Praying and lighting butter-lamps for Dalai Lama ‘illegal’: new regulations in Rebkong

  • New regulations issued in the Rebkong (Chinese: Tongren) area of eastern Tibet warn that various activities, including praying and lighting butter-lamps for the Dalai Lama or people who have self-immolated, are ‘illegal’ and will be penalized.
  • The measures, which appear to be guidelines for county officials mandated by higher-level authorities, enable criminal charges to be imposed for everyday and often devotional activities. They are the latest indicator of the political climate of impunity and the severity of repressive measures being imposed across Tibet, particularly in areas where there have been peaceful protests or self-immolations, such as Rebkong county.
  • The measures heighten the dangers for Tibetans in the area, who have sought to protect their cultural and religious identity and traditions with courage and resilience. Furthermore, they contravene China’s own constitution and legal provisions meant to preserve and promote the distinct identity of groups such as the Tibetans.
Schoolchildren and students demonstrated on November 9, 2012 in Rebkong

Schoolchildren and students demonstrated on November 9, 2012 in Rebkong (Chinese: Tongren), Qinghai, the Tibetan area of Amdo.

Monks holding a makeshift cardboard banner

Monks holding a makeshift cardboard banner during Jinpa Gyatso’s cremation in Rebkong, Qinghai (Amdo) on November 8, 2012 which reads: “Let the Dalai Lama return to Tibet; equality for minorities and language rights.”

The measures, translated into English from Tibetan below,[1] followed a speech outlining most of these points made by Ju Kezhong, the Communist Party Secretary of Malho (Chinese: Huangnan) Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Qinghai (which incorporates Rebkong county), during a prefectural level Party meeting in February.[2]

The 20 points show that in the current political climate, almost any expression of Tibetan identity or culture, no matter how mild, can be characterized by the authorities as “splittist” and therefore “criminal.” Definitions of what constitutes “criminal” activity are deliberately opaque, giving leeway for lower-level officials and security personnel to apply harsh penalties. The points are being circulated in Rebkong in the context of an increasingly aggressive approach by the Chinese Communist Party authorities that escalate the crackdown in lay society and strengthens Communist Party control over Tibetan Buddhist practice, weakening religious institutions still further.[3]

For example, Point eighteen criminalizes the following conduct: “Using religious and traditional activities to incite others, or to form organizations to arrange public gatherings to offer incense, butter lamps and prayers to the 14th Dalai Lama”; this provision clearly denies religious freedom to the Tibetan people. Article 36 of the PRC Constitution states that citizens of the PRC have “freedom of religious belief,” however, the Communist Party decides what is “acceptable” religious behaviour and religion is only tolerated as long as it does not interfere with or challenge the legitimacy and status of the Party.

Point Twelve in the document states that it is illegal to do the following: “Praying for people who commit self-immolation, burning incense or reciting prayers for them, sparing the lives of animals or lighting butter lamps in their memory, or approaching their family members.” Point One says that Tibetans are banned from “talking up” and “glorifying” the self-immolations. In effect, this reflects the Chinese authorities’ failure across Tibet to turn Tibetans against those who self-immolate. The overwhelming response from Tibetans to those who set fire to themselves and die in agony is one of respect and compassion.

A wave of self-immolations that occurred in 2012 in Rebkong during an important Party Congress in Beijing was followed by spontaneous gatherings of thousands of Tibetans to mark the deaths of the Tibetans who had set themselves on fire and in peaceful protest and vigils.[4]

The authorities tightened repressive measures across Tibet, and in late 2012 published a new set of regulations stating that Tibetans can be sentenced on homicide charges based on their alleged “intent” and presumed ability to influence a Tibetan who has self-immolated. As part of this criminalization of self-immolations, the authorities also stepped up deliberate attempts to penalize families and the broader community when a Tibetan self-immolates.[5]

Two monks from Tsoshar, Qinghai, were the first to be sentenced for leading prayers for a self-immolator who had died. Tsundue and Gedun Tsultrim were sentenced to three years each in prison after they held prayers for a Tibetan, Wangchen Norbu, who set fire to himself and died on November 21, 2012.[6] The sentencing of Tsundue and Gedun Tsultrim is likely to have been intended to send a warning to others, just as the new measures in Rebkong send a clear signal both to monks and laypeople.

Point Four of the Rebkong measures targets Tibetans who have been involved in simply speaking their own language and protecting the environment, stating that one of the 20 ‘illegal activities’ are “organizing illegal groups and illegal movements in the name of ’protecting the mother tongue’, ‘environmental protection’, ‘literacy classes’ etc.”

In Rebkong, Tibetan students and laypeople have initiated a number of peaceful demonstrations in defense of their language, the bedrock of Tibetan religion, culture, and national identity. In 2010, protests by Tibetan school and college students over plans to restrict the use of their language that spread from several areas of Qinghai to Beijing began in Rebkong.[7] All sectors of society – students, farmers, monks, nomads, teachers, children – came together to make reasonable and measured demands for change.

