Tibetan nun self-immolates in Kardze: continued resistance despite Chinese crackdown

A Tibetan nun called Palden Choetso set fire to herself yesterday (November 3) in Kardze (Chinese: Ganzi) Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in Sichuan, the Tibetan area of Kham. The state news agency Xinhua confirmed the self-immolation and reported that the nun died after setting herself on fire at about 12:50 p.m. near her nunnery in Tawu (also known as Dawu, Chinese: Daofu) county in Kardze. Palden Choetso is the second Tibetan nun to have self-immolated after 20-year old Tenzin Wangmo set fire to herself in Ngaba (Chinese: Aba) on October 17 (ICT report, Tibetan nun dies following self-immolation protest – 21 October 2011) and becomes the 12th Tibetan to have set fire to themselves in Tibet since February, 2009.

Palden Choetso, who is in her thirties, is from Ganden Jangchup Choeling Nunnery in Tawu and, according to reports from Tibetans in exile, she may have set fire to herself in the same place that monk Tsewang Norbu from Nyitso monastery self-immolated on August 15 (ICT report, Troops surround monastery as Tibetan monk dies after setting himself on fire & calling for the return of the Dalai Lama to Tibet – 16 August 2011). As her body was burning, Palden Choetso called for the long life of the Dalai Lama, freedom, and for the Dalai Lama to return home. According to one source in exile, “After Palden Choetso’s self-immolation the nuns took her to the nunnery, and she died soon afterwards. Nuns began to pray for her. The local authorities have locked down the area, closing a major road in Tawu, and deploying troops to the nunnery.” Palden Choetso’s action follows the self-immolation of Dawa Tsering, a monk in his thirties from Kardze Monastery in Kardze (Chinese: Ganzi) Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in Sichuan, who set fire to himself on the morning of October 25 (ICT report, 11th self-immolation in Tibet; Kardze monk sets fire to himself during religious ceremony – 28 October 2011).

The three self-immolations in Kardze in recent weeks take place in the context of continued unrest and severe crackdown in Kardze Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Sichuan province. This report on the latest bold assertions of Tibetan identity and support for the Dalai Lama in Kardze details the following developments in Kardze since June, including the following:

  • The three self-immolations in Kardze
  • Mass police deployment to stop celebrations of the Dalai Lama’s birthday in July
  • Chinese police beat and detain Tibetan schoolgirls after peaceful protest
  • Removal of Dalai Lama image and Tibetan flag on China’s ‘National Day’
  • New Chinese security facilities and military presence in Kardze
  • Chinese police shoot Tibetans with rubber bullets

Dissent and protests have continued in Kardze, an area where Tibetans have a strong sense of Tibetan identity and resilient, nationalist spirit, despite an intense and systematic crackdown. Some of the demonstrations coincided with one of the most important Buddhist festivals, Saga Dawa, while in the Tawu area Tibetans celebrated the Dalai Lama’s birthday. Security in Kardze has been scaled up as a result and a number of Tibetans have been arrested, with some sentenced.

By early July the authorities in Kardze indicated their alarm over the continuing peaceful actions by Tibetans in statements made in the state-run Ganzi Daily. Li Dao Ping, the Vice President of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference in Sichuan province, visited Kardze in early July, and was reported as saying that: “We should firmly smash separatist activities, firmly protect social stability and make an effort to equally develop all nationalities” (Ganzi Daily, 05 July 2011). According to the Ganzi Daily, Li visited a senior citizen center and a nomad resettlement home during his time in Kardze. Despite Kardze’s “autonomous” formal designation, in a clear message targeting dissent, Li emphasized the government’s demand to adhere to the Party’s plan for modernization through social stability, telling one resettled nomad that “If you work hard, you will have a brighter tomorrow” (Ganzi Daily, 06 July 2011).

This report documents known incidents in Kardze and their consequences. Some of the incidents cannot be reported in full due to dangers for Tibetans in communicating or sharing any news about their situation.

