“In Occupied Tibetan Monastery, a Reason for Fiery Deaths”

Edward Wong has a good piece in the NYT on Kirti Monastery, explaining why this particular place has become the center of Tibetan resistance this year:

Chinese paramilitary units are now posted on every block of the town of Ngaba, and Kirti is under lockdown. Journalists are barred from entering the monastery, which has made the question of how Kirti became the volcanic heart of this eruption of self-immolations something of a mystery.

But monks and laypeople from Ngaba who have fled across the Himalayas to this Indian hill town said that Kirti had been radicalized in the last four years by an occupation of the monastery that amounted to one of the harshest crackdowns in Tibet. Chinese security measures have converted the white-walled monastery, with its temples and dormitories and rows of prayer wheels, into a de facto prison, which has fueled the anger that the measures are aimed at containing.

The Ngaba exiles here say the security measures imposed on the town and the monastery have been extreme, even by the standards of Chinese control in Tibet. In 2008, during a Tibet-wide uprising, security forces shot protesters in Ngaba with live ammunition, killing at least 10 civilians, including one monk, according to reports by advocacy groups and photographs of corpses that had been brought to Kirti. It was one of the most violent events of the uprising, and anger and alienation set in among local Tibetans. Officials tightened security.

In February 2009, in the town’s market area, a young man from Kirti self-immolated, the first monk to do so in modern Tibetan history. The monk, named Tapey, survived, and officials stepped up surveillance of Kirti. In March 2011, the next self-immolation occurred: Phuntsog, 20, set fire to himself on the same street in the market, which locals now call Hero’s Road.

Local Tibetans say the heavy-handed reaction of the authorities in the six months after that event backfired, encouraging the self-immolations to continue. Chinese officials ordered the People’s Armed Police to surround the monastery; built a wall to cut off a rear entrance; banned all religious activities; smashed photographs of the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader; forced monks to attend patriotic re-education sessions; cut off Internet access; and barred pilgrims from entering. They also took away 300 monks in a nighttime raid; many of them have not returned.

“The most uncomfortable thing was seeing soldiers pointing guns at you but not shooting at you,” said Lobsang, who recently arrived here and agreed to speak on the condition that only his first name be used. “This has been daily life since 2008. For myself, I’d rather get shot than to have them pointing the guns at me every day, 24 hours a day.”

Two days before his self-immolation in 2009, Tapey was walking among military trucks and kicking them.

“He was intentionally trying to provoke the soldiers,” Lobsang said. “I asked myself, ‘What happened? What’s wrong with him?’ That day he was really different, and in his eyes I could see how he hated the military.”

On Feb. 27, 2009, a high lama told a gathering of monks that Kirti had to comply with official orders to cancel an important prayer ceremony scheduled for that day. Tapey set himself on fire in the marketplace half an hour later, having left a note saying he would kill himself if the government banned the ceremony, Lobsang said.

One day in September, after officials had eased some restrictions on Kirti, two monks raced through the marketplace at noon, their robes aflame. One held up the banned Tibetan snow lion flag. Before collapsing, one of the monks, Lobsang Kelsang, a younger brother of Phuntsog’s, shouted, “We are the accused.”

The event was described by a witness who arrived in Dharamsala this spring. “Because of unfair judgments, oppressive policies and discrimination, because of all those things, the Tibetan people feel isolated,” he said. “The self-immolations are not the end. This is only the beginning.”

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Filed under ethnic conflict, Self-Immolation Crisis, Tibet

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