” session. His whereabouts were unknown at year’s end.
Karma Monastery in Gama (Karma) Township, Changdu (Chamdo) Prefecture, TAR, was the target of increasingly stifling official pressure during the year. Early in the year, RAB and UFWD officials began forcing Karma monks to comply with onerous religious licensing requirements, requiring them to obtain “religious venue,” “legal representative,” “religious teacher,” and “reincarnate lama” licenses. Karma monks reportedly refused to comply with the requirement, rejecting the licenses as irrelevant to the practice of their religion. An unoccupied “party activities center” that had recently been built to accommodate “patriotic and legal education” sessions for residents of Gama Township was bombed on October 26. According to the overseas NGO Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy (TCHRD), local officials held Karma Monastery monks responsible for the building’s destruction and subsequently subjected them to detention, surveillance, and harassment. On October 29, two Karma Monastery abbots and seven monks were reportedly arrested for refusing to denounce the Dalai Lama or to cooperate with patriotic education at the monastery. A former Karma Monastery monk, Tenzin Phuntsog, died on December 6, five days after setting himself on fire, reportedly to express solidarity with local monks.
There were continued reports that the government detained Tibetans seeking to cross the border from Tibet to Nepal for religious purposes. Such detentions reportedly lasted as long as several months and sometimes took place without formal charges. Some Tibetans who returned from Nepal reportedly suffered torture while incarcerated or otherwise in official custody, including electric shock, exposure to cold, and severe beatings, as well as being forced to perform heavy physical labor. Security forces routinely subjected prisoners to “political investigation” sessions and punished them if they were deemed insufficiently loyal to the state. According to TCHRD, on July 5 local security officials interrogated monks at Dargye Monastery in Sichuan’s Ganzi (Kardze) TAP, paying particular attention to monks who had been to India. Monks Lobsang Choejor and Jampa Wangchug, each of whom had spent several years studying at Tibetan Buddhist monasteries in India, were reportedly removed from their monastery and placed in detention at the Ganzi County Detention Center. It was not known whether formal charges had been brought against them.
Although authorities permitted many traditional religious ceremonies and practices during the year, including public manifestations of religious belief, they rigorously confined most religious activities to officially designated places of worship, often restricted or canceled religious festivals, forbade monks from traveling to villages to conduct religious ceremonies, and maintained tight control over the activities of religious leaders and religious gatherings of laypeople. The government suppressed religious activities it viewed as vehicles for political dissent or advocacy of Tibetan independence.
The government stated there were no limits on the number of monks in major monasteries and that each monastery’s DMC could decide independently how many monks the monastery could support. In practice, however, the government imposed strict limits on the number of monks in major monasteries, particularly in the TAR and Sichuan’s Ganzi (Kardze) TAP. One method used by local authorities to restrict the growth of the number of monks in some monasteries was to impose restrictions on the construction of new housing in a monastery, requiring that each dwelling bear an address plate issued by the local government. Local RABs also frequently refused to issue official clergy permits or monk permits.
The number of Tibetan Buddhist monks and nuns in monasteries and nunneries fluctuated significantly, due in part to religious personnel leaving their monasteries and nunneries to avoid government-imposed “patriotic education” and “legal education” campaigns, forced denunciations of the Dalai Lama, and other acts they felt constituted a betrayal of their religious beliefs. Authorities in the TAR and other Tibetan areas tightened enforcement of long-standing regulations forbidding monasteries and nunneries from accepting individuals under the age of 18 for training.
The government reportedly continued to remove from monasteries and nunneries monks under the age of 18, unregistered monks and nuns, and monks and nuns who came from other areas. Nevertheless, unregistered monks under the age of 18 remained in residence at some monasteries.
Monasteries were prohibited from operating schools, although some continued to do so. Children were removed from schools attached to monasteries and enrolled in public schools or provided no alternative arrangements. During the year, local authorities frequently pressured parents, especially those who were CCP members or government employees, to withdraw their children from monasteries in their hometowns, private schools attached to monasteries, or Tibetan schools in India. In some cases local authorities confiscated identity documents of parents whose children were studying at Tibetan schools in India as a means of forcing the parents to return their children to China. In the absence of such documents, the parents risked losing their jobs.
