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The Fight for Freedom still continues in Tibet

Today, human rights continue to be the subject to gross violations in Tibet, notwithstanding the efforts of various NGOs and governments to focus attention on this matter. Undoubtedly, one of the most pressing human rights issues that deeply affects the Tibetan population is freedom of religion or belief. The crackdown on freedoms in Tibetan areas has forced thousands of Tibetans[1] to flee, and to advocate for their rights from abroad. Lobsang Wangyal, founder and producer of the news website Tibet Sun, is one of them.

Chiara Menghetti, GHRD Human Rights TV Channel, asked prominent journalist and media persons questions about restrictions to freedom of religion, about what they consider needed to improve the situation, and about why they believe that it is important for Tibetans to hold on to their religious beliefs.

Wangyal explained that religion has historically played a key role in Tibetan identity and politics, and today it remains one of the most distinctive aspects of Tibetans’ lives. The vast majority of Tibetans practice Tibetan Buddhism and hold a profound reverence for the Dalai Lama. However, religion appears to be not only a matter of culture, but also a political and security concern.

John Jones, campaign and advocacy manager at Free Tibet, told Human Rights TV Channel that China’s attitude towards freedom of religion is ambivalent. Article 36 of the Chinese Constitution states that citizens enjoy “freedom of religious belief.”[2] It also bans discrimination based on religion and forbids state organs, public organizations or individuals from compelling citizens to believe in any particular faith. Nevertheless, the Constitution limits protection for religious practice to “normal religious activities,”[3] without further specifying what is considered to be normal, and prohibits religious activities that impair public order.

China has ratified all the main international treaties and conventions regarding rights to religious, cultural and social self-determination. In spite of this, freedom of religion is harshly restricted and Tibetan Buddhists face high levels of religious persecution. In the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) and in other Tibetan areas there have been frequent reports of forced disappearance, arrests, prolonged detention, physical abuse, and torture. In addition to this, numerous aspects of Tibetan Buddhism that were previously left unmolested are now subject to state control.[4] The Chinese interference with the appointment of Tibetan Buddhist leaders represents a clear contravention of international human rights law, as freedom of religion includes the right for Tibetan Buddhists “to determine their clergy and religious leaders in accordance with their own religious traditions and practices.”[5] Chinese government regulations impact life in monasteries, and involve, among other things, the need for state approval for religious activities and to provide a monthly report on the progress of patriotic re-education.[6]

Mr. Jones explained that in the late 2016 hundreds of monks and nuns were forced to leave the Larung Gar Buddhist Institute, the largest and most significant site for Tibetan Buddhism. They were returned to their native regions and prevented from joining new monasteries. Some of them were obliged to participate in degrading patriotic re-education sessions, in which they were required to wear military uniforms, sing Chinese propaganda songs and denounce their own Tibetan heritage. In case of alleged non-compliance with these regulations, punishments can range from exclusion from the monastery, to excommunication, to imprisonment and torture, to the total closure of the religious site.

The Chinese control over Tibetan culture and practices has generated widespread resentment among both monastic and laypeople in Tibet. The most dramatic feature of Tibetan resistance that has appeared in recent years is represented by self-immolations. On February 27, 2009, a young monk from Kirty Monastery set himself on fire in the marketplace in Ngawa City, becoming the first Tibetan to self-immolate. Since then, according to the International Campaign for Tibet (ICT), 156 Tibetans have self-immolated in Tibet and China, while 10 other self-immolations by Tibetans occurred in exile.[7] While most of the first cases involved monks, an increasing number of laypeople is now committing the act: by mid-2016, most self-immolations protesters have not been from religious institutions.[8] They involved mothers and fathers, teachers and young students. The youngest one was only 15.[9] The protestors were shouting slogans while on fire, calling for the return of the Dalai Lama, for the Panchen Lama to be freed, and for the respect of human rights in Tibet.

Since 2012, Tibetans have been detained for merely possessing images of the Dalai Lama, demanding his return to Tibet, or producing other prohibited religious material.[10] In this respect, a 2016 Human Rights Watch report scrutinizing 479 cases of politically motivated detentions from 2013 to 2015 demonstrated that 71 individuals were arrested for distributing images or information. Almost one-third of these cases were linked to instances of self-immolations, and defendants were sentenced to up to 13 years in prison.[11] In addition to the fact that arrests and imprisonments in Tibet are commonly carried out as a result of peaceful dissident activity, in violation of international human rights law, serious and well-documented abuses follow detention. As a party to the Convention Against Torture, China must refrain from inflicting “severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, […] for such purposes as obtaining […] information or a confession.”[12] In December 2015, the Committee Against Torture (CAT) published its Concluding Observations revealing China’s poor record on torture. The CAT expressed concern about several deaths in custody, such as in the case of the Lama Tenzin Delek Rinpoche, who died in custody in July 2016. The Committee also urged that all the instances of death in custody, alleged ill-treatment or torture are investigated by an independent body, and that those responsible are identified and brought to justice.[13]  As a response, China has been attempting to subvert criticism of its human rights record, not rarely by trying to distort reality. For instance, Mr. Jones cited that infamous case of the so-called “tiger chair,” an instrument to which prisoners are tight to in stress positions while being questioned. When the CAT mentioned the chair in its report, Chinese authorities alleged that it is made comfortable for victims, so that they feel relaxed during interrogations.

The intense crackdown on any manifestation of autonomous Tibetan identity described above demonstrates that despite being formally recognized in law, Tibetan Buddhists do not enjoy freedom of religion and belief. According to Mr. Jones, the solution rests in the hands of other governments and the UN. Mr. Wangyal thinks that dialogue between the PRC and the Tibetan Government in Exile, through the mediation of the international community, is key.


[1] The Central Tibetan Administration’s (CTA) Green Book (of the Tibetan Government in Exile) counts 145,150 Tibetans outside Tibet, residing mostly in India and Nepal

[2] Chinese Constitution, Art. 36

[3] Ibid.

[4] https://www.freetibet.org/religious-freedom

[5] https://savetibet.org/un-experts-write-to-china-on-panchen-lama-dalai-lama/

[6] https://freedomhouse.org/report/2017/battle-china-spirit-tibetan-buddhism-religious-freedom

[7] https://savetibet.org/tibetan-self-immolations/

[8] https://freedomhouse.org/report/2017/battle-china-spirit-tibetan-buddhism-religious-freedom

[9] https://freetibet.org/about/self-immolation-protests

[10] https://freetibet.org/news-media/na/18-years-prison-dalai-lama-picture

[11]Human Rights Watch « Relentless »,  https://www.hrw.org/sites/default/files/report_pdf/tibet0516web_0.pdf

[12] Convention Against Torture, Art. 1

[13] International Campaign for Tibet, UN Committee Against Torture calls China to account for “deeply entrenched” torture and ill-treatment, https://savetibet.org/u-n-committee-against-torture-calls-china-to-account-for-deeply-entrenched-torture-and-ill-treatment/#1

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