Driru, a Tibetan county that has attracted global attention for waging a persistent struggle against a Chinese campaign of forced displays of loyalty, has for nearly a decade been a major center of resistance to Beijing’s rule, analysts say.
Residents in the far northeastern county in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) have been burning, dumping, and refusing to fly Chinese flags and protesting in the streets since the Chinese authorities launched the campaign in September last year.
But the latest actions in the relatively small Tibetan county of strong-minded people are linked to a tradition of struggle against Chinese actions aimed at eroding Tibetan culture, rights, and freedom, analysts said.
“It is an area which historically has never been particularly amenable to control by a state,” Robbie Barnett, a scholar of modern Tibetan studies at Columbia University, said of Driru, which lies in the TAR’s Nagchu (Naqu) prefecture.
He said the county “was a self-managed area for hundreds of years” and that the Tibetan government itself was “only able to get effective access to most parts of Nagchu in the 1920s.”
Driru first became a target for Chinese repression in 2006, when local Tibetans responded to a call by exiled Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama to abandon the wearing of animal furs, according to Driru Samdrub, a native of Driru now living in Europe.
Shortly afterward, official concern was also aroused when county residents went to Tibet’s regional capital Lhasa to pray for the long life of the Dalai Lama, who lives in India and is reviled as a dangerous separatist by Chinese leaders.
“Some community members journeyed to Lhasa, prostrating each step of the way,” Samdrub said.
There, they made offerings to restore the face of the Jowo Rinpoche—the statue of the Buddha brought to Tibet in the seventh century by the Chinese queen of the Tibetan king Songtsen Gampo—and prayed for the long life of the Dalai Lama, he said.
More recently, even before the resistance to Beijing’s September flag-raising campaign, the county had become the TAR area with the greatest number of self-immolation protests challenging Beijing’s rule since the fiery protests began in 2009.
It had also led what is believed to be the most effective drive to date against Chinese mining operations believed to be harming the environment.
With a population of 40,000, ninety percent of it ethnic Tibetan, Driru is now described by Chinese leaders as a “politically unstable” area from which they fear unrest may spread to other parts of the TAR and beyond, to Tibetan-populated prefectures in nearby Chinese provinces.
It was a 68-year-old man named Dayang who sparked the campaign resisting orders that the Chinese national flag be flown from Tibetan homes.
When Chinese government workers backed by hundreds of armed paramilitary police swarmed Driru to enforce the orders, Dayang held up a white scarf in protest, asserting Tibetan independence and calling on China to leave Tibet.
Dayang was severely beaten and finally taken to a hospital in the Tibetan regional capital Lhasa, where his condition was listed as critical. He was later sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison and now languishes somewhere in an unidentified Chinese jail.
Government workers and police then went from village to village in Driru, calling meetings and distributing flags to be placed by Tibetans on the roofs of their homes. On Sept. 27, the residents of Driru’s Mowa and Monchen villages collected the flags they had received and threw them in a river, prompting clashes in which 40 Tibetans were detained.
In response, authorities expelled children living in the two villages from county schools, and over 400 students from other villages walked out of their classes in protest. Hundreds of area Tibetans then blocked traffic on the highways and camped out in front of the Driru county center.
On Oct. 7, several hundred county residents gathered in Driru’s Dathang township to demand the release of a protester who had been detained the day before. Chinese police fired tear gas into the crowd and then live rounds, killing four and wounding over 50.
And while protests against Chinese mining operations in other Tibetan-populated regions of China have frequently been suppressed, a united action by 5,000 Driru-area Tibetans in May 2013 brought a halt to mining on a local sacred mountain, though three area residents were later sentenced to long terms in jail for their role in the protest.
Targeting monasteries and the young
Authorities appear now to have targeted Driru monasteries as centers of resistance to Chinese controls, and to fear the county’s educated young as promoters of Tibetan cultural and national identity.
As early as 2012, many of Driru’s monasteries were closed when monks resisted efforts by government work teams to monitor and restrict their daily affairs. Others were left open, but were closely watched.
In November 2013, Chinese security forces surrounded key religious establishments, raiding monks’ quarters and the homes of monks’ families, seizing computers, mobile phones, and other belongings. Meanwhile, monks studying at Buddhist institutions in neighboring regions were recalled for political indoctrination.
On Nov. 23, three monks from Driru’s Tarmoe monastery were detained while on vacation in Lhasa. One, Geshe Ngawang Jamyang, who had studied for 19 years in a monastery in India and may have been viewed with particular suspicion, was later beaten to death by police.
Returning the monk’s body to his relatives, police warned family members that they too would be killed if they discussed his death with anyone.
At least a dozen Driru-area monks are believed to be among the thousand or so county residents now believed held in area detention centers.
Chinese security forces have also targeted for detention Driru county’s younger and better-educated residents, many of whom have organized debates and public teachings on the importance of Tibetan language, culture, and religion.
Some of those taken into custody have been as young as 16. And while some have been held only briefly and were released after paying a fine, others have been beaten.
Seen as leading efforts to promote Tibetan cultural and national identity, writers and singers have been made particular targets, with some charged formally for “anti-state activities,” and have been handed long terms in jail.
A total of 125 Tibetans living in China have set themselves ablaze to date in self-immolations challenging Beijings’s rule in Tibetan areas, with almost all of these occurring in Tibetan-populated regions of China’s Sichuan, Qinghai, and Gansu provinces.
Only a few of these burnings have taken place in the TAR, and of the eight that have, four occurred in Driru during October and November 2012.
Following the death of the last protester—Tseyang, 27, who set himself on fire on Nov. 7—a group of seven Driru residents planned to burn themselves together, but their plan was detected and the group fled arrest.
Two were captured by police, and five threw themselves into a river and drowned.
Though protests challenging China’s rule continue almost daily in other Tibetan-populated regions, Beijing appears to regard Driru as a special case.
Columbia University Tibet expert Barnett sees China’s actions in Driru as “an attempt to try to contain dissent to a specific area … almost to make it a local ethnic issue, as if they see Driru people as a different community, a different group—even a subgroup different from other Tibetans.”
Foreign journalists are denied access to Driru, and because of strict controls on the flow of information from the area, it is impossible to know for certain how many county residents have been detained, jailed, or killed.
At the end of December, reports reached Radio Free Asia that three young Driru-area Tibetans—two of them in their teens—had been detained by police for burning the Chinese flag and that three more area monasteries had been closed.
Reported by Karma Dorjee for RFA's Tibetan Service. Translated by Karma Dorjee. Written in English by Richard Finney.