October 25: self-immolation of Dawa Tsering

Dawa Tsering, a monk in his thirties from Kardze Monastery in Kardze (Chinese: Ganzi) Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in Sichuan, set fire to himself during a religious ceremony on the morning of October 25. Details from various exiled sources indicate that Dawa Tsering was still alive immediately after monks and other people attending a religious ritual at the monastery extinguished the flames, although his current condition and whereabouts are not clear. (ICT report, 11th self-immolation in Tibet; Kardze monk sets fire to himself during religious ceremony – 28 October 2011).

Exiled sources said that Dawa Tsering was participating in a religious ceremony at the time of a Cham (monastic) Dance, attended by hundreds of local people inside the monastery when he set himself alight and shouted slogans calling for the Dalai Lama’s return to Tibet. The atmosphere at the monastery in the immediate wake of the incident was said by sources to be extremely tense, with Chinese police deployed around and inside the monastery in an apparent stand-off with the monks and lay-people protecting Dawa Tsering.

Kardze monastery, founded in 1641, belongs to the Gelugpa school of Tibetan Buddhism. Today it hosts approximately 500 monks, however at one point it housed some 1,500 and was once the largest monastery in the Tibetan area of Kham. Towering over the town from the northern hills, the monastery is an important destination for religious pilgrims and local devotees who walk the ritual pilgrimage circuit around the hill to accrue merits.

The Cham dance, the ritual festival during which Dawa Tsering chose to self-immolate, is one of the few traditional festivals that major Buddhist monasteries are allowed to observe. The Cham dance is an elaborate ceremony rich in religious, moral, and historical significance, and is regarded by Tibetans as a means to suppress demonic forces and negative energy.

While it is not currently known what dances where performed during the occasion, most Cham dance rituals include a routine that recounts the story of Lhalung Pelkyi Dorjé, a monk who in the 9th century AD took upon himself the responsibility to dethrone the then king Langdharma, who was believed not to be in favor of supporting Buddhism and the monastic community in Tibet. Whether intended or not, the commemoration of sacrifice as well as the overall significance of the Cham dance lends the symbolic meaning of taking it upon one’s self to sacrifice for the greater good to Dawa Tsering’s self-immolation protest.

October 1 protests; current military presence in Kardze

A young Tibetan man hung a photo of the Dalai Lama and unfurled the banned Tibetan national flag from a building facing the Serthar county square in the Kardze Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture as part of a peaceful protest on October 1, according to Tibetans in exile in contact with Tibetans in the area. According to one estimate a crowd of approximately around 100 or more. Tibetans began to gather in square as leaflets were distributed which read, “Tibetans should not fall asleep under Communist rule. Stand up for the freedom of religion, language, and identity. We do not have fundamental human rights, the freedom of expression, freedom of religion, the freedom to use our language, or freedom of the press. We should fight for those freedoms. Long live His Holiness the Dalai Lama, victory to Tibet, victory to Tibet!” According to the same source in exile, the backsides of the leaflets contained a stamp with the words, “Long live His Holiness the Dalai Lama,” and included “Tibet” written inside the outline of a heart.

According to a report by Radio Free Asia, citing a Tibetan source living in exile, the peaceful protest lasted approximately 15 minutes (RFA, Flag removal triggers protests – 02 October 2011). No detentions have been reported. The October 1 protest coincided with the 63rd anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party, a national holiday in China.

According to a foreign tourist who visited Kardze recently, a new Public Security Bureau and traffic police station was built between Jiefang Lu (Liberation Street) and Chuang Zang Lu (Sichuan Tibet Street) in the town following the 2008 protests. Protective bars have been applied on each window to reinforce them, and local Tibetans say that police are a constant and intimidating presence.


The same foreigner said that since the protests of 2008, additional military personnel were deployed from Chengdu, including anti-riot combat trained soldiers and tanks. Starting the first week of August this year, foreigners have been allowed to travel to Kardze, but a couple of security check posts along the route between Dartsedo and Kardze check for their presence on local buses and private vehicles, and there is systematic checking of identification documents.

