Philip Wen, The Sydney Morning Herald, February 18, 2012
STEPPING foot on the main street in the small town of Aba, you cannot shake the ominous feeling that your every move is being watched.
Heavily armed police are set up at every intersection. Security personnel holding spiked clubs stand guard beside army trucks full of soldiers in riot gear. Roadblocks cut off the town at both ends, with every vehicle entering and leaving the town closely monitored and identity cards routinely checked.
Even low-level government officials more accustomed to pushing paper have been mobilised. Wearing red armbands emblazoned with the Chinese characters for ”on duty”, they sit on stools by the road in groups of three or four for hours on end, ordered simply to keep watch.
Nestled in the heart of Sichuan’s mountainous north, Aba is the epicentre of the intensifying unrest sweeping through the Tibetan regions spanning China’s remote western reaches. Since last March, at least 21 ethnic Tibetans, mostly Buddhist monks, have set fire to themselves to protest against what they say has been a systematic persecution of their religious freedom by the Chinese government. More than half of the self-immolations have taken place in Aba.
Last month, police shot and killed at least seven people and wounded 60 in protests in nearby Luhuo and Seda, which coincided with the Chinese Spring Festival. The level of dissent has since intensified despite an even heavier police and military presence. Seven Tibetans have self-immolated in the past two weeks alone, including three from Aba.
”Someone set themselves on fire again a couple of days ago,” Yishi Dorje, a business owner in Aba, told the Herald. ”There have been too many happening lately. Every day we sigh, and our hearts are heavy.”
The town’s symbolic Kirti monastery now resembles a military camp. Army trucks loaded with soldiers are stationed outside. Soldiers are permanently based in the monastery itself. The number of monks at the monastery has fallen from more than 2000 four years ago to about 600, after most were forced from the monastery by authorities.
Those who remain at Kirti are monitored constantly. Each monk is watched around the clock, usually by junior-level public servants who even sleep in the monks’ quarters.
One public servant said she would likely have been assigned the unenviable task if she was not female, and said her male colleague desperately disliked the amount of intrusion and disrespect it showed the monks. ”He doesn’t want to have to do it. He’s Tibetan himself,” she said. ”He wanted to quit but wasn’t allowed.”
A 25-year-old student at Lanzhou Normal University said scenes in Aba were replicated in his home town of Luhuo. He said more than 100 in the town, mainly nomad villagers, had been arrested following January 23 protests. He said many other families had been forced to flee their homes and had been living in the forests to evade arrest and possible torture.
”People are angry and scared but also very disappointed that they cannot do anything more because of the many soldiers in the town,” he said over the phone.
The self-immolations have resulted in the cancellation of celebrations for Losar, the Tibetan new year festival, across monasteries and villages in Tibetan areas of Sichuan, Qinghai and Gansu.
As well as the accelerating rate of protests, the locations of recent self-immolations also appear to be spreading wider. Three laypeople reportedly set themselves on fire in a remote nomad village, in an apparent show of solidarity. Chinese state media has rejected these reports.
”The sympathy movement with the places that have seen the crackdown means you’re getting a second ring of responses to a core group of monks who immolated because of what happened in their own monasteries,” Robert Barnett, the director of modern Tibetan studies at Columbia University, said. ”It looks like a ripple effect.”
Last week also saw a 200-strong protest in Yushu, in neighbouring Qinghai province, which is known for its considerably more tolerant policies towards monasteries. For example, the ban of Dalai Lama imagery is only loosely enforced compared with Sichuan.
Yet there is simmering anger in Qinghai over the treatment of fellow monks in Sichuan, as well as the growing bureaucracy involved in registering new monks and getting approval to travel. Above all, there is deep resentment at not being able to meet their spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama.
”The government talks about freedom of religion but does the opposite. That makes us very angry,” said a senior monk at Delongsi monastery in Jiuzhi, 70 kilometres from Aba across the provincial border in Qinghai. ”Everyone is very upset and wants to do more but we’re not sure what we can do.”
For three decades, there has been one constant in the monastic life of Tibetan Buddhist monk Jigme. With a portrait of the Dalai Lama watching over his bed, the 45-year-old prays to him as he goes to sleep and first thing when he wakes up at 4am, in his humble quarters next to his monastery near Tongren in Qinghai.
”For them to sacrifice their lives, we are on the one hand very sad,” Jigme said. ”But on the other hand, we completely agree with their thoughts. We don’t have any religious freedom. Life has no meaning without freedom; it’s a principle of life.”
Despite the violence, the Aba prefecture party secretary Shi Jun has been rewarded for his draconian stance. He was promoted to assistant governor of the Sichuan People’s Provincial Government last week.
The Tibet issue has featured prominently in the visit to Washington by the Chinese Vice-President, Xi Jinping, where he has been met with demonstrators. ”We … hope that the United States will truly implement its recognition that Tibet is part of China and its vow to oppose Tibetan independence, acting prudently in issues concerning Tibet,” Mr Xi said this week.
Beijing has blamed outside ”separatist” interests, including supporters of the Dalai Lama, for trying to incite violence and undermine China’s stance on Tibet. But any suggestion that the exiled religious figure was instigating the self-immolations is ridiculed by his devout followers. ”If it was the Dalai Lama behind it, we’d all be burning ourselves,” the businessman Yishi Dorje said.
Names have been withheld or changed to protect those interviewed for this report.