In March 2010 newly appointed TAR Chairman Pema Choling (Baima Chilin) called the Dalai Lama, venerated by most Tibetan Buddhists as a spiritual leader, “the most important cause of instability in Tibet.” On March 10, the 52nd anniversary of the 1959 Tibetan uprising, the Dalai Lama announced he was relinquishing his formal political position in the Tibetan exile community. He maintained his role as a spiritual leader to Tibetan Buddhists inside and outside China.
Some government officials maintained there was no law against possessing or displaying pictures of the Dalai Lama, but rather that most Tibetans chose not to do so. However, multiple sources reported open veneration of the Dalai Lama remained prohibited and that officials, who considered the images to be symbols of opposition to the CCP and the state, removed pictures of the Dalai Lama from monasteries and private homes. The government also continued to ban pictures of Gedun Choekyi Nyima, whom the Dalai Lama and the overwhelming majority of Tibetan Buddhists recognize as the 11th Panchen Lama. The Implementing Regulations state, “religious personnel and religious citizens may not distribute books, pictures, or other materials that harm the unity of the nationalities or endanger state security.” Some officials deemed photos of and books by or about the Dalai Lama and Gedun Choekyi Nyima to be materials that violated the Implementing Regulations.
Nevertheless, many Tibetans displayed photos of the Dalai Lama and Gedun Choekyi Nyima in their homes, in lockets, and on cellular telephones. The ability of Tibetans to display the Dalai Lama’s picture varied regionally and with the political climate. In Tibetan areas outside the TAR, visitors saw pictures of the Dalai Lama prominently displayed in private homes, shops, and monasteries, although monks reported they would temporarily remove such photos during inspections by officials from the local RAB or other agencies.
The prohibition against celebrating the Dalai Lama’s birthday on July 6 was enforced during the year. Authorities in many Tibetan areas confiscated or defaced photographs of the spiritual leader in monasteries and private residences.
Authorities prohibited the registration of names for children that included one or more of the names of the Dalai Lama or certain names included on a list of blessed names approved by the Dalai Lama.
Since the unrest in March 2008, monks and nuns in several Tibetan areas reported they were not permitted to leave their home monasteries. Restrictions on the movement and travel of monastic personnel hindered their access to opportunities for advanced religious education. Such restrictions, together with regulations on the transfer of religious resources between monasteries, also weakened the strong traditional ties between large monasteries in the TAR and affiliated monasteries in other Tibetan areas.
Authorities closely supervised the education of young reincarnate lamas approved by the government. The education of the current Reting Rinpoche, who was born on October 3, 1997, differed significantly from that of his predecessors. Historically, the Reting Rinpoche occasionally acted as the regent and had a role in the recognition of the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama. For the current Reting Rinpoche, government officials, rather than religious leaders, managed the selection of his religious and lay tutors – a major deviation from the traditional custom.
Tibetan Buddhist monks reported government restrictions on the ability of monks to travel and conduct exchanges with other monasteries severely damaged the quality of monastic education. In addition, many experienced teachers were in exile in India and elsewhere, older teachers were not replaced, educated young monks were not promoted due to lack of political credentials, and those who remained in Tibetan areas outside the TAR had difficulty securing permission to teach in other parts of China, abroad, or even within the TAR. Many monks who were expelled from their Lhasa monasteries after March 2008 have not returned. The heads of most major schools of Tibetan Buddhism – including the Karmapa, Sakya Trizin, and Gyalwa Menri Trizin – all resided in exile and maintained close ties with the Dalai Lama. The Karmapa, leader of Tibetan Buddhism’s Karma Kagyu school and one of its most influential religious figures, stated he left because the government controlled his movements and refused to allow him to go to India to be trained by his spiritual mentors or allow his teachers to come to him. According to sources, the overall number of monks and nuns in monasteries and nunneries remained at significantly lower levels than before the unrest of March 2008.
In recent years DMCs at several large monasteries began to use funds from the sale of entrance tickets or pilgrims’ donations – and, in some cases, from government-controlled DMC-run hotels, shops, and restaurants – for purposes other than the support of monks engaged in full-time religious study under the government policy of monastery self-sufficiency. According to sources, although local government policies designed to attract tourists to religious sites have provided some monasteries with extra income, such activities also interfered with and deflected time and energy from the monasteries’ provision of traditional services, such as religious instruction and education, community medical care, and the performance of religious rites and ceremonies for the local Tibetan community.
Spiritual leaders reportedly encountered difficulty reestablishing historical monasteries in rural areas, due in part to government denials of permission to build and operate religious institutions. Officials in some areas contended these religious venues drained local resources and served as a conduit for political infiltration by the Tibetan exile community. However, in some areas, the government restored monasteries to promote tourism and boost revenue.
