Satellite images of Sichuan’s Larung Gar Buddhist Academy show widespread destruction of the one of the world’s largest and most important centers for the study of Tibetan Buddhism more than a year after Chinese authorities began a program of forced evictions and demolitions, according to a report issued Thursday.
The report by two Tibetan rights groups — Free Tibet and Tibet Watch — shows that at least 4,725 homes have been leveled and about 4,800 residents forced to leave since July 2016 when authorities issued an order to destroy homes and to reduce Larung Gar’s population to 5,000 by Sept. 30, 2017.
Chinese authorities did not consult those living at the complex about the plan, which they said was to protect the safety of residents by reducing overcrowding and the risk of fire.
International law recognizes forced evictions in which residents are temporarily or permanently removed from their homes against their will as a human rights violation.
The report was issued on the one-year anniversary of the launch of the International Day of Action for Larung Gar, which saw protests in at least 20 cities around the world to raise awareness about the destruction of the complex. Demonstrations were held in Washington, D.C., Toronto, Buenos Aires, London, Paris, Tokyo, and Dharamsala, India.
The academy, located in Serthar county (in Chinese, Seda) in Kardze (Ganzi) Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in southwestern China’s Sichuan province, was once home to between 10,000 and 40,000 monks, nuns, and visiting students, the report said.
Before-and-after images from U.S. satellites in 2016 and 2017 show how houses have been destroyed to make way for wider roads, new pathways, and additional space around religious buildings.
The destruction corroborates claims and evidence presented by residents that authorities have undertaken the program to facilitate tourist access to the complex, the rights organizations said.
In addition, former residents have been humiliated in patriotic reeducation sessions, forced to perform for Chinese audiences, and prevented from moving into other monasteries, the report said.
Many of these practices have been reported by RFA’s Tibetan Service since the destruction began in 2016.
“Beijing’s attempts to reduce this important site to a mere tourist destination make this destruction even more heart-breaking,” said Eleanor Byrne-Rosengren, director of Free Tibet and Tibet Watch, in a statement.
“Larung Gar’s residents understand and appreciate the significance of the site in a way that the Chinese Communist Party never could,” she said. “They must be spared any further harassment and allowed to live, study, and practice their religion in peace.”
At the end of June, a senior abbot at the center told RFA that Chinese authorities had destroyed 4,725 monastic dwellings over the course of a year at the complex, with a total of more than 7,000 demolished since efforts to reduce the number of monks and nuns living at the sprawling center began in 2001.
More than 4,825 monks and nuns have also been expelled since 2016, the abbot said at the time, with many forced back to their hometowns and deprived of opportunities to pursue religious studies.
‘Beyond all repair’
Free Tibet and Tibet Watch have urged the international community to press China to end the demolition of the complex.
“A site of learning and devotion is being turned to rubble, and the lives of its residents are now characterized by violence and instability,” Byrne-Rosengren said. “Governments around the world must up the pressure on China and make it change course before this site and everything that made it special is scarred beyond all repair.”
In November 2016, six United Nations experts wrote to China to express concern about severe restrictions on religious freedom at Larung Gar, the mass expulsion of monks and nuns, and the demolition of homes.
The following month, the European Parliament, passed a resolution demanding that China end the destruction and forced evictions at the complex and respect Tibetans' religious freedom.
The expulsions and demolitions at Larung Gar, along with restrictions at Yachen Gar, another large Buddhist center in Sichuan, are part of “an unfolding political strategy” aimed at controlling the influence and growth of these important centers for Tibetan Buddhist study and practice, the Washington-based International Campaign for Tibet (ICT) said in a March 13, 2017, report.