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In Remote China, Tibetans Break Silence

March 20, 2008

From Associated Press – A Tibetan monk crouched in the quiet courtyard of a nearly deserted monastery and bitterly recalled the words he and his fellow monks have been forced to recite every year at government-organized classes: “I love this country.”

The “patriotic education classes” have been imposed on the monks for the past decade, but the young monk in the centuries-old Rongwo monastery still can speak his own mind to a journalist.

“We want freedom,” he said. “We want the Dalai Lama to come back to his land.”

The monastery is located in the valley town of Tongren, in Qinghai province, about 600 miles north of Lhasa, where anti-government protests last week were put down by riot police. The town is a mix of Tibetans and ethnic Chinese.

Just inside the monastery’s main entrance, Tibetan pilgrims walked in quick circles around a prayer room that displays, among sacred objects, a large photo of the Dalai Lama. Outside, unmarked police vans were parked in a vast gravel lot.

The abbot of the monastery ordered the monks not to protest, saying that joining the Tibetan uprising would only hurt them.

When asked whether he agreed, a tortured expression crossed the face of the young monk, and he pressed a thumb to his lips in thought. Finally he said: “If I don’t agree, there is nothing I can do.”

The monk, like many other residents of this region, was fearful of giving his name to a foreign journalist.

His friend, another monk, spoke only Tibetan and communicated by bringing journalists into his cramped bedroom, where he pointed to a large color photo of the Dalai Lama taped to a wall.

What the monks wouldn’t say, a Buddhist nun from Taiwan would.

“There is no religious freedom here,” said Shi Chuan, who had spent the past month visiting the monks in Rongwo. “They have no way to express themselves. It’s like they have their hands tied.”

She said police treated her aggressively until they realized she was a foreigner.

Caught between their abbot’s orders and their desire to join other Tibetans in protest, about 100 monks climbed a hillside above the monastery on March 16. There they burned incense and set off fireworks, while riot police massed outside the more than 700-year-old monastery, businesses closed and Tibetans ducked indoors. The night was peaceful, though.

In the morning, shops opened as normal and children walked to school past groups of armed police taking their morning jog down the main streets. Dozens of riot police lounged in a hotel lobby at breakfast before going out to patrol, passing strolling Tibetans in traditional dress. The monastery remained quiet.

The Chinese government has scrambled to shut down China’s Tibetan areas since the unrest in Lhasa. Authorities have shipped in truckloads of armed police, set up blockades to keep out foreigners and turned Tibetan communities across remote western China into armed camps, with the monasteries at their center.

Just outside the rings of riot police, life appears to go on as usual, at least at first glance. But Tibetans and non-Tibetans alike quietly share news of the uprising. One taxi driver furtively showed off cell phone photos his family had sent him from the protest in Lhasa.

In the heavily Tibetan southeastern corner of Qinghai province, tucked among at least three regions of reported protests, Tibetans in thick coats bounced by on motorcycles over gravel-strewn roads, waving. They huddled in cafes over plates piled with dumplings, their sunburned faces creasing when they smiled.

The dry, rolling grasslands more than 1,000 miles from Beijing gave the feeling of calm.

But a couple of hours down the road, several cars filled with police burst out of the darkness when a group of foreign journalists set off to walk around a checkpoint in one of the most heated areas of the Tibetan uprising, southern Gansu province.

“What did you see?” the officers angrily shouted. One officer did not put away his automatic rifle until the one ethnic Chinese journalist convinced him that he was a foreigner.

The lights of Luqu, a monastery town where there had been protests, were clearly visible down the road. The journalists were pushed into a police van and driven out of the Tibetan prefecture through its capital, where squads of riot police marched through the city square and hundreds more lined the empty streets.

The journalists were taken to a city outside the Tibetan region. When they stopped at the same checkpoint two of them had been escorted past less than 36 hours before, one young Chinese official smiled and said in English, “Ah, old friends.”

In one town along the eastern edge of the Tibetan plateau, where snow fell from the gray sky and yaks grazed near frozen streams, a police checkpoint had been set up on one lonely road heading south from Tongren. Such checkpoints are common since the current Tibetan uprising began, and the mood was tense.

The driver was stopped, inspected and lightly punished – with a 30-minute stop beside the road. His passengers – foreign journalists – crouched in the back seat with jackets over their heads.

The officers weren’t checking passports; they were checking to see if the driver had his seat belt buckled.

Between the periods of being controlled by the Chinese government and then largely ignored, Tibetans have learned to keep their frustrations on simmer. Drivers taped photos of important Buddhist lamas to the inside roofs of their cars. One driver proudly showed off a tiny glass ornament hanging from his rearview mirror with a faint engraved image of the Dalai Lama, a banned icon in China.

One taxi driver in a largely Muslim city in neighboring Gansu province showed off cell phone photos that his relatives in Lhasa had sent him.

The driver nervously clicked through images of charred and overturned cars and people running through the smoky streets, and he worried that local police might see him showing the images to a foreigner.

“Those Tibetans are causing a lot of trouble,” the driver, a Muslim, said as he drove slowly at dusk through a once-bustling Tibetan area of town, now silent.

Despite the government’s efforts to clamp down on news reports and cast the uprising as being caused by a tiny “Dalai clique,” he knew exactly why the violence had occurred.

“They want freedom,” he said.

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