Soon after the 2008 protests, as a reminder of the government’s attitude and policies, posters and slogans praising the Chinese Communist Party, the importance of patriotism, and “unity of the motherland” were posted by the authorities in many areas of the town. The foreign visitor to Kardze said: “At the main intersection in downtown Kardze, a Chinese language poster titled ‘The Eight Glories and the Eight Shames’ (the glory of loving the motherland, of serving the people, of respecting science, etc, and the shame of harming the motherland, of deviating from the people, of pure ignorance) is meant to remind residents of Kardze of the proper social attitude. Unlike Dartsedo, where the Internet and outbound and inbound international long-distance telephone communication is possible, in Kardze, both the outbound international phone line and the internet connections have been interrupted. However, international telephone calls can be received on private cell phones. A strong military presence is still allocated in town, but in general the town seems quiet, and apart from local Public Security Bureau and traffic police officers, no army patrols are noticeable.”

August 15: Self immolation of Tsewang Norbu from Nyitso monastery

On August 15, Tsewang Norbu, a Buddhist monk from Nyitso monastery in Kardze, died after setting fire to himself and calling for freedom and the return of the Dalai Lama to Tibet. Tsewang Norbu drank petrol before immolating himself and died soon afterwards, according to Tibetan exiles in contact with the area. The Chinese state media confirmed his death shortly afterwards, with Xinhua stating: “It was unclear why he had burnt himself”, and that the local government had launched an investigation. (Xinhua, August 15).

A hotel receptionist near the scene of Tsewang Norbu’s death told AFP that the monk had been distributing leaflets, saying: “I saw a monk lying on the ground and burning, he died right in front of the county government building.” (AFP, August 15).

The state media confirmed that Tsewang Norbu had been swiftly cremated on Wednesday, August 17, evidence that the Kardze Party Secretary’s instructions for a prompt cremation were followed. Xinhua reported that Tsewang Norbu (Chinese transliteration: Tsongwon Norbu) had been “cremated Wednesday in accordance with Tibetan rituals”, according to the local government. (Xinhua in English, August 17). See ICT report, Troops surround monastery as Tibetan monk dies after setting himself on fire and calling for the return of the Dalai Lama to Tibet – 16 August 2011, for further details.

July 15: Violent response to solo demonstration

On July 15, a Tibetan called Ngawang Phuntsog staged a peaceful protest along the main street in Kardze county town, spreading pro-Tibetan leaflets and calling out “we need freedom” and “long live His Holiness the Dalai Lama,” according to a Tibetan source in India who is in contact with Tibetans in the area. Phuntsog, 34 year-old, from Rhego township near Dargye monastery in Kardze county, was quickly detained by security personnel and beaten unconscious before being taken away, according to the same sources. Ngawang Phuntsog is married and has two children. According to a report by Radio Free Asia police beat him severely before he was taken into detention (RFA, School girls beaten, detained – 19 July 2011). According to one source in exile, Ngawang Phuntsog crumpled to the ground during the beating, and some sources say police had fired rubber bullets at his legs.

July 12: Two Tibetan schoolgirls beaten and detained

On July 12, two schoolgirls—identified by Radio Free Asia as Tashi Pelmo, 16, and Pema Yangdzom, 19—were detained after making a peaceful protest in the market place of Kardze town, shouting slogans calling for independence for Tibet and the long life and return to Tibet of the Dalai Lama. The two girls were released two days later to their families but according to Radio Free Asia were prevented from seeking medical treatment for injuries sustained while in custody, which are severe. According to the same report, one of the girl’s fathers suspects his daughter was sexually assaulted while in custody (RFA, 19 July 2011).

