Hundreds of Tibetan pilgrims held by Chinese authorities following their return last month from a religious gathering in India presided over by the Dalai Lama may be detained until May, according to sources in Tibet and overseas.
The pilgrims—including retired Communist Party and government cadres—are being held in hotels around Lhasa, Tibet’s capital, and are being interrogated about their activities and contacts in India and subjected to intensive “political re-education” sessions, sources said.
“There must be at least 700 or 800 of them detained in [Tibet’s regional capital] Lhasa,” one U.S.-based Tibetan said, citing sources in the region. “I don’t have an accurate number.”
“They were put in the hotels and forced to do ‘political study’ and confession,” a source inside Tibet said in an e-mail sent to RFA. “The authorities were asking all kinds of questions.”
“[The authorities] were taking these people but not telling their families where they are, or how long they will have to stay there,” the source said.
“Some are very sick or very old. Some in their 80s were also taken in. They were told they will be kept there until May.”
“They have to pay for their rooms and meals while in detention,” he added.
“My relatives said that they probably won’t be allowed home until after Tibetan New Year [Feb. 22], and some say not until March,” another Tibetan living in the U.S said.
The security measures came amid increasing protests in Tibetan-populated areas against Chinese rule and calling for the return of Tibet’s spiritual leader exiled Dalai Lama, including a spate of self-immolations highlighting the plight of Tibetans.
In a surprising move, China had earlier allowed about 9,000 Tibetans to travel to take part in the 10-day Kalachakra religious festival conducted in India’s Bodhgaya town in January.
The festival, which also attracted Buddhists in mainland China, was presided over by the Dalai Lama, a figure reviled by Chinese leaders as a separatist.
Upon their return, however, Tibetans from the eastern regions of Kham and Amdo were immediately detained, interrogated, and sent home by train.
Pilgrims returning to the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) were taken instead to detention centers in their home counties or to hotels in Lhasa, with some detained by police “in the middle of the night without prior notice,” one source said.
One Tibetan source in Nepal said that pilgrims returning by way of the Dram checkpoint on the border with Nepal had all been “thoroughly searched” by Chinese authorities before being allowed back into Tibet.
“[Even] Tibetan medicines with labels from the Tibetan Medical Center in Dharamsala, India, and even holy pills, were confiscated because of their alleged political meaning,” he said.
Tibetans returning from Bangalore, India, by way of the Sichuan provincial capital Chengdu were being held in Chengdu, he said.
“Those Tibetans were from Tibetan areas in Yunnan and Sichuan provinces. All guesthouses visited by Tibetans are under strict watch by the Chinese authorities.”
“We are never at peace when we return to our country,” he said.
“Everyone who returned from the Kalachakra has been detained,” another overseas Tibetan source said. “This is crazy.”
Reported by Yangdon Demo for RFA’s Tibetan service. Translations by Jigme Ngabo and Karma Dorjee. Written in English by Richard Finney.