China stifles Tibetan Buddhist unrest
CHINA’S clampdown on the ethnic Tibetan town of Aba after recent protests – involving monks setting themselves on fire – extends to more than having soldiers patrolling its streets.
In an effort to stamp out resistance to Chinese rule, police have been scanning licence plates and faces for unwelcome visitors, and school dormitories have been randomly checked for books that clash with Communist ideology.
Residents of the monastery town also face regular questioning about their politics.
“They’ll ask you questions and if you answer with your true feelings, they will be very unhappy. If you keep quiet, they will also be unhappy,” said a Tibetan who teaches in Aba but did not wish to be identified. Teachers are also banned from making any mention of the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama.
On a visit this week, after negotiating several checkpoints, I caught a glimpse of a town, closed to visitors for more than three years, which is under renewed security this week ahead of flashpoint anniversaries.
Aba sits among high valleys on the Tibetan plateau in China’s south-western Sichuan province. Its Kirti monastery occupies a position in Tibetan society akin to a major university. Its monks have been at the forefront of unrest since Tibetan communities across western China rose up in a rebellion in 2008.
Many of the nearly two dozen Tibetans who set themselves on fire in the past year were monks or former monks from Kirti.
On the way into town, a hoarding declares in Chinese: “A peaceful Aba is built by all, a peaceful Aba is shared by all.”
Barricades and a police van were perched at the junction to the lane leading to the monastery. Down the lane sat a large white-and-blue police station, a Chinese flag on it.
Internet and text messaging services in Aba have been cut. Only telephone calls are allowed, and many believe most calls are tapped. Describing a code he uses to ask friends in Aba about trouble with authorities, the teacher said: “Sometimes I ask them, ‘Is the wind over at your end strong?’ If they say it’s strong, then there is a problem.”
The authorities have dragooned Tibetans working in the governments of neighbouring areas to serve as surveillance staff in Aba – putting them in the awkward position of policing their ethnic brethren, said another Tibetan teacher, from Hongyuan, who stayed for three days in Aba last week.
The Tibetans have been deployed with red armbands at shop and hotel entrances, said the teacher. “When ordered to, they don’t dare to say ‘I won’t go,”’ he said. “Once they get there, the people in Aba look at them accusingly, as if to say: ‘You’re a Tibetan and you’re also coming here to treat us this way?”’
Security appeared to be tightening as March approached, a month of anniversaries including that of the anti-government riot among Tibetans in Lhasa in 2008, when frustration about Beijing’s vilification of the exiled Dalai Lama boiled over. March also marks the anniversary of the Dalai Lama’s flight in 1959 after an abortive uprising.
While the Chinese government has sought to win over the region by boosting growth, Tibetans worry about the gradual erosion of their culture and religion amid an influx of the majority Han Chinese.
“In the people’s hearts, what they probably can’t stand the most is that the authorities attack our living Buddha, the Dalai Lama. We cannot stand it when they scold him,” the teacher said. “He’s the person we are most loyal to.”
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