July 10: Young Tibetan man sentenced to three years for brief demonstration

Three young Tibetan men were beaten and detained after protesting in the market area of Kardze county town on July 10, according to information received by the Dharamsala-based Tibetan Center for Human Rights and Democracy (TCHRD) (TCHRD, 05 August 2011). One of the young men, Samphel Dhondup, was subsequently sentenced to three years imprisonment by a court in Kardze TAP in late August, according to a report by TCHRD (TCHRD, 07 September 2011). Lobsang Phuntsok, age 17, Samphel Dhondup, age 23 and Lobsang Lhundup began demonstrating at approximately 4 pm, shouting slogans and distributing pamphlets that included the phrases “Freedom in Tibet,” “Long live His Holiness the Dalai Lama,” “Return of the Dalai Lama,” and “May the Dalai Lama and all Tibetans unite soon,” according to the same sources. Lobsang Phuntsok and Lobsang Lhundup were released from detention on the same day Samphel Dhondup was sentenced, according to TCHRD.

July 6: Tibetans in Tawu celebrate Dalai Lama’s birthday

The tense environment in the region did not deter Tibetans in the Tawu area of Kardze TAP from going ahead with planned celebrations for the Dalai Lama’s birthday on July 6, 2011. Remarkable photos from the area depict plumes of incense smoke arising from houses on a hillside as a religious offering on the Dalai Lama’s birthday (see photos and video, a transcript of which appears below). In another nearby area, hundreds of police were deployed in order to prevent similar peaceful celebrations of the birthday at a holy mountain on July 6.

Tibetans in Tibet are not allowed to celebrate the birthday of their exiled religious leader the Dalai Lama. Despite the risks, however, several thousand Tibetans gathered just outside Tawu county town in preparation of a three-day celebration in honor of the Dalai Lama’s 76th birthday, as the community had done in 2010, when Tibetans from the area set up tents and celebrated with three days of prayers, singing, dancing and horse racing.

According to Tibetan sources living in exile in India who are in contact with Tibetans in the area, the Tibetans set up tents near the Namgyal stupa, located just outside Tawu county town, in Tawu county, Kardze TAP, prior to the July 6, 2011 anniversary, according to the same sources. At around 4 AM, as the Tibetans approached a nearby holy mountain where the opening ceremony was to take place with the spreading of Lungta (paper notes containing Buddhist scriptures) and the burning of incense, security personnel reached the mountain and were deployed to block their way. The same source said that according to reports he had heard, around 500 police were deployed and it is assumed that they were fully armed. Some hours later, according to the same sources, nuns from nearby Ganden Jangchup Choeling and Ngagongling nunneries held a peaceful demonstration in solidarity with the gathered crowd. Palden Choetso, the nun who immolated herself yesterday (November 3) was from Ganden Jangchup Choeling; it is not known if she participated in the birthday celebrations or subsequent demonstration. According to the same source, their gathering was also to make a point about the overall security crackdown in the region, and some of the nuns carried home-made Tibetan national flags, which are banned in Tibet. The source said that they shouted slogans calling for freedom in Tibet, for the Dalai Lama’s return, and for religious freedom.

Details of how the demonstration continued and was suppressed are not fully known, but the same source said that it was believed the Tibetans continued to gather there for four to five hours. The streets of Tawu county town were being guarded by security personnel and electricity to the nunneries of Ganden Jangchup Choeling and Ngagongling was cut off, although it is not known for how long. Tibetan exiles in Dharamsala says that the number of Tibetans who supported the nuns and those seeking to celebrate the Dalai Lama’s birthday far exceeded the number of security personnel, which may have been the reason why the demonstration was not immediately brought to an end. According to the same sources no Tibetans were known to be detained at the time, although detentions may have followed later in a security sweep of the local area, which is consistent with the aftermath of other peaceful demonstrations held since 2008 in Tibet.