The emphasis on criminalizing individuals who gather together to learn and speak Tibetan in the Rebkong measures contravenes the Constitution of the PRC, which states in Article Four: “All nationalities have the freedom to use and develop their own spoken and written languages and to preserve or reform their own folkways and customs.” Further, it also contravenes the Law on Regional Ethnic Autonomy, which states in Article 10: “Autonomous agencies in ethnic autonomous areas guarantee the freedom of the nationalities in these areas to use and develop their own spoken and written languages and their freedom to preserve or reform their own folkways and customs.”

It is notable too that the 20 points conflate support for the Dalai Lama with support for Tibetan independence (rangzen in Tibetan), saying for instance that it is illegal to display “Photos of the 14th Dalai Lama and ‘Tibet Independence’ flags at public gatherings.” It is well-known and acknowledged by national governments and the international community that the Dalai Lama seeks a genuine autonomy in Tibet under the PRC, and not independence. The document also appears to characterize the Tibetan national flag as the ‘independence’ flag. Tibetans can be imprisoned and tortured for displaying this flag.[8]

A full translation of the document from Tibetan into English is below:

Twenty illegal activities related to Tibet Independence

One: encouraging, talking up and glorifying extreme acts such as self-immolation.

Two: flying “Tibet independence” flag, putting up posters, spreading publicity materials and promoting discussion.

Three: writing, producing, selling and distributing books, drawings, audio-visual recordings dealing with ethnic separatism and ethnic extremist thoughts.

Four: establishing illegal organizations and undertaking illegal activities under the pretext of “protecting the mother tongue”, “environmental protection”, “literacy classes” etc.

Five: organizing illegal assemblies and public demonstrations using the excuses of “linguistic equality”, “food safety”, “protecting wildlife” etc. and establishing, leading or inciting any other kinds of illegal activities.

Six: downloading messages, images or video with “Tibet Independence” content from QQ, Wechat, etc., and listening, watching and sharing them. Or, even if electronic content that is harmful to the unity of nationalities, spreading of rumors, disruption of social order, creation of contradictions between nationalities, or issues related to Tibetan independence are not communicated, but keeping them on mobile phone or computer without deleting them, and always letting others know and look at them.

Seven: colluding with separatist forces abroad, sending communications of any kind to foreign hostile forces.

Eight: listening to and watching radio and TV programs by hostile foreign forces talking up “Tibet Independence” thoughts.

Nine: going to foreign countries and illegally visiting foreign countries and participating in religious activities of any kind there.

Ten: displaying photos of the 14th Dalai Lama and images of “Tibet Independence” at public gatherings.

Eleven: showing images or playing recordings with “Tibet Independence” content in vehicles and other transportation facilities.

Twelve: making incense offering, reciting prayers, sparing the lives of animals or lighting butter lamps as prayers for the self-immolators or greeting their family members.

Thirteen: collecting donations for foreign ethnic separatist forces or individuals, or forming organizations to collect donations.[9]

Fourteen: promoting discussion of “Tibet Independence” and ethnic extremist ideology in schools.

Fifteen: using the powers of religion, philosophy or genealogy to interfere in legal and civil administration and social work, and terrorizing government officials, or creating resentment and hostility towards them, under the pretext of “nationality affairs”.

Sixteen: cultivating links with foreign ethnic separatist forces, contravening decisions on social stability maintenance work in connection with Tibet Independence, and forcing others or forming organizations to oppose the government.

Seventeen: undertaking prayer activities for the 14th Dalai Lama on the occasion of a festival, or during a sensitive period, at a monastery or in a public place, inciting others or forming an organization to promote such activities.

Eighteen: using religious and traditional activities to incite others, or to form organizations to arrange public gatherings to offer incense, butter lamps and prayers to the 14th Dalai Lama.

Nineteen: maliciously fabricating normal religious activities or different public activities and associating them with messages and imagery relating to Tibet Independence, publicizing, creating rumors, and misrepresenting such things as propaganda study, assisted study for key contact targets, the comprehensive rectification of key townships and towns (villages and monasteries),[10] rectification of illegal organizations and prosecution of individuals who break laws and regulations, and communicating them abroad and providing hostile forces with material for their rants.

Twenty: interfering, in accord with infiltration of the foreign Tibet Independence separatist movement, with other people enjoying festivals, or weddings or celebrations, forcing to “Speak pure Tibetan”, [or] obstructing the “killing or selling of livestock” [policy], forcibly “liberating [the animal’s] life,”[11] [or] using such pretexts as “environmental protection” to disrupt social order.[12]

These 20 illegal actions related to Tibet Independence are complementary to the illegal actions of the Tibet Independence separatist forces, and even if there is just one illegal activity, it will be dealt with, and there will be no leniency.

Organizations, planners and leaders will be strictly penalized according to law. The real damage caused by illegal activities of the main actors will be categorically dealt with according to law. Those who were incited or coerced into joining illegal activities will be nurtured after they go through intensive personal study class, and through support they will be made to clearly recognize the nature of Tibet independence and the harmful nature of participating in illegal activities.

