Tibetan Monk

Tibetan monks may have an iPhone 4, but too many still choose self-immolation. Exclusive report from Tibet where journalists are not welcome unless part of an official tour.

The pilgrims are still circling around Labrang monastery just as they have always done, in the wide valleys of China’s Gansu province. They join their hands, point them towards the sky, then lower them in front of their abdomens. With each move, they take a single step. Then, they lay down on the ground, hands thrust forwards, their heads in the dust. The region is arid. The whole group repeats the same movements and the air mists. Some of the pilgrims are wearing masks, some are not.

These days, more than ever, Tibetan devotees have very good reasons to unite in prayer. The community is grieving over more than two dozen monks who set themselves on fire during the last year. Under Chinese rule since Mao sent his troops to put this mountainous land under the Communist Party’s control, Tibet now seems to have lost hope of any kind of change. People still have demands. Some kind of freedom is one. But with an uncompromising Chinese government fuelled by its new-found global power, their demands seem far out of reach. 

When asked about his feelings towards the wave of selfimmolations, a young monk in a remote temple of Labrang, the largest Tibetan monastery outside of Lhasa, replies: “What do I think? It’s such a deep sadness”. He is wearing a dark red robe, identical to those of the 1500 religious men in Labrang. He constantly looks left and then right to make sure no-one is being too curious about our discussion. He is convinced there are informants reporting who said what to whom about what – especially about the government. They are Tibetans in plain clothes inside the monastery, he says: “they need the money.”

Labrang’s monks live in fear. One of them, Jigme Gyatso, has been charged recently. Arrested on August 20, 2011 in Hezuo, the largest town in this prefecture, mainly inhabited by Tibetans. Jigme was initially detained for six months for openly speaking out about the repression that followed Tibet’s March 2008 uprising. The movement spread to Labrang, in this eastern region of Tibet, historically called Amdo, as it did to Lhasa. When freed, Jigme went one step further and made a recording describing his first detention. “I will tell the world clearly my personal experience of having nearly died at the hands of the Chinese,” he said in the video posted on YouTube. In the Tibetan context, it was a risky statement to make. A monk who knew Jigme personally recalls: “he was more provocative than most of us, but what he said was true”. Punishing this young insubordinate was a good way to inhibit other critics whose voices might influence the group. So Jigme was charged in January 2012 with “splittism”. 

Another monk from Labrang, Sangey Gyatso, also went too far. After the 2008 uprising, the Chinese government invited foreign reporters to the monastery to show how peaceful it was. There, a few monks demonstrated with the Snow Lion flag, a symbol of free Tibet. Sangey was one of them. He shouted “we want human rights!” As a result, Sangey was forced to hide out in the wild. Xiahe, the Chinese name of the town where the monastery is located, is 3000 meters high. It is remote and inhospitable. Sangey’s physical condition quickly deteriorated but he was not treated at any of the local Chinese hospitals and – according to militant organization International Campaign for Tibet – died on February 26, 2011. 

So, Labrang’s monks are well aware that they shouldn’t say too much. The deterrent doesn’t work perfectly, however. People still want to exchange a few words about their situation. With several people, one of the first questions that comes out is about India. Had I been there, and if I had, did I see the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala? The image of the religious leader of Tibetan Buddhism remains omnipresent despite the Chinese authorities calling him “a wolf in monk’s robes”. Lots of people keep his picture at home. “We just hide it better when times get tense,” says one.

Another, a father selling sheepskins in the one-street village of Sangkar, 13 kilometers from Labrang, is keen to show his picture, and then seems proud that he has. In the monastery itself, there’s also a small room with a recent picture of the exiled 14th Dalai Lama. “Of course, the government doesn’t know,” a young monk says. He then shows a “tangka”, painted on fabric, and explains that it had been made in honor of the Dalai Lama’s 2009 visit to Washington. They just didn’t tell the local authorities that this particular tangka was made for that special occasion, but hugged the secret tightly to themselves.

It wouldn’t have been too difficult for the Chinese government to find out. The fact that it didn’t bother about a photo left for every curious visitor to see may be one of the reasons why no one in Labrang has yet set himself on fire (as of end of February 2012). More than ten have already done so in Kirti, another major monastery five hundred kilometers to the south. Control has geographical variations; its consequences do as well. A man living near the monastery but born in Aba, where most self-immolations have taken place, says that the prefecture in northern Sichuan has undergone the harshest repression outside of the Tibet autonomous region since 2008. Another explanation was Jamyang Zhepa’s message. The highest lama in Labrang emphasized the importance of protecting one’s life and choosing education over despair. But cracks have already started to appear in the community. Although everyone has agreed to reject suicide, many understand the despair that has pushed others to suicide. Some regard his message as a kind of compromise.

Everyone in Labrang knows about the self-immolations. Locals heard about it from word of mouth.The internet also played an important role. On the road linking Labrang to the province’s main city, Lanzhou, China Mobile’s ads are painted on house walls in every village. Broadband connection is available for everyone – a result of China’s investment in infrastructure. Most monks carry a cellphone, and some even own an iPhone 4 or the latest Nokia smartphone. A monk from the 600-student philosophy college says that he had come across a video secretly shot by The Guardian’s correspondent in the town close to Kirti monastery. It showed rows of soldiers keeping fire extinguishers close to hand. “So many soldiers around our monasteries!” he laments. He agrees that the Dalai Lama’s stance hasn’t brought about the expected results, but he feels it is the only viable solution. He also doesn’t consider self-immolation as a form of violence, since it only hurts oneself, not anybody else, and sees it as a sign of Tibetan hopelessness. These complaints are not being heard in Beijing. Instead, the Xinhua state press agency maintains these acts have been “masterminded and instigated by the Dalai Lama clique”. Robert Barnett, director of the Modern Tibetan Studies program at Columbia University, says that “while the Chinese government is more and more listening to local grievances on the mainland, it is not in Tibet”. For example, the response to unrest in 2008 was aggression. “The government didn’t see its response as a failure,” he observes. To the other side, a strong state presence is seen as a provocation, especially around large monasteries like Kirti, feeding a vicious circle. “Locals say there used to be one armed garrison in Aba ten years ago; there’s now five,” says Mr Barnett.

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Report & Photography by Harold Thibault