China heightens restrictions after demolishing giant Buddha statue and Buddhist school

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The giant Buddha statue in Drango before demolition

TCHRD has been informed by a reliable source that Chinese authorities in Drango (Ch: Luhuo) County in Kardze (Ch: Ganzi) Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in Sichuan Province, in the Tibetan province of Kham, have in the last two months demolished a Buddhist school and prayer wheels in the vicinity of Drango monastery and a 99 ft. tall Buddha’s statue located some distance away. Restrictions are in place to prevent the demolition sites from being photographed while online platforms are being closely monitored to prevent news and media of the demolition from being shared outside Drango.

Drango Buddhist School

Affiliated to Drango Monastery, the monastic school was established more than 20 years ago. It had about 100 students, more than 20 teaching and non-teaching staff and 50 classrooms at the time of demolition.

The school prioritized teaching Tibetan cultural education alongside teaching Tibetan, English, Chinese languages. The school had served as a source of hope and better future for the young Tibetans living in the farming and nomadic population in the area.

The school also offered classes on traditional Tibetan subjects to lay students during school vacations.

Drango monastic school before demolition

On 12 December this year, under the direction of the local County police department and Monastery Management Committee officials, the school was razed down. The County authorities claimed that the school had insufficient legal documents which necessitated the demolition. “The demolition of the only school imparting cultural education in the region is a clear attempt to destroy Tibetan culture,” a reliable source with contacts in the region told TCHRD on condition of anonymity. 

Photo of the school being demolished

With the school gone, staff members lost their jobs and students returned to their respective homes after they were barred from joining other schools.

Demolition of Buddha’s statue and prayer wheels

Owing to serious damages caused to life and property in the previous earthquake in the region, the local farming and nomadic community collected donations and spent 40 to 50 millions yuan in building the 99 ft. statue in 2015 to ward off natural disaster.

The statue has attracted a lot of  devotees, locals and Tibetans outside Drango, carrying out incessant prostrations and circumambulations.

Disregarding the devotion of the local Tibetans, the County government demolished the statue citing orders from higher authorities. Drango’s new County head Deng Juan Guang implemented the demolition plan. Just six months in office, he issued an order for the demolition of the statue and the school. He is currently the County head, County’s deputy party secretary and the chair of the County-level people’s congress.

The local County government had initially given permission to build the statue, even showing support after its successful completion. 

A row of 45 prayer wheels near Drango monastery was also destroyed. 

“The destruction of the Buddha’s statue, the demolition of the Buddhist school and the prayer wheels – all points to the return of the Cultural Revolution in Tibet,” said the source.

The row of 45 prayer wheels before destruction

Coercion and Restrictions

Prior to the demolition, the abbot and the administrative head of the Drango Monastery were summoned to the County police station to accept the demolition plan and convince the public to go along with it. Upon their refusal to accept the orders, the two were detained for 15 days. The police officers demonstrated how the online surveillance system in place enables them to track everyone on WeChat and other messaging apps and warned the two of repercussions.

Both were fed inadequately and suffered torture in detention.

The County government followed up with an order for the monks of Drango Monastery and local Tibetans to participate in the demolition work. It warned that failure to participate in the demolition work would result in the appropriation of the statue material and relics.  

The harassment continued with the detention and interrogation of those who did not show up or showed any signs of resistance. 

To prevent local Tibetans from opposing the demolition, the County government has deployed security forces everywhere, restricting the movement of local Tibetans.

Police station built near Drango Monastery

“The information we have received of the demolition has been shared with great risk. The situation is highly stressful with families being concerned about the safety of those who step outside in the County”.

The news of demolition threats to the statue and the school has existed in the past. The Chinese government has shown their dislike of the statue and the school. In 2012, the school’s cultural education teacher was suspended and the principal and accountant detained and later sentenced to seven and four years of prison terms respectively.

The Chinese officials also complained that the statue is too high and that it needs gazebo dome over it, compelling the locals to spend one million yuan to construct the dome.

Background of repression

According to the source, the primary cause for the ongoing repression in Drango has been the series of protests staged since 2008 by local Tibetans against the Chinese government.

In 2012, a group of Tibetans was detained by the local Public Security Bureau officials in connection with the distribution of a document that warned of more self-immolation protests if the Tibetan grievances went unaddressed.

In a separate incident on 23 January 2012, the People’s Armed Police (PAP) force opened fire on a crowd of Tibetans protesting in Drango killing Yonten, a 49 year-old man and injuring about 36 others.

On 9 February 2012, the PAP force pulled up at Yeshi Samdup’s winter house in Norpa pastureland, killing him and his cousin Yeshi Rigsel, who had been injured in police firing during the previous month. Yeshi Samdup’s mother Sanglha, his five children and another brother Yonten Sangpo were all injured in the firing by the force who also ransacked the house and killed the family dog, a Tibetan mastiff.

Many other Tibetans who participated in the peaceful protest in January 2012 were detained and tortured. On 29 March 2012, Gonpo Rigzin, 25, killed himself before he could be detained by the County police officials.

TCHRD calls on the Chinese government to put an immediate halt to its repressive policies and practices and fulfill its international obligation, as a party to six of the 10 core human rights treaty bodies, to protect and promote human rights at home and beyond. 

TCHRD urges the international community to condemn China’s actions and hold the Chinese Party-state accountable for political repression and human rights abuses in Tibet.