Chinese authorities confirm death of monk after self-immolation; military crackdown at Kirti

Phuntsog

Phuntsog, the 20-year old Kirti monk who set fire to himself in the main market area of Ngaba town and died on March 17.

A Chinese government spokesman has confirmed the death of a young monk called Phuntsog who set himself on fire yesterday (March 16) in Ngaba, Tibet, on the third anniversary of a major protest and crackdown at Kirti monastery.

Both initial reports and further information from Tibetans in Ngaba contradicts the official version of the incident as reported today (March 17) in the Chinese media. Tibetan accounts from the area about the violent suppression of protests yesterday by monks at Kirti in Ngaba (Chinese: Aba) Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, in Sichuan province (the Tibetan area of Amdo), include the following:

  • A photo image of Phuntsog, the 20-year old monk who set fire to himself in the main market area of Ngaba town and died at around 3 am today (March 17).
  • According to Tibetan exiles who spoke to a witness of the protest, before he was stopped by police Phuntsog shouted slogans including “May His Holiness the Dalai Lama live for 10,000 years!”
  • An account of the aftermath of the self-immolation: Kirti monks intervened when police were beating Phuntsog and took him back to the monastery before ensuring he received medical treatment. The Chinese authorities’ official statement included the false claim that the monks “forcibly took [Phuntsog] out of the hospital.”
  • Seven monks were released from custody today following discussions between officials at the monastery and the local authorities. At least one of the monks who was released is seriously injured following beatings by police during detention. An unknown number of monks and laypeople are still in custody.
  • The situation is tense at Kirti monastery and the surrounding area with a heavy military presence.

“This tragic act by a young monk should compel the Chinese government to examine the serious grievances that exist in Tibet and to engage the Dalai Lama and other Tibetan leaders in finding real solutions,” said Mary Beth Markey, President of the International Campaign for Tibet.

Phuntsog’s death and the aftermath

Twenty-year old Phuntsog was from the Jaru Tsang family of Me’urama township in Ngaba county, Ngaba Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in Sichuan Province. According to sources in exile in contact with Tibetans in the area, he set himself on fire March 16 as a protest against the crackdown in the area and government policies. March 16 was the third anniversary of a major demonstration at Kirti in 2008 during which at least 10 Tibetans were shot dead. Two monks from Kirti monastery in exile in Dharamsala said: “The protest took place to mark the frustration and anger of the Tibetan people three years after the protests on March 16, 2008 in Ngaba.”

During his protest, Phuntsog was heard to shout slogans for the long life of the Dalai Lama. Police and security personnel extinguished the flames and were observed beating Phuntsog. According to the same sources, one of which was based on eyewitness testimony, Tibetans present at the scene – both monks and laypeople – intervened and managed to take Phuntsog away from the police, and back to Kirti monastery nearby.

The same two Kirti sources told ICT: “When Phuntsog was taken back to the monastery, there was little hope of his surviving, but as he was not yet dead, there was still a chance. Without government permission, they knew the hospital would not take him. So the monks decided to give into the government so that he could be admitted to hospital. He passed away there at around 3 am local time today (March 17).”

The official state media account not only gave misleading information about Phuntsog’s identify, but also claims: “Shortly after he set himself on fire, a policeman on patrol found him, put out the flames and rushed him to a nearby hospital… But a group of monks from the Kirti Monastery forcibly took him out of the hospital later in the afternoon and hid him inside the monastery, regardless of his injuries.” (http://china.org.cn/china/2011-03/17/content_22162814.htm).

It is not known whether the authorities have returned the body to the family, but monks at Kirti commenced traditional prayers for his passing despite the tensions at the monastery, which is now surrounded by armed police.

Protests violently suppressed and detentions of monks and laypeople

Although the authorities have sought to impose an information blackout in the area, details have begun to emerge of events following Phuntsog’s self-immolation yesterday. Immediately after he was taken back to the monastery, monks and laypeople staged a protest march, according to Tibetan exiles in contact with Tibetans in the area. It is not known how many people participated in the protest; sources in exile report that “hundreds” of people were involved. According to the same sources: “They had gone less than half a kilometer down the main street when they were dispersed by a large military force using steel truncheons and electric batons, and many were detained. There were particular efforts to detain as many monks as possible. Some were seriously injured. A clampdown was imposed on the centre of town and surrounding areas, which was so severe that Tibetans could not enter or leave Ngaba town for some time.”

Later on in the day, the police continued to detain individuals from public places, including some who had not participated in the protest.

