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The Terrified Monks

May 16, 2008

More than 200 monks at Labrang Monastery in Gansu Province were
arrested and beaten, the monks there said.
Nicholas D. Kristof, Op-Ed Columnist
The New York Times
May 15, 2008

XIAHE, China -- This is historical Tibet, a land of jutting
mountains, sculptures made of yak butter, and serene monks in red
robes spinning golden prayer wheels in ancient monasteries.

In the last couple of months, this greater Tibet has also become a
land of arsonist monks, armed troops and bloodied protesters. It's
not formally under martial law today, but that's what it amounts to,
and foreigners have been mostly kept away.

I sneaked through these Tibetan areas in Gansu and Qinghai Provinces,
eluding the troops by taking a local car with curtains pulled over
the windows, and it became clear that the recent anti-Chinese
protests spread across a larger area in traditional Tibet than is
sometimes realized. This was, in effect, a popular uprising against
Chinese rule throughout Tibetan areas, and the region is still seething.

Chinese citizens have been understandably outraged by anti-Chinese
rioting by Tibetans in Lhasa in March. Tibetans burned 1,000
Chinese-owned shops (a few with people inside them) and savagely
attacked or stoned ordinary Chinese citizens, even a child of about
10. The Dalai Lama and pro-Tibetan Westerners were far too leisurely
about condemning Tibetan brutality, and America came across as
hypocritical for apparent indifference when the victims in Tibet were Chinese.

Yet few will ever hear about the harsh crackdown unfolding here in
the ancient Tibetan region of Amdo. Although there was some rioting
here in Xiahe, and some attacks on the police and burning of police
vehicles elsewhere, most of the demonstrators were peaceful. But even
where protests were entirely peaceful, the repression has been merciless.

At Labrang Monastery in Xiahe, almost 10,000 feet high in the
mountains, more than 220 Buddhist monks were arrested and beaten,
local Tibetans said. The great majority have been released, but some
are still hospitalized because of injuries. Some monks are hiding in
the mountains, and they are all terrified.

"I was beaten for two hours with sticks, and kicked all over," said a
monk who was released after one night of imprisonment.

Last month, the Chinese authorities ushered a group of journalists
here on a tightly scripted tour to show that Labrang was calm ­ and
then 15 monks rushed up to the group. One was crying, and all said
that their human rights were being systematically violated.

After the reporters left, those who joined that peaceful protest were
imprisoned, beaten and in some cases subjected to electric shock
torture, the monks here say. That is impossible to confirm, and
Tibetan versions of events are sometimes exaggerated.

The Tibetans are desperate to get their stories out. One monk
initially was taken aback when I slipped into his lodgings one
evening. But when I confessed that I was an American journalist and
asked for his help, tears welled in his eyes and he took my hand and
kissed it and clutched it to his chest. At great risk to himself, he
then led me deep into the monastery complex to meet secretly with
several other monks.

One quoted the police as jeering at the monks during the beatings:
"The Dalai Lama, Western countries and the United States aren't
protecting you now. Tell them to come and save you!"

There is still a heavy police presence in these Tibetan areas, and in
the nearby town of Tongren, armed troops stood on alert on the main street.

"There won't be any more protests before the Olympics," one monk
said. "People are just too scared. The pressure is too great."

Communist Party rule has been good for Tibetans in a material sense.
Herdsmen now use motorcycles to round up their yaks, electricity and
satellite television are common, and education is spreading. Tibetans
are manifestly better off than in my previous visits, yet unhappiness
is growing along with incomes.

One herdsman in the hills served me yak butter tea in front of a
television and DVD player in his new home. His wife never went to
school, but his daughter is attending high school.

"Living standards have improved," the herdsman conceded, yet he had
joined the demonstrations against Chinese rule. His priority, he
said, wasn't wealth but freedom to worship the Dalai Lama.

When President Bush visits China for the Olympics ­ and he's right to
go, rather than boycott the Games, inflame Chinese nationalism and
bolster hard-liners ­ he should strongly encourage serious
negotiations between Beijing and the Dalai Lama. Mr. Bush should
also, in interviews with Chinese news media, note that allowing
protests is not a sign of weakness but of national self-confidence.

China is emerging as a great power in this century, and it is
famously concerned with saving face. But it loses far more face from
its own repression of Tibetans than from anything the Dalai Lama has
ever done.
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