Tuesday, June 23, 2009

A Righteous Escape

From the Sunday, June 21st edition of the New York Times

The government limits the number of monks allowed to live in the monastery, they said. Officials cracked down on festivities honoring the Dalai Lama. When the Chinese-appointed Panchen Lama visited Labrang several years ago, monks were forced to stay indoors to prevent disturbances.

Last year, when monks in Lhasa, the Tibetan capital, began leading peaceful protests on March 10, word spread quickly to Labrang.

Thousands of monks and lay people in Xiahe marched to government offices demanding the return of the Dalai Lama. Some protesters broke into buildings and threw stones at riot police officers.

From then on, the government tightened the screws on the monastery, the monks said. A curfew was imposed. Security officers arrested several monks each night. The monastery began to empty out.

“Some monks ran off to their homes in the countryside,” said Jamyang Jinpa, 24.

The authorities began holding daily hourlong patriotic education classes, in which the monks were forced to read tracts denouncing the Dalai Lama and pledge loyalty to the Communist Party.

“As a Buddhist monk who believes in the Dalai Lama as our foundation, it was unbearable to read this,” Lobsang said.

On the night of April 8, some monks heard on the radio that foreign journalists were to arrive in Labrang the next day on a government tour.

“We immediately stopped what we were doing that night and started discussing the protest,” Jamyang said.

A half-dozen monks brought out a Tibetan flag and scrawled slogans on three white banners. “We have no freedom of speech,” read one. They wrote their wills on the back of the flag because they thought there was a good chance they would be killed by Chinese security forces, Jamyang said.

When they went to the main temple the next morning, they were struck by a strange sight: Hundreds of people were milling about the square outside. Most were plainclothes Chinese security officers.

“We knew then that the journalists were coming,” Jamyang said. “We pretended to visit the temple.”

When the journalists and their government escorts pulled up in minivans, the monks dashed across the square, unfurling their flag and banners. A few words were exchanged in Chinese. Some monks draped white ceremonial scarves around the necks of several journalists.

“The Chinese people in plainclothes took photos of us, but they dared not stop us in front of the journalists,” Jamyang said.

That night, security officers searched the cells of the monks involved in the protest, but the monks had hidden elsewhere. The next night, Jamyang slipped into the mountains and kept walking until dawn.

“After the protest, I felt I would be arrested at any time,” he said.

Jamyang spent the first two months mostly sleeping outdoors, he said, sometimes in ditches that he had dug himself. He tossed away his red robes and began growing out his hair. In the summer, he wandered to the high pastures and slept in the tents of nomads.

“In my dreams, sometimes I would see myself getting shot and dying,” he said.

Two other monks from the protest, Lobsang and Jigme Gyatso, also fled the monastery in the days after Jamyang left. The three stayed apart. After nearly a year in hiding, the monks learned of a guide in Lhasa who could smuggle them into Nepal.

Using fake identification cards, they boarded the new high-altitude train to Lhasa. A driver then sneaked them past checkpoints to the Nepal border, where they crossed a river on logs.

Of the 15 monks who took part in that protest in front of the journalists, only these three have escaped to India. That they made it here is considered extraordinary given how tightly Chinese authorities clamped down on Tibet. The refugee center here usually gets 2,500 to 3,000 Tibetans per year, but that dropped to 550 last year. By the end of May, only 176 refugees had arrived, said Ngawang Norbu, the center’s director.

The monks say they have no regrets about holding the protest — to them, there was no other way to show the world their true feelings about Chinese rule.

“I miss my friends and family in Tibet, but I try to bury my feelings,” Jamyang said. “At the moment, I can’t return to Tibet, and I don’t know about the future.”

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