Monasteries Placed Under New Controls

Chinese authorities in Tibet move to tighten their grip on religious life.

2012.03.16
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A monk tends a shrine at a monastery in the Tibet Autonomous Region, April 7, 2007.
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In a policy move increasingly resented by religious communities in Tibet, Chinese authorities are assigning government officials to oversee the day-to-day affairs of monasteries, replacing management committees previously run by monks, a human rights group said Thursday.

Quoting official documents, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said that China’s government considers its new policy “critical for taking the initiative in its struggle against separatism”—a term frequently used by Chinese authorities to condemn assertions of Tibetan national or cultural identity.

“This measure, coupled with the increasing presence of government workers within monasteries, will exacerbate tensions in the region,” HRW China Director Sophie Richardson predicted in the group’s Feb. 15 statement.

Tensions, already high, rose further in Tibetan-populated regions on Friday following the 29th self-immolation in a wave of Tibetan protests challenging Chinese rule and calling for the return of Tibet's exiled spiritual leader the Dalai Lama.

'New level of intervention'

Responding to direction from Beijing, the ruling Chinese Communist Party Secretary for the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) Chen Quanguo announced on Jan. 4 that “government or party officials will be stationed in almost all monasteries permanently,” HRW said.

The new system, which the New York-based rights group described as “an entirely new level of intervention by the state," calls for a Management Committee of up to 30 lay officials to be established in each monastery, HRW said, quoting a February 15 report by China’s state-controlled Global Times.

“The new ‘Management Committees’ will run the monasteries and will have authority over the previous ‘Democratic Management Committees,’ which will now be responsible for rituals and other matters,” HRW said.

Under the previous system, monasteries were run by monks who complied with government regulations and were elected within their monasteries, though their nomination and selection were controlled by government officials.

Some already leaving

The new policy, which began to be implemented late last year ahead of the announcement, has already provoked opposition, with hundreds of monks and nuns abandoning their monasteries in just one Tibetan county alone.

“The monks and nuns have already left”  their monasteries in Driru county in the Nagchu prefecture, a Tibetan living in Australia told RFA in January, 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 the Chinese [authorities] chose to leave,” he said.

In Tibetan-populated prefectures in Chinese provinces outside the TAR, the old Democratic Management Committees will be kept in place, but will have government officials assigned as deputy directors, HRW said.

'Fixed mindset'

Speaking in an interview, HRW China Director Sophie Richardson noted “the fixed mindset with which [Chinese] central government authorities perceive unrest or discontent in Tibet.”

“Time and time again, we see the central government respond to complaints coming from the TAR or other Tibetan areas essentially by trying to militarize the situation or repress those grievances in a fairly heavy-handed way,” she said.

Alternatively, authorities will “permeate a community like a monastery in order to heighten surveillance and control discussions there,” Richardson said.

“And I don’t think either of those strategies is a recipe for longer-term success.”

Reported by Richard Finney.

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