ICT President testifies before Congress on religious persecution in Tibet

John Ackerly, President of the International Campaign for Tibet, testifies today on religious persecution in Tibet in front of the Human Rights Subcommittee of the House International Relations Committee.

Committee on International Relations
Subcommittee on International Operations and Human Rights

Statement of John Ackerly, President
International Campaign for Tibet
February 13, 2002

Thank you Madam Chairwoman for inviting us to testify before this Committee.

In the last year there have been no significant improvements in religious freedom in Tibet. The highest-ranking religious leader left inside Tibet, the Panchen Lama, remains in detention since 1995.

And the elderly teacher who was the head of the monastery where the Panchen Lama should be in training today, Chadrel Rimpoche, was scheduled to be released from prison last summer and then last month, but China has inexplicably refused to release him.

These are two foremost examples of China’s continued repression of Tibetan Buddhism which President Bush should raise when he visits China later this month. He should raise these issues not only because religious freedom is a priority of the United States, but because it is a priority of the Tibetan people and is at the very heart of Tibetan culture.

There has been one recent, notable release of a political prisoner, Ngawang Choephel, a Tibet Fulbright scholar who studied ethno-musicology at Middlebury College. Arrested while conducting research in Tibet in 1995 and sentenced to 18 years on a trumped up charge of espionage, he was released in January after serving more than a third of his sentence. Ngawang Choephel was the opposite of prominent leaders such as the Panchen Lama and Chadrel Rimpoche, which partially explains why it was he who was released. He was one of the thousands of unknown young Tibetan boys and girls swept through a brutal system maintained by China’s occupation forces in Tibet. His only distinction was that he had studied at Middlebury College in Vermont, and if it weren’t for the perseverance of the Vermont Congressional delegation, he would certainly still be in prison.

This shows that pressure can work in some cases, but it also shows that China is still apparently unwilling to make significant steps toward improving in human rights and religious freedom in Tibet.

The President should also raise the systemic, structural forms of religious repression in Tibet in addition to the imprisonment of prominent religious leadership. China permits a carefully orchestrated degree of religious freedom for laity and officially sanctioned monks and nuns. In addition, there are many monks and nuns practicing their religion outside of China’s strict bureaucracy and regulations, often simply because they live in such remote areas that the long arm of the police state has not yet reached them. China’s emphasis on building more roads and now a railroad to Tibet is in part meant to address this. A majority of traffic on many roads in Tibet is the military and security services and they are still the primary beneficiary of Tibet’s transportation network. Tibetans, and Tibet’s economy, are secondary beneficiaries.

Last year, China’s strict regulations controlling permissible expressions of Buddhism came sharply into focus at two remote locations in eastern Tibet, now under Sichuan Province: Larung Gar and Yachen Gar. At both of these monastic centers, and there are likely more that we don’t even know about, Chinese security personnel came and demolished or ordered the demolition of large parts of the monks’ and nuns’ living quarters and expelled thousands of monks and nuns. China maintains limits on the numbers of monks and nuns allowed at each monastery, often not allowing entrance into a monastery before the age of 18 and forcing monks to leave after the age of 60. Chinese officials have established these and other kinds of restrictions on religion to ensure that the rejuvenation of Tibetan Buddhism and culture does not outpace the nearby Chinese governmental infrastructure to keep control of it.

Crackdown at Larung Gar

“Two armed policemen entered my wood hut and threw my Buddha statue on the floor. They dragged me out of the hut and one of the policemen tossed my daily recitation book [of Buddhist scripture] into the wood stove,” a nun recalled of her treatment in June of last year. “It is just like in the late 1960s,”she said, referring to the massive destruction of Tibetan monasteries during the Cultural Revolution.

The destruction at Larung Gar, which was repeated at Yachen Gar later in the year, is ominously reminiscent of the physical destruction of monasteries in the Cultural Revolution. Over two thousand mediation huts and homes were reportedly destroyed at Larung Gar. ICT obtained shocking images of this destruction immediately after it happened which we would like to give to the Committee.

The crackdown was overseen by an official named Wang, head of the “United Front” for Sichuan province, according to new reports. He is known as Wang Putrang, (“chief Wang”). Wang led officials from the United Front in Beijing and troops of armed police and work teams that descended upon Larung Gar to carry out the expulsions and demolition in June. Although their living quarters were torn down and monks and nuns were expelled, no retaliation by monks or nuns was reported.

Larung Gar is a monastic encampment, not a monastery, and its inhabitants have come on their own accord based on Larung Gar’s reputation that has spread by word of mouth. Students have been drawn by a charismatic teacher, Khenpo Jigme Phuntsok, who established Larung Gar a decade ago as mountain hermitage. Its monks and nuns from all areas of Tibet and China form a loose-knit community where students have to provide for themselves and are not under the formal control of any abbot.

The encampment numbered between 7,000-8,000 monks and nuns, of which nearly 1,000 were Chinese. The majority of the inhabitants were nuns. Often the Tibetans came to this remote area study for a limited period of time before returning to their home monastery to teach others.

