By Kathrin Hille in Beijing
The exiled chief abbot of a monastery that has become the flashpoint of sustained Tibetan unrest has appealed to the Chinese government to end a repression campaign seen as the source of an unprecedented string of self-immolations by monks from the area.
Eleven Tibetan monks and nuns from the area around Kirti, a large monastery in Aba, a Tibetan-dominated area of the western Chinese province of Sichuan, have set themselves on fire since this March.
The burnings were a result of a “re-education campaign almost around the clock which has been driving the monks to a point where we Tibetans find it unbearable”, said Kyabje Kirti Rinpoche in a conference call organised by Human Rights in China, a US-based advocacy group, on Wednesday.
The Chinese Communist party insists that Tibet is an inseparable part of China and condemns the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan people’s exiled leader, as an alleged splittist, although he says he does not demand independence but true autonomy for his people. The party sees challenges to its views of the situation and criticism of its rule in Tibet as a threat to its overall authority.
A new form of protest among Tibetan Buddhists, the immolations have put the most severe pressure on its authority in this area since riots that shook Tibetan areas in May 2008.
The abbot said the security crackdown following the 2008 unrest had been particularly severe in Aba, and that the monks at Kirti had been divided into eight different groups for interrogation and “struggle” sessions in which they were unrelentingly pressed to change their views on Tibetan politics.
He added that after the first monk set himself on fire in March this year, the monks had been divided into 55 even smaller groups. About 800 government officials moved into the monastery, which was equipped with closed-circuit cameras, listening devices and watchtowers, the abbot said. “The monks live in a state of imprisonment,” he added.
Mr Kyabje and other Tibetan leaders have blamed repression for the self-immolations before, including in testimony to the US Congress earlier this month. But his latest descriptions offer an unprecedented level of detail about the situation in the area. It was not possible to verify them because the Chinese government turns away reporters who try to travel to Kirti.
The 69-year-old Mr Kyabje, who is the spiritual leader for thousands of monks in several branches of the Kirti monastery, has spent most of his life in India after fleeing his homeland in 1959. He said his knowledge of the situation on the ground stemmed from sources in Kirti who passed on information to him.
In contrast to some other exiled Tibetan leaders, he refused to condemn the self-immolations. “I feel that in a way we don’t have the right or moral authority to tell them what to do or not to do,” he said. Quoting Mao Zedong, the Chinese revolutionary and dictator, he added: “Wherever there is repression, there will be resistance.”