Following is the prepared statement by ICT Vice President Bhuchung Tsering at the Roundtable on “Tibetan Buddhist Today” held by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom and the International Religious Freedom Roundtable at the United States Congress on September 15, 2017. Other participants of the Roundtable were Dr. Tenzin Dorjee, USCIRF Commissioner; Sarah Cook, Senior Research Analyst for East Asia, Freedom House; and Tina Mufford, Senior Policy Analyst, USCIRF. Judith Golub, Director of Congressional Affairs & Policy and Planning, USCIRF, moderated it.
“Prisoners of Conscience and self-immolations in Tibet”
Tibetan political prisoners and self-immolations in Tibet have a direct connection; in terms of both the individuals concerned and the messages that they were conveying, to the state of Buddhism in Tibet. A sizable number of Tibetan political prisoners and self-immolators come from the ecclesiastical community. Denial of rights to the monastic community as well as the lay Tibetan community has been a major issue to the Tibetan people.
Seen in the context of the most recent revised regulations on religious affairs, we can see that the Chinese Communist Party has been passing a series of laws that are a systematic development of a security architecture with the objective to gain maximum control over every aspect of people’s lives.
Given the state of strict control over all aspects of Tibetan life, including reliable statistics, there is no definite count of Tibetan political prisoners. According to the U.S. Congressional Executive Commission on China (CECC), as of 2016, there were 646 Tibetan political prisoners, but the number could be much higher.
Of the 646 Tibetan political prisoners, 635 were detained on or after March 10, 2008, and 11 were detained prior to March 2008. According to a State Department report, “Of the 635 Tibetan political prisoners who were detained on or after March 10, 2008, 258 were believed or presumed to be detained or imprisoned in Sichuan Province, 208 in the TAR, 96 in Qinghai Province, 71 in Gansu Province, and one each in the Beijing Municipality and the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. There were 164 persons serving known sentences, which ranged from 18 months to life imprisonment. The average sentence length was eight years and six months. Of the 164 persons serving known sentences, 70 were monks, nuns, or Tibetan Buddhist teachers.”
According to information available to us, 150 Tibetans have self-immolated in Tibet and China since February 27, 2009. Of these, 122 men, 28 women; 119 of the 150 are known to have died following their protest; 26 of the Tibetans who self-immolated were 18 or under; 149 of the self-immolations have occurred since March 16, 2011; and 10 self-immolations by Tibetans have occurred in exile.
Why do Tibetans Protest and commit self-immolations?
I want to address this issue by quoting from the perspectives of a prominent Tibetan religious master, Kirti Rinpoche, who lives in India, and a prominent Tibetan writer and commentator, Tsering Woeser, who resides in Beijing.
Kirti Rinpoche believes that Tibetan self-immolations are the consequences of Wounds of three generations of Tibetans
1. The wound of the first generation: In the pre-1959 period, starting even from the Long March period of the 1930s, Chinese Communists forces struck the Tibetan people at the heart of their religious belief, destroying monasteries in north eastern and eastern Tibet.
Citing one such attacks, Kirti Rinpoche says, “When the Red Army Chief, Zhu De, and his soldiers occupied the central prayer room of the Kirti Monastery during which they looted and destroyed images of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, the people realised that the Red Army members were not only against religion but they were also looters.”
2. The wound of the second generation: In the post-1959 period, during the different campaigns that the Chinese Communists launched, including during and after the Cultural Revolution, hundreds of thousands of Tibetans suffered torture, public struggle sessions, famine and other forms of inhuman persecutions. Many Tibetan religious institutions were destroyed. Even names of all the places and people in Tibetan language were changed into Chinese, thus undermining and stifling Tibetan language and culture. Thus these caused wounds in the hearts of the second generation of Tibetans growing under Chinese rule.