A video commentary accompanied by scenes of the Tawu area was later posted online, detailing the attempted birthday celebration and subsequent intervention by local authorities. In the video, the Tibetan commentator appeals to “Tibetans living as refugees in free countries, as well as Tibet supporters around the world, to demonstrate concern and work to prevent the religious, political, economic and social destruction of Tibet.” The commentator clearly acknowledges the risks being taken to make this video, saying that: “Many people recorded images and video [of the birthday celebration in Tawu in 2010]. Later on, some of these images and video were even sent around the world. Unfortunately, some people cannot survive in Tibet if he or she records images and video and sends it to the outside world, due to the Chinese government’s repression, which includes arrests and detentions.” However, the commentator goes on to stress that “it is very important for those Tibetans living outside Tibet as refugees, as well as the people around the world, understand that there is a large group of people without human rights living under oppression.” (See below for full translation by ICT).

July 2: Three Tibetan nuns sentenced after June 15 protest

On July 2, 2011, the Kardze People’s Intermediate Court sentenced three Tibetan nuns to three-year prison terms. The nuns, Jampa Choedon, Shi Lhamo and Yangchen (also known as Tashi Tsetso), are from Gema Tag nunnery in Kardze county, Kardze TAP, Sichuan province. According to a source in exile in contact with Tibetans from the area, officials in Thangka township in Kardze county received a letter announcing the sentencings, stating that the charges concerned a protest the nuns staged on June 15, 2011. Despite the announcement of their sentences, their current whereabouts and wellbeing are unknown to their families and friends, according to the same source. (ICT report, Dozens of Tibetans imprisoned in new wave of Kardze demonstrations: protest in Lhasa by Dargye monk – 27 June 2011).

Jampa Choedon, Shi Lhamo, and Yangchen’s protest occurred on June 15, the main day of Saga Dawa, one of the most important religious festivals celebrated in Tibet, marking the anniversary of the Buddha’s birth, death and enlightenment. During this period it is believed that good deeds and prayers are multiplied, which may have been a motivating factor for the demonstrations held during what was the holiest month in the Tibetan calendar.

June protests

Towards the end of June over 60 Tibetans in Kardze had been detained following demonstrations, according to Jampa Monlam, head of the Dharamsala-based Tibetan Center for Human Rights and Democracy (RFA, Tibetans held in Kardze – 23 June 2011). In an interview with Radio Free Asia, Jampa Monlam added that most of the protests took place in Kardze county town, the main town of Kardze TAP, in which demonstrators “call[ed] for Tibetan independence, for the return of the Dalai Lama to Tibet, and for religious freedom,” as well as for the release of political prisoners.

June 28: Whereabouts of three Tibetans unknown after protests

Three Tibetans were detained on June 28 in two separate protests in Kardze county town, according to a report by RFA (RFA, 29 June 2011). Two Tibetan nuns from Gyemadra nunnery, Kunga Choezom, 22, and Dekyi Lhamo, 18, staged a peaceful protest on the morning of June 28, lasting approximately 10 minutes, calling for the return of the Dalai Lama to Tibet, independence for Tibet and freedom of religion, as well as spreading pro-Tibetan leaflets, before being detained by authorities, according to the report. RFA reported that a third Tibetan, Karma Yeshi, was also detained for protesting in Kardze county town on June 28, but details are unknown.

June 26: two teenage girls beaten after peaceful demonstration

On the morning of June 26, two teenage Tibetan girls held a peaceful protest in Kardze county town, calling out “Long live His Holiness the Dalai Lama” and “We need freedom in Tibet,” as well as spreading pro-Tibetan leaflets in the air. Palyang Dolma, a 17 year-old girl from Kashrul village, Dhado township, Kardze county, and Deyang, a 19 year-old girl from Dhado village, Dhado township, were both quickly surrounded by security personnel and beaten before being taken away, according to a Tibetan in exile in contact with Tibetans in the area. The girls’ whereabouts and wellbeing are currently unknown.

