Hundreds of Tibetan pilgrims returning from a religious gathering held last month in India are being detained, interrogated, and subjected to political “re-education” sessions before being allowed by Chinese authorities to reunite with their families, Tibetan sources said.
Those who live in Tibetan-populated areas in Chinese provinces outside the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) have been forced onto trains and sent back quickly, sources in exile said.
In a surprising move, China had earlier allowed about 9,000 Tibetans to travel to India to take part in the ten-day Kalachakra religious festival conducted in Bodhgaya in January by exiled spiritual leader the Dalai Lama—a figure reviled by Chinese leaders as a separatist.
Upon their return over the last two weeks, however, Tibetans from the eastern regions of Amdo and Kham were “rounded up, transported, and interrogated by the Chinese authorities,” a source in Tibet’s exile community said, speaking on condition of anonymity and citing contacts in Tibet.
“They were asked about the places they visited in India, what the Dalai Lama told them, what they know of the plans of the Tibetan exile government, whom they met, and so on.”
Younger Tibetans in the group were questioned especially closely, the source said.
Tibetans returning to their China-controlled homeland via the Dram border post on the border with Nepal were taken directly to the central Tibetan city of Shigatse, the source said.
There, any Tibetans who had come from Amdo and Kham were forced onto trains and told to return to their native place.
“Normally, those pilgrims spend time in the Lhasa area and visit temples and other holy sites,” the source said. “But now, they were put onto trains and told to return to their hometowns [in the east].”
One group of Tibetan pilgrims from Amdo was sent on Feb. 2 by train from Lhasa to the Gansu provincial capital of Lanzhou, a source inside Tibet said.
“None of them knows what their fate will be when they reach Lanzhou,” he said.
Tibetans returning to their homes in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) have additionally been subjected to political “re-education” sessions before being allowed to reunite with their families, sources said.
“In the TAR, local county officials contacted the families of Tibetans who had gone on pilgrimage to India and instructed them to report when their relatives returned,” one source said.
Another source in exile, Dondrub Tsering, confirmed the account, also citing sources in Tibet.
“Those Tibetans who traveled to the Kalachakra teachings from the areas of Shigatse, Lhokha, and Lhasa were taken to the Tsal Gungthang detention center and forced to give their names and other details,” Tsering said.
“This detention and re-education of Tibetans who went on pilgrimage to India is still going on,” he said.
Speaking in an interview, Columbia University Tibet expert Robbie Barnett said that it may not have been unusual for China to have first granted permission for Tibetans to go to India on pilgrimage and then treat them with suspicion on their return.
“[Chinese authorities] always realize that they can handle the security consequences of concessions of this kind,” Barnett said.
“They consider this to be the normal way a state should operate—that it allows people to do things and then investigates them afterward.”
Meanwhile, a microblog message from a Tibetan living in Lhasa described intensified surveillance by Chinese authorities in the city.
“Last night, Chinese police searched all the Tibetan families in our area three times,” the message read.
“They are especially hard on the Tibetan pilgrims returning from India. They are being harassed and interrogated again and again.”
Authorities in the Tibetan capital are also blocking news of recent protests in Tibetan-populated areas of China in which as many as six may have been killed and an unknown number injured, a Tibetan living in Lhasa said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“The local media do not talk or write about those protests. The communication lines with those Tibetan areas in Amdo and Kham are cut off.”
“We are seriously concerned that the Chinese could be severely cracking down on the Tibetans in those areas,” he said.
Reported by Rigdhen Dolma, Norbu Damdul, and Lhundub Tashishar for RFA’s Tibetan service. Translations by Karma Dorjee and Rigdhen Dolma. Written in English with additional reporting by Richard Finney.