Human Rights in Tibet

China's leaders, fully aware of the link between religion and politics in Tibet and fearful of a strengthened independence movement, have intensified the crackdown on any and all expressions of so-called "splittism," in the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) and in the Tibetan areas in the bordering provinces of Sichuan, Gansu, Yunnan, and Qinghai. Freedom of expression, association, assembly, and religion are under sharp and constant attack, and official rhetoric against the Dalai Lama is increasingly virulent. "Patriotic reeducation teams," sent by the government to eradicate any signs of pro-independence sentiment or support for the Dalai Lama, are revisiting monasteries and nunneries and expelling and imprisoning monks and nuns who refuse to accept the official Chinese version of Tibet's history, culture, and religious practice. In Tibet, the Strike Hard campaign, which began throughout China on April 28, 1996 as an anti-crime effort, targets suspected "splittists," those who would separate Tibet from the motherland. They can face "disappearance," torture, or extraordinarily long prison sentences for non-violent political and religious activity.

Assessment of the full impact of the crackdown is difficult. Security regulations which make it a crime to report the names of prisoners, the number or severity of dissident demonstrations, or the extent of resistance to Chinese rule. (On August 8, 1997, for example, two Tibetans, Shol Dawa and Topgyal received sentences of nine and six years respectively for compiling lists and disseminating information about prisoners.) Any contact with foreigners is risky for Tibetans, and Chinese authorities try to limit that contact through travel restrictions on tourists and strict controls on entry of foreign journalists to the TAR.

Control of religious practice is at the heart of attempts to neutralize support for the Dalai Lama and for independence or genuine autonomy for Tibet. Because of the Dalai Lama's role as both spiritual and political leader, that support is centered in Tibet's monasteries and nunneries. A reeducation campaign targeting those institutions began in May 1996. The process of reeducation is as follows. A work team takes up residence at a particular monastery, with armed troops sometimes accompanying the team. Monks and nuns are instructed in the official version of Tibet's history, in religious policy, knowledge of the law, and the problem of "splittism." They are required to speak out individually about what they learned. At the end of the course, they are required to take written and oral exams; questions and correct answers are supplied in advance. Examinees must denounce the Dalai Lama, acknowledge that Tibet has always been a part of China, renounce calls for independence, and agree that the boy recognized by Chinese authorities, rather than by the Dalai Lama, is the true reincarnation of the Panchen Lama. Failure -- and a bad attitude constitutes failure -- means arrest or expulsion, forced return to one's native village, usually the countryside where earning a living is almost impossible, and a ban on future participation in monastic life. By official count, 700 monasteries and nunneries and 35,000 monks and nuns, representing 76 percent of the total, have been "rectified." In Nagchu Prefecture alone, fifty-eight work teams were sent to key monasteries and nunneries in the area. It is estimated that close to 3,000 monks and nuns were expelled in 1996 and 1997. In some cases, monasteries and nunneries have been completely shuttered, and in some instances demolished. As of June 1998, the campaign was continuing.

On November 11, 1997, the patriotic education campaign was extended to the lay population on a trial basis, and a week later, the vice-chair of the TAR Office of Education in Lamaseries announced that in an effort to "eliminate the Dalai's influence and win people's hearts," patriotic education would be extended to "agricultural communities, towns, cities, governments organs and schools." If the aim of the campaign in religious institutions has been to marginalize monks and nuns who disagree with Chinese policy, in the secular sphere, it facilitates identification of allegedly loyal cadres who harbor nationalist sentiments

The Panchen Lama issue remains unresolved. After the Dalai Lama announced on May 15, 1996, that Gendun Choekyi Nyima, then six years old, was the reincarnation of the Panchen Lama, Chinese authorities, using their own interpretation of Tibetan history, immediately denounced the selection and the Dalai Lama's right to make it. They quickly installed their own choice and moved him to Beijing, where they could make sure he received a "proper" education. Gendun Choekyi Nyima and his family disappeared. In addition, Chinese authorities arrested Chadrel Rinpoche, the abbot who had led the official search team to find the reincarnation, and sentenced him to a six-year prison term. He is believed to be serving his sentence in isolation in a secret compound in Sichuan province. On November 7, 1997, the Tibet Party Committee secretary characterized Chadrel Rimpoche as one who "[was] trusted by and received special treatment by the Party and government for many years, rebelled against the Party and country at the crucial moment, and stabbed the Party in the back," As for Gendun Choekyi Nyima, three years after his identification and subsequent disappearance, his whereabouts are still unclear. Chinese officials variously have said he is in Tibet, Gansu province, and Beijing, but have not allowed access to him.

Tibet's political and religious activists face "disappearance," or incommunicado detention, long prison sentences, and unacceptable treatment in custody.

  • Ngawang Choephel, an ethnomusicologist and Fulbright scholar at Middlebury College in Vermont, was sentenced to an eighteen-year sentence on an unlikely charge of spying; all indications are that he was simply recording traditional Tibetan dance and music. Ngawang Choephel's whereabouts are unknown; his mother still has not received permission to visit him.
  • Rinzin Wangyal, sentenced in 1995 to a sixteen-year term for political activities, had his sentenced extended to life imprisonment in October 1997.
  • Ngawang Pekar, from Drepung Monastery, had served four years of an eight-year sentence when he was sentenced to an additional six years for trying to smuggle out a list of political prisoners in Drapchi prison.

Ex-prisoners and detainees continue to report severe torture. Methods such as prolonged exposure to temperature extremes ensure that subjects bear no obvious signs of their treatment.

Beatings appear to be routine. On June 16, 1997, after a reeducation session, Jampel Tendar was arrested and badly beaten in two different detention centers for putting up pro-independence posters around Gongar Choede monastery. Jamyang Thinley, a twenty-five-year-old monk from the Chamdo region, was arrested on May 30, 1996 for possession of political leaflets; he died five days after he was released on September 13, less than four months after he was detained reportedly as a result of torture and severe beatings in Chamdo prison. There have been reports that in October 1997 and May 1998 during visits by the U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention and an official European Union delegation respectively, prisoners who shouted slogans were severely beaten and otherwise abused.

US-China Summit (June 1998) and Human Rights - Campaigns Page

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