They will also be considered key contact targets and monitored. Leaders, key actors and their families will be disqualified from enjoying the benefits of the public benefit policy. Officials drawing state pensions will be strictly dealt with under the provisions of the ”Huangnan Prefecture measures on allocating responsibility for irregularities in stability management work by government officials”, and the ”Standards of conduct for Party member officials to firmly uphold Party political discipline in the struggle against separatist infiltration” distributed by [all] five provincial Party committees (Qinghai Party Discipline Committee [2015] Doc. no.1).

Government workers at the village level will face Party disciplinary prosecutions. Additionally, they will have their salaries cut off. Villages in which incidents of instability have occurred, and monasteries also, will be subject to intensive comprehensive rectification, responsibility will be allocated to officials stationed in those townships, villages or monasteries, no work projects or expenditure will be sanctioned for the following two years, and those already sanctioned will all be wound down.


Footnotes
[1] The exact date on which the instructions were issued is not known, but a note at the end of the Tibetan version states it was distributed on February 12, 2015 by the Communist Party office of Tongren County. It began to circulate on social media in February.

[2] The exact date of the speech in February is not known. Ju Kezhong was speaking at the 10th Plenary of the 11th Party Committee conference of Malho Prefecture, which began in January with the 8th Plenary. (http://www.qhtb.cn/news/shehui/2015/01-06/14532.html, in Tibetan). ICT has obtained a copy of the speech in Tibetan.

[3] Note also regulations from Driru, Nagchu, the Tibet Autonomous Region, translated by ICT: http://www.savetibet.org/harsh-new-rectification-drive-in-driru-nuns-expelled-and-warning-of-destruction-of-monasteries-and-mani-walls/ New measures in another are, Dzoege in Ngaba (Chinese: Ali), Sichuan state that family, fellow villagers, and monasteries could be subject to punishment and persecution if a Tibetan self-immolator is a relative or from the local area, with potentially devastating consequences on the broader community. ICT report: http://www.savetibet.org/absurd-and-terrifying-new-regulations-escalate-drive-to-criminalize-self-immolations-by-targeting-family-villagers-monasteries/

[4] See ICT report, ‘Storm in the Grasslands: Self-immolations in Tibet and Chinese Policy’, http://www.savetibet.org/storm-in-the-grasslands-self-immolations-in-tibet-and-chinese-policy/

[5] In a set of new regulations passed in April 2013 in one of the areas where several self-immolations have occurred, the entire community is faced with financial and other penalties. These developments are documented in ICT’s report, ‘Acts of Significant Evil: The Criminalisation of Self-immolation’, http://www.savetibet.org/acts-of-significant-evil/

[6] ICT report, http://www.savetibet.org/two-monks-imprisoned-for-three-years-after-prayers-for-a-tibetan-self-immolator/

[7] On October 19, 2010, hundreds of students and some monks marched through the streets of Rebkong to express opposition to new measures under discussion in Qinghai about downgrading further Tibetan as a medium of instruction in schools. Students from the teacher training college in Malho (Chinese: Huangnan) held a banner with the slogan: “Return the authority of the Tibetan language.” (ICT report, Protests by students against downgrading of Tibetan language spread to Beijing, http://www.savetibet.org/protests-by-students-against-downgrading-of-tibetan-language-spread-to-beijing/ and ICT report, http://www.savetibet.org/thousands-of-tibetan-students-and-schoolchildren-gather-for-peaceful-demonstration-in-rebkong/. In a different type of protest, in August, 2012, Tibetans in Rebkong held a bold peaceful protest to complain about brutality by local police after four Tibetans were beaten up. Footage (uploaded to YouTube) and images from Rebkong on August 14 depict crowds of Tibetans gathering peacefully and displaying banners in both Chinese and Tibetan saying: ‘Rebkong county police brutal beatings of Tibetan people’. Photographs of the four Tibetans who were beaten were also displayed. ICT report, August 18, 2012, http://www.savetibet.org/tibetans-in-rebkong-gather-to-protest-police-brutality/

[8] It was a feature of numerous protests in 2008 and afterwards that Tibetans would display home made copies of the ‘snow lion’ flag as a peaceful assertion of their Tibetan identity.

[9] While the language is vague, the authorities could choose to include sending money to the Dalai Lama for prayer offerings, for instance, in this category

[10] The literal term used, ‘key contact targets’, is obscure, but it is most likely to mean key places that need to be monitored, which could include areas where political unrest has occurred in the past, or monasteries where monks have resisted patriotic education campaigns, for instance.

[11] This is a reference to the Tibetan Buddhist practice of saving animals by purchasing them alive from slaughterhouses and freeing or keeping them, in order to prevent suffering. This not only benefits the animals, but is also good for the karma of the individual requesting the rescue, or for others to whom the practice is dedicated. Last year, three senior Buddhist monks in Qinghai were detained in Golog, Qinghai, for purchasing and freeing three hundred yaks headed for the slaughterhouse. (RFA report, February 19, 2014, http://www.rfa.org/english/news/tibet/yaks-02192014162424.html).

[12] While the official language describes this as a ‘pretext’ it clearly can be used to target individuals involved in neutral activities of protecting the environment.

 

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