(New York) – Governments concerned about the worsening human rights situation in Tibet should meet on the sidelines of next week’s United Nations General Assembly to discuss the formation of a Tibet contact group, Human Rights Watch said today.
A contact group could press the Chinese government to consider resuming meaningful negotiations with Tibetan representatives, and visibly demonstrate heightened international concern about deteriorating conditions.
“The response of governments to the Chinese government’s renewed crackdown in Tibet is hardly commensurate to the scope and scale of the crisis,” said Sophie Richardson, China director. “Concerned governments should set aside fears of irking Beijing and press China to respect Tibetans’ basic rights.”
Human Rights Watch also urged governments to express support for the longstanding requests by UN special rapporteurs, as well as diplomats, journalists, and other independent monitors, to have access to Tibetan areas.
The Chinese government, in response to a wave of self-immolations, has strengthened its blackout on information and communications into and out of Tibet, increased repressive security operations, and multiplied arbitrary detentions. In 2012, 38 Tibetans have set themselves on fire, 32 fatally; some stated that they were doing so to protest Chinese government policies. The government continues to bar independent observers to the region.
In August 2012, Chinese officials responded to protests with sweeping arrests, detentions, and further controls, especially inside monasteries. Tibetan human rights groups reported the arrest of three monks from Tsodun (Caodeng in Chinese) monastery in Ma'erkang County (Barkham in Tibetan) on August 12, and two more arrests on August 16. On each of the intervening nights, armed police entered the monastery and beat and questioned the monks, purportedly asking about those individuals who had self-immolated. No reasons for the arrests are known to have been given. A similar armed raid on Zilkar monastery in Chenduo county (Trindu in Tibetan), Qinghai, on September 1 resulted in the detention of five monks and the confiscation of computers and other items.
Ever-increasing government restrictions on religion, culture, and other basic freedoms have led to at least some of the self-immolations in recent years. A total of 51 Tibetans have self-immolated in Tibetan areas since February 2009, and of the 38 immolations in 2012, seven took place in August alone. In several cases the deaths of people who set themselves on fire triggered incidents or protests involving several hundred people, with thousands attending funerals.
Rather than attempt to address underlying grievances, the Chinese government’s primary response has been to increase security presence and restrictive regulations across the region.
In late 2011, the Chinese government reversed the policy that had allowed Buddhist monasteries in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) to be run by monks who comply with government regulations. A system was introduced that places almost every monastery in Tibet under the direct rule of government or Chinese Communist Party officials who will be permanently stationed in each religious institution with orders to compile files on each monk and nun, as well as check their political reliability. The measure, unprecedented in Tibetan areas, was contained in an “important memorandum” on “mechanisms to build long-term stability in Tibet,” according to official news reports in December 2011.
The government’s increased security and restrictions are particularly acute in and around monasteries. While there were reports in May 2012 that security forces had begun to leave religious institutions that had seen immolations, such as Kirti (Ge Erde in Chinese) monastery in Aba county (Ngaba in Tibetan), in Sichuan, there appears to have been a reversal of that process in recent months, with police and other security personnel entering the monasteries. Most of those who have set themselves on fire in protest are current or former monks and nuns.
Tibetans remain subject to much greater restrictions on information than Chinese-speakers or those living in other parts of China. Throughout 2012, Human Rights Watch has documented a gradual tightening of restrictions on news, media, and other communications in Tibet, which has resulted in cutting off Tibetans in China from information not subject to the government’s control. People who seek to challenge that control are harshly treated. In August, the authorities reported that Lho Yonten Gyatso, a monk at Kashi (Kaxi in Chinese) monastery in Aba county, Sichuan Province who had been missing for eight months, was sentenced to seven years in prison. He had been convicted on June 18 for passing information about Tibet to exiles abroad, including a photo of an immolation protest. At least two other Tibetan monks were given prison sentences in August 2011 for sending out similar photographs of an immolation protest.
Chinese government policies on information control have expanded to include new measures announced in May 2012 in the TAR that list locally specific controls on internet use, text messages, phone ownership, and photocopying as necessary to “ensure the absolute security of Tibet’s ideological and cultural realm.” As a result, Tibetans have no legal access to independent news.
Tibetans, including the majority in the countryside, are also being made to undergo political education in villages, schools, and monasteries throughout the region since late last year.
Restrictions on the right to freedom of movement have also increased. Tibetans from other provinces attempting to travel into the TAR face increasing limitations on travel to Lhasa and other parts of the central Tibetan region, and an unknown number of Tibetans from other provinces have been deported from Lhasa, including some with valid residence permits.
The government has also targeted Tibetans returning from trips in India and Nepal. Since February 2012, over 1,000 people have been detained without any judicial process for political re-education – termed “legal education” by the government – after travelling to Nepal and then India to hear religious teachings by the Dalai Lama, even though most have travelled on legal documents. Except for those aged 60 years or older, most of the detainees were reportedly confined for two months before being released.
Several governments, particularly those with official bilateral human rights dialogues with the Chinese government, have expressed concern publicly about the deteriorating environment in Tibet, documented human rights abuses there, or had detailed private conversations about the immolations and other alarming developments with their interlocutors in Beijing. But most have limited their calls for action to exhorting the Chinese government to resume meaningful negotiations with Tibetan representatives – a step the Chinese government is unlikely to take in the absence of significant, coordinated international pressure.
“The many years of restricting Tibetans’ fundamental rights have led to acts of desperation that have escalated a crisis that shows no sign of abating,” Richardson said. “UN member countries should take steps now that could give Tibetans some hope.”