Monks and nuns have abandoned their monasteries in a Central Tibetan county, preferring to leave rather than submit to “intrusive” new Chinese regulations, according to Tibetan sources.
The exodus over the last two months comes amid an increasing crackdown by Chinese authorities following Tibetan protests highlighting rights abuses and unprecedented self-immolations mostly by monks fed up with increasing religious curbs.
“The monks and nuns have already left” their monasteries in Driru county in the Nagchu prefecture of the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), a Tibetan living in Australia said, speaking on condition of anonymity and citing sources in the region.
He named Driru, Pekar, Choeling, Tagmo, and Drongna monasteries, and Jana, a nunnery, as the affected facilities.
“All who were not willing to live under the strict restrictions imposed by Chinese [authorities] chose to leave,” he said.
A Tibetan monk based at Sera monastery in India confirmed the account, citing his own sources in Driru and naming other monasteries—including Drubde and Rachen—that he said are also now deserted.
“The monks are worried that they may be forced to return, because the Chinese officials are saying they have no authority to leave on their own,” he said.
Boycott of celebrations
Local Tibetans are now boycotting celebrations of the Lunar New Year to demonstrate their support for the monks who have left, he said.
It was not immediately clear whether the monasteries had been formally closed, or whether any resident monks or nuns still remained.
Some of the restrictions imposed on Tibetan monasteries by China include limits to the numbers of monks enrolled, and an age limit of 18 years set for those who wish to join, the Australian-based source said.
“Besides, the monasteries have to seek permission from Chinese officials for all kinds of work, big or small.”
Chinese officials have also attempted to confiscate the revenue from monastery stores and other earnings, the source said.
But because the monasteries were built on contributions from the general public, and not with Chinese funds, the monks regard the Chinese order as “interference in their religious freedom,” he said.
“They have challenged the Chinese to convert all the monasteries’ wealth into currency and to distribute this among the people, who are the rightful owners of the wealth.”
Local Tibetans protesting the situation to Chinese officials are being told only that “a few monks who don’t want to live in the monasteries are creating the problem,” the source said.
But the local people are insisting that Chinese authorities allow the monasteries to return to their normal status and function, another exile-based Tibetan source said, also citing contacts in Driru.
"They are complaining that they have no freedom of religion, and cannot have prayer ceremonies performed for the dead if the monks are not present," the source said.
Authorities had already been closely watching the monasteries for evidence of outside contacts, using these as an excuse to intensify their campaigns of "patriotic reducation" of the monks, he added.
'Massive increase' in intrusion
Speaking in an interview, Columbia University Tibet expert Robbie Barnett said there has been a “massive increase” in state intrusion into monasteries in the Tibet Autonomous Region in the last few weeks.
Under current regulations, all monasteries in the region must now display pictures of Chinese leaders Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin, and Hu Jintao, and must fly the Chinese flag, he said.
And in a new rule sent to the regional capital Lhasa on Dec. 20, Communist Party cadres stationed in the monasteries must each “make friends” with one monk, and keep a file on that monk’s thinking, Barnett said.
“These kinds of incursions by the authorities, either by the security forces or by forcing officials and ‘work teams’ on the monks, are getting to the point where we will see monks just walking away from these places,” Barnett said.
Also speaking in an interview, Bhuchung Tsering—vice president of the Washington-based International Campaign for Tibet—said that Buddhism in Tibet is facing “increasing restrictions and threats that we have not seen before.”
“And this is something that the Chinese authorities should be mindful of.”
Buddhism should be “left on its own, as used to be the case, without any political involvement,” Tsering said.
“Unless the Chinese authorities do that, their continued interference in the Tibetan people’s religious processes will be a detriment to the future of Tibetan Buddhism.”
Meanwhile, sources said, posters and leaflets calling for freedom for Tibet and the return of exiled spiritual leader the Dalai Lama appeared on Jan. 25 at Ragya monastery in the Golog prefecture of China’s Qinghai province.
“Police could not identify the persons responsible, and later threatened to close the monastery,” India-based Tibetan exile Ragya Lowang said, citing sources in the region.
Monks had earlier displayed a large photo of the Dalai Lama and the banned Tibetan national flag in the main hall of the monastery, prompting an investigation by Chinese authorities, Ragya Lowang said.
Also last week, on Jan. 23, “several hundred” Tibetan monks and laypeople from Namtso monastery and Meruma town in Sichuan’s Ngaba prefecture sat down at a crossroads to protest Chinese rule, according to a local Tibetan source.
“The laymen took off their upper clothes and remained half-naked, chanting mantras and eating tsampa [roasted barley flour] in protest,” the source said.
“They marched to the main town at Meruma, and when Chinese police tried to block them, they continued to walk ahead, shouting slogans calling for the long life of the Dalai Lama and for freedom for Tibet,” he said.
On the same day, hundreds of Tibetans also gathered at Tsodun monastery in Ngaba and held a candle-light vigil. The vigil lasted for three hours beginning at 5:00 p.m., according to a report by the International Campaign for Tibet (ICT).
“Police and soldiers arrived, [and] the full consequences of the incident are not known,” ICT said in its report.
Reported by Chakmo Tso, Rigdhen Dolma, and Tsewang Norbu for RFA’s Tibetan service. Translations by Karma Dorjee, Rigdhen Dolma, and Dorjee Damdul. Written in English with additional reporting by Richard Finney.