According to the same sources, in the early evening of the same day (March 16), a crowd of Kirti monks gathered at the main entrance of the monastery in a bid to urge the local authorities to release those detained that day during the protest march. Laypeople cautioned them that it was too dangerous for them to continue. Monastery officials then intervened with the local authorities, asking that detained monks be released in order to defuse the situation.

Exiled Kirti monks said: “The monks drew back inside the compound and began to chant mantras and light butter-lamps, saying that they would do so until the detainees were released.”

Late in the evening, seven Kirti monks were released and the monks dispersed from the compound as a result. The seven released were named as Tashi (Shitra), Kontse and Palden, both from the Yushu Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in Qinghai province, Tashi of Charuwa, Senge of Chojema, Tentse of Khangsarma, and Konchok Tsultrim. According to the same sources, Tashi had a serious head wound from being struck with a baton. Around 20 Kirti monks still remain in custody, according to the exile sources, together with monks from other monasteries and laypeople.

The self-immolation of Tapey and protests at Ngaba

This is the second self-immolation by a Kirti monk in recent years. Tapey, a monk in his mid-twenties, set himself on fire on February 27, 2009 as a form of protest after local authorities told monks at Kirti monastery that they were not allowed to observe Monlam, a traditional prayer festival that is held after Tibetan New Year (Losar).

According to several sources from the area, police opened fire on Tapey as he was surrounded by flames. The official Chinese press reported the incident, but denied reports that police had opened fire on Tapey. Tapey survived, but was taken into custody and his whereabouts remain unknown.

The police and security crackdown in Ngaba has been particularly severe since March, 2008, when demonstrations broke out across the Tibetan plateau. Ngaba people are known for their strong sense of Tibetan identity and resistance to Chinese rule. Two weeks ago, many Tibetans in Amdo, including the Ngaba area decided against their customary celebration of New Year (according to the Chinese Lunar calendar) and instead set off fireworks and made incense offerings on March 5, the first day of the New Year (Losar) as observed by Tibetans elsewhere across Tibet. A Tibetan source from Ngaba told ICT: “Most regions of Amdo have their New Year one month earlier and hold many related festivities. This year in Ngaba the annual incense offering was not made at that time, and there were not many fireworks, so that festivities appeared restrained. But on Saturday (the first day of Tibetan Losar according to the Tibetan calendar), most of the Tibetans in Ngaba, monks and villagers, performed the incense offering that traditionally marks the first day of the year, and the ceremonial drawing of the first water, and let off even more fireworks than for a normal new year’s day. There were fireworks on the hilltops and in the town streets, and lamp-lit gatherings of people, as if to demonstrate that today is the [real] Tibetan New Year.” (ICT report, Resurgence of Tibetan New Year celebrations despite March 10 security build-up).

On March 16, 2008 at least ten people were killed after the protests in Ngaba, involving many monks from Kirti, neighboring monasteries and laypeople. The protests involved calls for a free Tibet, with pictures of the Dalai Lama and Tibetan flags on display. Armed police opened fire on the demonstrators, and among the dead was a 16-year old Tibetan school girl, Lhundup Tso. (For an account of deaths at Ngaba after March 16, 2008, see ICT report Tibet at a Turning Point http://www.savetibet.org/documents/reports/tibet-a-turning-point). Graphic images of some of those shot dead were released to the media.

Kirti monastery is one of the largest in Tibet with a population of over 2,500, and many branch monasteries in the region. Many Ngaba people, including monks, have come into exile in India over the years and established large monastic institutes there.

In May, 2008, Kirti monks wrote to their counterparts in exile in India, saying that the suppression in the area was “too much for our hearts to hear about, and too much for our eyes to witness.” (ICT report, ‘Tibet at a Turning Point’). In the letter, which was dictated to monks in exile in India, the Kirti monks said: “Since March 10, in all places covering the three main regions of Tibet, Tibetans protested against the Chinese authorities. The Chinese Communist Party sent in personnel in an organized fashion, and marked every Tibetan, especially monks, as criminals. Bloody killings and beatings that were completely inhuman took place – too much for our hearts to hear about, and too much for our eyes to witness. Innocent Tibetans were labeled as criminals in the minds of the Chinese, with whom we have shared thousands of years of history as neighbors. But because of these negative views, Tibetans, especially monks, are treated more like enemies by ordinary Chinese people. But from our side, we are making it clear that we are not protesting against ordinary Chinese people but against the policies of the Chinese government towards Tibet.” (Full transcript of the letter at: Tibetans in monasteries under crackdown hold prayer ceremonies for earthquake victims: message of reconciliation from monastery)

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