June 24: Police open fire with rubber bullets

During a peaceful demonstration in the Kardze area on June 24, Tibetan demonstrators were shot by police using rubber bullets, according to two Tibetans in exile in India in contact with Tibetans in the area. According to the sources, some of the protestors were injured, but they could not confirm the extent, though they are not believed to be life-threatening. One source, who spoke with Tibetans in the area by phone, said that “You could hear the fear in their voices when they said that police had opened fire. They thought a huge tragedy was taking place” before they realized that the police were using rubber bullets. The sources described the scene as “Just like in 2008,” a time when security officials violently cracked down on protests during, and subsequent to, a wave of overwhelmingly peaceful protests across the Tibetan plateau that began in Lhasa on March 10, 2008, leading to the death, disappearance and detention of hundreds of Tibetans (ICT report, A great mountain burned by fire: China’s crackdown in Tibet – 9 March 2009).

June 22: Dargye monks from Kardze detained in Lhasa

Ngawang Phuntsog’s protest followed a demonstration by two monks from nearby Dargye monastery who were detained in Lhasa, in the Tibet Autonomous Region, after they shouted slogans in the city’s Barkhor district which included “We want freedom and human rights in Tibet” (ICT report, Dozens of Tibetans imprisoned in new wave of Kardze demonstrations: protest in Lhasa by Dargye monk – 27 June 2011).

For further information on June protests and the beginning of the current crackdown in Kardze, see ICT’s report, Dozens of Tibetans imprisoned in new wave of Kardze demonstrations: protest in Lhasa by Dargye monk – 27 June 2011.

Transcript of Tawu video

The following is an ICT translation and transcription of a video (view here) made by a Tibetan visiting Tawu, detailing the communities attempt to celebrate the Dalai Lama’s birthday on July 6 before being halted by government authorities and police (see above).

“Today is July 6, and it is the birthday of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Most of the people in the Tawu area celebrated the birthday of His Holiness the Dalai Lama last year near the stupa, and this year both monks and local people gathered at the same place, but military troops forcibly stopped our celebration of His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s birthday. Plus, more than 300 nuns prepared to participate in the birthday celebrations for His Holiness the Dalai Lama, but unfortunately the Tawu county military forces stopped the local lay people, monks and nuns at the beginning of the celebration from burning incense on the mountain for the birthday of His Holiness the Dalai Lama in 2011. 

Therefore, the local government did not give us any opportunity or freedom to preserve the celebration of His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s birthday, which demonstrates that Tibetan people in Tibet have no freedom, including the religious freedom to burn incense. As it is, we have no freedom in Tibet to celebrate the birthday, or express our religious freedom. We respect His Holiness the Dalai Lama more highly than our parents. He is our religious leader and it is our tradition to celebrate his birthday and other religious occasions. 

Therefore, the local government ordered many military troops to use force to brake up the gathering of local lay people, monks and nuns who participated in this religious ceremony. 

This case obviously proves that the people in this land are without freedom of religion and human rights. It is very important for those Tibetans living outside Tibet as refugees, as well as the people around the world, understand that there is a large group of people without human right living under oppression. 

Today, due to the presence of military troops, local lay people, monks and nuns did not begin their celebration ceremony where they planned and where they did so in 2010. Therefore, we moved away from this mountain to burn our incense because of the interference from the local government and military troops. We burned incense and recited long-life prayers for His Holiness the Dalai Lama. 

Last year, we not only burned incense, but we also staged several programs, such as singing and dancing, for three days. Many people recorded images and video. Later on, some of these images and video were even sent around the world. Unfortunately, some people cannot survive in Tibet if he or she records images and video and sends it to the outside world, due to the Chinese government’s repression, which includes arrests and detentions. These consequences are also connected to violations of human rights and freedom, as well as mining operations in the area we were able to temporarily halt in Tawu county. 

Here, I would like to appeal those Tibetans living as refugees in free countries, as well as Tibet supporters around the world, to demonstrate concern and work to prevent the religious, political, economic and social destruction of Tibet.”

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