Refugee Testimony: Former disciple of disappeared Buddhist scholar escapes Tibet

Tenzin Dawa (name changed), 36, is a Tibetan monk from Barmi Monastery in Tsongru (Ch: Chonger) Township of Dzoege (Ch: Ru’ergai) County, Ngaba (Ch: Aba) Tibetan and Qiang Autonomous Prefecture, Sichuan Province, in the Tibetan province of Amdo. Dzoege County has witnessed at least seven confirmed self-immolation protests so far.

Tenzin Dawa reached India early this month. He is also a former disciple of Gyen Kunchok Nyima, a Buddhist scholar and teacher at Drepung Monastery who went missing since April 2008 after his detention and subsequent sentencing to 20 years in prison. Tenzin Dawa says there are many disciples of Gyen Kunchok Nyima looking for information about the whereabouts of their teacher. No one knows where the Buddhist scholar is imprisoned or whether he is alive.

In his testimony to TCHRD, Tenzin Dawa recounts the current situation inside Tibet in particular his hometown in Dzoege where local Chinese authorities have planted spies in every village to monitor conversations and keep a strict watch over Tibetan activities, in an ongoing effort to prevent self-immolation and other protests.

The testimony also contains details on how Chinese authorities attempted to pressure local Tibetans to sign an official order that forbids any kind of activities to support or sympathise with self-immolation protests.

The monk also talks about the implementation of a new policy in October 2012 at Barmi Monastery under which the Chinese government now pays monthly salary to monastic staff and teachers including the abbot and disciplinarian (Tib: gekyo). The monthly payment is made on the strict condition that no political disturbances would be allowed in the monastery and all monks would pledge their political allegiance to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the Chinese state. Although there is no information about other monasteries following the same practice, it appears that the new practice was an ‘experimental’ precursor to a regulation passed in December 2012 which gives the Chinese government all authority and power to appoint religious instructors in Buddhist monasteries.

TCHRD presents here a translated and edited testimony of Tenzin Dawa:

“I became a monk at 14 at Barmi Monastery. After studying there for some years, I went on a pilgrimage, by doing prostrations all the way to Lhasa. The trip to Lhasa took two years and two months. In Lhasa, we offered prayers at Sera, Drepung and Gaden monasteries, and spent about three months in front of the Jokhang Temple doing prostrations and prayers and then returned back to Barmi.

In 2004, I was with a group of 12 Tibetans fleeing Tibet through Lhasa. We had almost reached Nepal when the Chinese border police caught us near a snow-covered mountain at Sharkhumbu. We were beaten up and taken to Dingri where Chinese policemen took us in their custody. We were kept in a detention centre and beaten and interrogated for long hours.

After about 15 days, we were taken to another detention centre in Shigatse. We were detained there for six months and interrogated again. They particularly wanted to know why I wanted to leave Tibet. After months of detention and beatings, they finally released me probably because they found nothing incriminating or suspicious about my background.

After release from detention, I went back to Lhasa where I stayed for about one year, during which I helped organize prayers and rituals at people’s homes. But I wanted to continue my studies and therefore, I returned to Barmi Monastery. I soon realized that Barmi Monastery lacked adequate learning facilities for higher studies. This prompted me to join the great Drepung Monastery in Lhasa.

Around the end of 2006, I travelled to Lhasa and joined Drepung as a non-regular student and continued my religious studies under the guidance of the popular scholar and teacher Venerable Konchok Nyima.

On 10 March 2008, I took part in a peaceful protest organized by monks at Drepung. As we left the monastery compound and made our way towards Lhasa city, a huge contingent of Public Security Bureau (PSB) and People’s Armed Police (PAP) stopped us from moving forward. After some time, we were forced to return to the monastery.

Soon after the protest, the Chinese authorities began putting more restrictions on activities at Drepung. On 17 March 2008, I was detained, along with other monks from Kham and Amdo provinces and handed over to the PSB officers in Nagormo town in Qinghai Province. Our family members and relatives were called and given strict orders to take responsibility for any political mistakes done by their detained relatives in future; they also spelled out many   restrictions on our movement and activities. After release from detention, the local PSB officers continued to harass me and made my life miserable. I had no sense of freedom. I lived under constant fear of arrest, torture and years of prison time.