Security forces continued to block access to and from important monasteries, including those in the Lhasa area of the TAR and in Sichuan Province’s Aba (Ngaba) T&QAP and Ganzi (Kardze) TAP. A heavy police presence within and surrounding the monasteries restricted the movement of monks and prevented “unauthorized” visits, including those by foreign diplomats, journalists, and other observers.
According to policy, government-subsidized housing units in Tibetan areas were constructed at new village sites located near county government seats or along major roads, which, in practical terms, often resulted in there being no nearby monasteries where newly resettled villagers could worship. Traditionally, Tibetan villages were clustered around monasteries, which provided religious and other services to members of the community. Many Tibetans saw such measures as illustrative of party and government efforts to dilute religious belief and weaken the ties between monasteries and the people they serve.
Many Tibetans, including monks and nuns, sought to travel to India for such religious purposes as seeking an audience with the Dalai Lama, an important rite for Tibetan Buddhists, or continuing their studies with key Tibetan Buddhist religious leaders and teachers. Some Tibetans traveled to India to join religious communities and escape the increased controls over religious practice being implemented at monasteries and nunneries in Tibetan areas. In many cases, PSB officials refused to approve the passport applications of Tibetans, even though citizens from other ethnic groups were able to receive passports from the same offices without undue delays. This was particularly true for Tibetan Buddhist religious personnel. Some attributed the passport restrictions to an official effort to hinder travel for religious purposes.
There were also instances in which authorities confiscated previously issued passports of Tibetans. In some cases, high-ranking religious figures were able to obtain a passport only after promising not to travel to India. In other cases, Tibetans were only able to obtain passports after paying substantial bribes to local officials. However, during the year, hundreds of Tibetans, including monks and nuns, managed to travel to India via third countries, with many ultimately seeking refugee status. Some Tibetans who traveled to India were reportedly subject to lengthy interrogations by Chinese PSB officials upon return. Sources reported that on the Tibet-Nepal border, the government increased its border patrols to prevent Tibetans from crossing the frontier without permission, and some alleged the Chinese government exerted pressure on the government of Nepal to forcibly return Tibetan refugees.
The whereabouts of Gedun Choekyi Nyima, recognized by the Dalai Lama and the vast majority of Tibetans as the 11th Panchen Lama, remained unknown. The government refused requests by international observers to visit Gedun Choekyi Nyima, who turned 22 years old on April 25, and asserted that his identification as the 11th Panchen Lama was “illegal.” At a March 2010 press conference, TAR Chairman Pema Choling said Gedun Choekyi Nyima and his family were “reluctant to be disturbed” and wanted to live “an ordinary life.” The government continued to insist Gyaltsen Norbu, whom it selected in 1995, was the Panchen Lama’s 11th reincarnation. According to numerous Tibetan Buddhist monks in China, UFWD and RAB officials frequently pressured monks to attend sessions presided over by Gyaltsen Norbu, who also conducted prayer services in Yushu (Yulshul) TAP, Qinghai Province, following the April 2010 earthquake. In August Gyaltsen Norbu, who lives in Beijing, made a highly publicized 13-day tour of monasteries in Gansu Province, including a stay at Labrang Monastery in Xiahe (Sangchu) County, Gannan (Kanlho) TAP. According to a report in the official Xinhua News Agency, Gyaltsen Norbu “reminded local Buddhists to abide by the law, uphold national unity, and conduct themselves in accordance with Buddhist doctrines.”
The government did not provide any information on Lama Chadrel Rinpoche, who reportedly remained under house arrest for leaking information about the selection of the Panchen Lama.
The government severely restricted contact between several important reincarnate lamas and the outside world. For example the 11th Pawo Rinpoche, whom the 17th Karmapa recognized in 1994, remained under official supervision at Nenang Monastery in the TAR. Foreign delegations have repeatedly been refused permission to visit him.
Sources reported security personnel targeted individuals in monastic attire for arbitrary questioning and other forms of harassment on the streets of Lhasa and other cities and towns. Many Tibetan monks and nuns chose to wear non-religious garb to avoid such harassment when traveling outside their monasteries and around China. Several Tibetan monks reported it remained difficult to travel outside their home monasteries, with officials frequently denying permission for outside monks to stay temporarily at a particular monastery for religious education.