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"As long as human rights are violated, there can be no foundation for peace. How can peace grow where speaking the truth is itself a crime?"

Caught between India and China, monks' protest on Tibet silenced

June 7, 2008

India cites geopolitics, but the monks say the fight is not about a
piece of land but its culture, identity
Priyanka P. Narain (India)
June 5, 2008

Tawang Monastery, Arunachal Pradesh -- A white flag bearing the
words, "One world. One Dream. Stop human rights violations in Tibet,"
flaps desolately in the gray stone courtyard of a monastery, 500km
east of Lhasa, the capital of Tibet. Hemmed by the Himalayas in
India, this is the second largest Tibetan monastery in the world and
one of the only places left where the practice of Tibetan Buddhism
has never broken. But beyond the fluttering flag, there are few signs
of protest. Most, after all, have been silenced.

Inside, young boys chant and pray for peace at the feet of a 50ft
Buddha statue, brought here from Tibet 300 years ago. The boys, bored
by the monotony of prayers, sometimes playfully jostle each other as
the priests look on with anguish but don't rebuke.

In this remote place that serves as home to the Monpas, a tribe whose
name means people from the south, monks say they cannot protest for
Tibet's freedom because they are caught between two squabbling giants
protecting a prized possession: this monastery. It is the only
remaining unbroken tradition, the last memory of an unmolested Tibet.

China claims to be the rightful owner of this land of "lower Tibet"
where the monastery stands because the culture here is largely
Tibetan. India, on the other hand, has responded by protecting the
cultural identity of tribes, setting up a large army base and is
asserting its control by building new roads, hospitals and hydropower
projects in the district. However, India says the geopolitics here
are sensitive and discourages pro-Tibet protests here, fearing that
the Chinese may use them to validate their claims.

Even as monks say they cannot bear the tales and photos emerging from
Tibet, they cannot protest because it may harm India, the country
that has protected them. Worse, if the protests backfire and the
Chinese come calling, they fear the same fate as their Tibetan brethren.

In April, when the world was protesting for Tibet, the monks say they
also decided to march against Chinese occupation of Tibet, but the
Indian government came down hard and fast on them. The district
commissioner (DC) of Tawang, T.T. Gamdik, called in the police forces
and ordered them to fire tear gas on the protesters. When the crowd
dispersed, they had marched no more than half a kilometre. Gamdik
disputed this account in an interview, and said the head monk had
actually blocked the road in protest.

"The thought keeps us awake at night. What will happen if the Chinese
come? Every time they claim Tawang, a stone slips in my stomach. If
the Indian government does not reply back, we get more worried. We
have to save our culture and ourselves in India. For that, we cannot
protest for our Tibetan brothers who are suffering there every day.
It makes me feel very selfish. It is a cruel situation for us," said
Lama Tsering, a 55-year-old monk who lives in the monastery here.

Earlier in April, when the global protests against Chinese occupation
of Tibet peaked, the head monk, Tengay Rinpoche, asked the
commissioner of Tawang for permission to the march in the town. "He
did not give it to us. We still left, thinking it will not be a
problem because it was only a peaceful march. We didn't think we
would be stopped because we only wanted to show our support for
Tibetans in Tibet," said Rinpoche, speaking through an interpreter.
About 2,000 people gathered at the monastery gates and they had
barely left when a barricade of army vehicles and the district
commissioner himself stopped them.

Ancient tradition: A 50f Buddha statue at Tawang Monastery. It is the
second largest Tibetan monastery in the world and one of the only
places left where the practice of Tibetan Buddhism has never been
broken. Photograph: Indranil Bhoumik / Mint

Ancient tradition: A 50f Buddha statue at Tawang Monastery. It is the
second largest Tibetan monastery in the world and one of the only
places left where the practice of Tibetan Buddhism has never been
broken. Photograph: Indranil Bhoumik / Mint

When the protesters refused to follow orders and turn around, the
police fired tear gas. "It was like breathing fire," said Lama Urgen
Tsering, who swallowed the curling white smoke. In the confusion, the
crowd tried to press on towards the barricade. Tsering said that
while trying to stop the surging crowd, Rinpoche fell down on the
road and injured himself. The crowd suddenly stopped, helped him up
and the protest came to a sudden end.

Rinpoche confirmed his injury, and explained that "the lamas were
very, very angry. I had to stop them. Even the government should have
been peaceful in trying to stop the rally. There was no need to use
tear gas. Using violence is not the answer. Even the district
commissioner should not be angry. We were only talking about human
rights abuses in Tibet. That's all. But this is such a political
issue here. So we cannot express out sadness here. We cannot express
our fears."

The commissioner says it is not true and in fact, the Rinpoche "slept
on the road and refused to get up." Defending his decision to fire
tear gas at the crowd, he said he feared "violence' and he was only
defending India's strategy in the region. "China is claiming this
land as southern Tibet because the Tawang monastery is here, because
the sixth Dalai Lama was born here. If we allow protests here, it
will validate their claim and can lead to trouble between India and
China. We want to avoid that. We don't want to give China any reason
to start demanding this land again," Gamdik said.

S. Chandrashekharan, director of South Asia Analysis Group (SAAG), a
non-profit think-tank that does strategic analysis of security
issues, says this Indian strategy does not make any sense. "Tawang is
fully under Indian control. Border negotiations are at a standstill
and there are only rhetorical statements being made by China. Where
is the question of China claiming it? This is our country and people
can protest, as they will. If anything, it might be a law and order
issue, certainly not a political problem."

Following the showdown, Rinpoche, who has led the monastery for 12
years, has filed his resignation papers at the office of the Dalai
Lama. "He has accepted my resignation and I will leave from here this
month." He made these comments in April.

While the protests have ended, the wish to march has not. Sitting in
his Tibetan style home with colourful wall motifs, Tsewang Dhondup, a
former member of legislature and founder of the Indo-Tibet Friendship
Society, tried to explain why protesting is so important by
recounting the day he received a young Dalai Lama, fleeing from the
Chinese, at India's border.

"I was there, the day he came. He looked so young and lost. I cried
that day. I vowed to put him back on his golden seat," he said. He
says there are many like him, who have waited 50 years, waited for
the right time.

"Now it has come. Now the whole world has risen to protest what is
happening in Tibet. Now we have hope. And they want us to keep quiet?
After waiting so long?" he asks.

The refrain is recurring in these mountains. "All we want is to be
able to express our solidarity with Tibet. They let protests happen
everywhere but not here. This is not a question about a piece of land
called Tibet. It is a question of its culture, heritage and identity.
Here sentiments are much higher than any other place in the country.
 From here, we can see Tibet across the border. I cannot tell you how
hurt people here are," said Burang Lama, a member of the Indo-Tibetan
Friendship Society. "We were protesting that China does not let
Tibetans speak. Turns out, even we cannot," he concludes. Shaking his
head, he pointed towards the end of the winding road where a
milestone read: Lhasa. 500 km.

Lama said sadly, "We are so close. We are still so far."
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