3. The wound of the third generation: Since the late 1990s, campaigns like the ‘Patriotic Education’ has been launched in the Tibetan areas, which imposed restrictions on aspects of Tibetan life. Tibetans sensed a discriminatory policy as they saw the difference the Chinese Government’s treatment of Tibetans and Chinese. Kirti Rinpoche says, “In 2003 and again in 2008, the school with over 1200 students run and managed by Kirti Monastery in Ngaba was forcefully shut down and private schools such as Bontse School and another school near Khashe Thon operated by Tibetans were taken over by the government. However, the Chinese monasteries and Chinese people are permitted to run and operate schools.”
According to Tsering Woeser, Tibetans protest because of oppression manifested in five areas of Tibetan life.
First, Tibetan beliefs have been suppressed, and religious scholarship has been subjected to political violence. Beijing’s selection of its own Panchen Lama and placing the Dalai Lama’s recognized boy under house arrest, created the world’s youngest political prisoner and produced an irreparable break in relations between Beijing and the Dalai Lama.
A paranoid decision in 2008 to expel all monks who were not born and raised in Lhasa from the city’s three main monasteries (Drepung, Sera, and Ganden) was one of the main factors leading to the protests that spread throughout the region that March, says Woeser.
Second, the ecosystem of the Tibetan Plateau is being systematically destroyed. The state has forced thousands to leave behind the sheep, grasslands, and traditions of horseback riding with which they have practiced for millennia to move to the edges of towns, where they remain tied to one place.
Third, Tibetan-language education has been systematically undermined. Take the state’s reform of Tibetan-language teaching in Qinghai Province, which stipulates that “Chinese shall be the primary language of instruction, and Tibetan a secondary language.” Such educational reform, viewed as a “pressing political task” for the Tibetan regions, aims to accomplish what the rulers of China have been unable to do by any other means over the past sixty years: making Tibet “Chinese.”
Fourth, under the pretext of “developing” Tibetan regions and attracting new talent and investment, the government has provided preferential taxation, land, finance, and welfare policies for Han immigrants to Tibet. A new policy, initiated in 2008, recruits local police from the military and special forces stationed in Tibet, reaping the dual benefit of providing plenty of well-trained recruits for the mission of “maintaining stability” in Tibet while at the same time ensuring a stable population of colonizers.
Fifth, the authorities have developed a surveillance system, known simply as “the grid,” that covers every inch of Tibet. The grid divides neighborhoods into multiple units with corresponding government offices, which are used to monitor such “critical groups” as “former prisoners, nuns, and monks who are not resident in a monastery or nunnery, former monks and nuns who have been expelled from their institutions, Tibetans who have returned from the exile community in India, and people involved in earlier protests.”
- As urged by Congress, the Trump Administration should implement the Tibet Policy Act of 2002 to send a message to China that the United States wants a solution to the Tibetan issue through negotiations between the Chinese leadership and representatives of the Dalai Lama. This includes the early appointment of the Special Coordinator for Tibetan Issues, whose central objective is to encourage such a negotiation;
- The Tibetan Policy Act stipulates that the Administration should call for “ the immediate and unconditional release of all those held prisoner for expressing their political or religious views in Tibet;”
- The United States should support the call made by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in 2012 urging Chinese authorities to address the longstanding grievances that have led to an alarming escalation in forms of protest, including self-immolations, in Tibetan areas. High Commissioner Navi Pillay had said then, “Social stability in Tibet will never be achieved through heavy security measures and suppression of human rights,” she said. “Deep underlying issues need to be addressed, and I call on the Government to seriously consider the recommendations made to it by various international human rights bodies, as well as to avail itself of the expert advice being offered by the UN’s independent experts on human rights.”
- The US should support the UN call to China “to allow independent and impartial monitors to visit and assess the actual conditions on the ground, and to lift restrictions on media access to the region.”
- The Congress should send a similar strong message to China by enacting the Reciprocal Access to Tibet Act, a bipartisan, bicameral legislation that aims to call for the same access to American diplomats, journalists, and citizens to Tibet, just as their Chinese counterparts get in the US.
- Given the far-reaching scope of the restrictions stated in the revised regulations on religious affairs, the international community, United Nations bodies, governments and parliaments, must urge the Chinese government to bring this unacceptable legislation into conformity with international human rights standards.