In 2012, audio CDs containing speeches of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, His Eminence Kirti Rinpoche and Sikyong Lobsang Sangay were secretly distributed in some areas. I also came upon some of these recordings. One day, I overheard some retired Chinese government officials discussing the spate of self-immolation protests that occurred in alarming succession in 2012. These retired cadres were talking badly about self-immolation protests and calling the actions of such protesters wrong. I could not contain my anger and openly sparred with them. News about the argument somehow reached the local police. That evening, I was called for interrogation by the township PSB office. They asked me why I reacted against the retired officials’ views on self-immolation. Then they told me that they had seized some CDs. They thought I was responsible for circulating the CDs but I refused to accept the charges.  I was asked whether I had heard about Kirti Rinpoche asking people to self-immolate or if I knew about anyone planning to self-immolate.  I knew they were just cooking up stories about Kirti Rinpoche to provoke me. I was warned that there was no other way out but prison if I tried to bring outside news inside Tibet. After hours of interrogation and intimidation, I was finally released from detention.

On 10 July 2012, I left Barmi Monastery and joined Labrang Tashikyil Monastery (Gansu Province) for further studies. In 2013, on the 15th day of Tibetan Losar (New Year), I was at Mengo village in Dzoege. Mengo is located on a mountaintop and it is the largest village among six others in our township. At the time, implementing orders from the county authorities, the township officials and cadres began gathering local Tibetans in all villages for a meeting. At the meeting, Tibetans were told that it was crime to offer any kind of help and support for self-immolation protesters and their family members. Officials said that such activities were incited by separatists and therefore illegal. They said if anyone violated the official order, the minimum punishment would be two years in prison and more depending on the seriousness of the crime.

Then they asked the local Tibetans to put their thumbprints on paper to demonstrate their pledge not to support self-immolation. They said all other villages nearby had put in their signatures and that Mengo should follow suit. But residents of Mengo refused to sign and the officials were forced to leave. Later, we learned from other villagers that the officials had lied about other villages signing the anti-immolation letter. They thought if Mengo signed it, then the smaller neighboring villages would do the same. The authorities thought that getting Mengo into line would influence other villages. However, on the same day at around midnight, the officials returned and again asked Mengo residents to sign the official order, even threatening to cut off state welfare aid as punishment if they did not. But Mengo Tibetans refused to budge and told the officials that they would not sign even if it meant giving up welfare aid. Once again, the officials left without achieving their mission.

Since October 2012, under a new policy, the Chinese authorities have begun paying monthly salary to the staff including the abbot and disciplinarian (Tib: Gekyo) at Barmi Monastery. The Chinese authorities think that they can control the monastery by paying salaries but many know that it is done to extract political loyalty for the CCP. The authorities always order the heads of Barmi Monastery to prevent any political incidents.

On 22 May 2013, a meeting attended by representatives of 13 counties was held in Kyangtsa (Ch: Jiangzha) Township in Dzoege County. At the meeting, relevant officials were ordered to preempt any incidents of self-immolations in each township, and to take responsibility for any political incidents or activities under their jurisdiction. Following the meeting, spies were planted in many villages, making even casual communication or interaction amongst Tibetans difficult, as suspicion and distrust overwhelm their day-to-day encounters.

On 23 May 2013, frustrated and disillusioned by the deteriorating situation in my village, I prepared an application to visit Lhasa. The application required five different signatures and stamps from township and County PSB offices and relevant authorities. I was successful in clearing the application. On my arrival at Lhasa Railway Station, the railway police took all Tibetans into a separate room. There we spent around four to five hours, as police went through the contents of our luggage, handbags, searched through the clothes we were wearing and carried out full-body check. Without any reason, they asked all kinds of questions.

After the ordeal at railway station was over, I finally reached Lhasa city. But I found the city worse than before; Lhasa was unlivable due to heavy restrictions and security presence. After spending some days in Lhasa, I secretly left for Nepal via the border town of Dram after paying Yuan 20,000 to a guide. On 8 July 2013, I reached Dharamsala, India.”

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