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Lhasa's monks all but vanish in Chinese crackdown

by GEOFFREY YORK, The Globe and Mail, June 23, 2008

Severe restrictions, including checkpoints and surveillance, imposed since wave of anti-government protests in March, exiles say

LHASA, Tibet -- The pilgrims returned to the Potala Palace yesterday, spinning their prayer wheels and prostrating themselves in front of the Dalai Lama's ancient palace on a mountaintop in Lhasa.

<< Where are the monks in Lhasa?

For two days, the Buddhist pilgrims had been pushed to the sidelines to make room for the Olympic torch relay in Lhasa. The traditional pilgrimage route at the Potala Palace was unceremoniously shut down, in one of many security measures by Chinese authorities, even though a month-long Buddhist festival has drawn thousands of pilgrims to the Tibetan capital.

But as the pilgrims returned, a mystery remained: Where are Lhasa's monks? A visit yesterday to the Sera monastery, the second-biggest Buddhist monastery in Tibet, found that its 550 monks had virtually disappeared from sight. Most buildings and outdoor areas at the monastery were nearly empty, and only about 10 monks could be seen.

Three days of travel around Lhasa - the first permitted visit by a Canadian journalist since the Tibetan uprising in March - found that the monks were almost entirely gone from the city streets, even in the historic quarter around the Jokhang temple, the holiest temple in Tibetan Buddhism.
Two Chinese paramilitary policemen stand guard in front of people shouting 'Good Luck Beijing, Cheerio China' slogans during the start of the Beijing Olypic torch relay in Lhasa, Tibet, China on June 21, 2008.

Tibetan exiles, who have contacts in Lhasa, say the monks have been subjected to severe restrictions for most of the past three months, since the wave of anti-government protests that erupted in March.

"There are checkpoints and random checks of identification cards throughout Lhasa," said Tsering Shakya, a prominent Tibetan writer and professor at the University of British Columbia.

"There are police stationed at the exits of the monasteries, and they check the IDs and register them. It is deterring a lot of monks."

Lhasa residents are finding it difficult or impossible to phone the Sera monastery to reach relatives who are monks there, Mr. Shakya said. "It's a security measure. The monks were the most vocal in the protests, and they are the targets of the current campaign. They're under careful surveillance."

Lobsang Choepel, a 77-year-old monk who heads the government-controlled administration at the Sera monastery, denied there were any restrictions on the monks. "They can go downtown to do shopping and they can go to the market to buy vegetables," he said yesterday. But he didn't explain why so few monks were visible on the streets or in the monastery itself.

After giving brief answers to five questions from foreign journalists, the monk was hustled away by Chinese officials, who refused to permit further questions. They told the journalists to hurry to the next event on the government-sponsored visit. No other access to the monks was permitted, aside from a guided tour of the monastery's historical relics.

Sera monastery, whose monks helped lead the protests that began in Lhasa on March 10, has remained under tight security control since then. Several uniformed policemen were posted at the monastery's entrance yesterday, carrying radios.

China deployed a massive security operation in Lhasa on the weekend as it sent the Olympic flame on a two-hour dash through the city.

Invited guests were allowed into the opening and closing ceremonies, but most ordinary Tibetans were kept far away from the Olympic flame as it was carried on a shortened run through the Tibetan capital on Saturday morning.

Thousands of paramilitary police and regular police kept a close eye on the event, which passed without incident, despite government reports that Tibetan separatists were trying to sabotage it.

Much of the city, aside from the torch route, was almost deserted. Residents were told to stay inside their homes, unless they had a special pass allowing them to cheer for the torch. Hundreds of shops along the torch route were shuttered for the day. Tibetans who ventured outside were kept behind steel barriers on side streets.

A small group of foreign journalists, invited to attend the relay, were not permitted to see any of the nine-kilometre run, except the beginning and end. They had to pass through a barbed-wire checkpoint and other security checks before they were permitted to attend the opening ceremony.

At the end of the relay, the Olympic flame was greeted by a carefully choreographed display of ethnic dancing and rhythmic flag-waving from thousands of schoolchildren and other hand-picked spectators.

Chinese officials took advantage of the Olympic event to launch another verbal blast at the Dalai Lama, whom they blame for the unrest in Tibet.

"We will certainly be able to totally smash the splittist schemes of the Dalai Lama clique," Zhang Qingli, the hard-line boss of the Tibetan Communist Party, said in a speech to the crowd at the end of the torch relay. He spoke through an interpreter because he is not fluent in the Tibetan language.

His attack on the Dalai Lama was the latest sign that Beijing has no intention of negotiating seriously with the Tibetan spiritual leader, whose representatives held preliminary talks with Chinese officials last month. The second round of talks has been postponed at China's insistence.

Another senior Chinese official fired a fresh salvo at the Dalai Lama this weekend. "He has been hiding the truth from the Tibetan people," said Palma Trily, executive vice-chairman of the Tibetan regional government, at a press conference in Lhasa.

"His real aim is to turn Tibet back into a system of feudal serfdom. He has not brought any benefit to the Tibetan people in the past, nor will he bring them any benefit in the future."

Critics said the Chinese authorities had put Lhasa virtually under martial law. "With the way it has militarized the Tibetan capital, China might as well parade the Olympic torch through Lhasa atop a tank," said Han Shan, an activist with an exile group, Students for a Free Tibet.

Human-rights groups also were critical of the decision to parade the torch through the Tibetan capital. "This provocative decision - with the blessing of the International Olympic Committee - could aggravate tensions and undermine the fragile process to find a peaceful long-term solution for Tibet and the region," Sharon Hom, executive director of Human Rights in China, said in a statement.

"The government's insistence on parading the torch through Lhasa can only undermine the respect and trust required for a genuine dialogue process with the Dalai Lama."

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