Larung Gar is a place where “the sacred landscape of Tibet was being revived,” and is a “marked contrast to the alienated state in which institutionalized Buddhism finds itself in many parts of Tibet,” according to Professor David Germano of the University of Virginia in the 1998 book Buddhism in Contemporary Tibet. Because of the unique opportunity to receive a comprehensive Buddhist education, Larung Gar was one of the few places on the Tibetan Plateau that was attracting students. That is now a thing of the past. Today, Larung Gar is neither attracting students, nor training them as it once was. The official ceiling of 1,000 monks and 400 nuns is now being enforced, dealing a severe blow to one of the very few institutions in Tibet which was providing genuine and complete religious training for monks and nuns.

It is also important to note that there was no political activity at Larung Gar which authorities deemed subversive. This crackdown was entirely based on religion exceeding the narrow, strictly controlled scope that China has deemed appropriate.

Crackdown at Yachen Gar

Just months after the demolition of thousands of homes at the Larung Gar monastic encampment in Serthar, Chinese authorities ordered the demolishing of monks and nuns living quarters at Yachen, another large monastic encampment in eastern Tibet. As of October 10, more than 800 homes had been destroyed at Yachen Gar by order of the Pelyul (Chinese: Baiyu) County Government officials.

According to recent interviews with four nuns who fled Yachen Gar after their homes were destroyed, work teams of five to nine officials from Pelyul came to Yachen every other week from July to the beginning of September. The nuns said officials were making extensive notes and maps of the monastic encampment situated in the remote grasslands of Tromthar in eastern Tibet.

During the first week of September officials arrived and painted numbers on the houses marked for destruction along with the Chinese character “chai” (meaning “demolish”). Officials told the nuns that only those monks and nuns from Pelyul County could remain at Yachen and that if their homes had been marked with the Chinese character “chai,” the monks and nuns themselves must destroy their home. If they did not destroy their homes, a work team would come and demolish the home and the monk or nun would be charged 200 Yuan ($25), the nuns said. The official government notice said, “If these homes are not destroyed, Pelyul County People’s Government will forcefully demolish the living quarters, and in accordance with the current legal framework, legal action will be taken against those individuals who have not abided by this order.”

Monks Flee to India

Are Tibetans content with the carefully calculated amounts of religious freedom that China permits? Two of the very top religious leaders in Tibet, the Karmapa and Ajia Rimpoche, voted with their feet: they fled to exile, citing the impossibility of exercising their religious duties under the demands that China imposes on religious leaders.

Of the approximately 3,000 Tibetans who flee to India each year, about one third are monks and nuns. Some have been imprisoned and mistreated, others expelled from a monastery or nunnery, and others simply cite their desire to receive a religious education that they cannot obtain in Tibet.

Another factor cited by many monks is the ongoing intrusion of “work teams,” teams of officials who come to monasteries for days or weeks and conduct political reeducation classes. The teams force monks and nuns to state their loyalty to the Party, to the Party’s choice of reincarnations, such as the Panchen Lama, and to renounce the Dalai Lama. This process is also, of course, a calculated way to uncover who harbors nationalist views and who is willing to publicly verbalize them. Work teams also inspect the monastery to see if they display banned photos of the Dalai Lama.

Recommendations:

The International Campaign for Tibet and our colleagues in the human rights community continue to battle for serious consideration of human rights in the foreign policy debate. The Presidents’ summit in Beijing is an important focus for us and the many Americans who support our work. In the last week alone, thousands of Americans have sent messages to the White House asking President Bush to honor the commitment he gave to the Dalai Lama to urge a negotiated solution for Tibet when he meets with President Jiang.

In addition to the opportunity for a frank discussion with President Jiang on Tibet, President Bush should use the occasion of his remarks at Qinghua University to express concern for the fundamental importance of religious freedom in Tibet.

The importance of dialogue between the Chinese leadership and the Dalai Lama or his representatives cannot be underestimated for the realization of human rights and especially religious freedom in Tibet. Although the Chinese government claims to guarantee religious freedom for Tibetans, that guarantee merely papers over a policy of control and repression which is causing further resentment of Chinese rule and undermining the ability of Tibetan Buddhism to transmit teachings from one generation to another.

Important religious leaders and many clergy continue to be held for their religious beliefs and we ask the President to urge for their immediate release, including the Panchen Lama and Chadrel Rinpoche, whose sentence has already expired. In addition there is a group of 14 Tibetan nuns who have suffered terrible torture and reprisals in Drapchi prison and whose sentences have been extended in connection with singing songs of freedom while in prison. Among them are Ngawang Sangdrol, who has already served nearly 10 out of 22 years in prison, and Phuntsog Nyidron who has served 12 out of 17 years. Both are imprisoned for peaceful expressions of their national identity.

We also call on the Administration not to bargain away U.S. concern for human rights in Tibet at the upcoming session of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in Geneva which starts on March 16. The U.S. should stand firm and express our desire to support and co-sponsor a resolution on China if there are not significant human rights improvements.

The International Campaign for Tibet would also ask the Administration to press for an invitation for the UN Special Rapporteur on Religious Freedom to conduct a return visit to Tibet this year to assess any progress made in implementing the recommendations resulting from his November 1994 visit. In addition the U.S. should press for an agreement to the terms of a visit by the new UN Special Rapporteur on Torture and Ill-Treatment including a visit to Tibet.

Finally, we want to reiterate how important the vigilance of the U.S. Congress has been for the people of Tibet and their struggle for human rights and religious freedom.

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